A Newbie’s Guide to Brandon Sanderson, the Cosmere, and the Stormlight Archive

With the release of Oathbringer, Brandon Sanderson’s immensely popular Stormlight Archive series is once again a hot topic of conversation in SFF circles. This is hugely expansive, complex epic fantasy, requiring not only a sizable time commitment—the three released novels (of a planned 10) and bonus novella total a wrist-straining 3,600 pages—but the willingness to absorb and remember dozens of characters, plot lines that span thousands of years, and multiple magic systems, each operating on a level of intricacy that exceeds genre standards.

Nobody would blame you for being intimidated.

I mean, sure, you could read four or five other novels in the time it takes you to read Oathbringer. Still, you’ll never shake that nagging feeling that you’re missing out on something special.

Well, you’re in luck. I’ve got your back.

Welcome to the Newbie’s Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive.

Who is Brandon Sanderson?

Elantris cover by Stephan Martinière

Brandon Sanderson released his debut novel, Elantris, in 2005. At the time (I’ll explain in a minute), it was a standalone epic fantasy that focused on the titular city—once magical, now abandoned—and featured, according to Kirkus Reviews, “an unusually well-conceived system of magic.”

Elantris was a critical success, receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which wrote, “Sanderson’s outstanding fantasy debut, refreshingly complete unto itself and free of the usual genre clichés, offers something for everyone: mystery, magic, romance, political wrangling, religious conflict, fights for equality, sharp writing and wonderful, robust characters.”

“Sanderson’s excellent debut novel,” raved legendary fantasist Katherine Kurtz (Chronicles of the Deryni), “is marked by vivid and strongly drawn characters (including a memorable female character) and ingenious plot twists that will keep the reader turning pages.”

Brandon followed Elantris with Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first volume in a new trilogy set in (seemingly) an entirely different secondary world universe, with another extraordinarily conceived, incredibly cool magic system..

What readers didn’t realize then is that Sanderson wasn’t working on myriad unconnected fantasy series, but something far more ambitious: most of his work, including Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy, is part of the Cosmere, a huge universe that is home to (almost) every book he has written, each taking place on its own planet, with its own unique magic systems, history, cultures, and conflicts.

In 2007, however, the Cosmere would be put on hold for an opportunity that changed Sanderson’s life.

The Wheel of Time

The Eye of the World cover by Darrell K. Sweet

That year, speculative fiction lost one of its modern masters when James Oliver Rigney Jr., better known as Robert Jordan, passed away after a 17-month battle with cardiac amyloidosis. The outpouring from the community was overwhelming. Jordan inspired countless readers and writers with the phenomenally popular (and phenomenally long) fantasy series The Wheel of Time—including Brandon Sanderson—who was by now himself a rising star, having recently published the second volume in the Mistborn trilogy, The Well of Ascension. Sanderson wrote a eulogy to Jordan on his blog, remembering that he was initially taken in by the iconic cover of Jordan’s breakout novel, The Eye of the World, but was so intimidated by the size that he didn’t work up the courage to buy it for a few weeks.

I still think Eye is one of the greatest fantasy books ever written. It signifies an era, the culmination of the epic quest genre which had been brewing since Tolkien initiated it in the ’60s. The Wheel of Time dominated my reading during the ’90s, influencing heavily my first few attempts at my own fantasy novels. I think it did that to pretty much all of us; even many of the most literarily snobbish of fantasy readers were youths when I was, and read The Eye of the World when I did.

Eventually, I found myself reacting against The Wheel of Time in my writing. Not because I disliked Jordan, but because I felt he’d captured the epic quest story so well that I wanted to explore new grounds. As his books chronicled sweeping scenes of motion set behind characters traveling all across his world, I started to set mine in single cities. As his stories focused on peasants who became kings, I began to tell stories about kings who became peasants. (From EUOLogy: Goodbye Mr. Jordan)

Jordan’s work had an obvious and direct impact on Sanderson’s novels. Soon, by a twist of fate, Sanderson would come to shape the epic that had inspired him.

At the time of Jordan’s death, Sanderson had a small, loyal legion of fans, but, by his own admission, he was still “relatively unknown.” Hardly someone you would expect to become a household name among SFF readers within five years. The change came when Sanderson took a call from editor Harriet McDougal, Jordan’s widow. The author’s estate, along with long-time publisher Tor Books, were looking for someone to finish the late author’s magnum opus. After reading Sanderson’s eulogy, McDougal knew she had found the right person for the job.

“Brandon Sanderson wrote a very beautiful eulogy for my husband on his web site,” McDougal described to NPR in 2013. “And a friend of mine was browsing around on the web, and saw it, printed it out—I’m not really a Luddite, but I’m computer resistant, you might say—and put it in front of me and said, ‘You really need to read this.’ And it was just a beautiful eulogy, in which he said he’d been reading Jordan since his middle teens, that Jordan had inspired him to become a fantasy writer. I believe he said that one reason his characters stay in one spot is that he felt he could never do the ‘haring across the landscape’ kind of fantasy that Robert Jordan did any better than Robert Jordan had done it.”

Sanderson agreed to take the job—upending his career plans for an unprecedented opportunity.

The work ethic and thoroughness necessary for the job is something that came naturally to Sanderson, but it was something else entirely, something less definable, that gave him the confidence to accept McDougal’s offer. In an interview with the LA Times, shortly after it was announced he’d be completing the series, Sanderson admitted that he believed in his ability to finish it because of his great love for Jordan’s work.

“It’s as if they picked the most talented fan they could find and handed him the series to finish,” said Jason Denzel, founder of Dragonmount.com.

For the next several years, Sanderson split his time between his own series, and the toughest job in fantasy: completing the final three volumes of a major fantasy series, beloved by millions of readers worldwide.

“I can’t do a better job than Robert Jordan,” Sanderson said. “I can’t even do as good a job as Robert Jordan, I don’t think. He’s the only one that could’ve done it the right way.”

He was David fighting Goliath. And, just like the diminutive musician, amazingly, Sanderson succeeded. Wildly.

The three volumes he wrote, working from Jordan’s extensive notes—The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Lightare widely considered not only to be faithful to Jordan’s work, but among the best books in the long series. What could have been a disappointment for fans, if not an outright PR disaster for Jordan’s estate and publisher, instead turned into one of modern fantasy’s most remarkable success stories.

Brandon Sanderson had arrived, and, quite literally, found himself filling the hole left by the passing of his hero.

So what is the Stormlight Archive?

Sanderson is a workhorse. He publishes more words per year than should be humanly possible. Somehow, despite spending five years embroiled in Wheel of TimeSanderson also found time during the same period to produce several original novels, including his young adult Alcatraz series; Warbreaker, a standalone fantasy novel that was released for free on website before being officially published by Tor Books; and the concluding volume to the Mistborn trilogy, The Hero of Ages.

But his most ambitious solo project was inarguably The Way of Kings, a novel as thick and complex as anything Jordan had written, and the first volume (of a projected 10) in the series he’d been dreaming of writing all his life: The Stormlight Archive.

One might wonder how Sanderson was able to accomplish all of this.

After spending two years as a volunteer full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea, Sanderson returned to the United States in the late ’90s and took a job as a graveyard shift receptionist at a hotel. This was a move calculated to allow him time to work on his writing. Over the next five years, he wrote a dozen novels.

“When you’ve finished 12 novels and haven’t made a single dime,” he told The New York Times in a 2014 interview, “you really ought to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing.” Sanderson persevered, and, in 2005, the sixth book he finished, Elantris, became his first published, by Tor Books.

The Way of Kings was also written during those late nights at the hotel. He finished a first draft in 2003.

The Way of Kings cover by Michael Whelan

The Way of Kings

After the debut of Elantris and the success of Mistborn: The Final Empire, Sanderson decided to shift his focus to completing the Mistborn trilogy. This was in part because his editor, Moshe Feder, thought that The Way of Kings was too big and too ambitious to be his second published novel. Feder beleived Sanderson should work up to something as epic (and risky) as the Stormlight Archive.

“Choosing the next project is a balance between the promises I’ve made to readers and the best way to channel my creativity,” Sanderson told me in a 2010 interview about Towers of Midnight. “I stay fresh by jumping between projects; it’s the way I’ve (for better or worse) trained myself. And so I always have a lot of ideas, and there are a lot of things I’ve worked on.”

So The Way of Kings gathered dust while he worked on Wheel of Time and other projects. By 2009, Sanderson had published The Gathering Storm, his first contribution to Wheel of Time, and proven his popularity. It was finally time.

The version he wrote as a night worker is very different from the final draft, and the journey from one to the other was not always easy.

“[The Way of Kings] started its life many years ago being about a young man who made a good decision,” Sanderson describes in the novel’s introduction. “I wrote the entire book that way before realizing I’d done it wrong. So I started over from scratch and had him take the other fork, the more difficult fork. The fork that cast him into some of the worst imaginable circumstances, ground him against the stones of a world where there is no soil or sand on the ground.”

The Way of Kings, much revised from its earlier version, hit in 2010, and delivered everything Sanderson promised.

“I’ve spent many years thinking about the epic fantasy genre, what makes it work, what I love about it, and how to deal with its inherent weaknesses,” Sanderson said about his ambitions for the Stormlight Archive. “And so I’m trying to make use of the form of the novel (meaning how I place chapters and which viewpoints I put where) in order to convey the scope without distracting from the main stories I wish to tell.”

The Way of Kings is the story of Roshar, a planet besieged by highstorms—tremendous storms that travel the planet from east to west, wreaking havoc and shaping everything from the planet’s societies and religions, to his flora and fauna. Highstorms are also imbue the planet’s gemstones (rubies, emeralds, diamonds, etc.) with Stormlight, a supernatural energy that powers much of the planet’s magic.

Foremost among its cast are the slave-branded Kaladin, reformed tyrant Dalinar Kholin, and precocious scholar Shallan Davar. The Way of Kings follows these three individuals, along with dozens of other smaller characters, as they struggle against conflicts both personal and world-shaping.

“I more than enjoyed The Way of Kings, I loved it truly and deeply,” said Ana Grilo of The Book Smugglers. “The Way of Kings reminded me of how much I love epic fantasy and now much I love heroic, honourable characters and it’s definitely one of the best Fantasy novels I read this year.”

Part of what makes The Way of Kings (and the Stormlight Archive as a whole) so compelling is the depth of its world and history. Sanderson has admitted to writing “hundreds of thousands of words worth of worldbuilding,” before The Way of Kings was published, and it shows. Not because the book is full of heavy-lidded infodumps about its cultures and historical events, but because the world, its many facets have a weight to them, layered context that makes them feel as endlessly complex as the real world. Nothing can be taken at surface level, everything has another secret to reveal. It’s wide as an ocean, and fathoms deep.

Like Grilo, I was impressed by the Stormlight Archive‘s opening. “The Way of Kings proves Sanderson has the ambition to fill the hole left after the conclusion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and continue establish himself as one of the most successful and prolific young fantasy novelists. Like many opening volumes before it, The Way of Kings convinces readers that the best is yet to come.”

Words of Radiance cover by Michael Whelan

Words of Radiance

Words of Radiance puts the ‘epic’ back in epic fantasy,” declared Rob Bricken in io9’s review of the follow-up to The Way of Kings.

By 2014, when Words of Radiance was released, Sanderson had become one of the most popular and recognizable fantasy writers in the world. His work on Wheel of Time had lifted him from the midlist into a genuine phenomenon. He sudden;y had a rabid fan base, discussing his work at great length on internet forums like 17th Shard, an unofficial Brandon Sanderson fan site, and his books were beginning to regularly debut at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list.

Brandon Sanderson was on his way to becoming the king of fantasy.

Of course, as any comic book geek knows, with great power (and success) comes great responsibility. The Way of Kings was released during Sanderson’s rise to prominence, and had expectations attached to it. Nobody knew what to expect. Words of Radiance, on the other hand, had to fulfill the promise made by that first volume, delivering something bigger, more expansive, and more intricate than anything he’d written outside of Wheel of Time.

“Love or hate this book, I was wedded to it long before I read it,” admitted Carl Engle-Laird, who reviewed it for Tor.com.

“Living up to a really successful book is always hard,” Sanderson told Fantasy Faction‘s Marc Alpin. “As writers, you get in this mindset where you read through something that you’ve done, and you think, how did that even happen? How did it come together? You’re always surprised, and there’s always a sense of, ‘Well, I can never do that again.’ Right?”

The pressure was on.

However, in typical Sanderson fashion, he met the challenge head on, and produced a book that not only equalled its predecessor, but surpassed it in almost every way that mattered.

Bricken raved in his review:

It’s hard to describe how Words of Radiance achieves this without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say that it is somehow a combination of politics, war, race, religion, secret conspiracies, magic, assassins, gods, and more, but in a way that somehow, against all odds, holds together. It’s not a mess, and you can tell by how confidently Sanderson presents the interludes, following other characters scattered around his world — you might not know how they’ll be involved in the future, but they’re portentous, not frivolous. And meanwhile, amidst this byzantine plot, it still has characters you enjoy — but still manage to surprise you in ways that feel earned.

And Engle-Laird, who already had so much invested in the book before it was ever released, was relieved and excited by its quality. “Where [TheWay of Kings portends, Words of Radiance delivers, resulting in a much faster pace. Brandon Sanderson has shored up the biggest weakness of the first book, showing once again that he can write page-turners with the best of them, even on a massive door-stopper scale.”

Edgedancer

First released as part of Sanderson’s Cosmere collection, Arcanum Unbounded, Edgedancer is a 40,000 word (about 10 percent the length of Oathbringer) novella that bridges the gap between the second and third Stormlight Archive novels.

“[Edgedancer] is a slightly bizarre mixture of intensity and levity, swinging between the two with unexpected but flawlessly executed timing,” said Alice Arneson, in her spoiler-filled review of Arcanum Unbounded for Tor.com. Martin Cahill, who wrote Tor.com’s spoiler-free review, was bold enough to say that Edgedancer alone was worth Arcanum Unbounded‘s full-price admission.

Fans now have the opportunity to buy Edgedancer as a standalone book. While it’s not essential reading, it’s highly recommended for those who want the full Stormlight Archive experience. (Plus, after you meet its protagonist, Lift, in Words of Radiance, you’ll be eager for more of her adventures.)

What’s next?

Oathbringer cover by Michael Whelan

Oathbringer

Oathbringer hits shelves, this week so I’ll leave my impressions to my review (spoilers: it’s really good.) By the time you reach the third volume, you’ll know what to expect: a major dedication to world-building, intricate plotting, snappy dialogue, and more magic than you can possibly imagine.

And, as Martin Cahill at Tor.com points out, this is the most socially-conscious novel Sanderson has written yet:

Sanderson also makes efforts to tackle important topics in these epic fantasy novels. As much as we want to know the oaths and learn more of Odium, I was incredibly happy and proud to see Sanderson taking on the larger, important questions: when an enslaved people are now free, how do you tell them to go back? How can you? Is there a path forward when the oppressed have been freed from their shackles? How do you resolve your guilt for participation in an oppressive system, and how do you work to help those beaten down by it? Not just that, but Sanderson also attempts to engage with and talk about sexuality, gender, and identity in this novel more than the others before.

The stakes are higher than ever—for both Sanderson and his characters—and Oathbringer is one of the boldest, (heaviest), and most impactful fantasy novels of the year.

What is the Cosmere?

ArcanumUnbounded cover by David Palumbo

I’ve mentioned the Cosmere a few times already, and it’s almost impossible to discuss Sanderson’s major works without examining its depth. (Sanderson does have a few books that don’t relate to the Cosmere, such as his young adult series—The Rithmatist and The Reckoners—but they’re few and far between).

“I consider the Cosmere sequence to be my life work—of which the Stormlight Archive is a major part, but it’s not the only part,” Sanderson told a fan in 2014. “Compartmentalizing projects is the nature of how I work, to keep myself fresh, but the interconnection of the Cosmere means it’s not entirely compartmentalized.”

As cool as the Cosmere concept is, it’s also a bit intimidating. Do you have to read all the Cosmere books to keep up? (No.) Will it all come to a head some day in an Avengers-like storyline where all the heroes team up against a big bad? (Who knows. Probably not.) Where’s Sanderson going with the Cosmere? (We’re going to have to wait for the planned release of series known as The Liar of Partinel and Dragonsteel before we find out.) Lots of questions so far, and few answers. However, up to this point, the Cosmere connections are mostly for fun—fodder for speculative fans, rather than required knowledge.

“The Cosmere can be likened to how most (or indeed all) of Stephen King’s novels and stories take place in the same universe, something that is for the most part completely irrelevant to the book at hand, but occasionally becomes important when characters cross from one novel to another,” explains Adam Whitehead in “A Rough Guide to Sanderson’s Cosmere.”

“The Cosmere itself is a collection of various planets all linked by a shared extradimensional realm known as Shadesmar,” Whitehead continues. “Collectively these worlds are located (relatively) close to one another in a compact dwarf galaxy, and Sanderson has indicated that later books will show people crossing between worlds using starships equipped with magic-powered FTL drives. However, at this stage crossing between the worlds is only possible by magical means and limited to a very small number of people.”

Among the elements that have so far crossed series are:

  • The Shards of Adonalsium, which provide the various magics to Sanderson’s worlds;
  • Hoid, a mysterious figure who appears in each of the Cosmere novels, often with a different face, personality, and name;
  • Nightblood, an Awakened sword first introduced in Warbreaker.

Feeling like your toes are wet? You’re ready to dive in the deep end? In addition to Whitehead’s Cosmere breakdown, I highly recommend Martin Cahill’s “Understanding Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere,” which is another deep dive into the many layers that make up one of the genre’s most ambitious and rewarding meta-series.

Heir to the Throne

Oathbringer endpapers art by Howard Lyon

Though the Stormlight Archive seems like the obvious successor to Jordan’s saga, Sanderson didn’t see it that way at the start.

“I will be sorry to see the Wheel of Time end,” he said in a blog post preceding the release of The Way of Kings, “just like many of you will be. It will be difficult for me on two levels, both as a fan and as a writer. I’ve been reading these books since I was 15. More than half of my life, now, has been spent with Rand and company. My career has been shaped by them, and several years of my life recently have been dominated by their stories.

“However, I don’t intend to replace the series. I have to be my own person, approach storytelling in my own way, and write with my own voice. To intentionally set out to replace the Wheel of Time would be monumentous hubris. The Wheel of Time doesn’t need replacing. It’s still there, on our shelves, just like it’s always been. Once it’s complete, that will be (in many ways) even better. We’ll be able to read it straight through, beginning to end, without waiting.”

Whatever Sanderson’s intentions, he has taken up the mantle left by Jordan at his passing. “We lost a great man,” said Sanderson in a recent tribute to Jordan on the 10th anniversary of his death, “and I lost a mentor I’d never met.”

Jordan’s death, and the completion of Wheel of Time, left a huge hole in the fantasy landscape. Many readers, from those who grew up on Tolkien and Kurtz, to other readers who discovered Jordan and Hobb first, yearn for big, expansive epic fantasy that, perhaps most importantly, revels in big ideas. When Sanderson agreed to McDougal’s offer, he picked up not only became an intrinsic part of a series he loved, but also accepted a responsibility to be the flag-bearer for the legendary author’s long legacy.

The Stormlight Archive is epic fantasy’s next big blockbuster, and it’s never too late to get started. So, what are you waiting for?

Oathbringer is out tomorrow.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy