A reader’s job these days is hard. More books get published in a single year than any of us could read in a lifetime – and that’s without even taking into account petty complications like school and jobs and family that seek to diminish our precious reading time. Today, I’m hoping to convince you that there is one author of the fantasy genre in particular whom you should not simply let pass by you: Brandon Sanderson.
Sanderson’s career started with his 2005 debut novel Elantris, which set the tone for the years to come. Elantris is sprawling fantasy novel, with three main protagonists. First, there’s the prince who becomes afflicted by the resident variety of Horrible Disease™ (being: you do not die from natural causes but still suffer all the usual inconveniences of everyday life). Note that everyone who has this disease is considered cursed, and so is thrown into the local Cursed City™ with all of the other cursed weirdos – good luck surviving bro. Secondly, there’s the plucky princess – betrothed to the aforementioned prince through political arrangements, she has traveled from her homeland to come and marry him, only to arrive and find he’s been declared dead just recently. Also not terribly politically savvy, but incredibly loveable and strong-willed, she must now navigate her way in the political landscape on her own. And, finally, there is the resident leader of the Evil Cult™ who is presented by his higher-ups with a choice: either convert the nation, or see everyone in it killed. Strangely enough, while a completely alien perspective compared to everyone else in the book, who feels the religion in question is basically evil (hell, even viewing things from the cult leader’s perspective, this religion seems to have some questionable content), I often felt he may have been the most interesting character out of them all because of his cool dedication to his honor and duty – even though these were to a master and creed that were clearly bad news to everyone but those inside the religion.
Now, please do note that my one-paragraph summary is absolutely doing the book a great injustice. It’s a gripping story, with many multi-layered characters that dug their place into my heart like a fishhook whether I wanted them to or not. Also, as I have tried to showcase with my extremely crude summary, Sanderson tells unique stories, and he’s stated on multiple occasions that he actively tries to tell stories that he feels have not already been told. And here I would like to identify two of the main pillars that make me feel like Sanderson is one of the major fantasy authors of our time: new and original stories, and characters that make those stories truly come alive to the point where they’re just shy of jumping out of the page right at you to tell you how it all really went down.
However, these, I think, are not even Sanderson’s biggest selling points. In fact, one might argue, strong stories and characters is something we’ve simply come to expect as the norm for our fantasy books these days. The first thing that makes Sanderson stand out from the crowd for me is his magic systems. Whereas magic in fantasy stories is easily at risk of feeling contrived, not integral enough to the world and the people in it, or might just end up feeling like a deus ex machina, Sanderson’s stories often feel like they start with the magic. As if he came up with his story simply by asking ‘what would a world look like where this magic happens to exist in this way?’ His systems of magic, as a result, are as a rule incredibly well thought-out, structured, and detailed, and they always serve to drag you ever deeper into the world and the conflict. It’s actually pretty impressive how he manages to come up with a new, original system of magic for every single one of his worlds that is not only something you’ve never seen before as well as fascinating to the point that there exist pages upon pages on the web on how it all clicks together, but his magic systems also always just have that ‘wow!’-factor. To be blunt: his magic is just plain cool.
To illustrate, one needs look no further than Sanderson’s flagship Mistborn trilogy – again, since his stories tend to follow from the rules of the magic in the world, I can’t go into too much detail without straying into spoiler territory, but I’ll try and give you a glimpse. In the world of Scadrial, where the story takes place, there is a subset of people known as Metalborn, who are capable of a kind of magic known as Allomancy. Metalborn can eat a specific kind of metal and then ‘burn’ it to produce one of a variety of magic effects. There are 8 types of Metalborn, each with their own distinct set of special powers: there’s the characters who can pull themselves towards sources of metal, those who can push themselves from metal, those who can enhance their physical strength, those who can enhance their senses, those who can detect other magic users, and the list goes on but I think you’ve got a feel. Now, you’ll notice these power sets are all fairly limited, which honestly makes them more cool – everyone is a specialist in their own powers, making the options between different characters vastly different. In addition, having such a limited power set means that the characters have to rely on a lot of strategy and skill rather than just brute-forcing their way through ‘because magic’. Finally, there’s a sense of a limited amount of ‘mana’ because they burn up the metal as they use it; a steady burn gives results in a much smaller effect that they can maintain for a longer time, while flaring their metals gives them a very large effect, at the cost of potentially draining them, leaving them powerless. Again, it’s clear how this serves to enhance drama and tension in the story, and Sanderson riffs of the characteristics of his magic like a master.
A second thing that sets Sanderson apart is how well he executes his climaxes. He himself has dubbed it the ‘Sanderson Cascade’, where a pretty slow-rolling story will build up to a fantastic climax towards the end. Admittedly, Sanderson is not the only author in the genre with such strong climaxes. Compare, for example, every instance of ‘Convergence’ from Steven Erikson’s fantastic The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a great series of fantasy doorstoppers that I’d recommend if you have a couple hundred of spare reading hours to spare. What is unique about Sanderson, however, is just how incredibly well he pulls it off, how utterly breathless they leave you every. Single. Damned. Time. On top of that, the Sanderson Cascade comes with an extra scoop of satisfaction by virtue of the fact that it leaves you feeling like you should have seen this coming. It was the only logical outcome. Hell, it was the only possible outcome. It’s been foreshadowed from about page three. And still you didn’t see it coming and have been nearly tearing the pages as you were frantically reading faster and faster wondering how the hell this whole mess was going to resolve itself.
I’d love to give an example here, but going in depth is made rather difficult by the fact that this would involve spoilers for obvious reasons. I’ll reach for the Mistborn series again, and go as far as I dare by saying that the Hero of Ages (book three in the trilogy) had a finale that left me speechless for a good long moment, and had me wondering about it for a week. This was an ending so immensely epic, dramatic, and so perfectly right that I think it might make my number one spot of favorite conclusions to any book (or series for that matter) I’ve read, period.
And speaking of tearing through pages, I’d like to round up this review with the number one reason Sanderson currently stands proud at the top of my fantasy-author dogpile, the one thing that I feel truly distinguishes him from other greats like Martin, Stevenson and others: his pacing. The man is a master of simply dragging you by the throat and giving you just the occasional breath of air to make you feel relaxed – but never so much as to allow you to put the book down. I’ve read all three books of the much-acclaimed Mistborn trilogy in about two or three days, and the same goes for almost all of his other books of similar length. While the entries in what will eventually become a ten-book series called the Stormlight Archive, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance are definitely 1000+ page doorstoppers (and were intended as such), I still plowed through those in a matter of days. Not simply because I’m a particularly fast reader, which I don’t think I am, but because the man’s writing is so unbelievably compelling.
Now, I don’t think I’m saying anything new to many of you, or at least I hope not: Sanderson has been receiving wide acclaim for literally over a decade, being featured in the NYT bestseller list on numerous occasions and receiving a variety of awards for his writing. He isn’t quite a household name yet, but with plans for movies for the Mistborn series having been in the works for the longest time, even that might just change in the nearby future.
He is, however, hardly flawless: his prose, and especially dialogs, can be a bit ‘functional’ at times, and he has himself admitted in interviews that it is certainly not the strongest part of his writing. It’s been amusing to get to read much of his work back-to-back, as he has certainly gotten much better at it between his debut with Elantris and a book like Words of Radiance, and I feel the strong improvement in style was something I enjoyed a lot. In fact, having started with Mistborn myself, I honestly never saw what the whole hubbub was about – I felt even the lesser parts were very solidly written, and it wasn’t until I started reading Elantris that I really got what people were talking about.
He has also been accused of letting his political and religious conservatism shine through – for example, Sanderson is extremely reluctant to get his characters into any kind of sexual context, even when the tone of the book is more adult and gritty. As a hopeless romantic myself, I do find his workarounds to the matter rather quaint (lots of courting, romantic gestures, pecks on the cheek and the like). I’d say that he’s a strong enough writer that it never bothered me while reading, but the sometimes nearly child-like adversity he has to describing sexual subject matters does become somewhat obvious at times. I’d imagine that this might in fact have helped to facilitate his mainstream success, as his stories end up being pretty family friendly. A lack of splattering gore and a complete absence of nudity make for happy parents, after all. All in all, as I mentioned, this really never bothered me much, though it was sometimes played over-the-top in Steelheart, as it’s a YA book, written clearly from the perspective of a slightly awkward teenage boy. I mean, I used to be that kind of nerd and even I wasn’t this bad, but I’ll rest my case. In the end, I still love the book (and series) to death, so clearly I was never bothered by it that much.
All in all, I think my verdict on Sanderson is this: the man is a terrific storyteller, and if you are into fantasy at all you want to give his work a shot. If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d recommend Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first book in his Mistborn series. It encapsulates everything I’ve talked about quite well, and if you like this one, I’m confident you’ll find more to love in his work. Or, if you’re not feeling like reading more ‘classical’ fantasy at the moment, consider the Steelheart series, set in a world where many people have inexplicably become superheroes… except all the superheroes are evil. Enjoy.