Friday, February 20, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Second Semifinal :: Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg vs. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Our second semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books features Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg versus Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

Motherless Child: Tor hardcover, May 2014, 269 pages. Motherless Child made it to the semifinals with wins over The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas and Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.

In the first 50 pages of Motherless Child, our single mom protagonist Natalie and her friend Sophie woke from a wild night with a mysterious musician called "The Whistler" to the realization that they have become vampires. Not trusting themselves, they left their sons with Natalie's mother, with instructions for her to go into hiding, and they hit the road. In the next 50 pages, we learn that the Whistler regards Natalie as his destiny, much to the annoyance of the vampire he has been traveling with. Meanwhile, Natalie and Sophie wander aimlessly——at one point Natalie gets shot, to no ill effects——trying to ignore the growing urge to feed.

Words of Radiance:: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second volume of Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. Words of Radiance made it to the semifinals with wins over Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager and Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson.

The opening of Words of Radiance introduced (or reintroduced, if you read The Way of Kings) us to Shallan, a young woman making a voyage by sea with her mentor Jasnah Kholin while learning about the magical spheres called spren, and Kaladin, the leader of a group of soldiers of Alethkar who earned their freedom defending a bridge, while apparently things were going badly for many of their countrymen. In the following 50 pages, we meet Kaladin's commander, Dalinar. Dalinar receives a vision telling him to refound the "Knights Radiant," then he meets with the king to make plans——really, to tell the ineffectual king the plans Dalinar has already made. Meanwhile, Shallan's and Jasnah's ship comes under attack.

The Battle: This is an interesting battle between two very well-written novels, one telling a story on a very personal level, the other an epic on a grand scale.

Motherless Child focuses on individual characters' personal struggles. The Whistler senses a new destiny for himself, one he does not yet understand. Natalie's mother struggles with suddenly becoming responsible for two infants, when she thought she had done her time. Most importantly, Natalie and Sophie try to come to grips with the urges that are part of their new natures. They try to distract themselves, without success. They go to the movies, for example, only to flee when the film reminds them of their sons:
They fled together out the exit doors into an alley, through the alley to the GTO, and back to the relative safety, or at least clarity, of the empty highway. After a while, Sophie ripped open another pack of Dentyne, made a giant new gum wad, then mushed that into place atop the muzzle of the gun.

"New lollipop flavor," she said, holding it up. "Shotgum." Then she petted the barrel.

Natalie said nothing. She'd decided to try not to think, but that proved easier than she was expecting; the slightest push and every thought she'd ever had scattered like dandelion seeds, leaving just her behind the wheel. A dead stem.

A hungry dead stem.
Motherless Child is very nicely crafted throughout, with strong characterization. But the story of somebody not thrilled about the prospect of becoming a vampire is not really breaking new ground. So while it would take some very solid writing to compete with Motherless Child, it could be beaten by something well-constructed with a broader scope.

I started this matchup figuring that Motherless Child had met its match in Words of Radiance, which also features excellent writing and characterization, but in service of a far more complex and intricate story.

But then, in the second 50-page section, Words of Radiance hit a lull. In particular, I found the long discussion with the nondescript king about political maneuverings awfully dull. That does not, I think, reflect any real failure by Brandon Sanderson, but rather illustrates how difficult it is to keep a sprawling epic story engaging to the reader. (In my opinion, even George R.R. Martin ran into this problem, for the entire fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.) The Stormlight series necessarily requries a whole lot of pieces to be arranged across a complicated board, but the arrangement takes time to set up. Sanderson lost me for a while as he arranged pieces, and it seemed that Words of Radiance was about to drop out of the Battle of the Books in the semifinals.

But wait! In the final 20 pages of this battle, Words of Radiance took me back to Shallan, a character I find very sympathetic, as she carries on fascinating conversations with a spren that came to life out of one of her drawings. Then, just before his 100 pages could elapse, Sanderson hits us with this, from Shallan's point of view as she wakes to the sound of struggles and rushes to Jasnah's cabin:
Figures moved inside. In a frozen moment of horror, one threw something to the floor before the others, who stepped aside to make way.

A body in a thin nightgown, eyes staring sightlessly, blood blossoming from the breast. Jasnah.

"Be sure," one of the men said.

The other one knelt and rammed a long, thin knife right into Jasnah's chest. Shallan heard it hit the wood of the floor beneath the body.

Shallan screamed.

One of the men spun toward her. "Hey!" It was the blunt-faced, tall fellow that Yalb had called the "new kid." She didn't recognize the other men.

Somehow fighting through the terror and disbelief, Shallan slammed her door and threw the bolt with trembling fingers.
If she is to survive, Shallan will have to call on the powers of the spren she is just beginning to understand. And is Jasnah really dead? I very much want to keep reading to find out.

THE WINNER: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance advances to the championship round to face The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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