What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

Fantasy Literature: depression and globalism.

The whole point of speculative fiction is that it provides an opportunity to mull over ideas, concerns, concepts, and issues, while, hopefully, telling a compelling story along the way–whether that compulsion is light, grave, suspenseful, or terrifying. As Brandon Sanderson’s character Hoid says in The Way of Kings: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

There are dozens of ways in which these stories can be parsed and mulled over, in the same way that any literary criticism can function, but there are two I’ve been thinking about recently: depression and globalism.

Heroes in epic fantasy are depressed, sometimes. Usually when they are bummed because something did not go their way, but there is no time for wallowing when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There are things to be done, and a hero is a man or woman of action. If the wallowing goes on too long, a character of greater gravitas, usually someone older but reliant on their wisdom or empathy with the hero to save the world because the hero is fated or “more powerful,” comes along to slap the hero out of whatever funk they are in. Else, something happens to snap the hero out of their funk and get back to doing whatever it is that needs doing. That is just the proper way for things to happen. As Sam and Frodo march headlong toward Mount Doom, they despair of pulling through, but they are not depressed. The trope is that the characters despair and then soldier on against the odds.

There is something told to depressed people as a truism: nobody wants to hear about or spend time with someone who is a sullen downer. People like to be happy and energetic and someone suffering with depression sucks the air out of the room. This idea is used to great effect when a loved one has died and the characters mope about to demonstrate their sadness, and then they die or someone snaps them out of it. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the standard trope.

The second trope is that the powers beyond mortal reckoning that the characters dabble in break the mind of the characters. Most of the time these people are incapable of going on and must either be cared for, die, or become non-entities. Remember, the hero must be an active agent.

Just this evening I finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a story that is part of the same world of his Kingkiller Chronicles, but a non-traditional story featuring Auri, one of the side characters. Auri is introduced in the series as someone who, to be blunt, cracked while studying at the university and is therefore accounted one of the strange curiosities who inhabit the area. Those who are not locked away for their one safety know deep secrets about the world, but aren’t fit to live among humans. Auri is one such. The story is beautiful and haunting, but there was one situation that leapt out to me and, likely, to anybody who (as Pat put it in his author’s note) is a little bit broken. It is a scene where this beautiful, delicate, considerate, kind, and wise creature experiences the world turned upside down. Nothing is right and nothing can be right, regardless of how hard she may wish it was.

Auri is lonely and happy most of the time in the story and a singular panic attack does not sound like a typical experience with depression, but the frame of the story rang true. Being a depressed–as distinct from a despairing or weary–character need not be presented as simply sulking or moping until being set straight. When the world becomes wrong, it isn’t just sadness that arrives, but a panic, and there is an exhaustion in spending energy keeping the world right. Depression and functionality are not mutually exclusive, depression just makes it harder.

[In retrospect, I link depression and anxiety issues here. I grapple with both and find them two sides of the same coin.]

One of the features of epic fantasy that has always attracted me is the world-building or universe creation…something which literature of a more limited, local variety simply doesn’t have to grapple with–particularly in historical settings where the interconnected baggage has been already established. A lot of the time, these issues never feature into the stories being told because the events do not have global cache. Series such as George RR Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have more fleshed out places beyond the immediate setting and have added in global connections accordingly, if incompletely. Jordan’s world, in particular, lets most of the connections between continents or parts of continents fall to outsider-intermediaries and allows that most of these places have fallen into obscure legends. The connections are there, but they are particularly scant. In contrast, Martin’s setting consists of fractured micro-regions, large swathes of which have been reduced to ruin, that it is possible to traverse between if properly supplied or if willing to stop off at nodes in order to change ships.

Other authors have used other approaches. CS Lewis’ Narnia has an edge that leads to God’s kingdom (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), marked as it is by a sea of white lilies. That book bears striking resemblance to the Odyssey, among other things, as well. In contrast, Pratchett’s irreverent Discworld is a disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a giant turtle. I haven’t really read enough of either or done so recently enough to comment on the internal workings of these worlds, but both take place in a set, confined space. Something along these same lines can also be said about the immediate kingdom that is the setting for Sanderson’s Mistborn, where there may be more out there, but one is led to believe that the kingdom is the extent of the world.

Of course, the setting that set me down this line of thought was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The reason for this is that there is both the setting of The Lord of the Rings, with its distinctive shape for anyone familiar with fantasy maps, and also for The Silmarillion, which weaves in folklore and historical elements to tell the story of the world from its creation through the Third Age and the start of the Fourth. Along the way, the realm of the gods (and elves) is severed from the realm of mankind when the parallel Atlantis falls. Tolkien also hints at places found on no maps, including the lands in the south with exotic-looking humans. To that same effect, human beings enter into his story when they stumble out of uncivilized land somewhere off the map. The world is bigger than what is revealed and what is fleshed out in his stories. I find it ironic that Tolkien is credited with launching the use of such rich world-building in fantasy when so much of his world is literally terra incognita.

Though developments like the internet have heralded a new sort of globalization since Tolkien wrote, it is foolish to say that he wrote in an age before global considerations–he was born in South Africa, after all, and came of age in England during the waning days of the British Empire. Perhaps, though, more leisure time and more opportunity for long-distance interactive communication has resulted in books being picked over in ways never before imaginable.

Worlds have names. Rothfuss’ world is known as “Temerant,” though there is a line between naming a world and having the characters themselves know the name of the world (particularly when one of the key ideas in the series is the power of names). Authors have also done wonders when it comes to subverting tropes, such as in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon where the setting is middle eastern, with an old, out of shape hero. I love all of these books and, at some level, the world building has to remain incomplete because the world itself is a sandbox in which to tell stories. However, tropes remain. The worlds contain ruins of long-dead, glorious civilizations and, often, there is either too much of a monoculture or a variety of cultures whose practices and societies are so radically different that it is as though they were created in a vacuum and then placed side by side.

I like textured worlds that feel deep and lived-in and I like stories that provide issues to think about–something that good fantasy is adept at precisely because the constraints of the real world are lifted. But I believe it is misleading to say that a global, interconnected world is solely a product of the modern age–when I teach students about the ancient world I try to show that every culture is part of a larger system. What has changed about globalism, to my mind, is that as production and consumption are more intimately and immediately linked–i.e. as the world has shrunk–people have become more concerned about their place in the system. Issues that have really always existed concerning immigration, jobs, allocation of resources and capital, etc., have become more immediately present in public discourse, rather than the shipping of gold to India being a complaint that only a few Romans were aware of or concerned about. Creating a premodern world should not be an excuse to avoid these questions, particularly when the world itself becomes foregrounded in the course of a series. Epic fantasy grapples with issues, but nostalgic elements of epic fantasy are often used to avoid thinking about issues of globalization rather than wrapping them into the world in provocative ways.

March Reading Recap

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
I read Heart of Darkness a few years ago and, while it was a challenging read, I found it quite moving and decided I would read his other works. I only made it a few pages into The Secret Agent before giving that up because I was busy. This past month I made another pass, this time picking up Under Western Eyes. Razumov, a student who is usually taken for being more intelligent than he is because he doesn’t talk much, is drawn into a revolutionary conspiracy against the Tsar. The plot launched its first attack with grenade attack against ranking ministers and one of the conspirators, Haldin, seeks refuge in R.’s apartment. R. then sells him out to the government before fleeing the country himself Though most of the action (such that it is) takes place in St. Petersburg, the story itself is set in Geneva, where R. went into exile (at the behest of the Tsarist regime) and where he meets and falls in love with Haldin’s sister. The narrator, old English instructor who knows a few members of the Russian ex-pat community, pieces the story together from R.’s journal and his conversations with the participants and declares that he is writing the account as a westerner and intending for it to be read by an English audience–supposedly so that they can see the conditions and flaws of both the Russian state and the revolutionary movements.

There were some interesting passages in this novel, but, on the whole, I found that the story dragged. Conrad is loquacious and oblique throughout the story–in part due to “secret history” structure and deferred narrative authority. I suspect that some of my reaction to the book has more to do with me than with the novel since I seem to have lost my taste for seemingly antiquated prose in the years since I read Heart of Darkness. Under Western Eyes is still worth leading, but I did not love it nearly as much as I had hoped to going in. In short, I loved this book.

Albert Cossery, The Jokers
Full review found here here, The Jokers was my favorite of the three books I read this month. The Jokers, the eponymous comic heroes of the novel, don’t care about money, power, society, bureaucracy, or much else. The entire world is one big joke that most people, particularly the people in power, are too stupid to realize. In some ways, lightheartedness is the polar opposite of the oppressiveness of Under Western Eyes. In short, I highly recommend this book.

Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance
The second book Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, which is long epic fantasy series–long both in books and words; this volume is about as long a book as they (the publishers) could bind. Like all books I like in this mold, the beauty lies in the breadth and depth of the world more than in any one plot arc or character–the world is between “desolations” and there are a few different people or groups of people who are all trying to save the world, though they are all doing so with incomplete information and different short term goals, meaning that they have a tendency to expend as much information combatting people who are blind to the larger need and against each other as they do working for “the greater good.” As is appropriate for a second book, too, Sanderson brings back most of the featured characters from the first book–Dalinar, the king’s uncle and warlord, Kaladin, a former slave and spearman, Shallan, an artist and scholar from a family fallen from grace, etc, and then expands the roles for others such as Adolin and Renarin, Dalinar’s sons, and others. Each book has flashbacks dedicated to a single character, so where the first was Kaladin, the second is Shallan, wherein you get to learn how terrible her upbringing was and why.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to people who are not already fans of this style of fantasy–and if you are, please start with the first book. But for fans of the genre, Sanderson does a good job at world creation and designing interesting magic systems, and this installment provides one of the most obvious crossovers to his other work (all his books exist in the same multiverse and are connected, though each series is designed to stand on its own). I’ve been reading this style of book since elementary school and love a well-crafted world, particularly those that aren’t simply rehashing old tropes and come across feeling pre-packaged from a generic DnD or fantasy novel world starter kit. I like other series and other authors better, but I do believe that Sanderson is one of the top fantasy authors currently writing and am eagerly waiting for the next installment.

March was a busy month for me between teaching, grading, writing, and a short, but remarkably busy, trip to Minneapolis for a 65th wedding anniversary, so I only finished three books. April may well be more of the same, but I am currently in the middle of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom and picked up a bunch of new (used) books in Minneapolis that I am looking forward to reading, including Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Cossery’s Proud Beggars and Llosa’s The War at the end of the World.