Brandon Sanderson Is the Hardest-Working Man in Fantasy

sandersonYou don’t have to rack your brain to come up with the names of authors who face heated criticism for the length of time it takes them to produce the next volume in a popular epic fantasy series. On the other end of the spectrum is Brandon Sanderson, a Hugo Award-winning author who also happens to be one of the most prolific fantasists in the world. Like Elizabeth Bear (nearly 30 novels since 2005), C.J. Cherryh (60+ novels and countless pieces of short fiction since 1976), and the inestimable Mercedes Lackey (140+ novels since her debut in 1987), Sanderson is a writing machine, pumping out novels, short stories, and novellas at a relentless pace.

Sanderson made his name among rabid fantasy fans with the Mistborn series, which began in 2006. The first volume, The Final Empire, introduced readers to Vin and Kelsier, young revolutionaries who use Allomancy, a metal-based form of magic, to bring down the Lord Ruler, an immortal tyrant who rules over the Final Empire with an iron fist. Their story concludes in The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. Sanderson returned to the same world five years later with The Alloy of Law, a standalone adventure that jumped forward hundreds of years to introduce Waxillium Ladrian, Marasi Colms, and Wayne, a plucky group of detectives and bounty hunters in a world recreated by the apocalyptic events of the earlier trilogy. After centuries, the world has transformed into a charming amalgam of post-industrial England and late 20th century America—mixing themes reminiscent of Jack London’s adventures with the sophisticated Victorian detective fiction of Kate Summerscale or Charles Dickens.

Sanderson’s latest, Shadows of Self, begins a new trilogy with Wax and Wayne. The stakes are higher, as the supposedly peaceful world left behind by the Hero of Ages begins to crumble and a mysterious Allomancer threatens the safety of the city’s most powerful political figures. The sixth Mistborn novel, The Bands of Mourning, is due out in January, 2016, just a few months after Shadows of Self.

And that’s just one of his three (arguably, five) current series. Aside from the sequel to The Bands of Mourning he’s also working on the third book in the planned 10-book Stormlight Archives; the next installment of the Reckoners, a YA series about superheroes; and another book in his Alcatraz middle grade series. He’s also planned sequels to his quote-unquote standalone novels Elantris and Warbreaker. He just doesn’t stop writing.

Oh, yeah, he’s also the guy who stepped in to finish Robert Jordan’s legendary Wheel of Time after the author’s unfortunate passing. The final three volumes, co-written by Sanderson, ended the lingering series in grand style.

Sanderson isn’t just prolific by sheer volume of published works; his novels, short stories, and novellas are also dense with meticulously-detailed magic systems, enormous casts of interesting characters, rich worlds with deep histories, and intricate plots that layer on the complexity page-by-page. To top it all off, the majority of his fiction contributes to the unified mythos of the Cosmere, an overall story arc that transcends the various trilogies, series, and standalones to tell a much bigger story (for more on this concept, check out this excellent breakdown by Martin Cahill on Tor.com). These aren’t just pulp novels that Sanderson pumps out in a month, following a tried-and-true recipe. They’re carefully crafted books that earn the “epic fantasy” label.

How does he do it?

A strong work ethic and a doggedness in his dedication to put words down on paper every single day. This is a guy who takes a break after finishing a book and writes another one by accident. For a period of time, he worked the graveyard shift at a local hotel specifically because it allowed him to write on the job.

In what the author refers to as his “apprentice” era, from 1997 to 1999, he wrote five novels. “None of them [were] very good,” he admits. “But being good wasn’t the point.” Even so early in his career—years before he sold his first novel—he understood the importance of finishing what you start. With practice, he began writing books that weren’t only good, but interesting and complex. He didn’t know it at the time, but thanks to his dedication to writing endlessly and constantly improving, he was on his way to becoming one for the most celebrated young fantasy writers in the world.

Sanderson wrote over a dozen novels before selling Elantris (his eighth) to Tor Books. It was released in May 2005, and in the decade since, Sanderson, now 39, has published over 20 books, along with several novellas and short stories, totaling nearly 3,700,000 words. A simple bit of math tells us that he’s publishing, on average, 370,000 words per year. To put that into perspective, J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary Lord of the Rings is 480,000 words—which took the British linguist over a decade to complete. A user on Reddit’s r/fantasy created this impressive chart of his published works between 2005 and 2014. That’s quite a trajectory.

Where to start?

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians is the perfect jumping off point for younger readers or anyone looking for a light, enjoyable romp. It’s full of action, Sanderson’s trademark humour, and loveable characters.

Steelheart is the first in Sanderson’s Reckoners series—a YA superhero story about revenge, suspense, and fighting through thick and thin.

“How far would you go for revenge if someone killed your father? If someone destroyed your city? If everything you ever loved was taken from you? David Charleston will go to any lengths to stop Steelheart. But to exact revenge in Steelheart’s world, David will need the Reckoners—a shadowy group of rebels bent on maintaining justice. And it turns out that the Reckoners might just need David too.”

Elantris, soon to be rereleased in a revised 10th anniversary edition, is a standalone novel that serves as the perfect introduction to Sanderson’s adult epic fantasy.

“Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping—based on their correspondence—to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city.”

Warbreaker, another standalone, offers a colourful look at Sanderson’s unparalleled ability to craft compelling magic systems. Plus, it’s got some fun ties to Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive.

“Sisters Vivenna and Siri are princesses of Idris. Susebron is the God King one must marry. Lightsong is the reluctant minor god of bravery. Vasher is an immortal still trying to undo mistakes of centuries before. Magic from individual breath from everyday objects can perform all manner of miracles and mischief.”

The Final Empire is the first volume in the Mistborn trilogy, though it stands on its own reasonably well. A great place to start if you’d like a taste of Sanderson, with an option to continue on into a larger series.

“What if the hero of prophecy fails? What kind of world results when the Dark Lord is in charge? For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.”

The Way of Kings is a big commitment—the first of 10 planned volumes in the Stormlight Archives, only two of which have been published—but it’s oh, so epic. Join Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, and Jasnah in the storm-wracked world of Roshar.

 “Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.”

One word at a time

A decade into his career as a published writer, Sanderson is still a relative newcomer in a genre in which many writers have been working since the ’70s and before. Over that time, however, he’s been laying the groundwork—one word at a time—for one of the most impressive fantasy universes every conceived, and doing it at a rate that, if he can keep it up, will land him among the stars.

No matter when or where you start reading him, there’s always something new and exciting around the corner. Pick up a book, any book, and join the rest of us in the fascinating Cosmere.

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