Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection (2016) by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is attempting something very ambitious and interesting, in writing a mega-series called “the Cosmere”, that spans many of his fantasy series’, standalone novellas, and short fiction. The series is meant to ultimately number over forty works, and I have every confidence Sanderson will complete it, as he’s more than proven himself as an extremely committed, enthusiastic author, with extraordinary work ethic and dedication to his fans.

While the series’ and novels in the Cosmere are easy enough to find, much of the short fiction is more difficult to track down. Or was, until this collection, which consists nearly entirely of previously published (but somewhat hard-to-find) work, and one new novella. Even having already read nearly every story in this collection, I still felt it was a very worthy purchase, as it includes new notes on all the stories, illustrations for every story (I’m such a huge fan of how Sanderson has been working to get more illustrations in his books in recent years; I think illustrations are a hugely underutilised tool for novels), and other new material like star maps and background information on the many different planets and solar systems in the Cosmere setting.

I’ll post my individual reviews and ratings for all the stories in this collection below, but for the collection itself, I give it three planets, and an asteroid belt.

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THE HOPE OF ELANTRIS

A very short story set concurrently with the climactic ending chapters of Elantris. I wish I’d read this immediately after finishing Elantris, as it doesn’t work as well as a more standalone short story; it felt kind of incoherent to me at points because I didn’t have the details of the ending fresh in mind. Kind of funny that the Elantris short story would be so antithetical to Elantris – a great strength in Elantris the novel was in being so standalone. Still, not like this story is trying to be anything other than what it is: a short, sweet sequence for the Elantris fans out there. Not sure it’s good enough to justify its own existence though, given how slight it is.

I give it two AonDor symbols, and a splinter of Devotion.

THE ELEVENTH METAL

The Eleventh Metal wasn’t some grand-plan part of Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere sequence, it was some supplemental writing for a game, and it really shows. Not only does it feel superfluous, it feels…wrong, not cohesive with the other Mistborn works.

It’s a lazy, clunky way to set up a plot point that didn’t need setting up; the character having the information already made sense from a characterisation perspective. Worked better as a mystery.

I don’t like robbing a mysterious, charming character of his mystery and charm in a clunky way like this, in a very short prequel story where nothing can be expanded upon well.

The third Mistborn book implies a more interesting origin for the plot point covered here anyway. I’d rather forget this short story and move on.

The specifics of the story are okay, the prose and characterisation isn’t as good as the regular Mistborn books, but it’s not as underdeveloped as some of Brandon’s unpublished work. The fight scenes are competent.

I give it one vial of metal, and an overexplained plot point.

THE EMPEROR’S SOUL

The Emperor’s Soul is the only Sanderson story to win a Hugo (as of yet), and it deserves it. It’s an excellent story playing very well to Sanderson’s strengths, but it also feels more literary than his regular fare, with the worldbuilding very much serving the themes of the story rather than something developed for its own right.

This is probably the best prose Sanderson has written; it flows, it serves the themes well, and there’s no (well, a lot less than usual) clunky insertions of worldbuilding explanations.

The story works so well as a self-contained tale; it really breaks from the genre standard of setting up sequels and series’ by simply telling a single story as well as it can be told. While it is set in the same world as Elantris (and the wider Cosmere universe), it’s completely self-contained.

The worldbuilding is fascinating but not a distraction, the characterisation is simple but strong, the prose serves the story well, and everything is cohesive and focused on telling a damn good story. A joy to read.

I give it four soulforged tables, and a “fake” painting.

ALLOMANCER JAK AND THE PITS OF ELTANIA (EPISODES 28 THROUGH 30)

I originally read this story when it was included in supplementary Mistborn materials, but am reviewing it here as an inclusion in the 2016 “Arcanum Unbounded” collection.

It’s a fun little pulpy adventure story set in the Wild West era of the Mistborn series. It’s nothing super compelling, but it definitely succeeds as what it sets out to be. The footnotes are too much though. Too on-the-nose, and too excessive. Apart from that, there’s nothing really I have to complain about with the story. It’s just a fun, thin bit of pulpy worldbuilding for the series.

I give it two big rocks, and a vial of tin.

SHADOWS FOR SILENCE IN THE FORESTS OF HELL

Brandon Sanderson is getting much, much better at writing novellas. This, and The Emperor’s Soul, are legitimately really good fantasy novellas, and a vast improvement over his earlier short fiction.

This work feel uncharacteristically bleak and grim for a Sanderson work (even the first Mistborn trilogy had romance and fun to offset the unrelenting darkness of the world)…and I really liked that. Great to see a writer stretch, tone-wise. Felt quite chilling.

The protagonist was also pretty non-archetypal, but she was quickly relatable, and quite compelling. As was the world, Threnody – I hope it’s revisited in later cosmere books.

I give it three silver tools, and a trapped shade.

SIXTH OF THE DUSK

I loved the ending and the concept behind this novella. The worldbuilding was really, really interesting – the trappers, the islands, the birds, the technologically advanced visitors, it was all really interesting and worked well together. Felt like a cohesive world. I have some pretty firm suspicions about that technologically advanced race too; will be neat to see if they were right when some future cosmere series’ come out.

The plot and character work was pretty thin. Again, the ending works really well, as does the kind of message or drive behind the story, but I think I enjoyed reflecting on that more than I enjoyed reading the actual story.

I give it three magic birds, and a murderous island.

EDGEDANCER

I liked “The Way of Kings” a lot, and found “Words of Radiance” a good follow-up. I absolutely love the Mistborn books. I’ve read everything Sanderson has traditionally published. I have a good handle at this point on what sort of Sanderson stories I like, and which ones I don’t. Unfortunately, this is one of the ones I don’t.

There’s not some bizarre newfound flaw of his writing in the novella or anything – it’s a cohesive, structured, flowing work. There are some interesting character revelations in it. The plot trucks along alright (although a lot slower-paced than most of his works – this seems to be an issue in “The Stormlight Archive” but none of his other current or recent works, strangely). I don’t even really mind that the story is YA instead of standard fantasy, like the actual novels in this series. It’s just the protagonist.

It’s a combination of her being emblematic of some of Sanderson’s sense of humour that I don’t share, and her being a strange child character that feels more grating than compelling to me. Granted, some of the twists at the end of the novella made me revise my opinion of her in an intellectual sense (Sanderson was doing something more clever and intentional with the character than I initially realised), but that doesn’t change the fact that most of my experience reading the novella from her point of view, wasn’t really a pleasant one.

This story doesn’t change my (very positive) opinion of Sanderson at all; I knew as soon as I heard the premise I wouldn’t be much of a fan of it, so it wasn’t really a disappointment or anything to me. I’m still a great fan of his and of this series. But as for this novella itself, I give it two dinners, and a fork.

 

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