So you’ve heard of this fantasy thing called the Cosmere. It sounds cool, but you don’t know what it is – this Brandon Sanderson guy seems to have tons of separate series of books, with different characters and very different premises. So what is the Cosmere? And how do you start reading it?
What is the Cosmere?
Most modern fantasies blend genres together. A Song of Ice and Fire blends fantasy with history, The Lies of Locke Lamora blends fantasy with a heist novel. If I had to put a label on the Cosmere, it would be fantasy meets the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking the best things from each. Let me explain.
Years ago, when Sanderson had only written a few books, he came up with an idea for his magnum opus. It would be a thirty-something long sci-fi/fantasy epic, with a twist. At the beginning you’d have a number of disparate series each set on different planets, but in the same galaxy. This dwarf galaxy is the ‘Cosmere’. Over time the connective tissue, timeline, mythology and ‘magical physics’ of the universe would become clear. Characters could even cross over between planets and series later on, like in comic books! He started the Cosmere with his first published novel called Elantris in 2005, but there weren’t many real interlocking parts until The Stormlight Archive series started. That series seems to be where most of the crossovers will occur for the moment.
I think it should be made clear that the guide I’m about to write is in no way set in stone. For the moment you can start on any Sanderson series and have a fantastic, complete experience. These are just Easter eggs (very big ones, in the case of Stormlight) right now, things for fans to pick up on re-reads.
So basically, if the Cosmere is the Marvel Cinematic Universe then we’re still in Phase One, and The Stormlight Archives is shaping up to be The Avengers. The mysterious traveller Hoid is Nick Fury, or Coulson.
Sounds cool! So where do I start?
You can really start anywhere- as I said before, all of his series are very separate for the moment. Here are my recommendations, however.
The titular city of Elantris was a place of magical godlike beings chosen at random from the population by the Shaod. They could heal wounds, grow crops and manipulate the elements, all with a flick of their wrists. They were admired and revered throughout the country of Arelon. However, one day, everything went wrong. The magic stopped working and the denizens of Elantris became little more than zombies, their clear, silver skin becoming blotchy and horrifying.
Years later, the world has moved on, for the most part. A city named Kiin has grown near the gates of Elantris, and is struggling to make its way in this changed world. Citizens are still taken at random by the Shaod, except now they are shunned and exiled into the dystopic city. In this world we find our three main characters: Raoden, the prince of Kiin, is taken by the Shaod and exiled into Elantris. Sarene, his betrothed from a nearby state, finds a nation full of corruption and secrets, where no-one is clear on just how her husband-to-be suddenly died. Hrathen, a devout officer of a religious empire sent to Kiin on a mission: convert the people in three months or they must all die. Their stories cross over as all roads back to the mystery of Elantris: What killed the magic?
Elantris is one of the two books recommended most when the question of ‘where to start?’ appears. Sanderson’s first book, it was released in 2005. For a first novel, it’s astonishingly good. The mystery of Elantris is fascinating, even if a lot of people guess it by the end (I didn’t, but my brother did). The supporting cast is entertaining, with Galladon being a standout. Hrathen, the ‘antagonist’ of the book, is one of Sanderson’s greatest characters, and his journey through faith and trauma is fantastic. Speaking of faith, this book probably contains some of Sanderson’s best insights into theology and systems of government. Many different types of faith and government are shown in this book, but Sanderson treats them all with a deft touch, showing the advantages and drawbacks of both. No system of faith or governance is preached above any other (besides ‘being an authoritarian religious nut is bad’).
Of course, it is a bit rough. After all, it’s Sanderson’s first novel. The pacing isn’t great – it’s very slow for the first half of the book, and that’s a long while in epic fantasy books. When the avalanche of plot points does start, things move at a rapid, sometimes confusing pace. The writing style of the book isn’t bad, but neither does it have many standout moments, and some of the characters can be a bit two-dimensional. None of the above ruin the novel, however, and by the end it manages to turn around many of its critics. If the reasons I give below sound up your alley, Elantris is definitely worth a read.
I recommend you start with Elantris if you:
- Want to read his books in order– it’s a great way to read them. You can really see Sanderson and the Cosmere grow over time.
- Can take a rough start – Elantris starts very slowly and you can really see that it’s Sanderson’s first published novel in places, but it’s worth sticking with it.
- Enjoy religious and philosophical discussions – Sanderson often likes to discuss these things, but they’re very much on display here.
- Want a good, single book – Elantris has no sequels at the moment, and is extremely self-contained. There are little unanswered questions at the end and almost no clear Cosmere references.
Note: Pick up the 10th anniversary edition of Elantris, if you can. Sanderson fixed a couple of his first-book quirks and some mistakes on the map, and it includes an Ars Arcanum, a kind of thesaurus on the magic system that’s included in all his other books.
Mistborn: The Final Empire
Hundreds of years ago, the Hero of Ages destroyed the eldritch Deepness, saving the world and gaining godlike power. However, our Frodo became Sauron, becoming the god-king Lord Ruler that has enslaved the world for millennia. He rules with an iron fist.
The story has two protagonists, Vin and Kelsier. Kelsier is the leader of a crew once dedicated to thievery. Tortured in the Pits of Hathshin, he has come back to wreak vengeance upon the system that put him there. Vin is a street urchin skaa, a race deemed inferior by the Lord Ruler’s noblemen. Their paths soon overlap, and the two Mistborn set out to do the impossible – leading a rebellion to overthrow the Lord Ruler.
Mistborn: The Final Empire was Sanderson’s follow-up to Elantris, and in this reviewer’s opinion improves in almost every way upon it. It’s a very good book. The characters are better with an incredibly interesting supporting cast. Kelsier is another of Sanderson’s best characters. The magic system is more enjoyable and used more, making for some creative uses of it later in the book. The pacing issues in Elantris are fixed and the plot goes through some fantastic twists and turns. The setting is atmospheric and the ending is awesome, with some great reveals and sequel hooks. Overall, Mistborn is just more fun. There’s a real sense of joy when characters use magic, leading to some absolutely chills-worthy moments.
As for drawbacks… Well, the writing is overall more consistent than Elantris, but the prose is serviceable. Not good, not bad and always clear (handy for the fight scenes), but there’s no poetry here. There’s also a romantic subplot that’s gets important, which may turn you off it.
All in all, Mistborn: The Final Empire, and the Mistborn trilogy in general, is where I recommend jumping into the Cosmere. Elantris might turn you off, but Mistborn is great. It also spins off into a sequel series, Wax and Wayne, that’s even better and incredibly fun.
Recommended if you:
- Prefer a series – Mistborn is a trilogy and paced very well. The sequels are The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages.
- Like very visceral magic and battles. Many people have commented that fights in Mistborn feel like watching a video game.
- Enjoy heist movies, dystopias or revolutionary stories. Mistborn is a mix of all three and does them all well, throwing in a little politics and romance too.
- In general, it’s the best place to start, with much of what makes Sanderson awesome here. He gets better and better as time goes on, but TFE is a great book.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell
In the dead world of Threnody, shades walk the Forest of Hell. Ghostly beings, they are peaceable unless disturbed. If disturbed, they will hunt you down and kill you. Two things disturb them – blood and fire. They can only be kept away by silver.
Silence Montane is an innkeeper in the Forest of Hell. Her inn is protected from the shadows, making it a popular spot for people to swing by. Rumours are flying that a bounty hunter called the White Fox is hunting miscreants in the forest, but no-one has ever seen him. The true identity of this bounty hunter is revealed in this short story, when one bounty goes horribly wrong.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell is a short story from George RR Martin’s Dangerous Women anthology. I’m surprised I haven’t seen it mentioned much in recommendation posts because it really is a great read. It stars Silence, who is as interesting and relatable as you can have a protagonist be in 40-odd pages. It’s a very atmospheric piece of work, with the reader being able to feel the palpable despair that the setting creates. At $3.29, it’s a bit pricey for an ebook, but definitely worth a read if you’re wary about Sanderson.
However, it’s very different to other Sanderson works. The scale and stakes are (comparatively) small. Of course with a short story you don’t have time for long character and plot arcs, which might be a problem for you. Overall however, this left me hungry to return to the planet of Threnody and the story of Silence and it’s a great story to spend a couple of hours reading.
Recommended if you:
- Want to try Sanderson for cheap. You can pick up Shadows for Silence in ebook for a couple of dollars on Amazon.
- Like low-level magic. While there is magic in Shadows for Silence, it is not especially powerful magic. It’s more scenery-setting then the explosive magic of Mistborn.
- Enjoy dystopic fantasy – while Mistborn is more of a civilised dystopia, the setting of Shadows for Silence is just a crapheap.
- Strong female characters. As befits a short story in an anthology called Dangerous Women, the main character is indeed a very dangerous woman.
- Like Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire or The Dresden Files. If you’re interested in these series George RR Martin and Jim Butcher have both contributed short stories to the Dangerous Women Both are very good.
- Enjoy short fiction. The anthology overall is excellent.
So that’s it! Sanderson’s Cosmere is one of my favourite ongoing literary series going at the moment. Just the pure scale of what he’s attempting should be applauded, let alone the fact that the books are actually really good. I’d recommend you start with Mistborn: The Final Empire and read the three books in that series first. They’re a great finished series. If you like it, then well, the Cosmere’s your oyster!