Monday, January 2, 2017

Down the Stacks #43: Arcanum Unbounded

It is Brandon Sanderson time once more here on Down the Stacks.  This week’s selection is from the Cosmere, but in a much more general sense than any other book.  Arcanum Unbounded is a new anthology collection that brings together a number of short Cosmere tales that have been previously published in many disparate places.  It’s more than just a simple anthology though: this new Arcanum provides never before seen glimpses into the works of a significant player in the Cosmere’s background narrative.

Brandon Sanderson has an obvious preference for novel-length stories and grand epics, but he has produced some (relatively) short stories at the request or invitation of various people, including George R. R. Martin.  Arcanum Unbounded is the first time all these stories have been collected in one place, which is a great boon to fledgling Cosmere scholars like myself.  What makes the collection particularly interesting, however, is that it is arranged by the planetary settings of the stories, and each planet is introduced with a short description made by Khrissalla of Taldain, who at some point after the events of White Sand managed to leave her planet and join with a group dedicated to studying the whole Cosmere.  Khriss’s prefaces to each planet include an overview of the planet’s star system, the identity and status of any Shards known to reside on or to have interacted with the system, and at least references the local magic system.  Following each story is a short postscript by Sanderson about the origins of the story and what it might lead to in the future.
As for the stories themselves, the collection starts with The Emperor’s Soul, which I’ve reviewed as an individual piece.  Following that is:
  • “The Hope of Elantris” - a side-story taking place during the climax of Elantris.
  • “The Eleventh Metal” - originally included in the Mistborn RPG as a sort of introduction to the Final Empire setting and Allomancy in action.
  • “Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, episodes twenty-eight through thirty” - a “sweetener” piece for the Wax & Wayne edition of the Mistborn RPG.  It is the pulp-style and clearly embellished account of a “gentleman adventurer” in search of a lost treasure guarded by Koloss, edited and annotated by Jak’s long-suffering steward, Handerwym.  Jak’s story is good enough on its own, but the weariness and veiled disdain towards Jak’s casual racism, contradictory declarations, and apparent disdain for sensible punctuation that make the main theme of Handerwym’s annotations makes the account ten times better.
  • “Mistborn: Secret History” - the longest “short story” in the collection, this puppy is nearly 200 pages long and divided into chapters!  The story is extremely heavy on spoilers for the original Mistborn trilogy, so I’ll just say it provides a kind of “behind the scenes” look at the forces driving the original trilogy.  “Secret History” also provides some of the most explicit references to the Cosmere’s aggregate storyline and the individuals and groups operating one step removed from the physical realm the actual novels take place in.
  • The first chapter of White Sand, presented in both comic and prose formats.  I’ve reviewed White Sand already so I don’t have much to say except that Khriss’s intro to the Taldain system clarifies how the twin suns work: Nightside’s star is a white dwarf masked by a ring of particulates, leaving just enough light for a perpetual twilight on Nightside while Dayside’s star is a blue-white supergiant.
  • “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” - this tale is set on a planet called Threnody, which is plagued by murderous shadows of the dead and an undefined “Evil” that has driven the populace from the main continent.  The story concerns Silence Montane, a woman running a wayside tavern and moonlighting as a bounty hunter to try and stay ahead of her debts and maintain her stock of shade-repelling silver.  It’s a harrowing tale of a dangerous woman in an even more dangerous world.
  • “Sixth of the Dusk” - This story’s world stands out because it is, so far, the only Cosmere setting that is not a Shardworld.  The titular Sixth of the Dusk is a trapper from an ocean-dwelling people who prefer isolation and don’t like questioning how the world works.  Dusk does his work on a deadly island called Patji accompanied only by a pair of magic birds that shield his mind from telepathic predators and give him visions of his potential deaths.  When Dusk comes across a member of a trading company from the mainland, he finds himself caught between the traditions of his culture and the inevitability of progress.
  • “Edgedancer” - This story is set on Roshar, the setting of the Stormlight Archives, and acts as a bridge between Words of Radiance and the yet-incomplete third volume, so it’s as heavy with spoilers as “Mistborn: Secret History,” albeit not nearly as loaded with Cosmere-level details.  “Edgedancer” is the continuing adventures of Lift, a devil-may-care orphan girl whose main goal in life is to break into rich people’s homes and eat their lunch, and her poor cultivationspren partner Wyndle, who is bound to Lift because of her destiny to become one of the Knights Radiant.  Lift doesn’t much care about the Radiant stuff beyond the fact that she has the ability to make herself or other objects frictionless (ideal for slipping out of the grips of guards) and accelerate the growth of plants, and Lift insists that Wyndle is a soul-eating voidbringer despite his frequent objections.  The story is a good bit of fun, but I would strongly recommend holding off on it until you’ve read The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance.

Arcanum Unbounded is a fantastic showcase of Brandon Sanderson’s style and prowess, but due to the content of the biggest stories, I’m not sure if I would recommend it to someone who isn’t already familiar with the current Cosmere novels.  If you don’t mind spoilers, however, it may be a good sample platter for the Cosmere setting.

Now, having talked about this book, I feel more obligated to review the rest of the Cosmere novels.  Look out for those in the coming year.

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