Monday, July 18, 2016

Down the Stacks #33: White Sand

Normally, I draw material for Down the Stacks from my local library, and I have yet to review a graphic novel.  This week, things are different.  I was at Barnes & Noble and noticed something on one of the “special feature” tables: the name Brandon Sanderson printed across the top of a graphic novel called White Sand.  Considering my moderate obsession with Brandon Sanderson and his Cosmere, it should come as no surprise that I picked that book up without a second thought, nor that I’m about to gush about it for this week’s Down the Stacks.

White Sand is actually the very first Cosmere story that Brandon Sanderson ever conceived, but due to his inexperience as a writer at the time he did not publish it right away. And the later success of Mistborn and other projects pushed White Sand to the back-burner or years.  It only comes to us now in the form of a graphic novel because Dynamite Comics approached Sanderson asking for unfinished projects that they could convert to comic book style.  With the help of Rik Hoskin as co-writer and Julius Gopez on art, Sanderson was able to apply the finishing polish White Sand needed to stand with the rest of the Cosmere.
But enough backstory; let’s get to the actual book.
White Sand takes place on Taldain, a tidally-locked planet situated between two stars - one typically bright and hot and the other “tiny and offering a strange light” that results in its side of the planet being called “Darkside” while the other is “Dayside.”  The story, or at least the portion contained in the first volume, takes place entirely on Dayside, where all but a slice of the single continent is covered in white sand and humanity has developed into cultures similar in appearance to the desert-dwelling peoples of Earth.  We open on a gathering of the Sand Masters, the quasi-religious order that commands Taldain’s distinctive flavor of Cosmere magic, in the center of the continent as our primary protagonist, Kenton, argues with his father, the Lord Mastrell, about Kenton’s insistence on challenging the Mastrell’s Run, a grueling gauntlet-slash-scavenger hunt that even the strongest Sand Masters hesitate to take on.  Kenton himself is objectively the weakest Sand Master, but has a stubborn streak a mile wide which won’t let him settle for anything less than the lofty rank of Mastrell.  Kenton also happens to have enough ingenuity on his side to actually survive the Run.
The next day, at the grand meeting of all Sand Masters to distribute new ranks to the acolents (students), things go horribly wrong when the Sand Masters are ambushed by an army of Kertzians, a Daysider tribe that despises the Sand Masters as abominations in the sight of their god, the Sand Lord, but haven’t actually raised a sword against them in centuries.  In the ensuing fight, the Sand Masters are overcome and nearly wiped out, and Kenton ends up buried in the sand for a while.  After he emerges and looks over the carnage, Kenton encounters a group of Darksiders led by Duchess Khrissalla, who has come to Dayside to complete her deceased fiancee’s quest to find the mythical “Sand Mages.”  Kenton leads the group to Lossand, the only part of the Dayside continent that is green and where the Sand Masters’ base, the Diem, is located.  There, Khrissalla and Kenton go their separate ways: Khriss to pick up the last lead her fiance had and Kenton to join up with the other surviving Sand Masters and start working on the mystery of who enticed the Kertzians to massacre the Mastrells and how the attack became such a successful slaughter.  
Volume One of White Sand ends after introducing another viewpoint character - Ais, a Kertzian woman working as a Trackt (essentially a police detective, from the looks of things) in Lossand - and adding in some politically-charged complications to both Kenton and Khrissalla’s quests.  It’s shaping up to a be a typical, complexly braided Sanderson plot.
We learn the most about Kenton in Volume One of White Sand.  He starts out extremely stubborn and willful, constantly clashing with his father in arguments that neither can back down from without losing face, but he also proves himself to be a very intelligent and resourceful man on account of having to make do with almost no Sand Mastery power.  He takes great pride in being a Sand Master and, once his goal of proving himself to his father is violently rendered moot, he devotes himself to repairing the reputation of the Sand Master profession in Lossand as well as figuring out who in the Diem’s ranks is a traitor.  Kenton visually stands out from the uniformly dressed Sand Masters due to notably darker skin inherited from his unseen Darksider mother.
The reason behind Khrissalla’s quest to Dayside is still a mystery and she doesn’t get near the amount of screen time that Kenton does, but she has at least demonstrated that she easily fits one of Sanderson’s common molds for female leads: the intelligent, politically-savvy, take-charge woman who succeeds more with guile than with hitting stuff.

As usual, Brandon Sanderson has created a most interesting world for White Sand.  The Daysider and Darksiders exist in starkly contrasting worlds and when taken together are an interesting contrast to reality.  Daysiders are, as a rule, light-skinned yet they live in cultures akin to ancient Middle Eastern and North African tribes: tent cities, lots of robes and hoods, and pragmatic and borderline brutal methods of justice and warfare.  Darksiders are all dark-skinned but dress and act like colonial-era Europeans (although apparently firearm technology has only just started to come about).  Two of Khriss’s companions are professors of anthropology and linguistics and (aside from her bared-shoulders dress) Khriss herself wouldn’t seem out of place in a Victorian-era upper-class gathering.
It seems counter-intuitive for the Darksiders with their dimmer star to be darker in skin tone than Daysiders.  The best I and fellow Sanderson fans can figure, the explanation for this is that Darkside’s star primarily emits UV light and Dayside’s star emits very little, so Darksiders would have to develop higher melanin counts just to survive.
The Sand Mastery magic system is not a complex one, but it does require one to be born with the ability and train it extensively.  Sand Masters combine some of the water in their body with the white sand all around Dayside and then control it with their minds to attack, defend, or even lift themselves and others into the air.  A Sand Master’s power, and by extension their rank in the order is measured by how many independant “ribbons” of sand they can control at once, and there is an upper limit to how much a single ribbon of sand can accomplish.  Kenton, for example, can only control one ribbon, which is enough to slow a fall or create handholds on a cliff but not enough to carry Kenton’s full weight into the air.  Since Sand Mastery uses up the water in a person’s body, there is a danger of “overmastering” and killing oneself with dehydration.  On the other side of the coin, powerful Sand Masters have an ability called Slatrification that allows them to convert sand into water.

The story of White Sand isn’t complete yet, but what I have seen of it so far is enough for me to recommend it as wholeheartedly as I do every other Cosmere story I’ve read so far.  Pick it up at you local bookstore, or track it down on Amazon or other online bookseller of choice.

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