Thoughts on Brandon Sanderson’s writing

Actually, I’m not really going to write about Sanderson at all. I don’t know him and have never even met him-not even to have taken an awkward selfie with him. However, I can now say that I have read one of his books, and I don’t understand the hype. At least not entirely.

It took me a while. His name had been around my geeky reading circles for years, even decades if we’re going to be completely honest, but I’d never actually read anything by him. That changed when a book club I’m a part of added Mistborn as their selection. After reading the book I can understand why he has the fanbase he does, but I wasn’t impressed with the book.

What stood out for, as well as for a lot of people in the book club, was how many people agreed that reading Sanderson’s novel was like reading an entirely text-based version of anime or a comic book. From start to finish, the whole story moved in a way that really emulated the kind of big action an audience would expect from a pulpy comic adventure story. In a way, it was kind of fun, and it’s the sort of thing that lends a lot to Sanderson’s popularity. I get it, really, I do.

There was another aspect of Mistborn that was also a strength, the overall architecture of the tale. I’m not talking about the worldbuilding, that was fairly tidy as well, rather I’m speaking towards the fact that Sanderson clearly planned out the entire story before writing it. Maybe even the entire trilogy. Don’t forget, Mistborn is only the first book in the series. Some people can improvise their way to a complete novel, but considering the way the story evolved, it’s pretty clear Sanderson sat down and sketched an outline of this narrative in advance of trying to build up his word count.

There weren’t many loose ends, even though some things, like what exactly a “kandra” is, didn’t receive much of an explanation. However, people who have read the trilogy explained to me that a lot of what look like holes in the story are actually addressed in the subsequent two books. A novel shouldn’t have to rely on later books to flesh out these details, but it’s hard not to get the idea that this was Sanderson’s plan all along. Three 600 pages books is a lot more manageable than one 1800 page book, but that’s just my opinion.

Sanderson’s worldbuilding was very efficient and had the same sort of clinical feel to it that the structure of the story had. Everything had the sense of being placed into the story for a very particular purpose. The implementation of Luthadel, the capital city, and its location on a mineral-rich site was key to the metal-based magic that Sanderson implemented. It’s even explained in the book that Luthadel’s location made it what it was because the abundance of so many minerals was helpful to the Allomancers, or anyone that “burned” metals. This kind of thing is planned. Writers don’t accidentally fall into such a confluence of ideas to make a story work. Sanderson thought about this and then executed a plan to make his story function the way he wanted it to. This is all on the positive side, but there’s more.

On some level, I feel like Mistborn is exactly the kind of story that enthusiasts and detractors of genre fiction would both point at to support their argument. There are some contexts where a dispute like that would be seen as a positive, but in this case, it’s a problem. Essentially, it means the book’s faults are likely accurate.

For example, the story is almost entirely plot-driven. That’s fine for the people that like stories like this, but it left Mistborn lacking in depth. Attempts at philosophy or wisdom came off as awkward and somewhat banal. A catchphrase used over and over in the book was “There’s always another secret.” This isn’t profound, but considering how important it was to the story, it sheds light on how shallow the book felt at times.

Similar arguments could be levelled against the characters, many of whom felt more like cliches, rather than unique voices moving the story along. One of the primary actors in the tale is Kelsier, a dedicated, if not fanatically driven character. He’s charismatic, reckless, but without him, the story doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, he takes on the role of an uninspired messiah figure. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone reading this!) The cumulative effect of all this is a book that feels like it was written with an efficient process and feels somewhat sterile. If Sanderson had gone back to add depth to the book, it would have vastly improved the final product. Ultimately, what’s left is readable, but only moderately satisfying.

Then again, Sanderson is a unique voice. I have a hard time thinking of another author that presents this type of perspective to their work. There are definitely authors that I think write better books, but Sanderson still has his own presence among all the entries in the fantasy worlds populating the shelves of genre fiction. Like I said at the beginning, Sanderson’s work isn’t my preference, but I understand why people like it. His record breaking Kickstarter kind of underlines his importance in some people’s personal libraries. The success of his Kickstarter is an indicator as well, that a lot of people enjoy his writing. Just don’t count me among them.