The Stormlight Archive

Words of Radiance and the Art of Creating Epic Fantasy

I can be reasonably certain that Dragon Prince, by Melanie Rawn, was the first thick fantasy book I read. For those who don’t know my story, I was not a reader in my youth—and so the thought of approaching something that huge was daunting to me. However, I was just coming off of the high of having discovered something beautiful and wonderful in this genre, and I was hungry for more. This book, with its gorgeous cover (thank you, Mr. Whelan) seemed like the best shot.

It didn’t let me down. Soon, I was reading everything thick I could find, from Tad Williams to Stephen Donaldson, and was therefore perfectly primed to read The Eye of the World when I discovered it. You might say I learned to swim by jumping into the deep end. I went from hundred-page middle grade novels directly into seven-hundred-page epics. But it was only in these pages that I found the depth, the imagination, and the powerful storytelling that I thirsted for.

Dragon Prince Melanie Rawn

If you can’t tell, I love epic fantasy. I have nothing against the shorter forms of fiction—indeed, I have a blast reading stories of all sizes. But epic fantasy holds that first and most important piece of my heart, as it was the genre that made me into a reader, and that in turn made me a writer. It is hard to define myself without epic fantasy.

So, I find myself in an odd place when the genre is mocked. Most of that mockery is good natured—the genre’s thick pagecounts and sometimes ponderous leanings do paint a large target. We comment about “doorstoppers,” warn people not to drop the novels around any small pets, and joke about authors being paid by the word. Some people call the books “fat fantasies with maps” as if to reduce everything the genre seeks to accomplish to the thing you often find on page one.

It’s not my intention to stop such mockery; as I said, it’s mostly good natured, and we in the genre have to be willing to laugh at ourselves. Oftentimes, what one person finds a book’s most compelling aspect (whether it be breakneck pacing or deep world-building) can be the very thing that drives another person away. If there were only one sort of book that people liked, the world would be a much sadder place overall.

However, after ten years in this business, I somewhat shockingly find myself to be one of the major voices for epic fantasy. I released the biggest (see, even I can’t resist the puns) fantasy book of the year last year, and will likely do so again this year. (Unless George or Pat unexpectedly slip their quarter onto the top of the arcade machine.)

So, I feel that it’s my place to talk a bit about the genre as a form, and explain a little of what I’m trying to do with it. Not because I feel the genre really needs to be defended—the number of people who enjoy epic fantasy indicates it is doing just fine without a defense—but because I think awesome things are happening in my genre right now, and I want to involve you all a little more in the behind the scenes.

 

An Evolving Genre

Assassin's Apprentice Robin Hobb

I’ve talked at length about my worry that epic fantasy seemed to hit a rut in the late ’90s and early 2000s, particularly in regards to what new authors were attempting. This isn’t to say that great stuff wasn’t coming out. (See Robin Hobb and Steven Erickson.) It just seems that—from my experience both with my own reader friends and the fans I meet at signings—a large number of readers jumped ship at that time. While their favorite authors, like George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan, were still producing great stories, it seemed like every new writer was trying to copy what had come before. It felt repetitive.

I’m sure I’m being reductionist here, and am failing to note some of the awesome things that happened during this era. But as a whole, I know that I myself felt a fatigue. As a fan and aspiring writer, I wrote a number of essays and editorials about the need for epic fantasy to move on, experiment more, and evolve. I felt, and still feel, that the things that define epic fantasy aren’t the specific races, locations, or familiar styles of magic—instead, the genre is about a deep sense of immersion and scope.

Fortunately, epic fantasy has evolved. It is evolving. In truth, it was evolving back then, it just wasn’t moving fast enough for some of us. If you look at what Pat Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and N.K. Jemisin are doing with the genre, you’ll find all kinds of cool things. Pat is experimenting with non-linear storytelling and use of prose as lyrics; Brent is making epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller; Nora is experimenting with voice, tone, and narrative flow in fascinating ways. They’re only a few of the ones doing great things with the genre.

These stores are very different from what came before, but they still feel right. I love where the genre is right now. I’m excited for what comes next. I’m trying my best to be part of that.

 

So Why Is It So Long?

Brandon Sanderson The Way of Kings Stormlight Archive

Interestingly, my essay has three prologues, as I’m almost to where I get to what I originally wanted to talk about.

Words of Radiance is, famously, the longest book that Tor can physically bind into one volume using their current bindery. By word count, it’s not actually the longest fantasy book in recent years—I think GRRM gets that crown. My book has a large number of art pieces, however, which increase the thickness pagecount wise.

A few weeks back I had a conversation with a gentleman who had run the numbers and determined that if Tor had split the Wheel of Time into 30 parts instead of 14, it would have made hundreds of millions more in revenue. It was a thought experiment on his part—he wasn’t suggesting the indiscriminate cutting of books—but it opened a discussion of something I get asked a lot.

Why don’t you just make your books shorter? At the size they are, they’re very inefficient to produce. I’m certainly capable of writing shorter works. Why not write these books shorter? Or why not split them? (Several countries already cut the Stormlight books into pieces when they translate them.)

The answer is simple. This is the piece of art I wanted to make.

The Stormlight Archive is intended as a love letter to the epic fantasy genre. I wrote the first version of The Way of Kings during a time when I wasn’t certain I’d ever sell a book, and when I was determined to write something that did everything I envisioned fantasy doing. I gave no thought to to market constraints, printing costs, or anything of that nature. The Way of Kings is, in a lot of ways, my most honest work.

It is what I always dreamed epic fantasy could be. Length is part of that, and so is the hardcover form—the big, lavish, art-filled hardcover. A big book doesn’t indicate quality—but if you find a big book that you love, then there is that much more of it to enjoy. Beyond that, I felt—and feel—there is an experience I can deliver in a work of this length that I could never deliver in something shorter, even if that’s just the same book divided up.

And so, I present to you Words of Radiance.

 

The Piece of Art I Wanted to Make

Brandon Sanderson Words of Radiance Stormlight Archive

Words of Radiance is a trilogy.

It’s not part of a trilogy. (I’ve said that Stormlight is ten books, set in two five book arcs.) It is a trilogy. By that I mean I plotted it as I would three books, with smaller arcs for each part and a larger arc for the entire trilogy. (Those break points are, by the way, after part two and after part three, with each of the three “books” being roughly 115,000 words long, 330 pages, or roughly the length of my novel Steelheart, or Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest.)  When you read the novel, you’re actually reading an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume to encourage you to see them as one whole, connected and intertwined, with a single powerful climax.

Words of Radiance is also a short story collection.

I’ve blogged about my goal for the interludes in these books. Between each section of Words of Radiance, you will find a handful of short stories from the viewpoints of side characters. “Lift,” one of these, has already been posted on Tor.com. There are many others of varying length. Each was plotted on its own, as a small piece of a whole, but also a stand-alone story. (The Eshonai interludes are the exception—like the Szeth interludes in the first book, they are intended as a novelette/novella that is parallel to the main novel.)

Words of Radiance is also an art book.

Many book series have beautiful “world of” books that include artwork from the world, with drawings and descriptions to add depth to the series. My original concept for the Stormlight Archive included sticking this into the novels themselves. Words of Radiance includes brand-new, full-color end pages, as well as around two dozen new pieces of interior art—all in-world drawings by characters or pieces of artwork from the setting itself.

My dream, my vision, for this series is to have each book combine short form stories, several novels, artistic renditions, and the longer form of a series all into a single volume of awesomeness.

I want to mix poetry, experimental shorts, classic fantasy archetypes, song, non-linear flashbacks, parallel stories, and depth of world-building. I want to push the idea of what it means to be an epic fantasy, even a novel, if I can.

I want people to feel good about dropping thirty bucks on a novel, since they know they’re actually buying five books in one. But most of all, I want to produce a beautiful hardcover fantasy novel like the ones I loved as a youth. Not the same. Something different, yet something that still feels right.

I feel grateful to Tor for being willing to go along with me on this. It turned out wonderfully. It is the book I always dreamed it could be.

But do avoid dropping it on any small pets.


Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris, The Mistborn Trilogy, The Way of Kings and its sequel Words of Radiance, and, with Robert Jordan, the New York Times bestselling The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light, the final volumes to the epic Wheel of Time.

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