Friday, February 26, 2021

A walk through the world of Brandon Sanderson


This quote, from Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy "The Way of Kings" nearly perfectly connects my real world situation, as a solitary pilgrim on foot, with Sanderson's imagined epic Fantasy universe.

King Nohadon records that he walked more than a thousand miles from his presumed capital of Abamabar to the sacred city of Urithiru without companions and not revealing his identity.  He could have made the trip in an hour by 'Oathgate,' but his quest was about the journey, about getting to know the nature of his world, its people, and the land—to experience the grit and suffering of ordinary lives so that he could more wisely rule.

Nohadon was not just a great monarch; he was a sage and a pathfinder.  His published collection of forty parables, bearing the title that Sanderson chose for his novel, had survived 4,500 years through a period of recovery and reconstruction following an Armageddon-like war on the planet Roshar.  Most knowledge from the time before that apocalypse had been lost.  So Nohandon's book contained much of the surviving wisdom.

Nohadon ruled during the Age of Heralds, when Ishar, greatest among them, a human made immortal by the 'Almighty', organized the Knights Radiant to face the enemy species called Voidbringers, who call themselves the Singers.

Thing is ... the Singers are Roshar's native species.  Humans invaded here after destroying their home planet of Ashyn several thousand years before the time of Nohadon.  And of course, they then set about conquering the planet and enslaving the native population.

In the present day setting for the novel, all Singers had become subservient and nearly mute.  All except for a small band of free peoples called the Listeners, who live deep in a bleak region called the Shattered Plains.

The Listeners did not remember that humans existed.  The humans thought that all Singers had been fully subdued.  But now, after 4500 years of 'silence', the evil power of the god 'Odium' stirs again.  The Listeners are taking 'warform' and discussing re-conquering their world; and among humans, rumors are being whispered that the Knights Radiant may be returning ...

On the Shattered Plains, with a 'Highstorm' approaching, the human aristocrat warrior Dalinar Kholin faces off against Eshonai, leader of the tribe of Listeners. Work copyright by and Michael Whalen.

"Way of Kings," published in 2010, is Brandon Sanderson's signature work, and the one for which he should be remembered.  The key to Sanderson's writing style is character point-of-view.  There is no absolute good or evil, and each character sees the world differently.  The reader is not made privy to the big picture, only what the characters know; and nobody seems to remember much or care much about the underlying mythopoeia, its magic powers, its gods, its hidden realms.  This is, for me, both a blessing and a curse.  But more about that later.

The cover art for the United States release, shown above, is a master-work in itself, from the artist Michael Whelan.  It features the geography of the Shattered Plains, and the epic meteorology—a phenomenon called the 'Highstorm' that is far beyond a simple thunderstorm.  It contains a spirit, called the Stormfather.  It both ravages the planet as it rakes across the land every few days, and restores the planet's pseudo-physical energy source, called Stormlight. 

"Way of Kings" was Sanderson's first novel in the Stormlight Archive series.  His plan is for ten books in this series and as many as 35 (possibly revised to 31 recently) set in his mythical universe called the Cosmere.  So far, he's written four Stormlight Archive books, the latest of which was just released in November 2020.

The books were recommended to me by my daughter and future son-in-law.  I just spent the last couple months reading all four.

So here's the thing.  These books average 400,000+ words apiece (close to 1300 pages).  No author can give 30+ books of that size the craftsmanship that they need.  I strongly recommend "Way of Kings" because it is Sanderson's Magnum Opus—the book he always wanted to write and the one that he spent more than a decade perfecting.  He originally finished it in 2002 before he had any books published. In that original version, his hero, Katahdin [who he misspells as 'Kaladin'], was an aspiring knight.  After he finished writing the first of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books, twelfth in the overall series, which he was asked to complete posthumously, he then returned to "Way of Kings" with a new understanding of Jordan's strength in presenting a world from various character points of view, and rewrote it from scratch, giving Katahdin a far more interesting character arc [though he continues to misspell the name].

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the epitome of an author filling pages to sell books.  Read his first couple of books in that series, and maybe Sanderson's last three, but run, don't walk, away from the ones in the middle.

But I digress.  Sanderson's second book in the Stormlight Archive series, "Words of Radiance," came out in 2014.  I found it also to be great fun.  It was the one that sold best, vaulting to a NYT bestseller almost immediately based on the reception of "Way of Kings".  But "Words of Radiance" begins to show signs of hasty writing and worse, of writing character studies using what I call 'Board Meeting' scenes to fill pages rather than advance the plot.  In the third novel, "Oathbringer" the stuff I consider filler and fluff overwhelmed the story, seriously bogging it down, and I would not recommend it.  "Rhythm of War", the fourth book, is a little better, with some action and interesting plot twists mixed in with the board meetings, and it has a decent climax; but it suffers most from the curse of 'hasty' plotting and writing.  (In the interest of keeping this post reasonably tidy, I'm not offering any supporting detail here.)  Sanderson is no longer just an author sitting at a keyboard.  He has become a novel manufacturing industry.

My recommendation, and this is advice I am now going to begin taking myself, is to seek out the one or two books that made an author famous and read only those.  They are the best because they are the stories that the author really slaved over, agonized over, took pains to perfect.  It is writing that managed to overcome the overwhelming odds against an unknown author getting published, and then to break out of the crowd even among those titles that publishers took a chance on.

Sanderson has accumulated a huge fan base who will now consume everything he writes; and to his credit, he is producing good stories with interesting characters.  And he is keeping publisher deadlines.  He's a hard worker and has that grand vision to produce perhaps the largest unified collection of works ever set in a single imagined universe.

Good on him.  But for me, as a choosy consumer, there are other brilliant talents whose stories and writing style are just as worthy if not more so; and my reading time is limited.  I've chosen not to read any more of Sanderson's works, and I've now moved on to Patrick Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind" also on the recommendation of my daughter and her fiancée.  From there, I'll move on to seek out breakthrough Sci-Fi and Fantasy works from other new shining stars.

Rothfuss, by the way, is apparently the polar opposite of Sanderson in terms of productivity.  Published in 2007, "Name of the Wind" was envisioned as a trilogy, and the second installment was released in 2011; but his editor/publisher Betsy Wolheim is pissed.  She doesn't think he's written anything since 2014, and has not seen a word of the third book ten years on.  It seems to me that Rothfuss has been distracted by his fame, much as, I believe, George R.R. Martin is.

Okay, so now, lastly, I want to spend a little time examining the value of Sanderson's writing technique, using limited character points of view (POV), which, crucially, he uses to justify withholding big picture information that other characters (non-POV characters) know.  Even when he writes from the POV of his most knowledgeable characters (notably the 'worldhopper' Hoid, known as Wit on Roshar), he conveniently makes them 'insane' or deliberately enigmatic.  The reader gets manipulated like a puppet on a string.  And I deeply dislike being manipulated.  It's a control thing.  The reader discovers the world only as the author chooses to reveal it.  That's a 'DUH' kind of statement, but when I, as reader, keep getting bludgeoned by the author's obvious evasiveness, rather than feeling like the plot is flowing naturally, then I rebel.  At its best, this writing strategy as applied in the first book, "Way of Kings", feels fresh, like we are discovering the ways of the world as the characters discover them.  At its worst, in the many manifestations of politics-oriented and/or power-juggling board meetings, I feel disrespected as a reader.  I'm left hanging, with unspoken and unfathomable character relationships and motivations.  I'm confused and bewildered by an endless parade of new powers, new rules of magic, and newly revealed beings/spirits, all of which seem ad hoc, only partially explained, deliberately obfuscated, or just hinted at, until I'm left wondering whether it's worth muddling on.

I'll give one basic example - the origin story.  Sanderson's world-building is meticulous, unrivaled in its variety and detail; but the depth of his universe is far weaker than its breadth.  The underlying creation story is vague and vaguer.  The world supposedly began with a thing called Adonalsium, which could be a person, a force, or something else.  Nobody knows.  Strangely, none of the religious thinkers and scholars that Sanderson depicts have anything useful to say about it ( ... really?).  Adonalsium apparently interacts with the universe through a set of four primal commands, called Dawnshards, which must be invoked by a command ('abra-cadabra') and with intent - i.e. to accomplish a task ... like, say, the Creation.  What are these four commands?  Well, only one has even been identified.  The one called 'Change'.  There is no information in the Sanderson officially maintained encyclopedia, regarding the other three ... or rather, the information declares that they are unknown.

That world, as its inhabitants experience it, was the result of Adonalsium being attacked by a mob of mortals and shattered, using those Dawnshards, into sixteen 'Shards,' each with a portion of the original power.  Sixteen people from the mob adopted/absorbed those powers and became the first immortal 'Vessels' of the powers; and all the conflict and intrigue that Sanderson writes about can be traced back to the various plots and schemes of these Vessels and their inherent Shard powers, each of which is different.  Four of the original sixteen Shards have been killed (splintered), two have combined into a hybrid within one person, and only three (including one of the dead ones) have any relevance at all (so far) in the realm of the Stormlight Archive series.  Two others have some sway on other worlds, four others are named but without supplying anything other than the name, and two have not even been named, only hinted at in vague terms such as 'one that is hiding and just wants to survive' or one that may be related to Wisdom or Prudence.

Sanderson's stories are all about the power mongering and politics of interaction between the Shards, and the complex set of rules governing what powers their Vessels give to lesser creatures that the Shards create and manipulate, almost always for their own benefit.  The complexity is bewildering, to say the least.  It's great for the Sanderson devotee, not so much fun for a more casual reader.

Sanderson apparently does 'know' a lot more than he's revealing.  Okay, fine.  He's trying to sell books.  A three- (formerly seven-) book series called Dragonsteel, planned for far in the future, will be about the Shattering of Adonalsium, but that is not going to be released until he is finished with all ten of the Stormlight Archive books.  The next one, the fifth, is planned for a 2023 release.  By the time he gets around to writing Dragonsteel I'll be long dead.  What are the chances that he'll actually ever accomplish such a grand plan?  Honestly, I think it's a long shot.

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