Arcanum Unbounded: A must-have for Sanderson fans

Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsArcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson’s Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection (2016) is a collection of stories that, save for one, have all been published elsewhere, and are here rebundled in one easy-to-find collection. Adding value beyond convenience, the collection adds illustrations and mini-prologues (written by a familiar character) offering up details for each of the planetary system settings in Sanderson’s fictional universe, and each story is followed by a short essay by Sanderson explaining the story’s provenance. Usually with collections, stories vary somewhat in quality, and that’s true here, though more a result of some stories feeling a bit slight rather than not well written/constructed. As a whole, though, Arcanum Unbounded is a solid collection, with two stand-out stories and with the added benefit for Sanderson fans of those prologues and afterwords. Because all of these stories are set in Sanderson’s previously-created universe (i.e. they’re all set in the worlds of his already published novels), I’m going to gloss over plot details because it would be almost impossible to avoid spoilers for the novels.

The Emperor’s Soul: This opening story shows off what is often considered Sanderson’s major forte — the creation of detailed, original, and logically consistent magic systems. In this case, the magic is called Forging, and it involves changing the history of an object via a Forger’s “stamp” so that the object is transformed into the result of its “new” history. For example, a room can be expanded/enhanced by rewriting its history so that a huge hearth had been added at some point, the wall dividing a larger space into two smaller chambers had never been built, and that chipped and faded table had instead been lovingly maintained so that it now shines smooth and glossy. The concept is fascinating (though I did have a few questions), but rather than rely on a new cool magic to carry the story, Sanderson marries the concept to a strong character-driven tale with a deeply philosophical question at its core: what is identity? The Emperor’s Soul deservedly won the Hugo in 2013 for Best Novella and wholly stands on its own even if one hasn’t read any Sanderson, making it a strong opening to the collection.

“The Hope of Elantris:” This, I felt, was one of the more slight stories, and as well I don’t think will have much impact if one is unfamiliar with Elantris the novel.

“The Eleventh Metal” and “Mistborn Secret History:” These two stories bring back one of my favorite Sanderson characters — Kelsier from the MISTBORN series. The first is, similar to “The Hope of Elantris,” a bit slight and is best read with some familiarity with the character and world. That familiarity will also depend the impact of “Secret History,” but this is a stronger story overall and while some of the magic references won’t be so clear to non-fans, the characterization and sense of tension that runs throughout, as well as the high stakes, allow this well-crafted tale to easily stand on its own.

“Allomancer Jack and the Pits of Eltania, Episodes Twenty-Eight Through Thirty:” Your response to this story will be determined mostly by your tolerance for the style, which is a send-up of the old pulp style. I got the joke, and Sanderson carries it off well, but it just wore on me relatively quickly. I could only take so much of the “Fear not, for the wound was not terrible. Surely I had weathered far worse. This was not nearly as bad as when I had found myself sinking in the ocean, my arms bound, my feet tied to a metal bust of the Survivor as I sank.” The snarky footnotes by the main character’s long-suffering chronicler were funny, but I didn’t need the full length of this one.

“White Sand:” This combines an excerpt for the graphic story and the beginning of the unpublished story that is the basis for the graphic. I didn’t care much for the art style (the human figures seemed a bit off to me), and the story itself felt a bit young and simple, as well as a bit predictable.

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell:” This, along with The Emperor’s Soul, was one of my two favorites in the collection. Darker than the others, like the opening novella this has a sharp focus on character and relationship. The plot, meanwhile, is compellingly suspenseful and atmospheric. A top-notch story.

“Sixth of the Dusk:” This one I preferred more for its unusual setting (a sacred island on an Polynesian-flavored archipelago) and the underlying tension of its concept — which involves the conflict of cultures, including the impact of contact with a space-faring race. The writing, though, felt a bit rougher than usual, the story’s relationships a bit rushed.

Edgedancer: This is the one story (a novella, really) not previously published and picks up from the plot of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE to follow the further adventures of Lift and Wyndle. It’s an enjoyable story even if you aren’t familiar with that epic fantasy series, mostly due to Lift’s voice, but fans of STORMLIGHT will absolutely eat this one up.

~Bill Capossere


Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsThis gorgeous, nearly 700 page book takes nine short stories and novellas from Brandon Sanderson‘s COSMERE universe, and giftwraps them with hand-drawn maps of six different solar systems in the Cosmere, pen-and-ink illustrations, and enlightening comments from Sanderson on the history and characteristics of each planet, and how they all tie together. Each system and world is unique in its physical features, societies, plant and animal life, and magic.

Long ago in the Cosmere, Adonalsium, a god or power of creation, was shattered into sixteen shards, whose power was assumed by sixteen individuals. Each shard is named after a particular trait, such as Preservation, Ruin, Ambition, Devotion, Honor, and so on, and they contribute to, if not cause, the magic on each system and world in it. The people who hold the power of a Shard are effectively gods, but they can (with difficulty) be destroyed and the Shard’s power assumed by a new person.

The different solar systems, and the stories set in these systems:

The Selish System (Elantris): The planet Sel originally attracted two Shards of Adonalsium, Dominion and Devotion, but they were destroyed long ago and their powers now permeate the lands of Sel, powering the many types of magic on that planet, which are highly connected to physical locations and to language.

The Emperor’s Soul: This novella, like Elantris, is set on the world Sel, but its connection to the novel is only incidental: the events here take place in a different country on Sel. Wan ShaiLu, a magical Forger with a capital F, is captured while stealing a priceless scepter from the emperor’s palace and replacing it with one of her own magical Forgeries, created using a stamp system. She’s put under sentence of death for her crimes of forgery and theft, considered an abomination because she also Forges people, temporarily changing a person’s looks, personality and skills. But Shai is given an opportunity to escape her sentence: Emperor Ashravan was attacked by an assassin, who killed the empress and severely injured the emperor. His body has been repaired by healers, but he has complete and irreparable brain damage. Shan is charged with magically forging a new soul for the kingdom’s assassinated emperor, matching as closely as possible the emperor’s actual mind and personality. She is given only a hundred days to accomplish this near-impossible task. And there are those waiting to kill her if she makes a wrong step, or to try to subvert her task for their own selfish purposes.

The Emperor’s Soul won a well-deserved Hugo Award for best novella in 2013. It’s a fantastic and enchanting story, combining two intriguing central characters and an imaginative, intricate magical system based on Chinese-type stamps. These stamps can change the nature of an object or a person, but the change will take only if the Forger finds and respects the connection between the nature of the original and the new aspect that the stamp is imposing.

There are some fascinating touches that add depth to the story. When Shai needs a break from figuring out how to Forge a new soul for the emperor, she uses her Forging talents to turn her grim prison room into a lovely chamber, including a cracked glass window:

Attempts to Forge the window to a better version of itself had repeatedly failed; each time, after five minutes or so, the window had reverted to its cracked, gap-sided self. 

 

Then Shai had found a bit of colored glass rammed into one side of the frame. The window, she realized, had once been a stained glass piece. It had been broken [and] rather than repairing it as it had been meant to be, someone had put ordinary glass in the window and left it to crack. A stamp from Shai in the bottom right corner had restored the window, rewriting its history so that a caring master craftsman had discovered the fallen window and remade it. That seal had taken immediately. Even after all this time, the window had seen itself as something beautiful.

 

Or maybe she was just getting romantic again.

The Emperor’s Soul has some thought-provoking insights into the nature of art, how individuals’ desires and actions form their souls, and how people can permanently affect each other. Brandon Sanderson packed a marvelously imaginative story in the pages of this novella. I would have loved to have read more about Wan ShaiLu’s escapades, but this novella feels perfect at its length, complete and fully realized. I found The Emperor’s Soul enormously appealing; it may be my favorite Sanderson work so far. This one is an easy 5 stars for me (I’m much more enthusiastic about this novella than the other four reviewers who have reviewed it on Fantasy Literature).

“The Hope of Elantris”: This short story is set near the end of the events described in Sanderson’s novel Elantris, showing a key battle in the city of Elantris from the point of view of a minor character in the novel, Matisse, a girl who is charged with taking care of the children in Elantris. When soldiers attack, Matisse scrambles to protect them as best she can.

Like several of the other works in this collection, “The Hope of Elantris” hinges on one of Sanderson’s previously published novels, and contains major spoilers for events in the novel. More, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully understand and appreciate the short work in this book without having read the related novel. “The Hope of Elantris” is in the nature of a bonus extra scene that sheds some light on the events that took place in the novel, rather than a fully realized story in itself. I’d recommend reading it while the details of the characters and plot of Elantris are reasonably fresh in your mind; personally, it’s been a few years since I read the novel, and I struggled a bit with trying to remember details about this world, like what seons are and why they’re important.

The Scadrian System (Mistborn): The planet Scadrial has repeatedly suffered cataclysmic events in its history. It was created by the Shards Ruin and Preservation, who have been in conflict ever since. Perhaps more than any other planet in the Cosmere, on Scadrial humans can gain access to vast amounts of magical power. The different types of magic on this planet ― Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy ― show Sanderson’s power of creativity with respect to complex magical systems at its height.

“The Eleventh Metal”: This short story is a prequel to the MISTBORN series, showing Kelsier just coming into his powers as a Mistborn, one who can swallow flakes and bits of various metals and burn them at will to give himself brief bursts of magical powers, with different powers corresponding to different metals. Kelsier is being trained to use his Mistborn powers by Gemmel, an aging, unkempt man who seems to have a total disregard for whether Kelsier survives his training or not. As Sanderson mentions in the postscript, this story was originally written as a sweetener for fans who bought the Mistborn Adventure Game pen-and-paper role-playing game. It’s a good introduction to the MISTBORN world for newcomers, and a reasonably interesting story about Kelsier’s life for those already familiar with the series.

“Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Episodes Twenty-Eight Through Thirty”: A tongue-in-cheek retelling of one of the many adventures of Jak, an intrepid explorer of dangerous lands and places. Jak narrates and publishes his adventures in local newspapers and periodicals for the fans of his sensationalized escapades; his dour Terris steward Handerwym edits Jak’s writings and makes snide remarks in footnotes. After a battle with a koloss, one of the monstrous beings on the planet Scadrial, Jak awakes to finds himself imprisoned in a remote, inaccessible cavern. But escape from the cavern only leads him into further danger. And what have the koloss done with Jak’s beloved, the fair Elizandra? Sanderson affectionately mimics the old pulp stories with this Allomancer Jak tale. It’s a slight but amusing piece, particularly Handerwym’s annotations, and reveals some secrets about the koloss for MISTBORN fans.

Mistborn: Secret History is a novella that is closely tied to the original MISTBORN trilogy, and contains major spoilers for that trilogy, and in any case would not, in my opinion, be particularly interesting for those who haven’t read at least part of that trilogy. Mistborn: Secret History begins near the end of the first book in that series, Mistborn: The Final Empire, and follows a particular character’s adventures in parallel with the events of the remaining two books in the trilogy. This novella, like the character’s experiences, dragged in places, but the pacing and interest level improved for me as the story continued.

The Taldain System: The planet Taldain is tidally locked between two stars in a binary system, a weak white dwarf and a blue-white supergiant. Darkside, the half of Taldain that faces the dwarf star, is in a constant twilight state, with many luminescent plants and animals. The other half, Dayside, is primarily a great sandy desert, with most plants and animals living below the surface of the earth. The Shard Autonomy gives Taldain its magic.

“White Sand” is a draft of a novel Sanderson wrote in the 1990s, but never published as such. It’s now being published as a graphic novel, and this collection includes an excerpt from both the graphic novel and the 1999 draft, covering the same scenes in the life of Kenton, one of the inhabitants of Dayside. In Kenton’s society, those with the power to magically command sand are called sand masters. As the story begins, the mastrells, those who have the highest level of ability, are testing boys for their magical ability with sand. Those with power are permitted to join the Diem, to be trained as sand masters. Kenton, youngest son of the Lord Mastrell, barely has enough ability to join the Diem. His insistence on doing so sets him at odds with his father. But as Kenton grows older, he faces his father and other challenges head on, learning to use finesse to offset his lack of magical power. The scene culminates in a magical test for Kenton, a type of obstacle course where the object is to find and collect five small red sandstone spheres within a set time period. The artwork in the graphic version of this story was attention-grabbing, but I enjoyed the more detailed written version of this story more. Hopefully Sanderson will polish it and turn it into a novel someday. I agree with Bill’s point that this story reads more young and simple than Sanderson’s other work in this collection, but as a coming of age story, the young adult approach makes sense to me.

The Threnodite System: The Threnodite system was warped long ago by a conflict between the Shards Odium and Ambition, and the entire system has been affected by the resulting ripples of destruction and change. The smaller of Threnody’s two continents is a frontier, with vast unexplored areas. People on Threnody also often become a destructive ghost or shade upon death (Sanderson explains this as a result of excess magical Investiture).

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell”: Madam Silence is the widowed owner of a waystop, on the edge of the Forests where shades lie in wait. She runs the inn and tavern with the help of her fourteen year old daughter, William Ann. Silence is secretly a bounty hunter who stealthily hunts down criminals for the bounties on their heads, needing the money to keep her inn and her independence. When she spots a particularly dangerous criminal and four of his men in her waystop, she embarks on a risky plan to try to defeat them and collect the valuable bounties on their heads. Doing so means she will have to enter the Forests to follow them ― and William Ann refuses to let Silence go alone. The lurking shades will kill people who fail to assiduously follow certain Simple Rules: Don’t kindle flame. Don’t shed the blood of another. Don’t run at night.

One of the most compelling stories in this collection, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” has the magical creativity that marks the best of Sanderson’s work, along with a particularly suspenseful plot. I’m with Bill in considering this tale and The Emperor’s Soul the best stories in this collection.

The Drominad System: The Drominad system has three planets with human societies and water as a dominant feature. There are no Shards currently residing in this system, but there is magic nonetheless, through the existence of what Sanderson calls a “perpendicularity.”

“Sixth of the Dusk”: Sixth of the Dusk, or “Dusk,” is an old-fashioned trapper on his world, where his Polynesian type of culture conflicts with the more advanced society on the mainland. Dusk travels with two Aviar, which are birds endowed with different magical talents that help to protect Dusk from the numerous deadly dangers on the islands and in the waters that surround them. Trappers are loners who cling to their traditions, but when Dusk runs into a lone woman on the island of Patji where Dusk traps, the magic of one of his birds makes it clear to him that he needs to work with Vathi to save their world from a grave danger.

This story is also among my favorites, with several thoughtful layers of intriguing conflicts ― between the humans and the natural dangers of their world, between Dusk and the more civilized people from the mainland, and between the people of this world and the offworlders from other stars who wish to trade with them. Once again, Sanderson’s trademark creativity with magical systems adds greatly to this story. I particularly liked the unique powers of his bird Sak, which gives Dusk highly realistic visions of his own dead body to warn him of dangers that will kill him if he doesn’t take care.

The Rosharan System (Stormlight): The Rosharan system, with three habitable planets and ten gas giants, has an ecosystem that includes self-aware Splinters called spren, which can bond with humans. Life on the planet Roshar has been shaped by the spren and by the planet’s many massive, magically Invested storms.

Edgedancer, a 230-page novella in the STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE series first published in Arcanum Unbounded, takes place after the second book in that series, Words of Radiance, and contains spoilers for that novel. Edgedancer follows the adventures of Lift, a young teenage girl with a magical power that she calls “awesome” (in more ways than one). Turning on the awesome enables Lift to make her body frictionless, gracefully (or not) sliding quickly over the surface of the planet, as well as other magical powers, though it uses a lot of energy. As the story begins, Lift is leaving the city of Azimir to go to Yeddaw, reluctantly accompanied by her spren Wyndle, where she plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a man she calls Darkness.

I took a chance on Edgedancer, since I haven’t read the STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE novels yet. I could tell I was missing out on a lot of background, but Edgedancer still worked reasonably well as a stand-alone read. Lift is a rather frustrating character, often stubborn and childish, with the street-smart behavior and attitudes of an orphaned waif, but she’s also courageous and intelligent.

As a group I would probably rate the stories in this volume as four stars average, but the impact of all of the bonus information and materials, including the strikingly illustrated end papers, the solar system maps, and the explanatory introductions and postscripts from Sanderson, impel me to bump this up to 4.5 stars. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Arcanum Unbounded is absolutely a must-have for any Sanderson fan.

~Tadiana Jones


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. I really liked “The Emperor’s Soul” but there really isn’t enough else here to intrigue me. It is clearly established, however, that the Mistborn books do NOT take place on Earth (since Scadria is mentioned). That clears up one thing for me.

  2. The Emperor’s Soul sounds really, really interesting!

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