I Sing a Song of Sanderson

A song of magic systems and story nerdery and modern fantasy.

In which I (Hanna), have a conversation with myself (Theresa) about the acclaimed author Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn novel Bands of Mourning (third in the Wax and Wayne series) comes out today.

Hanna: So.

Theresa: So.

Hanna: I am supposed to talk a bit about Brandon Sanderson. Because he has a book coming out today.

Theresa: Oh! Which one?

Hanna: The third in his new Mistborn trilogy. Bands of Mourning — featuring the excellent Wax and Wayne.

Theresa: Nice! That’s exciting.

Hanna: It is! What’s also exciting is that he has another book coming out next month. Calamity — which finishes up his Reckoners Series.

Theresa: Goodness. That’s fast.

Hanna: It is.

Theresa: The gentleman is prolific then?

Hanna: Most prolific. His first novel — Elantris — came out in 2005, and since then he’s finished two other trilogies, published several stand alone novels and novellas, took over writing the end of the Wheel of Time Series (and finished it), started his own Epic Brick of a Series (also known as The Stormlight Archive) and completed an assortment of other projects and books.

Theresa: That’s impressive.

Hanna: *Vader Voice* Most impressive.

Theresa: So why are you having trouble talking about it?

Hanna: … ‘trouble’? What makes you say ‘trouble’?

Theresa: Something in the way you started. I’m right, aren’t I?

Hanna: Well. I love Mr. Sanderson’s work. I adore it. I, as the title says, frequently Sing a Song of Sanderson.

Theresa: Which means?

Hanna: It’s generally in the context of my writing group, when I am using him as a positive example. For everything from massive casts, to pacing, to the obvious magic system stuff.

Theresa: “Obvious magic system stuff”?

Hanna: The man is the king of magic systems. Gorgeous codifications of the impossible.

Theresa: That’s cool.

Hanna: It’s very cool.

Theresa: Okay, you still haven’t gotten to the ‘trouble’ part.

Hanna: That’s true. I’m not good at ‘trouble’ really.

Theresa: Oh, give it a go already.

Hanna: My favorite of his work is not his most recent stuff. Mistborn is a masterclass in magic system design. It’s also a treatise on plot twists. Generally speaking, of the Big Three elements of narrative (setting, plot, character), Mr. Sanderson relies on plot and setting. The worldbuilding is outstanding. The plot frequently hits the surprising/inevitable paradox so many of us strive for. And I wish… I wish he would do more with character.

Theresa: In what way?

Hanna: Let me divide this into two: the first problem, really, is Kaladin.

Theresa: Kala– who?

Hanna: Kaladin is the protagonist for the Stormlight Archive. He’s the hero — or at least, I would be severely surprised if he turns out not to be The Hero.

Theresa: And you don’t like him?

Hanna: No. Not really. He feels a bit like Kelsier-plus — a character in the Mistborn series, who incidentally I do love. Kaladin is a divinely gifted fighter, an apprentice surgeon, a natural leader, an underdog (but still highly privileged) and the equivalent of a sorcerer. And he’s eighteen? I believe? I don’t think it’s who we need as The Hero of an epic fantasy right now.

Theresa: It is a bit much. And yes. It’s a character that supports the homogenization of heroes. So, there’s that. What else?

Hanna: The second thing is Steelheart and Firefight — his YA series about a world with evil superheroes that will finish up with Calamity next month.

Theresa: The book itself?

Hanna: The attempt at diversity.

Theresa: Hmmm… how so?

Hanna: So. I don’t know if this is how he was thinking of it, but: Steelheart feels like a book where he was aware of the cultural and ethnic homogeny of his earlier work and is tackling it by adding characters of different races and backgrounds. Except what he added were 1) peripheral. The three important characters are all white and the relationship is heteronormative. And 2) the diverse characters are fairly generic? The large black man is a gentle giant. He’s Quebecois, which was cool, but that was sort of it. It also made me sad that in the sequel the protagonist gets attention from several women of color, but he passes over them, because he’s obsessed with the white girl of the first book.

Theresa: Hmm… Tricky.

Hanna: And like I said, I think it was an honest and earnest push towards having a healthily diverse cast. I just don’t think it was well executed. And it makes me uncomfortable because I want to love it. First because I am a fan. A Sandersonian, so to speak. And second because he’s a hugely influential figure in the industry right now. He finished the Wheel of Time. He’s a prolific, innovative author — and a great story: picked from the slush pile at Tor. Plus, he’s a nice dude. I’ve been to a few of his signings, and even when he seemed like he was on the edge of an exhausted collapse he was polite and patient with his fans. So I want to love Kaladin. And I want to love Steelheart’s cast. But I also want both of those things to be better. Given the reach of Sanderson, I deeply want them to be better. I want him to create diverse casts and heroes that aren’t perfectly privileged. I also recognize that my own privilege affords me distance which not everyone gets. 

Theresa: Do you feel like you’re holding him to a higher standard?

Hanna: I don’t know. But I think I may take it more to heart because 1) He’s a really good writer. 2) He’s a very popular writer 3) He was pivotal for me as an aspiring writer. So the disappointment I feel is probably unfair, but the standard is my usual. If anything, I’m probably biased in his favor.

Theresa: You’ve met him?

Hanna: Yes. Twice, I think?

Theresa: How’d that go?

Hanna: Not terribly well. The first time, I was a wreck of anxiety and nerves. Actually cried a bit.

Theresa: That’s rather embarrassing.

Hanna: Indeed. Not my finest moment.

Theresa: You cried?

Hanna: I did. It was a rough time for me, and he was a bit of a literary hero. I’d just finished the first Mistborn trilogy. When we connect with characters, we build them into people in our heads — in the same way we construct our ideas about actual human people. And the nature of characters is that they are limited — in the same way that a dead person is. So meeting an author who created someone you fell in love with is sort of like meeting the parent of dead friend — a parent you never met, who has no reason or way to understand our relationship with their child/character. That’s a bit of a dramatic overstatement, but if you water down the intensity of the emotions involved, I think it’s a moderately accurate way to describe the heartbreak of the connections we can have with imaginary people.

Theresa: I think I see the problem.

Hanna: Really?

Theresa: Yes. You’re having trouble because you idolized him as a writer and a person and now feel you can’t criticize him because you worry that your opinions are colored by placing him on a pedestal for awhile. You’re trying to untangle your guilty disappointment from the legit criticism.

Hanna: Ummm… yes. I suppose that’s right.

Theresa: Well. That’s a bit silly.

Hanna: I suppose so.

Theresa: So. I think you’ve sort of hit on your main complaints. The diversity in the Steelheart reads as tokenism and could be a much more influential force for good in the genre. You find Kaladin problematic — and have feelings about the way he’s using the parshmen and Parshendi.

Hanna: I didn’t say that.

Theresa: You didn’t need to. We’re in the same brain.

Hanna: I reserve judgment until I’ve read more of the series. I know very well that Mr. Sanderson can pull off a twist and the Parshendi and parshmen are one of the mysteries of the Stormlight Archive. But yes — looking at the first book I have some issues. They’re a heavily Othered culture and an enslaved people construed as subhuman respectively. It’s a pretty big flag. I hope he does something interesting with those choices. I’m not caught up and I know there’s more to them in Words of Radiance.

Theresa: Alright. But you still generally like his stuff?

Hanna: Yup, yup. When I recommend him to people, it’s usually Mistborn. Which has my favorite magic system. The pacing for those three books is astounding. You can spin through a hundred pages and not notice it. 

Theresa: And you like Kelsier.

Hanna: Loooove Kelsier. Also Tindwyl and Sazed. And Spook. Lots of the cast. Vin is a solid protagonist and dear Elend is a derp, but he’s lovely.

Theresa: Now. Wheel of Time?

Hanna: Ahh… Wheel of Time. I came late to The Wheel of Time — I actually joined up because Sanderson was finishing the series.

Theresa: It’s a long and complicated series. We have long and complicated thoughts and feels.

Hanna: Yes. But briefly: I think it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to be a fantasy writer/is interested in the evolution of fantasy. There are so many things you are told not to do when writing fantasy that stem either from Robert Jordan doing that thing definitively OR doing it to excess. It’s fascinating.

Theresa: Which Ajah would you join?

Hanna: Ummm… Green or brown. It would be a difficult call.

Theresa: And let’s see. You liked Elantris.

Hanna: Indeed.

Theresa: You enjoyed Alloy of Law.

Hanna: And I’m looking forward to catching up with and finishing the trilogy, since it is finished today!

Theresa: Well. That’s an endorsement.

Hanna: It is. I love the way the system in Mistborn evolved in the new trilogy. And all of his work is eminently readable. It’s great binge reading.

Theresa: There. That came out okay.

Hanna: I guess it did.

Theresa: Conclusion?

Hanna: There’s a lot to love about Brandon Sanderson’s work. If you’re not familiar, then it’s well worth the dive into his worlds. But one of the ways we in Geekdom express our love is through criticism, engagement and discussion. I expect I’ll continue to read his work and have feelings about it.

Theresa: I expect so, yes.