Monday 14 June 2010

How I Lost My Brandon Sanderson Virginity

Brandon Sanderson is a name that's been gaining traction in fantasy circles for years now, like a pebble let loose down a slope quilted in soft snow: the further he's travelled, the bigger he's gotten. Exponentially so. He's accumulated such staggering momentum going from Elantris in 2005 through to Warbreaker and the much ballyhooed-about Mistborn trilogy... and it wouldn't do to forget his contribution to the last movements of The Wheel of Time, would it? In terms of awareness - and no doubt sales - that latter alone has seen Sanderson accelerate from mach five to faster than light in such a short space of time that he has to be the envy of every gradually rising genre author on the face of the planet.

Now I tend to read all the big genre releases - just to keep up with the scene, such as it is. But... I really don't care for The Wheel of Time. I'm sorry, guys; nothing the late and oft-lamented Robert Jordan wrote in his lifetime spoke to me at all. And though I'm more interested in the series now that Sanderson has taken the reins than I ever have been before, I'm not one to jump into a multi-volume epic fantasy on book twelve, nor can I foresee an occasion when I have the time to catch up on the multitude of doorstoppers before it, so I passed on The Gathering Storm, as I'll skip Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light. I mean no slight on either author in so doing, but The Wheel of Time just isn't for me.

Sanderson's original work, however, is another thing entirely, though I'll 'fess up here and now: despite owning a complete set of the beautifully rejacketed Mistborn trilogy, he's another of the long list of prolific fantasy authors I've somehow managed to miss. Courtesy of #bookfail, a new feature I'm working on for The Speculative Scotsman about the gaping holes in my own experience of genre fiction, you'll soon have the opportunity to learn which other speculative greats I am ignorant of. George R. R. Martin, anyone? Richard Morgan?

But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Because over the weekend, I made a move towards remedying one such glaring oversight: with the generous excerpt of The Way of Kings posted on - the equivalent of 50 pages in length - I finally popped my Brandon Sanderson cherry. You'll know about this promotional blitz already, I'm sure. Aidan covered it on A Dribble of Ink; as did Patrick, Werthead and everyone's favourite albino carebear, along with near enough every other blogger. And don't think I wouldn't have too, had it not been for Mark Charan Newton week.

As is, I'm coming late to the party, but I'm coming armed to the teeth. See, I've actually read the excerpt - and this, I would add, isn't something I usually do. The sheer frustration of starting a story via such a thing and then having to wait months to read the rest of it usually wins out, in my case. But I'm told there's a galley of The Way of Kings winging its way to me as I write this, and so I thought, what the hell, and dug in.
And it's a curious thing, this excerpt. It's taken from the very beginning of the book - indeed, from the very beginning of a series that Sanderson has said could last for ten volumes - and it's a huge book at that, clocking in at just shy of 400,000 words. Suffice it say, then, that it's all about introductions. In the prelude to The Stormlight Archive, we meet Kalak, one of ten immortal men caught in a seemingly endless cycle of death and destruction. In the aftermath of an horrendous battle with a thunderclast, an "enormous stone beast... with unnaturally long limbs that sprouted from granite shoulder," another of the immortals informs Kalak that they have decided to end the centuries-old Oathpact that binds them together. They go on their way, vowing not to seek one another out...

And from prelude to prologue, set 4500 years later. In To Kill, Sanderson introduces us to Szeth, a Truthless, which is to say an assassin, tasked by the Parshendi with the murder of Gavilar, the Alethi King. There's talk of stormlight, shardblades, magic, culture and uprising, and then there's a huge fight during which gravity takes a backseat.

In the three brief chapters which follow, three more narrators: Cenn, an anxious and inexperienced new recruit caught in a brutal border skirmish; Kaladin, Cenn's former commander, now a particularly dangerous slave with designs on his freedom; and Shallan, the last hope of a once-great family, who hopes to become the ward of a heretic Princess.

It's a lot to take in, all told, and without the context of what comes after, I fatigued a little each time Sanderson introduced a new perspective to the narrative. And yet each of the tale-tellers holds their own. Each serves to illuminate a different aspect of the world of The Stormlight Archive, and though, come to that, there's a fair amount of worldbuilding, Sanderson filters it well. Shallan's arrival in Kharbranth, after following in the wake of the Princess for six months, is as good a reason as any to show off the so-called City of Bells, just as Cenn's recruitment is an ideal means to introduce the reader to the wars which rage to this day.

And there's nary a lull in the action. From the prelude through to the first chapter, there's no short supply of fights and flights, adeptly told and brutal in their way without ever erring on the war-porn that's come to be so prevalent in modern fantasy - Sanderson even dispatches a major character in that time, though I won't say who. Kaladin and Shallan's chapters, meanwhile, are less literally action-packed, but even in these sequences there's movement, a sense of purposefulness that keep you interested. And hardly a page goes by without Sanderson introduction one fascinating new aspect of his world or another: from sprens, tiny creatures that are essentially externalisations of elements and emotions, as the daemons were to the soul in His Dark Materials, to marble-skinned parshmen and the aforementioned thunderclasts, the flora and fauna of The Stormlight Archive appear by all accounts rich, detailed, and moreover, intriguing.

The word on the street is that Tor will make more excerpts from The Way of Kings available as we close in on the release date in late August, and were it not for the ARC I have on the way - you do not need to tell me how lucky I am, incidentally - you could be sure I'd read them as and when they appear. This excerpt mightn't have been the best introduction to the work of Brandon Sanderson, what with all the (mostly necessary) scene-setting and the lack of any further context against which to measure the (somewhat overwhelming) cast of characters introduced herein, but I can say with certainly that I'm desperate to read more of The Way of Kings.

And isn't that exactly what excerpts such as this are supposed to achieve?


  1. To go along with the somewhat innuendotacular title of this post:

    "You settled for just the tip?"

  2. Above comment sort of lost me...

    Anyway, it is interesting to see what a virgin's take is on Sanderson. I came into him myself with Warbreaker, which I do not consider his best.

    Mistborn I enjoyed and I have yet to dig into elantris...

    I am excited to see what "Sanderson's Wheel of Time" is like. WoK was also compared to the Lord of the Rings in the Tor blurb I think.