Arcanum for All--plus the Ars
Brandon Sanderson’s first short (well, shortish) story collection has something for everyone: new readers looking for shorter entries into his work, deep fans seeking clues to the larger story unfolding behind the scenes, writers and listeners to Sanderson’s craft-oriented podcast looking for insight into his process—it’s all there. Plus some stuff we’re not so sure about.
But first, the goods: of the nine pieces collected here, four are solid gold novellas, excellent examples of why Sanderson is one of the best-selling authors in fantasy. The worlds are imaginative, the magic systems unique and engaging, the characters spunky and well-motivated, and the plots wring all the excitement and surprises they can from those elements. Maybe the best is the first piece, The Emperor’s Soul, involving a girl imprisoned for her forbidden (stamp-based) magical skills, plotting not only to save her life but engineer her escape under ever steeper time constraints. Sixth of the Dusk is a tropical romp with psychic birds and steampunk colonialists; Shadows for Silence is a clever woman’s solution to family and economic strains in a ghost-haunted forest; and Mistborn: Secret History is probably a good read for those unfamiliar with Sanderson’s work, and a lot of fun for those who’ve read his Mistborn series.
Which brings us to the second group this books appeals to: the deep fans. We get a lot more about the Cosmere and the larger story connecting Sanderson’s series, as well as dips back into favorite worlds. Key to these are the star charts for each system in the Cosmere, along with notes from a new (and apparently important) character about them, and the god-shards ruling them. A little more accessible for those just wanting fun fiction is Mistborn: Secret History, a deep dip back into the Mistborn trilogy, lots of fun—aaand I can’t really say anything else about it without spoilers. There’s also a short story set in the world of Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, and a brief one about Kelsier from before the events of the first Mistborn trilogy. And, a strange collection of in-world fiction about Allomancer Jak.
These last three bring us to the not-as-great parts of Arcanum Unbounded: a couple short stories, the Allomancer Jak humorous-ish collection, and some blurbs from Sanderson’s graphic novel, none of which really add up to great fiction. This part of the collection feels rushed, the plots and writing less than Sanderson’s best, and sort of slotted in to either fill space or conveniently collect all the rare goodies deep fans might want but not be willing to, say, buy a board game for. For new readers, they’re likely better skipped, and even for deep-ish fans such as myself, they were more of interest for their glimpses into unseen parts of the Cosmere than for their standalone quality as fiction.
The same might be said for Edgedancer, the only new piece of fiction in the collection, featuring a much-loved character from The Stormlight Archives. The story is interesting, and we get more of spunky Lift and her wacky ways, but… the magical-twist ending payoff Sanderson is so known for feels a little flat, the prose a little less polished, Lift’s character a little less punchy than she is in Words of Radiance. The novella feels rushed, and less than Sanderson’s best—a criticism I think unfortunately applies to his most recent shorter novels, The Bands of Mourning and Calamity. Let’s hope it’s because he’s focusing so much attention on the Stormlight Archive sequence, and not because he’s too pressured with deadlines, or letting his craft slip as his readership cements.
As ever, Sanderson does tip a hat to those of us fans who are also aspiring writers, with interesting notes after each piece about writing it, and a blurb from his 1999 not-to-published White Sands novel.
But what to think of Arcanum Unbounded as a whole? Mostly good things: for those who haven’t read the novellas it contains, they’re well worth the purchase price. For fans dying for a little more Sanderson before the massive dose of Stormlight scheduled for fall of next year, it’s a decent holdover—and I can’t help suspect the reason they released it when they did, to hold us all over. But if you’ve read the previously-released novellas, and aren’t a deep Cosmere fan, the new and rarer material in here may not be worth the purchase price.
A fantasy lover since Tolkien in third grade, Levi has been published in several magazines, including Lakeside Circus, Perihelion SF, and Spark: A Creative Anthology. He is currently at work on a novel--fantasy, of course.