Sometimes I start reading a book and it feels a little like sinking into a warm bath or settling my feet into an old pair of slippers and it makes me smile a big dopey grin. I snuggle into my chair, knowing that I will be transported to a wonderful place populated by characters that will make me laugh and cry whilst making me think about the human condition and ponder the meaning of life. Few authors have the ability to do this to me on a regular basis, but those who do are the ones that my friends, colleagues, library patrons and random strangers are sick of hearing about.
And then there is Brandon Sanderson . . .
Mr Sanderson is a surprisingly young author, considering his publication history. His first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005 and since then he has published more than 20 full-length titles, plus many novellas and short stories, while taking time away from his own stories to complete the epic Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death. I might add that many of his titles are seriously weighty tomes, so I have no idea how many pages he produces in any one year, but he is pretty much a writing machine. However, it is not his sheer productivity that makes him so wonderful. After all, I love George R.R. Martin’s writing even though he writes painfully slowly and I am seriously worried that he will actually die before finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. But I digress; it is not the quantity of Brandon’s output that impresses me so much, but the quality of his writing and the spectacular imagination that he continues to display.
This is a man who excels at creating fascinatingly diverse worlds with astonishingly unique magic systems. For example, in Warbreaker (2009), the magic involves an enigmatic element called Breath: each person is born with just one, but they can transfer it to someone else. Many chose to sell their Breath as it is a very valuable commodity, but it leaves them a monochromatic Drab, unable to perceive color. Those with multiple Breaths perceive a greater range of colors and can even Awaken inanimate objects with Breath in order to give them a semblance of life. This sounds really cool, but is even better when applied to the reanimation of a dead rodent, which is then deployed as a diversionary tactic in a sword fight. His other magic systems involve such things as the ingestion of metal powders in the Mistborn series or the use of chalk line drawings in The Rithmatist (2013). As I said, he is rather inventive, which is very nice in a genre that can often get a little stale.
However, Mr Sanderson does not restrict himself to simply creating highly detailed magic systems: he mimics J.R.R. Tolkien in producing worlds with languages, peoples, cultures, mythologies and histories. Admittedly, he does not tend to write them in the dry scholarly way Professor Tolkien wrote about Middle Earth, but that is probably a good thing. This thoroughness of creation can be seen most clearly in The Way of Kings (2010) and its sequels. Set on the planet Roshar, many aspects of everyday life are shaped by the Highstorms which rage across the planet moving from East to West. The initial stormwall is a massive wave of water, full of debris and lightning, whipped by savage winds and easily capable of throwing boulders around. This destructive force has molded the ecology of Roshar, with even plants in the worst affected areas adapted to withdraw into protective shells or casings during the worst of the storm and then reach out to absorb the life-bringing water and minerals that it leaves behind. However, these deadly storms fuel the magic system on this world, because gems left outside during a Highstorm become filled with stormlight which can be used in a variety of ways. Then there are the spren which are seen everywhere, reflecting elements, emotions or even concepts. Rain, flames, joy, anger, anticipation and even creation all attract their own different spren: windspren look like ribbons of light swirling through the air, whilst awespren appear as rings of blue smoke that burst and spread like a ripple from a stone dropped into water. Also there is the Purelake, which withdraws its waters underground to avoid Highstorms, and the Reshi Isles, many of which are actually large wandering crab-like things, oh, and there are the people who are made up of thousands of invertebrates joined together to look like a human . . . Plus, all his adult titles take place in a single universe called the Cosmere, so that there are characters who pop up in various series and an overarching history that binds the books together.
Of course, an imaginative setting is irrelevant if we do not care about the characters inhabiting it. This is another of Mr Sanderson’s strengths: he gives us three dimensional characters to love and hate. Some of them are even delightfully amoral and possibly evil, such as Warbreaker’s Nightblood: a talking sword that yearns to kill evil-doers. Unfortunately, although it is sentient, Nightblood has no moral context to inform its desire and so it tends to come across as a tiny bit psychotic. Once drawn from its sheath, it leaks a black smoke and attracts evil people to possess it. This usually ends badly for them as they become homicidal, attacking everyone in sight and eventually either committing suicide or being killed by the good guys. Good people find it difficult to touch, or even be around, the blade because it makes them nauseous.
He also places us into the minds of people doing some appallingly bad things, but for what seem to be the best of reasons. This is certainly true of Szeth, the Assassin in White that we meet in the books of The Stormlight Archive series. As we learn more of Szeth and the reasons why he commits his crimes he becomes an increasingly complex and tragic character. He is not a truly evil villain, as you might expect of a merciless killer, and it could be that he might eventually become a hero, if he is given the opportunity to do so. All the characters are suitably gray, with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits and reasonable justifications for their behavior. This makes them seem much more real and a lot more interesting than many heroes and villains who are very stereotyped and rather two dimensional. Mr Sanderson’s heroes are often a little frustrating because they do stupid things that make their situations worse, and yet their actions are perfectly in character and suited to their mindset and understanding of the events unfolding around them.
One aspect of his writing that I particularly appreciate is his examination of religious systems. At the beginning of Mistborn (2006), we see the people crushed beneath the heel of a ruthless Theocracy led by the apparently immortal Lord Ruler. As the Mistborn series progresses we learn how this Theocracy came to be founded and how incremental steps caused a man with the very best of intentions to gradually become a ruthless despot. I find the examination of belief systems fascinating, especially when we are given some answers about the nature of the divine, or supposedly divine, elements within them. This is another area where the Cosmere adds an extra layer of interest, because we come to learn that the mythologies on the various worlds are founded in the larger truth of a ‘god’ who was killed and broken into sixteen Shards. These pieces of the divine embodied certain facets of the god’s power and were taken up by sixteen humans who then became personifications such as Honor, Ruin and Devotion. They spread to various planets in the Cosmere and became the source of magic on those worlds. Thus, all the magic systems share some form of Investiture, where magical abilities are derived from receiving a tiny fraction of the divine power.
I could go on, but ultimately Mr Sanderson’s work needs to be read to be appreciated. I thoroughly recommend him to anyone with even the vaguest interest in the Fantasy genre. As a short introduction to his writing I suggest his YA series, The Reckoners, which begins with Steelheart or a novella set in the Cosmere called The Emperor’s Soul. Otherwise, start with Elantris before to moving on to the Mistborn series and then the Stormlight Archive. Enjoy!