Brandon Sanderson: The Next Big Thing?

8 Jun

These are interesting, and in many ways perilous, times for the fantasy genre. The last decade or so has seen the passing of many of the biggest names in fantasy fiction: David Gemmell, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Holdstock, Robert Jordan and Poul Anderson. At the same time, many of the most popular fantasy series have either ended or are approaching their conclusions: The Deverry Sequence, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and even Harry Potter. It is strange to note that, at a time when it is seemingly harder than ever before for new fantasy authors to get published, there actually seem to be fewer bestselling sagas out there for an increasingly bereft audience of readers to follow. Now more than ever beleaguered fantasy fans are crying out for a new name in the field, an inheritor of the likes of Robert Jordan and George R R Martin. In any discussion on this subject, there is one name that keeps on coming up again and again: Brandon Sanderson. In many ways Sanderson is more than just the ‘next big thing’, because he has already achieved a level of success and popularity (not always the same thing) which other authors can only dream of. His debut Mistborn novels have been critically lauded, his work in completing The Wheel of Time saga after Jordan’s death has been universally praised and his latest series, The Stormlight Archive, already looks to be the defining fantasy sequence of this decade. The question that has to be asked is whether Sanderson really is as good as his publishers and fans would have the rest of us believe.

Let me get this out of the way first. I have nothing but respect for any fantasy author who gets published today, especially one that has had the success that Sanderson has had in a relatively short space of time. I am also always going to be grateful to Sanderson for doing the seemingly impossible and stepping into the breach to complete the Wheel of Time series in an extremely competent manner following Jordan’s death. Despite this, I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of Sanderson’s writing. In my view, if you are a fantasy novelist evoking another time and place in your work then your writing, especially in terms of dialogue, should reflect this. That’s why, whenever I read a Sanderson novel and come across modern slang, colloquialisms or anything else that does not belong in a fantasy setting, I cringe inwardly. Of course, this view is by no means universal and I know that there are plenty of readers who prefer Sanderson’s more modern approach to the antiquated style of Tolkien and his many disciples and imitators. Also, as you will have noted, I still read Sanderson’s novels despite this jarring tone and that says something for his other skills as a writer. There are few novelists in any genre who can compare to Sanderson when it comes to elaborate, original action sequences – take the scenes involving the assassin Szeth in The Way of Kings, for example, or any one of the Wolf Dream battles between Perrin and Slayer in Towers of Midnight. Sanderson is a profoundly visual writer and in this sense he is perhaps a perfect author for the modern age, one whose novels you can easily imagine translating to the silver screen.

So why am I not a fan? Let’s look at Sanderson’s most successful solo work as a writer, The Way of Kings, first book of the projected 10-volume series, The Stormlight Archive. Set on Roshar, a world of stone and storms, The Way of Kings is the result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building on the part of Sanderson. The novel brims over with interesting and original ideas. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain of Roshar so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Mystical swords and suits of armour called Shardblades and Shardplate transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Stormlight and crystals were once used to perform feats of superhuman martial prowess and, after thousands of years, it appears that the secrets of such arts are being rediscovered. All of this should in theory make The Stormlight Archive the next great fantasy series but the trouble is that, for me, there are a number of fundamental problems with the start of Sanderson’s magnum opus. For one thing it is massively uneven. Fast, clever bits are mixed with boring, long winded pieces of text. I understand from Sanderson’s homepage that he wrote this book many years ago, and has since dusted it off and rewritten parts. It shows: Sanderson the skilled, experienced writer is in there but he is also mixed with Sanderson the teenaged fantasy geek and Sanderson the creative writing student. Which leads me to another criticism which may be no fault of Sanderson’s: The Way of Kings is appallingly edited.

I read The Way of Kings after coming across Sanderson’s Mistborn and Wheel of Time novels. I was therefore shocked that the same author who had written those fast-paced, incident-filled books, should have also penned a 1,000 page novel where, for hundreds of pages at a time, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS. After an impressive first couple of chapters, which do a decent job of hooking you in and getting you to buy the novel in the first place, the rest of the book is so slow that it is almost impossible to maintain interest. As if that were not bad enough, and again I accept that this may not entirely be Sanderson’s fault, I have yet to come across an edition of The Way of Kings which is not loaded with typos (again, editors take note!). These overarching concerns only serve to detract attention from a number of far more serious issues with the novel. Sanderson switches between characters in every single chapter, which can be frustrating and jarring if not done properly. Both Jordan and Martin do this in their books as well, of course, but both those writers use this technique in a much more logical way than Sanderson, for example, to complete a mini story arc, to introduce an important new character or in some other way to move the story forward. Sanderson, on the other hand, fills his book with numerous flashbacks from a character’s past interwoven in an almost random order, many side-characters, flashbacks from the world’s past, and ‘interlude’ sections filled with a few chapters of throwaway characters who are instantly forgettable and never reappear again.

Worse, The Way of Kings has a number of wooden main characters and the fragmented structure does nothing to help the reader identify with them. Most fantasy writers change enough of their worlds to render them fantastic, but I cannot help feeling that in this novel Sanderson has gone slightly overboard in remaking everything from the physiology of the flora and fauna, to the way the natural forces work and even the manner in which the humans behave and interact. Given the other weaknesses in the novel, this level of detail only serves to smother Sanderson’s already thinly-sketched characters. Without sympathetic characters it becomes very hard to care during the battle scenes, which The Way of Kings certainly has no shortage of – at numerous points in the book you actually feel as if you have been pummelled by a Shardblade yourself. A number of other commentators have said that in many ways The Way of Kings feels overly derivative, even of Sanderson’s own other novels. The prologue, for example, hearkens back to Mistborn, as does the magic system and the concept of strict social hierarchies, all of which are described in laborious detail (Sanderson does have over a thousand pages to fill after all!). The fact that Sanderson actually teaches creative writing is alarming if this means that a whole generation of new fantasy authors aping his style is about to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting reading public. As the old saying goes, I have a bad feeling about this…

Apologies if the above sounds unduly negative (especially in the unlikely event that you are reading this Mr Sanderson!). I have perhaps let my frustration get the better of me because I do genuinely feel that Brandon Sanderson has so much more to offer the fantasy genre. His work is full of ideas and when he does write well, he writes very very well. As stated above, I cannot help feeling that Sanderson has been let down at times by his publishers and editors. There is no doubt that vast sections of The Way of Kings could have been cut out or trimmed down and that the novel could perhaps have worked far better at half or even a third of the length. Another possibility is that Sanderson has just been working too hard over the last few years – producing the Mistborn series, the last three Wheel of Time novels and The Way of Kings all at the same time is surely too much to ask of any writer, no matter how talented. I really feel that Sanderson should take his time over the next instalment of The Stormlight Archive, concentrating on his strengths and not being afraid to ask for constructive criticism from people whom he trusts. I’m sure that his future novels, and the fantasy field as a whole, will be all the stronger for that.

19 Responses to “Brandon Sanderson: The Next Big Thing?”

  1. Eric Storch June 8, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    I agree with you about Sanderson. The only books of his that I enjoyed were the Mistborn books. All of the others just left me feeling kind of bored. (I’m not counting the “Wheel of Time” books)

    Unique worlds and fancy magic systems are all well and good, but if you don’t move the story, I’m not coming back for book two.

  2. Diane Tibert June 8, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Great over-view of this author. I haven’t heard of Sanderson before this. Like you, I get lost in long stretches of reading where nothing happens. I once read a book (actually didn’t finish it because of the nothingness) where nothing happened in 93 pages (where I stopped reading). The description of one card took three pages, and provides everyone’s point of view. It became a labout just to read it.

  3. Teegan Purrington June 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    I have been reading Brandon Sanderson’s work since his debut of Elantris, and I have to say I am a big fan of his work not necessarily because of his writing style (though I do enjoy that as well) but because of his ideas. At that time I had reached a point where every fantasy book I read felt the same, and his somewhat strange fantasy was refreshing. Perhaps I was just not well-read enough, but I was intrigued. When The Way of Kings came out, I consumed it within a week.

    You bring up several good points. I did find the flashbacks to be a little jarring, and more than once I wondered why they were there at all. It took me a long time to see any link between any of the character viewpoints, which was a little frustrating at times, though I did enjoy the character arcs as separate entities. I didn’t find stretches to be boring, but I suppose that’s really a matter of what you find interesting in a novel. Things were happening, but probably not quickly enough to make a thousand-some page book very active. I get a feeling that things are being set up in this book, and I hope that things will start moving quicker in the following books.

    It will be interesting to see how his writing craft develops and improves (we can only hope, anyway), and what he has to offer the fantasy genre in the years to come. Great post!

    • ashsilverlock June 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      Thanks, I hope that things speed up in the next books too!

  4. Peter Ahlstrom (@PeterAhlstrom) June 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Have you read The Alloy of Law? It might be more your style. In some ways it’s the anti-Way of Kings as far as pacing; the last 2/3 of the book takes place in a day and a half.

    Brandon likes to write many different types of books. This wasn’t so obvious in the past (unless you’ve read his Alcatraz books), but it will be in the future. (Disclaimer: I work for him.)

    • ashsilverlock June 9, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

      Thanks, I hadn’t read it but, since I like to keep an open mind, I’ll definitely look it up!

  5. Laura Lee Anderson June 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Look it’s a meme! Which memes… you post a little bit of your current WIP. So go here. 🙂

  6. Janet Sketchley June 10, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    The Way of Kings is in my to-read pile. Thanks for the warning that it may need some perseverance. Interesting insight that the troubles may come from fixing up portions of an earlier draft.

    I thought the Mistborn series was brilliantly plotted, if skirting the edges of too dark for me in places. I appreciate the depth Brandon Sanderson puts into his world-building, and I love the humour. The Alloy of Law is my favourite so far, because of the humour and the action. Warbreaker was satisfying too.

  7. reflectionsinapuddle June 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Another great review that I can’t help but agree with! I read the first book of the Mistborn series, and even despite its obvious flaws and a system of magic that bore me to no end, I thought it was a great story. Then I got the Way of Kings… Good thing it was a library book. I read a quarter of the book and gave up for the reasons that you so eloquently stated in your post – nothing happens for a while, boring chapters, over the top magic tricks whose logic is hard to remember. When he got back to Szeth or whatever that assassin’s name was, I thought who the heck is this guy?! I totally forgot about him and had to go back to the beginning, and this is when I knew it was time to throw in the towel. I am also a bit concerned that Sanderson teaches fiction writing – his own writing didn’t strike me as being up to par for a writing guru. Having said that, I still want to read his books from the Wheel of Time series. I actually got stuck on book seven – it got utterly boring. I wonder if I have to read those books in between the seventh Jordan’s book and the Sanderson’s two of the series.

    • Janet Sketchley June 10, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

      I thought the Mistborn system of magic was really well thought-out, and it worked for me as a reader. That’s one of the things I like about Brandon Sanderson’s work: he puts so much detail into creating the magic, faiths and philosophies.

      • reflectionsinapuddle June 11, 2012 at 2:25 am #

        Sure, it’s always nice to see a well thought out plan behind any book. Elaborate systems of magic are certainly preferred to the magic that can’t be explained or simply is not explained. However, I still find Sanderson’s system distracting. I recently finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and it was such smooth sailing (reading) I hardly noticed how I’d arrived at the end of the book. Of course, Gaiman is a Master and it’s probably not fair to use his work as a touchstone, because the comparison will always be in Gaiman’s favour. But again, it’s just my opinion. I’ve been wrong before. 🙂

  8. quix689 June 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading your overview of Brandon Sanderson. I’ve read a lot of book reviews, but none of them have gone into as much depth as this one.

    I also wanted to tell you that I’m nominating you for the Booker Award. You can check out my post here if you want more details:

    Just wanted to say that I like your blog. 🙂

  9. azariahkribbs June 19, 2012 at 2:06 am #

    Good, thoughtful review, and mentions some of the problems common to a lot of the genre these days.

  10. Thomas Cotterill June 20, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I share your views on the use of modern words in fantasy novels. It really does grate and can spoil an otherwise captivating scene. Perhaps it’s not so much a lack of editing as a failure on the part of young editors to spot modernisms when they see them. In other words, publishers are not setting the right hounds to the scent.

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