Brandon Sanderson’s Arcanum Unbounded: A Non-Spoiler Review

Brandon Sanderson, the epic fantasy sensation known for putting out tomes thicker than some cookbooks, has now put out a collection of short fiction which is actually just as large as some of his novels. (I’ll give you a moment to let all that sink in.) All play aside though, Arcanum Unbounded represents a first in several capacities. First, this is the never-before-collected of short fiction that Sanderson has written across his story universe, The Cosmere, now all together in one beautifully bound space. Second, and of more excitement, this is the first time we as readers are getting a full glimpse into the wider universe of the Cosmere, complete with star charts, constellations, and planet/realmic notations, with plenty of revelations to keep even the most avid Sanderson fan happy.

All of the stories save one, which we’ll get into toward the end, have been published already in some capacity; either through anthologies, reprinted editions, small presses, gaming extras, or e-book exclusives. However, these Cosmere tales have never been produced in such a beautiful, elegant fashion before, and never all together. Here stands the side stories, the secret tales, and the quiet moments from Brandon’s epic universe. Sure, there’s more from Elantris and Mistborn, as well as excerpts from both the graphic novel and prose version of White Sand, but we can’t forget such originals as the Hugo Award-winning The Emperor’s Soul, “Sixth of the Dusk,” or, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell.” While pretty well-versed in Sanderson’s work, there were even a few stories here that I had not had a chance to read, so even though most of the contents had been previously available, Arcanum as a whole felt brand new. Each story new and old also comes with a brand new gorgeous illustration from Ben McSweeney, and endpapers by Stormlight Archive/Cosmere series illustrator, Isaac Stewart.

What will interest readers familiar with Sanderson’s work, aside from the new Stormlight Archive novella, are most certainly the new glimpses we get into the connective universe behind all these bits of short fiction: The Cosmere. Indeed, every section of the collection is broken down by the name of the Cosmere planetary system that story takes place within, as well as full-blown star charts, orbits, moons, any anomalies the system may have, as well as a full essay about the system written by our most scholarly and collegiate world-hopper, Khriss. There’s honestly not much I can say about these for fear of spoilers (although there’s an example here for the curious!) except to say that they’re wicked cool, beautifully illustrated, continue to reveal some small measure of Khriss’ character to us, and contain what is most likely, a ton of new information about the Cosmere for us all to deduce. I can say no more, except pay close attention, and don’t forget to check the book’s endpapers.

The biggest draw for the collection, and the story that should push you over the edge if you’re still not sure about picking it up, is the brand new Stormlight Archive novella “Edgedancer,” which picks up where the interludes in Words of Radiance left off, and brings us back to our favorite frictionless radiant Lift and her neurotic spren Wyndle, as they run from the responsibilities in Azir, and try to make their way in the bustling, in-the-ground city of Yeddaw (in the country of Tashikk). Sanderson has stated that “Edgedancer” was the perfect opportunity to explore Lift’s character, and to show more of her journey directly to the reader. Because when she next appears in the Stormlight Archive series, she will be far more advanced in her story than the last time we saw her. “Edgedancer,” in that sense, was a way of filling in the story gap before it became a gap!

While this review will stay spoiler-free, trust me when I say this new novella is worth the purchase alone. Lift, ornery, hungry, a little strange, but noble to a fault, is thrust headlong into a city she doesn’t understand, with abilities she’s still figuring out, and with her worrisome magical chaperone constantly fretting the entire time. Her story delights and worries at the same time, Sanderson effortlessly making you laugh, and then making you feel for her in the same moment. A contradictory kind of character, Lift is always on the verge of turning tail or giving it all up for something easier, and yet something always stops her, and makes her head into the fray. And when her time in Tashikk turns up a certain adversary of hers, she and Wyndle dive headfirst, hoping to stop something dreadful from happening. Sanderson not only reveals new aspects of Lift and Wyndle, but also the world, and the strange things that live there, and the odd way it can operate. While only hinted at here and there, Sanderson does what he does best here, in that he only gives glimpses and brief flashes of insight to other goings on in the world, before veering back to the main plot. And while it resolves in a satisfying way, there are certainly more questions than answers. But that’s okay. As long as we have Lift and Wyndle causing mayhem across Roshar like they do in “Edgedancer,” then I’m fine with that.

If you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson, Arcanum Unbounded is a no-brainer. The planetary maps, the new stories, the artwork, the essays, it’s all there, and will be sure to delight. And if you’re new to Sanderson and his sprawling epic, then this is the sure-fire way to get yourself into a cool, beautiful universe of magic, possibility, heroes, villains, and a deep, well-thought out story, a story which is now beginning to connect planet to planet. The Cosmere first arrived with the publication of Elantris, a little over ten years ago, and now it’s finally beginning to spill out and over, with the threads between planets and magic systems growing stronger with every new story, every new novel. Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere isn’t going anywhere; in fact, it’s only getting started. You’re not going to want to miss the fireworks when it finally gets going, and Arcanum Unbounded gets you in on the ground floor.

Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.

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