Not many authors are quite as consistently prolific as Brandon Sanderson, and happily, he’s not showing any signs of slowing down any time soon! For those of you who might be curious about what all the fuss is about, I’ve put together this general introduction to his work. It covers a bit about Brandon himself, addresses the awesome fact that all of his epic fantasies are connected, and suggests some titles for first-time readers to start on…
Who is Brandon Sanderson?
Brandon Sanderson is a New York Times bestselling author, who has been published for ten years, but writing for a lot longer than that. Born in Nebraska, but currently residing in Utah, Sanderson wasn’t much of a bookworm as a child until he was given a copy of Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly by a favorite teacher. He’s been hooked on epic fantasy ever since. Even though he originally planned to study biochemistry in college, he gave himself over to his love of stories and switched to English, hoping to be a writer. After many years of writing whenever he could—at night, at work, whenever he had free time—Brandon sold his first novel and by May 2005, he was holding Elantris in his hands.
Following the success of Elantris, Brandon gained an even wider audience with the Mistborn trilogy and in 2007, Sanderson was catapulted into the spotlight when he was asked by Robert Jordan’s widow, Harriet McDougal, to take over The Wheel of Time series following the unfortunate passing of Robert Jordan. Over the next few years, Sanderson performed double duty, not only working vigorously on the finale to The Wheel of Time, but also producing fiction set in his own worlds, including The Way of Kings, the inaugural book of The Stormlight Archive series, which was published in 2010 and followed by its sequel, Words of Radiance, in 2014.
If that last bit sounds nuts, don’t worry, it’s standard. Sanderson is known for his incredible work ethic and furious pace—not only has he released full-length epic fantasy novels before, during, and after completing Robert Jordan’s iconic series, he’s also written a handful of middle-grade and YA novels, a multitude of short stories and novellas (one of which won the Hugo a few years ago), and still manages to find time to participate in the award-winning “Writing Excuses” podcast he started with Dan Wells and Howard Taylor, with Mary Robinette Kowal joining in the sixth season.
Sanderson manages to strike a fine balance in his work, providing the fun, magical, and epic fantasy adventures he loved growing up while simultaneously pushing those stories into new territory; finding ways to ask important questions about culture, character, religion, society, history, and more without sacrificing a breakneck, page-turning pace.
So where do I start?
Sanderson has put out a lot of books out and any number of them can act as a great gateway to his work! I, myself, was first introduced to him through his novel Warbreaker, released through his website for free. Brandon wanted to showcase his work for people online to see what would happen, and guess what? I went out and bought the first Mistborn book that same week.
I suppose it all depends on your preference. While Sanderson has a certain writing style, the flavor can vary per book, so here’s a quick guide to finding a starting point that’s right for you:
Mistborn – Do you enjoy seeing fantasy tropes turned on their head, love heist stories, and wish you could soar through massive cities like Spider-Man? Then try the Mistborn series! Set in a dying world, ruled by a sinister immortal emperor who hides a dark secret about the prophesied Hero of Ages, the series follows Vin, a young girl who joins up with a group of thieves, miscreants, and revolutionaries, on a mission to end the Final Empire once and for all, with plenty of metal magic, intrigue, guys with spikes for eyes, and adrenaline along the way…
Elantris – Are you looking for more of a classic fantasy read but with a twist? Elantris has a shining city, magical god-like beings, and a beautiful princess being sent off to marry a handsome prince. Oh wait, ha, oops. The shining city of Elantris has been quarantined, the magic that turned men and women into god-like beings has been poisoned, and the handsome prince is now cursed with that very magic, while his bride-to-be is abandoned on strange shores, wondering what the heck to do now. Symbol magic, big questions about life, philosophy, and religion, and float-y, glowing artificial intelligences soon follow.
Warbreaker – Looking for something along similar lines to Elantris? Well, give Warbreaker a shot! Set in a world where the magical energy of Breath can imbue a mortal with godlike abilities, a young princess is sent to marry the God-King of her neighboring, warring nation, and it’s up to her older sister to bring her back home safely, while avoiding the conspiracy against the crown. Incredibly deadly (yet naïve) talking swords, marble-sculpted immortal men and women, and a delightful conversation about sarcasm ensue.
Steelheart – Ah, so these options are interesting, but you’re not much of an epic fantasy person. That’s fine, we’re still friends, (I guess). Maybe Sanderson’s Young Adult novel Steelheart is more your thing? It’s set in our world, except years ago something exploded in the sky and stayed there, called “Calamity.” It gifted certain people on the world, dubbed “Epics,” with incredible superpowers. Except if you get powers, that’s basically confirmation that you’re a super evil person. When the worst Epic of all, Steelheart, kills David’s father, our young hero vows to find Steelheart’s special weakness and kill him. Questions of good and evil, cultural change, and some really, deliberately bad metaphors lay within.
Any one of these would be great book to start with for anyone interested in finding out what all the fuss is about. Of course, there’s also the aforementioned Way of Kings—which is brilliant and does so many cool things—but to paraphrase Brandon’s comments in a recent episode of “Writing Excuses,” The Way of Kings is the novel to read once you trust him. But if you’re the type of reader who likes an epic challenge, go right ahead!
What the heck is this Cosmere I keep hearing about?
Another good question! You’re good at these, these question things. Quite good. A Question Master, even. Put it on your resume.
Now, don’t panic, but all of Brandon’s epic fantasy novels are connected. This is a really neat thing that doesn’t impact your individual enjoyment of any one book, but is something that will only add to the reading experience itself.
So, without any spoilers, here’s what you need to know: Brandon’s epic fantasy novels take place in a same universe, known as the Cosmere. Across the many novels and worlds, there is a secret story playing out behind the scenes, as characters from one book suddenly pop up in others, with new sides and facets being revealed with every new story; ultimately, this story is something that will thread throughout every novel, and not just hide in the shadows as we move forward.
You absolutely do not need to be aware of this behind-the-scenes story in order to enjoy the novels. But if you pay close attention, you’ll recognize that one character from a different world cutting through a scene, or you’ll recognize a familiar name from another book, and so on. Brandon is playing the long game, and while eventually you’ll need to have some knowledge of the Cosmere to see the whole picture, right now, rest easy and enjoy the story.
But, if you do want to get to know the Cosmere, here are just a few tantalizing thoughts that may be of interest:
- There is a certain character that has shown up in every one of Brandon’s epic fantasy novels, and he’s not always helpful.
- Brandon is theorizing a universal system of how the various magic systems work in his universe, and it makes me so happy to wonder about it and the interplay of all the individual systems.
- This cosmic struggle has been going on for thousands of years, and getting a glimpse at events on such an vast chronological scale is, frankly, awesome.
- Look closely at the way his magic systems work in every book. Note the similarities, differences, and potential points of intersection. Interesting, eh?
So, Now What?
Go! Read! Enjoy!
Martin Cahill is glad you paid the price and read his essay. 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.