A Short Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere

Brandon Sanderson is a busy, busy man. Starting in the early 2000s, he’s been among fantasy’s most prolific and ambitious authors. How he does it is beyond me—he somehow writes long books in the middle of writing longer books, and while the quality does indeed vary (as we will soon see), he generally delivers pretty solid stories.

His most well-known work is a one-man shared universe known as the Cosmere. He has various series within this universe, each telling the story of a world that was born was a god named Adonalsium was shattered in an as-of-right-now unknown cosmic event. Each planet has a different type of magic system at play, based off its Investiture (essentially how the Shard of Adonalsium has influenced the world). Let’s investigate and rank each world from worst to best based on the stories about it that have been told, shall we?

7. Taldain—White SandThe cover of the second volume of White Sand, featuring Kenton in the foreground and several figures in differing attire surrounding him.

This was originally Sanderson’s first-ever full-length novel he wrote when he was young, and he has gone on record as saying that the draft has a load of problems. However, he was approached by Dynamite comics and asked if he had anything that could make for a good graphic novel series, and from there, his (very long) first novel was adapted into comic book form.

The setting of the series, Taldain, showed early on that he had a gift for world-building. Half of the planet is always in the sun’s light, while the other half is always in darkness. The comic takes place entirely on the light side of the planet, concerning the political fallout of all the Sand Mages (people who can manipulate Invested sand in powerful streams) being wiped out. Kenton is the lone survivor and must rebuild the order from the ground up while maneuvering the complex politics of Taldain. The problem is that he’s an extremely weak Sand Mage, capable of only channeling one stream at a time.

The series’ first volume starts off promising, with solid artwork and an introduction into the world and magic of Taldain. The problem is that it spins its wheels and focuses too much on politics for such a visual medium. That’s not to say that Sanderson’s politics are boring—it’s just that, while in book form, he can explain complex relationships with simple but dense prose. In comic book form, there isn’t much allowance for exposition, and as a result, the world-building and characterization suffer greatly for it.

The major conflict is that Kenton needs to win over the approval of some counsel to rebuild the Sand Mages, while also dodging the assassins of a religion that believes him to be a heretic. It sounds interesting, but the weak characterization and lack of really big stakes make this one a dud that started off pretty well. It builds to a finale that feels unfinished, which has me thinking that we haven’t actually seen the comic form of Sanderson’s original manuscript through to completion, even though it was originally supposed to be three volumes and the third one was released earlier this year. As it is, White Sand is the weakest Cosmere story.

6. First of the Sun—Sixth of the Dusk

The cover of Sixth of the Dusk, with the title and Brandon Sanderson's name featured prominently against a background of forests and mountains.

A novella that was published in some such anthology or another, and has since seen new life in Sanderson’s Cosmere short story collection Arcanum Unbounded, Sixth of the Dusk introduces a lot of cool ideas that go nowhere. Chief among them is the main character—turns out that odd title is actually the name of our protagonist, a young man who works as a Trapper on a swamp type world. This planet has no Investiture (meaning there is no Shard of Adonalsium tied to it), and therefore no magic.

Except for some reason, the natives, including Sixth, have a bizarre telepathic connection with the birds on the planet that lets them see their own potential corpses as a form of warning them of danger. For instance, if a spike trap sprung by a tripwire is ahead, he will see his own impaled corpse. It’s a super weird, unique idea that I loved, but the main problem is the plot.

Sixth meets a woman from a place he doesn’t know who warns him that her people are going to try and attack his people. It turns out that there are people who have come to the world and seek its resources (this is a potential but unconfirmed connection to a future story that has yet to be published). The problem is that when Sixth is with the girl, he sees his own corpses everywhere because she represents a great danger to him and his people. He has to decide if he trusts her (he ultimately does) and they go off to warn Sixth’s people and…

That’s it. It ends just as the potential inciting incident for a longer story happens. As I said above, there are some weird ideas at play here, which helps elevate it above White Sand but there is no resolution or climax or anything to get invested in because the ending is so abrupt.

5. Nalthis—WarbreakerThe cover of Warbreaker, which has a woman in a dress with glowing white hair reaching for a sword and breathing a rainbow out of her mouth.

One of Sanderson’s lighter novels, Warbreaker nonetheless touches on his favorite themes, including religion’s role in politics, ancient civilizations, and seeing the other side of a conflict. This one concerns the city of Hallandren, a place in eternal conflict with Idris, where our two heroines hail from. It turns out that Hallandren is lorded over by a man simply referred to as the God-King, and as a form of the peace treaty, the ruler of Idris sends his daughter Siri to become the God King’s concubine. Vivenna, his other daughter, follows because she was actually raised from birth for this very task. Many political revelations occur, and the city is shaken in a rather action-packed finale.

This planet’s magic system utilizes Breath, essentially a person’s well… personality or essence. The more Breath that one has, the stronger they are, with more and more Breath meaning they can perform more powerful actions, including healing the sick, among other things. Clothing, weirdly enough, is used as a weapon, since they can be imbued with Breath and manipulated by the bearer. Breath is used as a way to oppress the lower class, as well, with more Breath equaling more noble status. The problem is everyone is only born with one Breath, meaning that if someone has more than one, they’ve taken it from someone else, leaving that person an empty husk.

Warbreaker gets really good, with a frantic final act that has since become a Sanderson trademark. The problem is that it takes quite a while to get there. Sure, he takes the time to develop the characters (including the second funniest character in the Cosmere in the form of a man turned God named Lightsong who uses his perceived divinity to be a general nuisance), but this book needed some trimming. Additionally, without getting too specific, it seemingly breaks its own established rules of the magic system near the end, no doubt employing something that he is planning on setting up in a potential sequel.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that, as it stands, this book was mostly used as a way to introduce some characters who become important in one of his other series, in the first sign of crossovers we’ve gotten for this universe yet. I won’t say who or which series, but suffice it to say that, even though he does have a sequel planned, this first book while entertaining in its own way ends up feeling strangely disposable compared to some of the series I have yet to talk about.

4. Sel—Elantris and the novella The Emperor’s Soul

The cover of Elantris, which has a woman in formal wear and a man in red armor looking at a vast city

Elantris was Sanderson’s first-ever published book. I once heard it described as his “demo tape,” in that it has echoes of story elements he would come to perfect in later years. That is to say, intricate politics, a richly built world, unique magic (this time in the form of essentially drawing symbols in the air to do things), and an exploration of religion and dogma.

In many ways, this is a great book, but it’s also extremely clunky. It takes a long time to get anywhere, and while it does build to a nice finale, here it doesn’t feel as grand as his later books because the cast is, simply put, too large. The main characters, Saren, a princess sent as a means of diplomacy, Raoden, an exiled prince suffering from a strange affliction, and Hrathen, a zealot warlord who must convert or destroy the nation of Arelon before it’s destroyed, are all very well done, with Hrathen, in particular, being really interesting. There are simply too many side characters, though, and one struggles to care about them during the frantic finale.

Elantris is a solid debut novel, but far from his best. There’s a supplementary story in Arcanum Unbounded that is set during the novel’s climax that does little to excite, as well.

The reason this is ranked so high, though, is because of the novella The Emperor’s Soul, which also appears in Arcanum Unbounded. It takes place on Sel as well but uses a completely different and more interesting magic system, and is simply a fantastic story in its own right. It follows Shai, a person known as a Forger, who is captured because Forgery is seen as heretical. Forgery is the act of creating Stamps to replicate something, and Forgers love seeing how close to the real thing they can get. Shai is to be executed unless she meets a condition. The Rose Emperor has been rendered brain dead in an attempt on his life, and to maintain a front, she is tasked with creating a Stamp that is perfectly him. She must study his life, people who knew him, and more in order to create a perfect copy.

It’s a wonderful, self-contained story that both ties into the Cosmere as a whole and works entirely as a fantasy novella that asks some pretty big questions about our individual identities. It actually has me excited to see where he takes Sel next.

3. Threnody—Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell

The cover of Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, which features a woman with long hair wearing a cloak and holding a knife in front of her while glowing eyes lurk in the background

This was a novella originally published in an anthology about “dangerous women,” and boy, does it contain a doozy of a dangerous woman. It follows Silence, a middle-aged woman who runs a rest stop for travelers in a place called the Forests of Hell. They are named as such because they are filled with specters who will end you in most gruesome fashion if you

  1. Kindle a flame in the forest
  2. Shed blood in the forest
  3. Run at night in the forest

It turns out that Silence is actually a bounty hunter as well, and she stalks her prey at night through the Forests. The novella in question sees her going after some notorious highwaymen who have been terrorizing the locals. The novella wonderfully blends elements of Westerns, horror, and fantasy into one thrilling, dark story.

While this is an entirely satisfying tale on its own, it hints at much larger events about to occur. I want more of it.

2. Roshar—The Stormlight Archive

The cover of The Way of Kings,which features a man in resplendent armor holding a flag and large sword on a cliff, while a massive storm starts in the background

Remember when I said that Sanderson is one of the most prolific authors out there? Thus far, The Stormlight Archive has three books and one novella taking place between the second and third entries (with a fourth on the way next year). The kicker is that each main entry is over 1000 pages long. After the first book, The Way of Kings, whose mass market paperback is just shy of 1200, people thought he might ease up with the follow-up Words of Radiance. Instead, that book is 100 pages longer, and the third book is the longest of them all.

But the real kicker, the real thing to be jealous about is that each book is fantastic. The first two entries, despite their length, don’t waste words. Everything feels important (this continues in the third book for the most part, but there’s a section in the latter third that could have been edited down). The world is richly, richly detailed, with a complete history, mystery on mystery, and wonderful, unforgettable characters.

It’s tough to describe what the series is about because there’s so much of it, but the grossly oversimplified version is that it’s about a former warlord trying to overcome an inherently competitive social and political system to unite the nations of the world against an unknown threat that hides in the storms that plague the land, while also trying to restore an ancient order of knights in the process. Again, grossly oversimplifying things, because there are numerous factions at play, a huge cast of well-drawn characters, and each book ends with a climax that somehow feels more breathless than the last. The second book, in particular, has a fight about two thirds of the way through that is genuinely one of the most gripping and tense things I’ve ever read.

And if nothing else, this introduces high fantasy’s answer to the Lightsaber in the form of Shardblades—gigantic swords that can be summoned at will, can cut through anything (including a person’s soul), and act as a status symbol. They’re cool as hell and serve to develop the world and story.

1. Scadrial—The Mistborn novels and various short stories

The cover of Mistborn, which features a young woman in black clothing holding two black daggers while large Gothic architecture looms in the background

While you could argue that Sanderson kind of tells the same story over and over (there are ALWAYS politics, ALWAYS power plays, ALWAYS moral gray areas, ALWAYS badass fight scenes), in certain instances, he tells that story so well it’s impossible not to love. Mistborn tackles a lot of similar themes as Stormlight, such as classism, racism, what it means to be a leader, and the very idea of divinity, but it’s told in a concise, ever-escalating manner in the original Mistborn trilogy.

The first volume, The Final Empire, concerns Vin, a young street urchin who is recruited by a charismatic man named Kelsier. It turns out, Kelsier and his crew are Allomancers—people who can burn metals within them to do different things. Most Allomancers can merely burn one type of metal. Pewter, for example, enhances people’s stamina and strength, making them better in a fight. Other people, though, like Kelsier and Vin, are Mistborn, people who can burn every type of metal. These people are highly sought after and are often employed by noble houses to be their security, as they’re almost impossible to kill. The thing is that Kelsier and his crew are planning one hell of a heist: kill the Lord Ruler, the seemingly immortal being who has ruled Luthadel with an iron first for too long.

Where do I even begin? Each character is beautifully drawn, and each is worth getting attached to. The series uses the premise of the first novel (which would have been the whole story of a more traditional trilogy) to escalate its threat higher and higher. Each book builds to a climax that can only be described as the reading equivalent of a full-on sprint. I read the last 200 or so pages of each book in one sitting because of how skillfully Sanderson raises the stakes with each installment. He sets up mystery after mystery after mystery, and each of them pays off in a wonderful and often mind-blowing way. The series takes the very idea of a traditional “chosen by destiny” storyline and entirely flips it on its head, showing hidden motivations and skewed history along the way. It’s impossible to put down, with the third book having one of the greatest endings to a series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It builds on everything that came before and delivers action, catharsis, and a hell of a lot of emotion. It is the best part of the Cosmere so far.

The thing is, though, that Mistborn is the series that keeps on giving.

There are some short stories in Arcanum Unbounded that act as decent fan service, as well as one that is rather disjointed but has huge implications for the Cosmere as a whole. But the really cool part about this series is that Sanderson is planning four different sub-series set on Scadrial, with each one being a new era. So far, he has one more book to go in Era 2.

Era 2 is high fantasy meets a detective story meets westerns, and it’s even more fun than it sounds. It speaks to Sanderson’s world-building talent that he shows the world change in huge, but plausible ways. At this point, technology has progressed to rival that of the Industrial Revolution, with trains, early automobiles, and too many guns to count. It follows Waxillium Ladrian as he’s called back to his home after spending years fighting bad guys as a sheriff in the Dusts, the border of the known world. He is what’s referred to as a Twin Born, so he is part Allomancer and part Feruchemist (a magic system introduced in the first series where people can store different things like speed and health in metal jewelry to be tapped later on; for instance, they can be sick for a week, then heal a bullet wound using the health they stored up during that sickness). He is joined by Wayne, easily Sanderson’s funniest character who hates guns and can create bubbles of time that speed him up while slowing the world around him.

This acts as a cohesive departure from everything else in the Cosmere—most of them take place in quasi-medieval times, classic fantasy stuff. This is an extremely different setting, with exciting shootouts, discovery, and investigations. It reads like a superhero version of Sherlock Holmes or Indiana Jones and each book is a blast from cover to cover.

Apparently, once Era 2 is wrapped up, Sanderson is planning on setting a series in an 80s style cyberpunk world, followed by a full-on space opera. So far, he’s two for two with this ambitious and wonderfully unique idea of showing the story of a whole world through different periods of time, AND making it all feel plausible and grounded despite being its feet being planted firmly in the fantasy genre.

It’s safe to say that Brandon Sanderson is one of the most ambitious and prolific writers working in the science fiction/ fantasy genre today. Not all of his books have been winners, but when he hits that high note, he just keeps going and going relentlessly until the story is done. By the way, all of this has been ignoring his young adult series, as well as standalone adult fiction. The man’s a machine. Either way, he is an author that any sci-fi/fantasy fan needs to check out.

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin enjoys gaming, reading, and writing. He would love to tell you all about his two books, the crime thriller Lemon Sting, and the short horror story collection Silence Under Screams, but only if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in a conversation with him. He lives in Massachusetts.

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