Brandon Sanderson: Elantris, Mistborn, and Way of Kings

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I first heard of Brandon Sanderson five and a half years ago. My favorite author, Robert Jordan, had just died, leaving his epic fantasy series (The Wheel of Time) unfinished forever, or so I thought. Sometime later, it was announced that his works would be completed by Brandon Sanderson, an author I had never heard of. I was cynical from day one.

It turned out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The final three books had all of the flair and detail of the original 8 or 9. But more, they succeeded in a lot of ways that Robert Jordan’s books never had. Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding was spectacular, without a doubt. And because of that, his scenes are naturally brought to life. For the most part, this bleeds into every scene. His particularly defining scenes stand out strongly, and give you chills, between the leadup and the delivery. But (especially as the series goes on) you start to realize that he seems to feel more comfortable designing worlds and establishing plot than actually writing scenes.

Enter Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson’s books always seem, to me, to suffer from a lack of planning. But his scenes are packed with so much urgency I feel like I’ve forgotten to do something.

Reading his books after reading his WoT adaptations was a bit disappointing. Brandon Sanderson seems to suffer a bit from BSG syndrome; he’s not a finisher. His universes are all very interesting, his characters are great, and the way he writes scenes makes you want to keep turning pages long after you’ve fallen asleep. Each chapter brings new intrigue and drama to his world, as you, the reader, learn more and more about the world as his characters do as well, but every time they learn something, their situation seems worse (either because it gets worse or because they realize how bad it is) You start to wonder how he’s going to tie up all of the loose ends as things get worse and worse and worse and all of a sudden only 20 pages remain in the book and you think ‘is there going to be a sequel?’ and then — BAM! — somebody becomes a god/demigod/super hero and solves all of the problems with a few effortless strokes.

WARNING: The following reviews contain minor spoilers

Elantris is his debut novel, and is perhaps one of the worst offenders. The book starts off with a main character being told, essentially “Sir, you’re dead, understand?” From there, the plot races on, as he struggles to understand his condition. Meanwhile, those he has left behind investigate his ‘death’, trying to find where he has gone, and trying to fill the political void he has left.  You can see the elements of a great plot; one character on the inside struggles to understand his plight. Another character, on the outside, is trying to find him, and, when they can’t, starts to fill his shoes. Meanwhile, sinister forces brew which threaten them both. And as such, you anticipate the plot; they will resolve his condition/find him, then they will fight against the sinister forces politically. As the books draws to a close, (SPOILER ALERT) the main character becomes a minor god and, with a little help from his friends, heals everybody who would have died, teleports to his enemy, and kills him.

Mistborn definitely follows suit. A young thief learns that she possesses great powers, only to later discover that they are even greater than once thought, and joins a revolution against the tyrant of a world, who eventually turns out to be a god of sorts. Of course, the book culminates in her conflict vs this tyrant, and just when it seems all is lost, she discovers newfound powers and takes him down. The next two books in this series follow a similar pattern.

Way of Kings, his extremely epic novel, does this but in a much more satisfying way. Hints are dropped that one of the main characters exhibits strong magical powers, and when they do arise in a conflict near the end of the book, it lends a hint of the epic to the conflict; a character that would otherwise have been powerless in this situation suddenly becomes powerful enough to get what he needs.

Somehow, though, his books remain satisfying. Unlike many authors who do this, Brandon Sanderson does not have arbitrarily powerfully magic systems that work mysteriously. Most of his books are in fact dedicated to systematic magic systems, which are explained over time. When people do magically gain their super powers and save the world, therefore, they do so in ways that flow somewhat naturally from what you already know about the world. BSG’s ending feels unsatisfying because you have no clue how it happened, and while it was set up, it was never explained. Sanderson’s world have an abundance of explanation, and are often about the accumulation of knowledge. As such, when the last piece of knowledge snaps into place, you don’t feel like the ending was a deus ex machina; instead, you simply feel as though you’ve gotten the last piece of the puzzle, and can see it for what it is. In fact, throughout the Mistborn trilogy, the three times that the main character suddenly gains power are not explained fully until the very end of the trilogy; as such, the trilogy is far more satisfying as a trilogy than as a lone book.

If you want to read a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the experience, that will have you staying up all night to read ‘just one more chapter’, that will mix spectacular action scenes into a Sherlock Holmes style investigation into a mysterious world, and that will (for the most part satisfyingly) resolve all of the questions raised in the book, then head down to your local store and buy a book by Brandon Sanderson.

Personally, I’d recommend Way of Kings most, followed by the Mistborn trilogy (well, there’s a fourth book as well, so grab that one, too!), and then Elantris. This is not to say anything negative about Elantris at all. It is a fantastic book, but it was Sanderson’s debut novel, and his style has matured somewhat since. The Mistborn trilogy, after I had read it, bounced from friend to friend like a chain lighting spell, and is one of the few series’ I’ve ever re-read in the same year I originally read it. Way of Kings is a true masterpiece; the first book in an epic novel about three VERY different characters. I would not hesitate to label Way of Kings as the best book I read in 2010, had Towers of Midnight (Book 13 of The Wheel of Time), also written by Sanderson, also come out in 2010. All of his books have good worldbuilding, but Elantris was clearly written as a standalone novel, and Mistborn functions well as a trilogy (although it will ultimately end up as a trilogy of trilogies). But Way of Kings just reeks of epic, from the universe to the buildup to the characters. But don’t take my word for it; I have posted some short stories of his below

Here is the first thing I ever read by Brandon Sanderson: Firstborn

It’s not a particularly polished work. It’s a short story in contrast to his usual epics, and it’s sci-fi, something he rarely writes. And yet it has a certain panache (and you can see the hints of his unusual ending style).

Here is a rather funny short story Sanderson wrote in response to this prompt: I Hate Dragons

It’s silly but fun. That’s really all there is to say about it.

And I’ve never read this short story, but I certainly will now: Defending Elysium

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