Let’s Talk About Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere

So let’s see, what have we covered so far? Where to start with Brandon Sanderson’s many fantastic books, what kind of magic systems exist in each book and how they work… hmmmm… Ah, yes! The Cosmere!

I’ve been dropping hints about this topic along the way, but I didn’t want to delve too deeply, as I really thought it needed its own post. The Cosmere of Brandon Sanderson is a huge, overarching concept driving the narrative structure of his work, and while it may seem fairly straightforward on the surface, the deeper ramifications of these connections are going to be felt all across his books, especially going forward with the rest of his series.

So! Let’s get started. First question: What the heck is a Cosmere?

The origin of the Cosmere goes something like this: a long, long time ago, there was a singular entity that went by the name/title of Adonalsium. From what little we know, it was a celebrated force of life and creation. But something happened and Adonalsium was shattered into sixteen shards, each of them containing a single aspect of Adonalsium’s cosmological DNA and power, with both positive and negative aspects contained within.

Present at the Shattering of Adonalsium were sixteen individuals, who found the Shards left from the catastrophe and took them up, gaining immense power, and essentially ascending to godhood. With this newfound power, the Shardholders went off to do whatever it is that gods do.

With a consciousness to direct them, many of the Shards began to Invest their magic and influence in certain planets or peoples. Every Shard impacts a planet in a way that allows certain individuals to tap into its own distinct magical power. Sometimes that magic is Invested in the environment, as is the case with the Tears of Edgli in Warbreaker or the highstorms that come roaring through Roshar in The Stormlight Archive series; other times, the power is actually present within the individual, and they simply need fuel to activate it (i.e. burning metal in Mistborn).

The Cosmere is Sanderson’s fictional universe, far larger than just a planet or two; it encompasses solar systems and even galaxies. It’s entirely set apart from Earth, so any books or stories Sanderson sets on any version of Earth, (his Reckoners series, the Rithmatist series, etc.), have nothing to do with the Cosmere.

On a purely cosmological level, this setting is a huge playground, full of potential, where characters from different books can, have, and will end up meeting and interacting with each other across the stars. All of the Cosmere books are set amidst the various planets and systems and galaxies, and through various methods, there have already been some interplanetary crossover between certain characters. As Sanderson continues this epic story, those connections are only going to increase, leading to some interesting results.

On a slightly more abstract note, it’s also important to note that there are three different realms of existence in the Cosmere: the Physical Realm, the Cognitive Realm, and the Spiritual Realm. All things possess an aspect in each realm; Physical is the world you stand on now, Cognitive is the realm of thought and intentionality, and may be a method to allow travel between planets (accounting for some of the aforementioned inter-narrative meet-ups), and Spiritual has only been hinted at, but it seems to be, of course, some sort of afterlife. Not much is known about these realms currently, but as Sanderson’s characters learn more and more, they could hold the key to some very interesting opportunities.

So, we have various god-like beings tinkering around with the fundamental forces of the Cosmere for their own ends and curiosities. That all sounds well and good, except there is a caveat, as there always must be: the longer a person holds a Shard, the more that Shard’s influence comes to bear. The person who holds the Shard of Ruin was said to be a good man before taking it up, but after so many millennia, he literally became Ruin, the singular aspect of it driving him to assume the full mantle of destruction, cruelty, and pain. So while this influence is welcome in such Shards as Preservation, Honor, and Cultivation, it can lead to disastrous results in Shards that exert a more negative or destructive influence.

Whoa, that sounds intriguing. But this is a lot of information. What’s the actual story here?

Ah, you’re right! To pick up the story so far: when Adonalsium was shattered, and broke into sixteen Shards, the sixteen people present at the Shattering took up these Shards, one each, and found their way to different planets. They then set about doing what they felt compelled to do: make life, tinker with magic, and explore their new abilities.

Except, remember that caveat above, about how the longer a person holds their Shard, the more the Shard starts to override their personality, until they’re essentially transformed into that Shard? Well, then let me introduce you to a charming fellow by the name of Odium, whose Shard is basically an overwhelming hatred and disgust of pretty much everyone and everything. Consumed by the intense hatred of his Shard, Odium decided that there could be no other Shards, and instead of taking them for himself (which would change his personality and the influence of his own Shard), he simply decided to destroy the others.

I’ll not recount all the details for fear of spoilers, but needless to say, Odium has been somewhat successful in his relentless hatred and pursuit of war in the Cosmere. While not much is known about him, he has only just begun to rear his hateful head in The Stormlight Archive, and I can only assume we’ll get to know him as he was before taking up his Shard, as well as his motivations and his fall, as the story of the Cosmere coalesces.

But wait! Before you think all is lost against this enormous, cosmic force of hatred, you should know that hope prevails. There’s someone out there who understands what’s going on, and is actively working against Odium: a strange, witty, beguiling, and powerful man by the name of Hoid.

Appearing in incredibly subtle roles throughout Sanderson’s earlier books, Hoid is slowly coming into the spotlight of the Cosmere. Not much is known about him, except that he can travel from planet to planet, has potentially more than one magic system he can Invest into, and is extremely old—he was at the Shattering of Adonalsium, though he holds no Shard. He knows what’s really going on in the Cosmere as well as the stakes involved, and is endeavoring to recruit the remaining Shards and Worldhoppers (other powerful magic users like him who can traverse between Shardworlds) to help him stop Odium. What his endgame is, though, no one is quite sure.

Dang, that sounds intense. So what else do I need to know in order to read these awesome books?

Well, I wrote about this earlier, but when it comes to the Cosmere stuff? Don’t worry about it too much. Sanderson wrote all of this into the deep bones of his stories, and for the novels that are out now, you honestly don’t need a working knowledge of the Cosmere.

As you progress, you’ll start seeing the clues and start learning more about it, but don’t feel like you can’t enjoy the books on their own merits, without scouring them for deeper meanings and connections. Sanderson specifically writes his novels to be accessible, and while someday in the future readers will need to have a greater awareness of and familiarity with the Cosmere, we haven’t reached that point quite yet!

So what happens next?

Well, who knows? (Except for Sanderson!) We, the readers, don’t know a whole lot for sure, but there are a bunch of great forums and websites and wikis that are working hard to piece together the clues we have, and there are some fascinating theories and brilliant bits of speculation to delve into as we await further books set in the Cosmere.

What we do know is that Odium continues to wage war against the rest of the Shards, Hoid is (seemingly) out to stop him, and in between we have other Shards, Worldhoppers, and magic users from every planet in Sanderson’s work who have been or will be affected in some way, and will ultimately have to pick a side: will they stand against Odium and his all-consuming hatred, or will some recognize themselves in him, and join his devastating war against life?

Only time, and Brandon Sanderson, will tell.

This article was originally published in July 2015.
Top image by K R Hart.

Martin Cahill is a publicist by day, a bartender by night, and a writer in between. When he’s not slinging words at Tor.com, he’s contributing to Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and blogging at his own website when the mood strikes him. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, you can find him on Twitter @McflyCahill90; tweet him about how barrel-aging beers are kick-ass, tips on how to properly mourn Parks and Rec, and if you have any idea on what he should read next, and you’ll be sure to become fast friends.

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