Monday, December 18, 2017

Arcanum Unbounded Book Review

by The Wanderer 

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Cosmere Short Story and Novella Collection
Pages: 673

Arcanum Unbounded is a compilation of all the Brandon Sanderson novellas and short stories that have been released up until 2016. Each set of stories comes with a brief introduction to the planetary system the world is taking part in. As a collection of stories, these are pretty essential to anyone who's deciding to read through the Cosmere.

In our review each short story is given a brief synopsis, analysis, and score.  The final score you see at the top of the review is an aggregate of all nine stories.

Aggregate Score: 7.7

The Emperor's Soul

Shai is a master forger, a person who can rewrite the history of objects in the world of Sel. Getting caught stealing the moon scepter of the Rose Empire has landed Shai a death sentence, but she now has the chance to save her life. She must build a new soul for the Emperor Ashravan in ninety days.

It's been said that Brandon Sanderson writes fantasy that's miles wide but only inches deep. I've personally found myself saying that from time to time, especially outside of Cosmere, but sometimes within it, too. I think it's more than fair to say that The Emperor's Soul is the perfect rebuttal for that criticism. Sure this isn't a mind blowing philosophical text, and Sanderson will never match the prose of some of the fantasy genre's best writers, but he can tell a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging story when he has to.

Emperor Ashravan is the victim of an assassination attempt gone wrong and is now brain dead. Building a new soul for someone asks a lot of moral questions about the nature of Shai's work, alongside with questions about what makes a soul a soul. Sanderson treats Shai's work on building the emperor's new soul as a kind of commentary on the nature of creating works of art. She spends a lot of time debating Gaotona, one of the arbiters responsible for tasking Shai to build the emperor's soul. He has great respect for original works of art, but despises how Shai uses her obvious artistic talents to create forgeries of master paintings. It's these conversations that make this story not only interesting, but they conjure up some of the most emotional moments in Sanderson's entire writing career.

Despite all the talk about art, one of my favorite quotes from any of Sanderson's books, comes from this bit of introspection by Shai:

“There was rarely an obvious branching point in a person's life. People changed slowly, over time. You didn't take one step, then find yourself in a completely new location. You first took a little step off the path to avoid some rocks. For a while, you walked alongside the path, but then you wandered out a little way to step on softer soil. Then you stopped paying attention as you drifted farther and farther away. Finally, you found yourself in the wrong city, wondering why the signs on the roadway hadn't led you better.”

Story of my life right there. It's also the story of Shai's life, and at only 170 pages, I definitely wanted to see more of her by the end ... but wanting more at the end of a book can be a good thing, too. The Emperor's Soul has been my favorite Sanderson story, I couldn't recommend it highly enough.

Score: 10

The Hope of Elantris

(Contains spoilers for Elantris).

Synopsis: Raodan asks Ashe to tell him a story, and Ashe tells him about what was going on in New Elantris during the attack by the Fjordells.

A short story ... within a story that's basically a portion that got cut out of the original Elantris publication. There's a little bit of action, and not a whole lot of substance here, and it being so short, there's not a whole lot I can say without spoiling anything that happens. The postscript about why this story was written is cool though, and it certainly adds some appreciation.

Score: 6.1

The Eleventh Metal

Synopsis: After escaping the pits that disfigured his body, Kelsier continues Mistborn apprenticeship with Gemmel, and together they begin a new training mission.

Taking place shortly before the original Mistborn Trilogy, Kelsier struggles with feeling emotionless from his time in the pits and he also struggles to retain the lessons of his mentor Gemmel, a man Kelsier finds to be cruel. This short story is actually a decent little blip that gives a little taste of some of the action sequences and how the magic system works, but just remember they're only little blips. Substance wise there's almost nothing here, just a short little Kelsier adventure.

Score: 6.5

Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania

(Contains spoilers for The Original Mistborn Trilogy and The Alloy of Law).

Synopsis: The adventures of the Allomancer Jak as he tries to find the Survivor's lost treasure and rescue his beloved are chronicled with annotations from his editor Handerwym.

The Wax and Wayne Series are influenced by a lot of pulp writings, but at the same time they have characters and plots that are more thoughtful. In this short story Sanderson goes the exact opposite direction, by going full pulp and then some. Jak's adventures are absolutely ridiculous and the editor's mocking notes are a nice touch to magnify the humor. This is a pretty different direction for Sanderson, and it's definitely an idea that was cool to see get published, but while there are moments of humor, I was hoping to find more that here.

Score: 6.9

Mistborn: Secret History

(Originally written review upon publication).

(Contains spoilers for The Original Mistborn Trilogy and Wax and Wayne Books 1 - 3) This Should Not Be Read Until You Read All Of Those Books

The Mistborn world is getting big. But never has a larger picture been clearly hinted at or expressed at until the release of this short novella. Nearly ten years in the making - and believe me that amount of time shows - Brandon Sanderson makes the most significant developments to this world since the conclusion of The Hero of Ages. 

This is a must read for any Mistborn or Cosmere fan.

While fighting the Lord Ruler, Kelsier and a large number of on-lookers are killed. Shortly after they're greeted by the God, Preservation, who's appearance is cracking at the seams. As Preservation collects the souls to take them to the afterlife, Keslier manages to find away to stay on the planet Scadrial, never departing.

Kelsier's nickname has always been the Survivor, named so because he was the only person to survive the Pits of Hathsin. Obviously the nickname alludes to moreIn Mistborn Secret History readers follow up on what Kelsier has been doing since being killed by the Lord Ruler, and how even after dying he still had an impact on the events that occurred in that trilogy. 

This is one of the best stories I've read by Sanderson in a long time. I've wondered as a reader if I've grown more cynical of Sanderson's Wax and Wayne trilogy due to the length of time that's been spent in the world. Or better put, if Wax and Wayne were written first, would I favor that trilogy more? This novella affirms for me that Sanderson's original Mistborn Trilogy will always be the king. Wax and Wayne has been fun, but I don't think I've cared for a Sanderson cast of characters as much as I've cared for Keslier, Vin, and company. (Still waiting to see how Stormlight plays out).

The post-life aura that Keslier assumes reminds me of the way Elantris was written. There are new limits for Kelsier to test, and more characters from Cosmere at large for him to irritate. An appearance by Hoid, several encounters with Preservation and Ruin, and even a few meetings with characters from the original trilogy are highlights.

There was a fair amount of ambiguity at the end of The Bands of Mourning. As this novella begins to wrap up, it should answer some of those questions. Even more importantly it greatly increased my expectations for the final Wax and Wayne volume. Sanderson really has an opportunity to write something special there.

Score: 9.0

White Sand

Synopsis: Kenton wishes to become a Sandmaster, but his talent for the magic is very weak. He decides to pursue this goal anyways as he prepares for his final test in defiance of his father.

White Sand is one of the oldest Brandon Sanderson stories, if not the oldest, to be published. Of course when he decided to publish it, he did it as a graphic novel as he felt his writing from his pre-publishing days wasn't as strong. In Arcanum Unbounded an excerpt of the graphic novel is published, followed by the original draft of that excerpt. Well in terms of prose it's easy to see why this is being published as a graphic novel. Sanderson is indeed brave showing what his writing looked like before he was published, and it also shows how far he's come. 

The Taldain System, where the White Sand planet is located, is trapped between two suns and as a result one side of the planet remains in constant darkness while the other is constantly baking in the sun. The worldbuilding shows a lot of promise as does the magic system, and I would be interested in reading the full story, just to see how these things play out into the larger Cosmere. 

As characters Kenton, and his father Praxton, are pretty flat, but with only an excerpt to go off of, that may not be the case further down the line. The action scenes are interesting and the notion of working towards being skilled at something as opposed to relying strictly on talent is a real interesting premise to base a story off of as Kenton has to come up with creative ways to accomplish things that his peers would have a much easier time with.

Score: 7.0

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell

(Originally published review from Dangerous Women).

Synopsis: Silence Fontane runs a bar but secretly doubles as a bounty hunter.  When one of the most dangerous criminals in the area shows up in her bar, it’s up to her and her daughter to kill him and collect the desperately needed reward.

This feels like an action film.  A little back story, and then its unrelenting fights and battles in a dark hellish forest.  The characters are likeable, but I never fully fell in love with them.  Sanderson’s inclusion of shades, which are spirits that kill humans at night adds to the dilemmas faced by all the characters – and provides a number of gruesome deaths.  I probably turned through pages of this story faster than any other, Brandon Sanderson knows how to keep a story tense.

Score: 8.4

The Sixth of Dust

(Review originally written after initial publication).

Sixth of the Dusk is a novella by Brandon Sanderson that takes place in his Cosmere Universe. While an enjoyable read with an ambitious set of concepts and themes, Sanderson simply does not have the space to fully develop the myriad ideas he’s going for.

A little bit of background, Cosmere is the universe Brandon Sanderson uses as a setting for a number of his fantasy series’.  There are ten planets called Shard planets and each has a magic system that many currently believe are the direct result of the breaking of a former power called Adonalsium. The ten planets are also in the same galaxy, and there is an over-arcing story in place linking the various series’ the author has written.  The Mistborn books occupy the planet Scadrial, The Stormlight books occupy the planet Roshar, etc. etc…  and this novella occupies a new planet that is being called called First of the Sun.

If you’ve read any of Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere books you’ll be aware that there is extensive worldbuilding and a lot of focus on developing complicated magic systems.  A lot of his Cosmere books are lengthy, but during all those long page counts the author does a great job of immersing you into the world.  With a new world the same needs to happen, but in a novella this simply can’t happen.  Imaging trying falling in love with Scadrial or Roshar with a story that doesn’t even break 100 pages.  There’s just not enough time for it to happen.

Sixth of the Dusk is the name of the main character in this book and he inhabits an island where birds are gifted psychics.  One bird can tell Sixth about his predetermined deaths, which is useful when it comes to choosing the right trail or avoiding poisonous plants and animals. Another bird gives Dusk a cognitive sense of life, allowing him to find living beings.  Isolated from the world at large he stumbles upon a woman whom is part of larger group of people that are on the verge of a technological boom.

The story runs with a “natives being invaded by technologically advanced newcomers,” type of idea.  There are a lot of interesting moral dilemmas that can come from this scenario, and Sanderson chooses to focus on the conflict of choosing to use new technology or sticking with tradition.
I would recommend this novel to people who’ve already read books by Brandon Sanderson.  If you’ve never read anything by the author before, then I’d recommend starting with the first Mistborn Trilogy. That will give you an idea of Cosmere, it has a manageably lengthed plot, and a great magic system.  If you’re into creative writing, then you might want to check out this episode of Writing Excuses which focuses on the author’s process in writing this particular story.

Score: 6.9


(Contains spoilers for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance).

Synopsis: Lift and her voidbringer/spren Wyndle are fleeing the city of Azimir. She hopes to discover more about surgebinding, or what Lift likes to call being "awesome", as well as find a city that serves ten different kinds of pancakes.

Lift appeared in the periphery of Words of Radiance, but proved to be one of the story's more interesting distractions. She shirks responsibility and seems pretty determined to not want to grow up, although she continues to keep growing as a person. Lift can also be pretty insulting to her spren, whom she likes to call a voidbringer, just to upset him. 

In Edgedancer Lift is still very much the same. And although she doesn't necessarily want trouble, she always seems to find her way into it. This story is as important to Lift and Wyndle as it is to Darkness, a cruel entity that nearly killed her in Words of Radiance and one whom she's destined to cross paths with again. 

Although a fun story to hold people over until the next Stormlight book, there's not a lot of substance here. It seems more like a covering of the bases for future stories, which is never a bad thing, but it also doesn't give you the most to work with either.

Score: 8.3

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