I do like my fantasy, it must be said. We have such boundless potential in our fantasy worlds, and yet these days a lot of them come in two flavours: Tolkienesque or a ‘holy shit Game of Thrones is printing money, I want in on that’ dark fantasy. The second is not my cup of tea at all and we’ve all seen elves and dwarves a million times before. I prefer worlds with colour, and real thought put behind the magical elements. Thankfully, Brandon Sanderson does this job perfectly.
He’s an author who takes his worldbuilding down to the very core: if magic exists, what effect would this have on the world, and how would it develop? This thought pervades every aspect of Roshar, the world of his Stormlight Archive series. Roshar is a world periodically buffeted by highstorms; vast, continent-spanning tempests of wind and rain that strips the earth bare and affects all of its inhabitants. The series, only two books long as of yet, splits its viewpoint between a wide cast of characters from all walks of life; lowly slaves, scholarly princesses, noble generals and pampered princes, and gives them all extremely deep characterisation. One character is the focal point of each book, and they take us into their past to see how they became the person they are in the present.
The first entry, The Way of Kings, focusses on Kaladin, a spearman-turned-slave who trained as a surgeon and is determined to do what he can to save himself and his men, even when they have nothing else left. Book two, Words of Radiance, focuses on Shallan Davar, a noble from a violent household, who is determined to help her family and assist her teacher in saving the world from the demonic Voidbringers. Her story delves deep into her family’s dark past, and the horrific scenes that moulded her into one of the most broken yet optimistic characters I’ve ever read.
That’s what I love about this series: there are so many high fantasy concepts at play in the world that I can’t even begin to describe them all here (ten interconnecting magic systems, for one thing – it gets a bit complex at times but they’re all really cool) and totally unique ways of world building I would never have even imagined. As well as fascinating surroundings, the books feature characters who have real depth and enough political intrigue on a human level to hold readers’ interest. In addition to this, there’s an omnipresent threat of fantastical extermination that appeals to people who do like that complex.
Beyond even the main characters, there are interludes for one-off characters that flesh out the world massively, each contributing towards the mythology and culture of Roshar in their own way. Sometimes this extensive mythos can be vague and slightly impenetrable to the reader (Sanderson has allegedly crafted this world for decades, and by god does it show), and as The Stormlight Archive takes place in the Cosmere – a shared universe that connects all of Sanderson’s various works in hidden ways – it’ll be the people who’ve read all his work who’ll be able to grasp the finer aspects of the world. Otherwise, be prepared to do a lot of wiki-browsing.
I do have to give mention to the magic system, since no-one does it better than Sanderson. In Roshar there are ten primary Surges, each with their own applications: Gravitation is fairly obvious sounding, but it gets used in hugely interesting ways, while Illumination controls illusions and visions. Through our characters, we get to explore the inner mechanics of these magic systems, and they’re treated more as a science than a story element; they have real implications and ties to the physics of the world, and each Surge is connected with others and can be combined in really cool ways.
Obviously, the books are not going to be for everyone. Though there may only be two of them, they each clock in over a thousand pages which is a big ask when you’re trying to recommend them to someone. However, in my opinion, they’re well worth it. Top tip: Get the e-reader or mobile versions, as they’ll save you so much back pain by not having to lug around a venerable tome (and save you a wee bit of cash too, since the physical versions are so big they have to be split into two separate volumes to be publishable).
They’re still ongoing, so the series may very well go downhill from here, but Sanderson has made a brilliant start and I don’t expect the quality to let up any time soon. If you’re like me and want to explore a world with cool magic, unique characters and incredibly interesting flora and fauna, you owe it to yourself to give this series a look. And if you’re not like me and prefer the dark, gritty stylings of George R.R. Martin’s work, give them a try anyway. They might surprise you.