Profound Historical Fiction and Riveting Epic Fantasy (Reviewing Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets, and Brandon Sanderson’s Rhythm of War)

January started with a significant reading list. I’ll spend the rest of 2021 trying to even equal the power of the two books I read to start the year. No, these two books don’t share much in common. But each on their own merit is worth a “stop what you’re doing and read” urge. Hear me out.

The Prophets. If it weren’t for my local bookstore, Old Town Books, I might not have purchased this masterpiece let alone immediately opened it upon returning home. But a good bookseller can help you find and even discuss a great book thanks to fantastic book clubs. (And the Old Town Books staff aren’t good — they’re great.) Such was the case here. And this is a tremendous book. I’m curious why it hasn’t received a bit more literary praise than I noticed so far in some of the publications I follow regularly. I’m confident it will — and will grow in importance as a book of its caliber.

The Prophets is a story of slavery and humanity and love and trauma and horror and sexuality and magic and legacy. It is a deep, personal gift to those who identify with what Robert Jones, Jr. offers to his readers. One of the most profound thoughts that came to me as I was reading was how soul-wrenchingly difficult and triggering this book must have been to write. Robert Jones, Jr. brings a cruel — though normal for its time — early 19th century slave-exploiting plantation to life (and death) in exceedingly real and perfect writing. There are two central characters, Samuel and Isaiah, in this story. Their love and connection to a meaning that transcends their setting serves as the keystone of the novel. But there is so much more, from point-of-view chapters representing all people present on the plantation — and I mean ALL people, from slaves to slaveowners to slavedrivers — to continent- and time-leaping parts of the story that bring the novel to a poetic, almost elemental, conclusion.

As I processed and discussed this book, several things came to mind. This is a powerful piece of historical literary fiction, written with the talent and message to be beloved for generations to come. For those who feel a direct sense of personal connection and legacy kinship to the queer love and slavery (and its modern vestiges), I think Robert Jones Jr. has given you something you’ve never experienced or read before. I dearly hope this book makes it to the hands and hearts of all who would be specifically stirred by it. I also stepped into an ongoing “debate” about movies and books depicting suffering Black people — as opposed to movies and books that approach Black Americans in a less visceral, no-less-profound manner. This book is a work of deep suffering. But it is a story that, difficult as it was to read and absorb, was the story of suffering I needed to read. I’m sure I’m not alone. Thank you, Robert Jones, Jr. You gave part of your soul to bring life to these characters and what they meant. They now feel as real as any who walked this earth.

Rhythm of War. My epic fantasy reading friends have listened to me talk nonstop about Brandon Sanderson for years now. There’s a reason for it. He’s the best in the business. And the Stormlight Archive, of which Rhythm of War is book four, is his masterpiece. It’s impossible to write more about it here without simply insisting and steering any potential reader to book one, The Way of Kings. If you read any epic fantasy, or if you’re even vaguely curious about fantasy as a genre, please buy these books and cherish what Brandon Sanderson brings to the table. The Stormlight Archive tomes are huge. You will wish they were even huger. I’ve re-read the first three books — something that I’ve only ever done in the genre with J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen R. Donaldson — and look forward to reading them again. The characters burst with life (literally) and key scenes bring together different dimensions of meaning and excitement (also literally).

What makes Rhythm of War (really, the Stormlight Archive) special? Sanderson puts the epic in epic fantasy through this work with kingdom-breaking, world-changing, universe-altering themes. But he also preserves the intimacy of each character and makes each plot development sing its own symphony. This is War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time plus western and action and philosophy. The key scenes reverberate and come to life as if they were directed by an Oscar-winning director. But here’s the thing: the world of Rhythm of War isn’t like anything you’ve read in other fantasy — it isn’t just a version of earth with different continents. I’d say it’s closer to science fiction in this aspect of its world build, but don’t mistake that for being science fiction. It’s not. Even the technology, so to speak, of this world is more magic than science.

And a little note on Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. Sanderson’s books and series do stand on their own. But many of them also link to each other in ways mostly captured in easter eggs but will eventually grow together for readers who follow the entire journey to future books. This is not daunting and it is not esoteric. It is a critical piece of what Sanderson’s magic is, how it is different across the Cosmere, and how the universe of Sanderson is ultimately understood in meaning and plot. It is absolutely worth any amount of investment. I read the Cosmere books in this order: Mistborn (series), Elantris, Warbreaker, and only then the Stormlight Archive and various works of shorter Cosmere fiction collected in Arcanum Unbounded. This worked for me but I don’t see any reason why not just starting with Way of Kings would take away anything from a reader. Enjoy. 🙂

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