Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Field Guide to Brandon Sanderson

In a couple weeks, arguably the most anticipated fantasy novel since A Memory of Light (the book that concluded The Wheel of Time, which Sanderson had a role in) is set to be released. The book, Words of Radiance, is the second book in Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive, a series that is planned for ten volumes and have so far ended up being over 1000 pages each.

Yeah, it's one of those.

You might know of Brandon Sanderson for a few reasons, whether it be his work on The Wheel of Time, or someone's recommended some of his books to you, or you've seen his short fiction for iPad games, or you know me personally and I've tried to force you to read Mistborn. Either way, if you somehow don't know Sanderson's name now, and have some interest at all in genre fiction, now might be a good time to get to know who might end up being your new favorite author.

Who are we talking about again? Brandon Sanderson. A thirty-something author of mostly fantasy (with some science fiction and superhero fiction mixed in), he has been writing for a long time, but his first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005. Since then, he's published (including the upcoming Words of Radiance) 17 full-length works of fiction and a whole mess of short fiction, including the Hugo Award-winning The Emperor's Soul and two novellas in the Infinity Blade universe. He also has four books (two shorts, two full lengths) on the publishing docket for the next two years so far.

21 published books in 10 years? This is one guy? The running joke is that Sanderson is actually a robot, but he is just incredibly prolific, which is more apparent when put in contrast to peers like Jordan or George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss who tend to take a lot more time in between books. Sanderson's idea of combating burnout is to simply write in other areas, thus the advent of The Emperor's Soul and Legion, which were done in part to get his mind off of the Jordan series and The Stormlight Archive a bit.

So what is he known for? Book-wise, most of his fame at this point still comes from being handpicked to finish The Wheel of Time after Jordan's passing, but if you talk to fans about why they enjoy reading Sanderson, he is probably best known for his ability to craft interesting magic systems in his books. His main adult-oriented fantasy titles all take place in basically the same universe, which means there's a lot of interesting magic going around, whether it be Allomancy in Mistborn (the ability to "burn" different metals in order to gain/use abilities) or soulcasting in Stormlight. If you read A Memory of Light, you can both see how well the series suited someone who enjoys and is adept at magic systems, and how well is served the climax of that story.

He's also known for being very, very prolific. Because he's probably a robot.

Okay, so what should I read? Everything.

But seriously, what are you in the mood for?

Well, I want to try him, but I don't want to pay for anything. Well, try Warbreaker. Sanderson wrote it in 2006 as a writing/licensing experiment, and released it for free on his website via a Creative Commons license. It's not his best book, to be honest, but it has a lot of really strong competition for that title. What it happens to be is a book that works as a solid, stand-alone introduction to a lot of Sanderson's writing tropes as well as being a strong fantasy book all its own. It was released as a hard copy title by Tor when it was finally finished, but the book remains available as a free read.

Well, I don't want to read someone's rough drafts, give me something complete and done. Warbreaker is a complete, finished novel, but okay, something more traditional? Elantris is for you. It's also a stand-alone fantasy with some very interesting magic ideas going around, and was very acclaimed for a debut, being nominated for an award and getting very favorable reviews in the trade publications. It's both dark and optimistic, simple with some complicated ideas. It's probably my favorite stand-alone fantasy novel.

I don't have time to try something out that's 600 pages. Okay, so maybe The Emperor's Soul is a better book for you. A short novella that ended up winning the Hugo the year it was published, it has the same magic ideas that Sanderson's known for along with a nontraditional setting, and it's pretty much a perfect little work. At a little over 100 pages and cheap for your Kindle, this might be a good entry point.

But I'm a kid! And you're somehow reading this? Try the Alcatraz series then, a set of four books about evil librarians and alternate universes with a fun, albeit mouthy, protagonist. They're a lot of fun, also (and I'm sure this will be a shock to you) with a unique magic system, and a lot of fun stuff to go around.

I'm not that young! Okay, okay, so try The Rithmatist instead. It takes the Sanderson Magic System(tm), puts it in a school setting, and involves glyphs and tournaments and all sorts of danger.

I don't really want to read something like that, I want something more heroic. Okay, so Steelheart might be better for you. It's a young adult story about a world overtaken by superhumans. The superheroes, essentially, are evil, and they all have their own powers, and it follows a kid with an insurgency group who are opposing the Epic Steelheart. It's pretty cool.

No non-fantasy style stuff for adults? His novella Legion might be for you, it's a more experimental tale about multiple personalities/legitimate hallucinations and is more of a mystery.

Sounds cool, but surely he has better stuff for adults: Most would tell you to start with the Mistborn series. It has three main books, with one western/steampunky prequel already published and an eventual standard science fiction story set in the same universe in the future. With Mistborn in particular, it's standard heroic tropes with the Allomancy mentioned above, and is widely considered the best entry point overall even if, arguably, they're not his best books.

So why not start me with his best books? Mainly because The Stormlight Archive isn't finished yet. The first book, The Way of Kings is epic fantasy of the highest order. Well over 1000 pages with excellent characters and even better magic and stories to go with it. I read it over the course of one weekend back when it came out, and I reread it roughly a month ago and not only does it hold up, but it might have even been better on a second read. The second book comes out in the first week of March, and the idea is that we'll see a new volume every two years or so. This means that we won't see the conclusion until close to 2030, but Sanderson is young and writes a lot.

So hopefully you have your reading list settled for the foreseeable future. He's one of my all-time favorite authors, and I cannot wait for the next book to come out. I've been waiting almost three and a half years and I'm so glad the wait is nearly over.

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