Warning: this post may contain spoilers for the short stories and novellas in Brandon Sanderson’s Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection
If you’ve been following along for the past few weeks, you know that I’ve been rereading the existing books in the Stormlight Archive before I read the newly released Rhythm of War, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating since I finished Oathbringer for the first time back when it came out. When I finished Words of Radiance, I realized that I should probably also read Edgedancer, which is a Stormlight novella, and part of Arcanum Unbounded. Since I haven’t posted reviews for any of these stories before, it seemed worthwhile to also post about them here on the site.
I love the idea of this collection, which is supposed to provide more insight and background on the unifying mythology of Sanderson’s Cosmere, which is the universe in which he sets many of his stories. Many authors have tried, and failed, to execute a unification of their disparate works, or to conduct effective crossovers, so when I first read that Sanderson was going to try to do something like this, I was skeptical. But if any author can pull it off, it would be Sanderson, and Arcanum Unbounded gives a very strong start to that effort.
Since this is an anthology, I will be including a brief review of each of the stories it contains, in the order that they appear in my copy. Although all of these stories could be read independently, I think much of their strength comes from how they tie together and the hidden structure that we are finally able to catch more glimpses of through this collection. If you’ve enjoyed other Sanderson books, and want to dig more deeply into his universe, there are few better resources than Arcanum Unbounded.
The Emperor’s Soul
What really strikes me about many of Sanderson’s stories is how they are willing to ask and embrace big questions. Though fantasy is often derided as “escapist” (as if that’s a bad thing), these pieces ask and explore philosophical questions and questions that plumb the depths of the human condition. That is what makes a lot of Sanderson’s writing so powerful, and why I enjoy his writing so much. There are plenty of other authors who tell fantastic stories, and many try to explore the “human condition,” but few try to tackle as directly big ideas that humans have wondered about for thousands of years.
All of the Cosmere magic systems are supposed to have the same basic elements and functionality, even if they don’t seem to on the surface. One of those unifying elements is the Realms: Physical, Cognitive, and Spiritual. It’s not exactly a new idea – there have been plenty of fantasy authors that have toyed with these three Realms in various forms, including me (my Blood Magic series requires balance in all three of these realms), but Sanderson takes them in a very different direction, and The Emperor’s Soul gets to explore some very interest results of that formulation. Specifically, it addresses the Cognitive Realm, in which objects have “souls.” That is, objects think of themselves in a certain way. This is more than just anthropomorphism of objects: it looks at Plato’s Theory of Forms, as well as Aristotle’s Theory of Forms. So next time someone tells you that reading fantasy is “just for fun,” you can tell them that you’re actually exploring tenets of ancient Greek philosophy.
One thing that I’ve always wanted to do with a story or a magic system, but haven’t quite been able to pull off as well as I’d like yet, is a magic system that is more focused on scholarship, study, and academic work than it is on throwing fire around or becoming a fantastic warrior. The Emperor’s Soul embraces (mostly) this idea, with most of the novella being spent with the main character, a Forger, studying and researching in order to create a piece of art, and it pulls it off excellently. This is a particularly strong piece within the collection, precisely because it asks big questions. I don’t put a lot of stock into books with deep “meaning,” but I do think that the best books ask and explore big questions and big ideas that transcend any one story. The Emperor’s Soul does exactly that.
The Hope of Elantris
If The Emperor’s Soul is a strong story because of how it asks big questions and contemplates big ideas, like the nature of art, The Hope of Elantris is a good story because that’s all it is: it’s a quick, nice story. It’s unpretentious, and simply tells of an event that took place within the sequence of the mainline Elantris novel, but didn’t fit into the novel itself. It’s a quaint, nice story, and I enjoy it, although it doesn’t stay with me as much as other stories in this collection.
The Eleventh Metal
When authors try to write backstories for their characters in a publishable way, the results can vary greatly. Most of the time, I find that these kinds of stories feel forced. They’re full of forced explanations for every little detail, things that just don’t need to be explained. Instead of adding depth to a character, they end up making them seem more shallow, more fake. The stand-alone Solo Movie was a prime example of this – a Han Solo background story should have been fascinating, but ended up falling flat because it tried too hard (it also suffered from pacing issues, but that’s another post).
This relatively brief insight into Kelsier’s backstory avoids those pitfalls. It is short enough to just provide a brief flash of some of his other experiences, and it doesn’t try to explain everything about him within that time. Yet it also answers some important questions that were never fully explained in the original trilogy. This is a great example of how to do a short backstory for a character.
Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania
To me, this is one of those pieces that really help to make a world so much more real to the reader. It is written as a piece of in-world media, the sort of thing that I’ve been known to do in much rougher form as part of my world-building exercises. The story itself is amusing and interesting, but to me this piece is of much more interest for how it builds the world, and how parts of it were integrated into the second era of Mistborn books, which is set in a period roughly equivalent to nineteenth century America, complete with an in-world version of the Wild West. As much as I enjoy a good sword battle, I find fantasy books that are willing to embrace the evolution of technology and explore how magic systems will affect and be affected by a changing world fascinating.
Mistborn: Secret History
Spoiler warning: Kelsier dies in Final Empire. I don’t feel too badly about giving that particular insight, since that is where Secret History begins, with Kelsier dying and deciding to stay in the Cognitive Realm. It turns out that he played a somewhat important role in the events of the first Mistborn trilogy, even after his death, because he didn’t entirely die. Instead, he lingered on as something called a cognitive shadow. Basically, he refused to die.
Although this technically isn’t a true character resurrection, since Kelsier doesn’t become fully alive again, and he never became fully dead, I still have some problems with it. Specifically, one huge question looms over the whole story, that seems like a major hole in the writing: why is Kelsier the only cognitive shadow? If this is possible, it strikes me as distinctly odd that there wouldn’t be any other people who have used the same techniques to hold themselves in the middle ground between life and death. Given what I understand about human nature, even if the vast majority of people choose to go into the “Beyond,” there would at least be a few who would try to stay. So where are they?
However, potential writing problems with character resurrection, and holes in the vagaries of human nature aside, this story is actually really compelling, mostly because of the insights it gives into the nature of the Cosmere and the things that are happening at a larger scale behind many of the other stories that Sanderson is telling us. Most of the stories in this collection are simply within the Cosmere, and might give a few more hints here and there as to the larger story, but this story is finally giving us some more direct answers to what is going on with the Cosmere, the Shards, and Adonalsium. For that alone, this story is worth reading. Plus, it has Kelsier, who is a fascinating character, especially given the choices and decisions he makes herein. To me, this story is one of the focal points of the collection.
The concepts of this series are fascinating to me: a tidally locked planet between the two stars in a binary star system, with a magic fueled by the intense stellar radiation coming from a blue-white giant star. Unfortunately, I have not followed it as assiduously as I have many of Sanderson’s other projects, because they are primarily presented as graphic novels. Though I respect the format, it’s just not something into which I’ve ever been able to invest myself. I just don’t find that they engage my imagination enough. That’s just my personal preference, so you are welcome, and encouraged, to disagree with me. Certainly the stories are compelling.
In this collection, though, there is a written version of the story following the graphic novel presentation, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. In fact, it made me wish that there were prose-translations of the other books in the White Sand series, since I simply cannot seem to find the patience to read graphic novels. So if you do happen to enjoy graphic novels, consider finding those version of this series, and giving them a try.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell
Most authors develop a distinctive voice over time, that is consistent between most of their stories, even when they deliberately change certain elements of it to affect the tone of a tale. Sanderson favors a very tight, third-person-limited perspective with an emphasis on clarity and transparency of prose. In other words, what makes a Sanderson story compelling is usually the worldbuilding, the characters, the magic system, and the story itself, not the prose with which it is told. In fact, he has spoken about this being his philosophy before. It’s different from someone like, say, Patrick Rothfuss, who I read because of compelling story and the almost lyrical prose he employs.
With this story, Sanderson breaks from his usual mode. To me, there is something hauntingly beautiful about both the story and the writing in this particular piece, despite, or perhaps because of, the darker tone and nature of the contents. Taken by itself, this doesn’t have nearly the same feel as most Cosmere stories, or even most Sanderson stories. Yet I think it is one of the best short stories that he’s written, and I would definitely recommend reading it.
Sixth of the Dusk
Based on other reviews, this is not one of Sanderson’s best stories. But I don’t much care for what other people think, and I happen to think this is one of the most intriguing stories in the collection. One of my favorite things about Sanderson’s stories is the way he follows through on his magic systems, making them an intimate part of the world that interacts with the flora, fauna, cultures, and technologies in fascinating ways, and this story is a particularly fine example of that tendency.
It also features what is, to me, a compelling story. I can relate very closely to Dusk’s character: introverted, practical, internally conflicted between being traditional and conservative while being questioning an embracing the changes of the world, feeling all the time like the world is changing so fast. Plus, he’s an example of a hyper-competent character in his own territory who still has real challenges to face. There is very little that I don’t like about this story. Plus, there is a version of it in an anthology called Shadows Beneath that features multiple drafts, so that you can gain some insight into the writing and revising process.
This is probably the focal story of the collection: a Stormlight novella set somewhen between the events of Words of Radiance and Oathbringer (why is it always somewhere, even when referring to time periods? Why not use “somewhen,” instead?). It follows Lift, who was introduced in on of Words of Radiance‘s interludes. She’s an interesting character, although not as deeply as many of the others in Stormlight (hence why she doesn’t get her own book, perhaps, like Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar do). My interest in her is more, shall we say, academic, since she offers some new glimpses into the ways surgebinding and stormlight work. Plus, she can metabolize food directly into stormlight.
However, the ideas that she wrestles with in this novella, and the Ideals of her order, are fascinating to me. Trying to find some measure of control, certainty, understanding in a dramatically shifting and uncertain world. Remembering those who are often forgotten. Listening to those who are often not heard. Those are things that I think more people could do with doing more of. It is easy to discount the value of taking the time to really sit down and listen to what other people are saying, because it might not seem very important. Yet it can make a huge difference for them when you do, and it can really make a different for you, too. I formed one of my best friendships by being the kind of person who was willing to sit down and really listen.
I had actually forgotten enjoying this story as much as I did. In the interludes and scenes where Lift appears in the mainline Stormlight books, she can come off as a bit on the silly, immature side. She’s that way here, too, but we get a lot more of the why, and of her deeper nature. So much of her silliness is really her way of hiding from herself and the problems she faces. It certainly deserves its place in the collection, and in the masterwork that is The Stormlight Archive.
That rounds out my review of Arcanum Unbounded. Though I primarily read novels, I do enjoy picking up the occasional short story anthologies. My favorites are probably Isaac Asimov’s, but I’ve enjoyed others, like the Unfettered anthologies. This is a very different flavor of anthology, since all of the stories are supposed to be, at at least a very high level, linked together in the same universe. If you enjoy Sanderson’s writing, this is a worthy addition.