Words of wonder: Brandon Sanderson seeks, delivers 'something big' in epic fantasy
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
When word of a new fantasy book by Brandon Sanderson reaches the forests, the trees tremble. They know that sacrifices will have to be made by many of their sylvan sisters to provide enough paper to print his vision of another world.
The New York Times best-selling author, and Utah resident, started his epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive in 2010 with the 1,007-page "The Way of Kings," a book that Publishers Weekly called "massive" and Booklist called "colossal."
Now in the wake of his Hugo Award-winning novella, "The Emperor's Soul," and the successes of his short novels "Steelheart" and "The Rithmatist," Sanderson is poised to slay more trembling trees with the second offering in The Stormlight Archive series, titled "Words of Radiance" (Tor Books, $28.99), a 1,087-page book.
The two Stormlight books together weigh almost 6 pounds and take up 5 inches on a bookshelf. That's wider than two full collections of Shakespeare and about the same width as "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes."
With eight more books planned for the series, Sanderson is just getting started.
"What I love about the epic fantasy genre is the chance to do something big — lots of characters across a long time," Sanderson said recently in an interview at Weller Book Works at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City. "The scope you can cover in a book like this, in a series like this, is fun for me to deal with. You can really dig into characters and show them changing over a large period of time."
Sanderson was signing and numbering about 500 copies of "Words of Radiance" for fans who preordered the books from Weller. There were no crowds as he signed each book secretly in the store's back room. The sounds were of a black Sharpie marker on the pages and the thump of the books as helpers plopped them down in piles next to him and then squirreled them away on shelves to be sorted for shipment around the world.
Sanderson is known for well-thought-out worlds that have elaborate magic systems. When somebody uses magic in a Sanderson book, there are laws. Some things can't be done — and using magic has a price. The world created in The Stormlight Archive is as in-depth as any ever created for a fantasy book and rivals that of The Lord of the Rings in its intricacy and joy.
But what Sanderson would like to be known for is his characters — the people he writes into his imaginary worlds. Such as Kaladin, the soldier-turned-slave in The Stormlight Archive who is as compelling as Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables." Or Szeth, the assassin who weeps as he is forced to kill. Or Shallan Davar, a woman with secrets that threaten everyone and everything she loves. Or Dalinar Kholin, the reluctant prophet who must unite a world gone mad.
"Action is only as interesting as it is putting people you care about in danger," Sanderson said while signing another book. "A great world is only as interesting as the people who live in it and have to live with this really interesting world. And so if you don't have a compelling character, you don't have a story — at least not of the type I would like to read."
Generosity and fame
Sanderson doesn't just create worlds in fiction; he also helps others create their own fictional worlds. With his friends Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler, Sanderson puts out the weekly (and Hugo Award-winning) Writing Excuses podcast. He also teaches one creative writing class at Brigham Young University each year.
In 1994, when Sanderson was a senior in High School in Nebraska, he went to a local science fiction fan convention called Andromeda One.
"The guest of honor was Katherine Kurtz, a great writer," he said. "She sat down with me when she heard I wanted to be a writer and she talked with me for about an hour on what to do."
Later, after Sanderson served a mission in Korea for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he took a class on science fiction and fantasy offered at BYU from author Dave Wolverton (who also writes as David Farland).
"Dave took a 'pay cut' to teach us," Sanderson said. "It was something he did to help us. Both of those situations were so incredibly helpful to me and so wonderfully useful that I basically got published because of things like this — authors spending their time. ... These chances I got were so useful to me that I think I would be remiss if I didn't do it myself."
But as successful as Sanderson has been, he tries to keep that success in perspective. Although huge lines and crowds will, if past events are any indication, gather for his book launch at midnight on March 4 at BYU Bookstore in Provo, fame isn't a motivator.
"Fortunately, writers don't get that famous; even famous writers don't get that famous," he said. "Like if you were to walk out on that street and say, 'Hey guys, Brandon Sanderson is in this room,' I can guarantee that nobody would care. There might be one person who might say, 'Hey, I've heard of that guy. Didn't he write those books?' Nobody would care. ... And so it is very easy to keep well-grounded as a writer."
A sense of wonder
There is an aspect of fantasy that motivates Sanderson to create his worlds and that he thinks can also affect people in the real world.
"I want to give people a sense of wonder," he said, "and a vision of where the fantasy genre has gone that it hasn't gone before. I feel like the genre has a lot of potential that hasn't been explored or tapped. I want to be one of those who takes a few steps toward where it can go. To be my own paving stone in the path that is leading the genre toward bigger and better things."
And fantasy is tied into the imagination, which is tied into the shaping of the real world.
"Before the Wright brothers flew, flying was fantasy. Before the civil rights movement, people getting along together and the races being equal was a fantasy," he said. "Things change because we imagine a different world, a world that is not. And I think that imagination is one of the most important and defining aspects of human existence: our ability to imagine a world that is not."
Fantasy, in his mind, is an exploration of reality and capturing a vision of possibilities. In The Stormlight Archive and its second book, "Words of Radiance," he hopes to create a work of art that will stand the test of time. But, he said, he can't do it on his own. Readers are needed to complete that work of art.
"The book isn't done until you've imagined what's happening in this book," he said. "I'm only giving you half of it — maybe it is more like 75 percent — but I'm only giving you part of it, and you have to do all the rest."
In that collaboration, he hopes there is a sense of wonder.
After journeying in Sanderson's compelling world, one emerges back into the real world. By making the trip, the reader may see, perhaps for the first time, the world in all its variety and with all its amazing characters and beauty. And that may be enough to make trees tremble in anticipation for a book as large as the imagination.
If you go ...
What: "Words of Radiance" book launch event and Brandon Sanderson book signing
When: Monday, March 3, 10 p.m.
Where: BYU Bookstore, Wilkinson Student Center, Provo
Notes: The numbered wristbands for those who have preordered books will be handed out at 7 a.m. on Monday, March 3 (one wristband per person); the bookstore will reopen at 10 p.m. for the launch party; a reading and Q&A with Brandon will be at 10:45 p.m.; book distribution will start at midnight; store will close at 1 a.m.
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