Book Review: Sanderson’s Secret Projects

This is a review for all four of Sanderson’s “Year of Sanderson” books: Tress of the Emerald Sea, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter, A Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England, and The Sunlit Man. Because these are all their own books, they’ll have their own sections, but this is at least partly a review of Sanderson as a writer and where he is at this point in his career. I consider this to be a somewhat fraught thing, given that I am also a writer, and one with much less popularity, but I read these books, and there are things I want to talk about in them.

Spoilers of varying severity for all these books, especially Tress, where the things I disliked mostly related to the ending.

Production Values

I backed these on Kickstarter, and got the hardcover versions. They immediately became some of the best books that I own, with nice illustrations, embossed covers, tastefully thick paper, and the occasional splash of color that complemented the stories in various ways. Tress changes accent color as the book moves through the seas, Yumi has color changes between the two protagonists, and Frugal Wizard has all kinds of fun supplemental stuff, including doodles and drawings. Given that I backed these on Kickstarter and didn’t get the books until quite a bit later, they could have been much worse and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it, but they were super nice from a presentation standpoint.

If you’re reading the ebook, this probably isn’t meaningful to you, but there were a few times during reading each of these when I thought “damn, these are some great production values”.

I occasionally had some problems with the art, namely that typical book problem where the thing I had pictured in my head didn’t match what was on the page. The thing I like most about reading, as compared to television, movies, or video games, is that I can make up whatever I want in my head, and getting some periodic reminders of what some artist thought about it isn’t really my bag. There are some books where my reading of them gets tied up with a distinctive style, as with Quentin Blake’s amazing illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books or Kurt Vonnegut’s doodles in his books, but here I felt they were missing authorial voice and didn’t integrate well with what’s in my head. Haters will call that a personal problem or a skill issue.

Anyway, moving on to the actual content.

Tress of the Emerald Sea

Tress started out really good for me but steadily got less and less aligned with my tastes. Tress is a girl who lives on an island in a sea of green spores that grow into vines when they come into contact with water. It’s got that Big Worldbuilding energy that I come to Sanderson for, and it’s written pretty well, framing itself as a pretty classic fish-out-of-water story. She’s literally out of water, in this case, because all the seas are spore-based.

Tress goes after her love, Charlie, a prince who has been sent away by ship. She hides on a ship, which turns out to be a smuggler’s ship, and after a fight that kills most of the smugglers, she ends up on a pirate ship instead. She puts herself to work, which prevents them from killing her, and she gradually uses her skills and wits to integrate herself with the crew as they sail the spore seas.

It was around the time she joined the pirate crew that the cracks started to show for me, and steadily brought my enjoyment of the book down. I can broadly divide my dissatisfaction into three parts:

  1. Tress is a girl who’s been cooped up on an island her whole life, living vicariously through the stories of others, thinking herself somewhat dull and unworthy, always lowering her expectations. All this is good. But when she gets to the pirate ship, she eventually starts getting involved in managing spores for the ship, and she becomes a huge nerd about it. Now, I understand that Sanderson is a nerd (and I am also a nerd), but this really did not feel like the right place for the story to go, and started to detract from her character. She gets obsessive about the spores and their magic, rather than just seeing them as tools, and we take a left turn into Tress as a maximally rational protagonist, at least for a bit, where she wants to nerd out about magic systems, how they work, how people use them, etc.
  2. The pirate crew has a large cast of characters, and some of the character writing gets extremely one note. I don’t mind one note characters, as a general rule, but when that note is played for humor, it starts to grate on me. If I were a more diligent reviewer, I would go back through the book and give examples here, but Ann has terrible aim, Uulam collects body parts, and Hoid has been cursed with terrible fashion sense. None of these are bad in isolation, but they wear out their welcome (for my tastes) extremely quickly.
  3. Hoid is the narrator for this and other books. He’s Sanderson’s traveling fool/jester character, and here has been cursed to tell bad jokes and have a terrible fashion sense. This did not at all land for me. The more the story was about Hoid, the less I cared, and in the end, it was quite a bit about Hoid and the greater Cosmere stuff. The central idea here, that of a powerful man who had been cursed, is a fine one, it’s only the execution that I didn’t like. Some of it is simple too much of the “real world” seeping into book, particularly in the “bad fashion”, like socks with sandals or red sequined briefs. The story I want to be reading is of a hard-headed girl on a fantasy world, sailing the seas and getting herself out of progressively hotter water, and what I get instead is comedy that makes me cringe.

Writing that out, I feel like I’m being mean, but this is the place where the book let me down the most, and as much as I was enjoying the start of the book, and in fact enjoyed the bones of the story, it was around this time I realized that I wouldn’t actually be recommending it to anyone.

The ending sealed the deal.

I won’t spoil it entirely, since I know sometimes people read reviews to come to a decision on whether to read books or not, but this is very firmly a Cosmere novel, part of Sanderson’s enormous multi-book worldbuilding project, and the climax of the book makes a lot more sense as a Cosmere novel rather than a fantasy novel that’s standing on its own. When the Cosmere rears its head, it’s with a shift away from everything that had been making the novel work. (For reference, I’ve read pretty much everything set in the Cosmere, so it wasn’t unfamiliarity so much as a feeling that it didn’t fit the existing story.)

Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing, particularly because it’s so tied with the understanding of the reader and the culture that the book is being read in. Every genre sets expectations, and if you’re fantasy-coded, no one is going to be all that surprised when a dragon shows up, even if the story has never mentioned dragons before. I enjoy and encourage playing with those conventions and preconceptions. I just think it didn’t work here, particularly because the story beats didn’t actually require it.

Overall, a promising start turned into a book that didn’t sit well with me, and which left me wishing there were some version of the story that had been extracted from all of Sanderson’s other stuff. I don’t know if he does that integration to please the fans, because he loves it, or some other reason, but of the three Cosmere novels in this set of four, that integration worked the least well here.

The Sunlit Man

This book was the second of the set I read, so it’s getting reviewed here.

The biggest miss of this novel is that the special fancy printing wasn’t an illuminated manuscript. It seems for sure like the sort of pun that Sanderson would go for. Sunlit? Illuminated? Would have been great.

The book follows Nomad, and in spite of being written before Thresholder, I would call it a Thresholder-like. Nomad has a incredibly fighting prowess, a sarcastic butler that can transform into weapons, and a compulsion or magic effect that prevents him from harming another person within certain exploitable limits. He’s on the run from the Night Brigade, who follow him from world to world, hunting him so they can torture him or something. The entirety of the book takes place on a single planet with its own unique worldbuilding, and since that’s part of the fun, I won’t say too much about it.

I enjoyed this one overall, and while it’s definitely a Cosmere novel, I didn’t think that aspect got in the way too much. The novel is structured in a very classical way, and delivers on pretty much all the things it’s been setting up at the end, which I always appreciate.

Nomad is a man on the run, someone who’s had to essentially dedicate his life to fleeing from the Night Brigade, and maybe it’s my imagination, but I see a bit of Mad Max in the plot, particularly the character beats of having someone who is lost to the world returning through connection to a ragtag group of survivors fleeing an evil overlord type. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a stock plot, but I don’t mind stock plots so long as they’re executed well.

Nomad was, at one point, a scholar, and here something happens that’s a bit like in Tress: we have this guy who’s a nomadic loner fighting across the stars with his wits and his blade, and at times he turns into a total nerds who is very interested in the inner mechanics of the world around him. I think it’s more defensible here, since it’s a better character beat for Nomad, but it happens about five different times where Nomad will start to wonder about the world and then shut it down with “no, you aren’t that guy anymore”. This is about two times more than I needed to see it, and at a certain point it felt like Sanderson thought I was dumb and needed some reminding that this was an aspect of his character. On the other hand, and especially given the other books in this set, it also felt like Sanderson’s brand of geekery poking through.

The action was overall good, and having a main character who can’t fight back is a good gimmick, at least for a shorter novel like this one. I thought some of the character stuff worked a little less well, and the overall theme didn’t stick as much as it could have, but it’s one of those things where I have some mild dissatisfaction and no useful changes to propose.

A Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England

Frugal Wizard is the one non-Cosmere story out of the bunch, and Sanderson’s attempt at what he calls a “white room” mystery: a character wakes up in a situation with no knowledge of how they got there or who they are, and has to figure it out on the fly. In this case, the character is waking up in Medieval England.

My initial impression on reading the first chapters was that this wasn’t any better than I would be able to find on the likes of RoyalRoad. I think some of that is the narration style, which is a little bit hokey and immediately establishes a gimmick of the protagonist rating things as a joke (which I knew I would not enjoy after the second time this happened). Some of it is because “whoa, who am I, where am I” is a very junior writer trope. I think junior writers like it because it mimics the process of writing, allowing the author to do their exploration along with the character and have some cheap twists, turns, and reveals. Given everything I know about Sanderson and his process, I would be surprised if this was actually how he wrote the opening, but it’s what it felt like to me. My first comparison was to Project Hail Mary, which is also not going to win any awards for prose, but handed the white room mystery aspects in what I felt was a more satisfying way.

Our protagonist slowly learns some things about the world and about himself, eventually discovering that there’s a threat he needs to help take care of. I enjoyed most of the character writing in this one, particularly with the cast of Medieval characters, and thought that it was above par for Sanderson. The story is heavy on the character arcs and a bit light on the supporting characters, if that makes sense, but I think when you write a book that’s only 77K words you can’t sprawl out as much, and there aren’t as many revelations to make.

Interspersed through the book are pages and excerpts from the eponymous handbook, which I enjoyed, but I also felt a little like they belonged in a different book, given that so many of the interesting things mentioned in them had pretty much no impact on the plot. It’s the sort of indulgence that I generally like, but I kept thinking that it would tie in with the main plot in some way, rather than being a bunch of worldbuilding notes. Given that they make up something like 10% of the book, I would maybe hope for a little more impact.

Spoilers follow: I enjoyed the book most when it was doing sequential reveals of the protagonist, going from the idea that he was a thief, to an artist, to a cop, to a member of a gang. I kept thinking there was going to be just one more reveal, which was that he was an undercover cop of some kind. Instead, we end on this character who’s kind of a failure in life, and is doing the inter-dimensional thing to redeem himself. The revelations after that point are about secondary characters, and don’t really change anything or serve as actual ‘revelations’, at least from my reading. All this stuff about Ryan and Jen just sort of left me cold, and the Jen revelation didn’t feel like it landed, especially because I saw it coming a mile away.

Yumi and the Nightmare Painter

This was hands down my favorite of the bunch. The story follows two protagonists from different worlds, one of them Yumi, a shrine maiden who’s been imprisoned by her duty and stacks rocks to attract spirits, and the other Painter, a sullen emo boy who makes paintings to trap nightmares in a way that’s just considered a kind of normal job.

We get to see their daily lives on their Heavy Worldbuilding worlds, then they get entangled with each other in something similar to a Freak Friday problem. They spend every day in each other’s world, together, and have to learn the others responsibilities and expectations.

It’s an unabashed romance, and I’m pretty sure is the most romance-heavy thing that Sanderson has written. Thankfully, that romance works well, and the structure of revelations and tensions is really good. I think it gets to be a little aimless in the middle, which is mostly a result of having set up some tensions that are put “on hold” for a bit too long.

It’s also a Cosmere story, but I think it works well here, because the Cosmere-ness of the story is less integral to the plot, and the characters who are from “outside” of the worlds are really more there for exposition and comic relief, rather than being central to the plot. Hoid is once again the narrator of the story, but I found him more bearable here than in the other books where his particular flavor leaks through. There’s quite a bit of worldbuilding stuff that we get told in parentheses, mostly by way of explaining Cosmere stuff like Investiture and Connection, and I felt like it was wholly unnecessary given that it didn’t have any impact on the story.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magic is that “an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic”, but I think there’s something else that flows from that, which is “the author shouldn’t include more information than is necessary for the reader to understand the conflict” and then also “the reader’s ability to understand the magic system is proportional to how many moving parts the magic system has”. Yumi does a really good job of establishing simple, coherent rules for its worlds and characters, and every time Hoid interjects, I get this feeling that I’m being explained some things about how and why this all interacts with a bunch of background magic stuff that isn’t relevant to the story I’m reading. It’s much less intrusive here, because the plot doesn’t depend on it, and it’s safely tucked away in parentheticals, and the story itself was engendering enough goodwill.

The ending is really good, and the book goes in some directions that I didn’t expect. One of the things Sanderson, as a consummate planner, is good at doing is making sure there’s a bunch of payoff to things that have been established before, here including both repeated lines and magic system stuff.

Sandersonian Storytelling

Sanderson is a worldbuilding nerd. I’m generally a fan of writers who are worldbuilding nerds, because I consider them to be “my people”, but one of the risks of that style is that you spend a bunch of time on the worldbuilding at the expense of characterization and plot. Sanderson is good at having tight plots, and the worldbuilding is always a highlight, but it does intrude into the characterization a bit sometimes.

These are four very different stories, but they all have fish-out-of-water plots (Yumi has two!), which is at least partly in service of exploring the world more than just having a native who knows and understands things. On top of that, we either see people very interested in the worlds and their magic, or a narrator who cares about and wants to explain those things to us.

I think this is great, even if it’s an authorial fingerprint that maybe for my personal preferences isn’t something that I want to read through in sequence like I (mostly) did for these books.

Honestly, looking back at these four books, while I enjoyed all of them, I think I have a few sticking points that probably come down to personal preference.

  1. Sanderson has a particular style of humor that I am comfortable describing as Quite Mormon. There’s a straightforward mugging corniness to it. This is sometimes endearing, and other times grating, and I think where I find it grating is when there’s too much repetition of the same joke. Because of Sanderson’s strong characterization where he puts a lot of emphasis on one or two traits, the repetition shows up a little too much for me.
  2. My own prose has been described as “workmanlike”, and that’s something I would apply to Sanderson too. There are a few lines of poetry or lyricism here and there, but mostly it’s straightforward description. This works well, except when there are the moments that demand that poetry. There, I think he has trouble delivering.
  3. I’ve mentioned this a few times now, but there’s something about the way that Sanderson does characterization, particularly for side characters, that I don’t enjoy. Most side characters have their one “thing” and then the more time we spend with them, the more we see of that one thing, and sometimes there some revealed depth, but even then, I don’t find that to be enough. There’s a bodybuilder guy in Yumi who shows up a lot and doesn’t really do much, but his muscles get mentioned every time, and while there’s a mild payoff to this later (about the nature of art and striving to become better), it just wasn’t enough for me.

Sanderson is one of those authors who I’m going to keep reading unless there’s a dramatic drop in quality. My favorite story of his was The Emperor’s Soul, which I think marked a high point for him, and I’m still sort of waiting for him to write a longer work that hits the same highs for me. I really enjoyed the opening parts of Tress, and enjoyed all of Yumi, but I have this worry that Sanderson has essentially plateaued as a writer. Given that he’s forty-eight years old and one of the most successful living fantasy writers, I guess that’s fair, and it’s not reasonable to hope that an author will take a step to the left and become perfectly aligned with my tastes.

One can hope though.

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Book Review: Sanderson’s Secret Projects

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