Words of Radiance
Words of Radiance is epic. It is the second novel in a planned ten volume series and clocks in at nearly 1100 pages. I made a final push to finish the book last night and my wife looked over and said, "damn, that's a big book". The scope of the overall series, The Stormlight Archive is nearly impossible to see this early on, despite being 2100 pages in. We can see some of the shape, but with three volumes to go in the first set of five books, we don't quite know where this is going. The novel itself is epic, spanning three primary viewpoint characters which helps ground and focus the novel, and a handful of minor viewpoint characters during the "interludes" between major sections of the novel. Words of Radiance deals with world changing ideas and events and this is fantasy writ large with the rediscovery of lost powers and ancient enemies. The novel is big and heavy and can probably be used as a weapon or a shield, depending on one's preference.
Talking about the first book in a series is easy to do. Everything is new. The characters and the setting and the story have not been explored before, and touching on them can shape a review. But when we get to the second book, and two of the three primary viewpoint characters are the same as from the first book, it's easy to talk about how those characters journeys have changed them and how they have developed, but that is only talking to those readers already familiar with Kaladin and Shallan. If you haven't read The Way of Kings, those names and that development means nothing. Those who have read The Way of Kings already know if they are going to read Words of Radiance or not. Those who haven't are probably not going to start here.
Which raises an interesting point. Despite being the second book in a ten volume sequence, Words of Radiance does stand on its own far more than I would have expected. Readers won't appreciate Kaladin's journey nearly as much if they didn't read the first book, but I can see how the novel could potentially hold up for a reader new to the series. I'm not new, so I can't confirm that one way or the other, but Words of Radiance is a reasonably contained novel that builds off the first book and sets up the third. But with that setup still comes a story that ends. I wouldn't recommend Words of Radiance to be read on its own, but I think someone could pick up the novel and still appreciate it without being completely lost.
On a completely different note, Sanderson is tying his books together and it is happening here. If you know what to look for, you'll see it. Or, in my case, if you see other people mention the connections, you'll see it. It is completely unnecessary to know this or catch it to enjoy the books, but Sanderson has been very open about his larger "Cosmere" and that the majority of his original work (not counting Wheel of Time, or anything set on Earth) is part of this Cosmere. Right now most of the Cosmere action is taking place in the background. We can see the occasional character moving around, and I think it is going to be much more evident in The Stormlight Archive, but it's icing on the cake for the more devoted and careful readers. Or, again, for those who follow the connections others have pointed out.
So, what do you talk about when you talk about Words of Radiance?
Words of Radiance doesn't break new ground when it comes to epic fantasy. Brandon Sanderson is still a fairly traditional fantasy writer. He is very well aware of the genre and occasionally plays with some of its tropes (Mistborn), but he's really telling straight up epic fantasy with a variety of settings and magic systems. He's ambitious though. Think about his plans for the Cosmere, he's definitely ambitions. The thing is, Words of Radiance doesn't need to break new ground. That's not the story Sanderson is telling (I think), and there is room in the genre for all kinds of storytelling and fantasy. Words of Radiance is a very good fantasy novel and, happily, Sanderson's reach does not exceed his grasp. He's stretching and striving to tell a very, very big story and two novels into The Stormlight Archive, he's nailing the mark.
If you like a big fat fantasy novel in the vein of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince (the intrigue and the magic), or some of the earlier Terry Brooks (though without the echoes of Lord of the Rings), Brandon Sanderson is your guy. He will give you exactly what you're looking for, and despite the heft of Words of Radiance, he'll still leave you wanting a couple hundred more pages to stay with these characters to see what happens next.
To Mr. Sanderson, I can only say, "More, please, and thank you." Words of Radiance was a delightful journey.
Some Other Reviews
Tor.com (Non Spoiler)
Tor.com (Very Spoiler)
Staffer's Book Review
Fantasy Book Review