Each Saturday, Jason spotlights one person, product, service, or work of art he finds particularly amazing; the kinds of things that make you wonder, “Why doesn’t everyone have this?” (Read more at www. jasonrpeters.com.)
Sanderson gained instant notoriety with Robert Jordan’s fandom when he was chosen by Harriet Rigney (the late Robert Jordan’s wife) to write the final volumes of the Wheel of Time series.
Like many others, it was this news which brought Sanderson to my attention. And as crucial a step as this was in Sanderson’s developing career, true Sanderson fans might consider it a mere footnote.
The Wheel of Time was an incredible read for about four books, after which it waded into perennial sequilitis. Jordan, having unraveled the Pattern at the rate of one or two Forsaken (The Wheel of Time’s major villains) per book, was unwilling to dive into the final chapters which would release all thirteen AND the dark lord they served, not to mention all the other forces of good and evil rattling around in Jordan’s brain.
The result was a long series of long books with phenomenal moments, but no end in sight. It was disappointing but not surprising when Robert Jordan passed away before the epic tale could be completed.
I give you this backdrop because though Sanderson was also a fan of Robert Jordan, in my estimation his work exceeds Jordan’s on many counts.
I began with Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris. It is a standalone novel set almost entirely around Elantris, the once-glorious city where streets glowed, gods walked, and supplicants were healed, now reduced to a kind of living hell. It’s a grimy slum run by thugs, and used as a prison for the contractors of the Shaod, the Transformation, a tragic disease for which there is no cure. Those who suffer from it are considered dead and treated that way; locking them in Elantris has the same finality as burying them.
Elantris is written in three alternating viewpoints which start off widely diverged, but eventually dovetail closer and closer together until finally they intersect.
The magic system revolves around Aons, which are runic characters. The name of each Aon has exactly one consonant and two vowels, and each Aon has particular meaning. When the Elantrians were gods, they performed magic by drawing Aons in the air…but the magic no longer works.
The novel is rife with politics, but in retrospect it almost reads like a mystery. What’s wrong with Elantris and magic is a major puzzle which is solved by the book’s end. The final hundred pages or so will have you on the edge of your seat as the characters sit on the brink of ruin, utter destruction and failure to their left, ultimate success and godhood on their right.
It was my first experience with what Sanderson’s friends and fans now know as “the Brandon avalanche”: The ends of Sanderson’s books pack megatons of action and new revelations, bringing together plot points that he has been both openly and subtly weaving for hundreds of pages. There are satisfying moments as you come to the same realizations as the characters and see that there is NOTHING random is Sanderson’s prose.
The book that so impressed the wife of Robert Jordan was Mistborn: The Final Empire, which is now the third book of a trilogy, but like all of Sanderson’s work, stands on its own with a satisfying conclusion even if you never crack open the sequel.
While Elantris primarily used rune-based magic (a familiar premise though it had new twists), Mistborn had the most unique and creative magic system I have ever encountered to date:
The magic users in Mistborn DRINK METAL and ingest the metal in deliberate increments (able to control the rate at which they “burn” it internally) to produce different effects based on the metal in question. One metal lets you act as a magnet, pulling metals towards you; another allows you to push metal away. Two other metals alter the emotions of people around you, either calming and soothing feelings away, or en-flaming passions to new heights. Still others affect your ability to detect other magic users — or block such detection for your allies.
One metal allows you to see a few seconds into the future. While this isn’t much good for fortune-telling, it allows for Matrix-like precision in hand-to-hand combat.
As fantasy goes, Mistborn: The Final Empire is a novel like no other. Instead of being set before the prophesied hero saves the world, it’s set about a thousand years after that. Only the prophesied hero turned out to be a horrific tyrant after he saved the world. And he’s still alive, immortal, ruling the world.
Instead of the typical five-man band or hero’s entourage trekking across the world to see its wonders and learn all they can before overthrowing evil, The Final Empire follows a thieves’ crew as they plot the ultimate heist. Like modern comic book heroes, each crew member has a different power to contribute to the welfare of the band. Like a good action movie, the book is filled with kung-fu-esque combat that Sanderson manages to make almost as interesting to read as it would be to watch.
Though Sanderson’s writing is impressive, his devotion and kindness to his fans is one of the most attractive things about this author. His website shows active progress bars for his current progress, so at any given time you can go look up how much of his next book he has written. (It was from there that I got the idea to do this on my own website.) At the time of this writing, we can see that Sanderson has finished the next Wheel of Time Book and it will be available soon, and that “Super Secret Project Mark II” is 18% complete. Sanderson also blogs regularly about upcoming releases and future projects, so that you never have to wonder what he’s working on, how far along he is, or when his next book will come out.
He also provides hundreds of pages of behind-the-scenes information for the avid reader. This is the written fiction version of the director’s commentary for a movie, intended to be experienced after you’ve finished the work, and rife with Sanderson’s thought processes and insights. After you read a scant few of these, it will be palpably obvious that no scene, no matter how minor, is haphazardly thrown together. Sanderson gives every paragraph a LOT of consideration. And for a fan wanting to know more, or trying to fill the void between releases, these annotations are as good as it gets.
Along with two other authors, Sanderson conducts a weekly podcasts for aspiring writers called “Writing Excuses.” As you can imagine, I follow it religiously; and I’m not the only one. It has won the Parsec Award two years in a row already.
The Way of Kings
Sanderson’s latest release was one he has planned for years, but until we’d read his other work, it was one we wouldn’t have cared about. The Way of Kings is the first book of The Stormlight Archive, which is Sanderson’s answer to the broad sweeping multi-volume epic fantasy series like the Wheel of Time. He plans it to be ten books exactly, but he’s working deliberately to make sure it never suffers from the same kind of sequilitis.
- First, each novel will stand on its with a new beginning and its own satisfying conclusion. No books where the heroes simply “progress” into the next novel with no real climax.
- Second, each novel will focus on specific characters relevant to the story being told.
- Third, each part of each book tells you which characters are in it, so you aren’t wondering for two-hundred pages where a certain character you liked is. He was in part 1 and he’ll be in part 3, but part 2 is about some other people…for now.
- Fourth, for describing the larger world, instead of switching to whole chapters across the world at random intervals, Sanderson includes 3-4 “interludes” between major sections of the book. These introduce the tangential characters to show you what’s going on elsewhere in the world. But when the next part begins, it’s back to your regularly scheduled program.
- Fifth, the aforementioned progress bars on Sanderson’s website will never leave you wondering when the next release is.
- Sixth, Sanderson has already demonstrated his ability to release 2-3 major novels a year, including Wheel of Time titles, so the longest you’ll have to wait for any particular book is a year. (Which means The Stormlight Archive will probably be finished in 2030. Contrast this with The Wheel of Time which began twenty years ago in 1990 and still isn’t finished.)
While these points don’t tell you much about the quality of the novel, they speak volumes (hah) about Sanderson’s strategic thinking and devotion to his fans.
If that weren’t enough, when touring for The Way of Kings, Sanderson introduced a nation-wide scavenger hunt of sorts called “The Great Hunt” (named after The Wheel of Time’s second novel and a recurring theme in the series). Sanderson’s website held an encrypted version of a chapter of the next Wheel of Time book, and to decrypt it, fans had to find bumper stickers with codes written on the back hidden at each of Sanderson’s tour stops.
That isn’t just good marketing, it’s fun.
About the The Way of Kings itself, I don’t want to say too much. It is difficult to synopsize a 1000-page epic and do it any real justice.
I will simply say that you won’t be disappointed.
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