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.
Deeply Meaningful and Apocalyptic Hand Lotion
There are a lot of science fiction stories about the end of the world. There are plenty about the evil of corporations. There are probably some that involve millions of genetically identical people, maybe even a few with apocalyptic hand lotion.
But are they this fun?
That’s the thing about Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition—it tells a great story, has interesting characters, involves believable (yet ultimately apocalyptic) science, and hits all end-of-the-world notes we love from stories like The Stand and A Canticle for Leibowitz. But it has so much fun doing it. This is probably the funniest book that I’ve read in years.
It’s also the most meaningful funny book I’ve read in years. Beyond some characters who realize some universal things about being human, and beyond Wells’ own obvious beef with the corporate cosmetics industry (one in which he worked for ten years), there is a deep message here about appearance and identity. A message that plays out in every storyline, that every character somehow faces, and that ultimately we all have to face in society. And Wells explores it deeply without ever (really) getting on his soap box (there might be this one page…).
If I can level a criticism, it’s that the characters don’t always feel deep or well-rounded. They play their parts believably, say a few insightful things, and none fall into stereotypes, but still somehow they feel secondary to the plot, to the larger ideas Wells is playing with. Or, maybe he just sacrificed depth for more good jokes, which honestly, we’re not complaining about.
So what’s it about, anyway? It’s about a cosmetics scientist who accidentally creates a hand lotion that imprints on your DNA, and then keeps rewriting it, to make you appear young. Only, if someone else uses that same lotion, it rewrites their DNA to yours. So you can be a more beautiful, youthful you, or become someone else more beautiful. Or handsome. Or genetically perfect. Or… politically powerful. Or deathly ill, if you wanted to weaponize it. Or even not human anymore—and it all happens, with an inescapable political capitalist logic that feels far too familiar.
Which is the best part of the book: the way, despite the far-fetched technology, the central themes and conflicts hit home. Because we live in a world controlled by money, not ethics, and a society obsessed with identity and appearance. And though neither Wells nor any of his characters may offer us a solution, Extreme Makeover does what all good speculative fiction does: it gives us perspective, a look at a world just different enough from ours, and just familiar enough, that we see our own a little differently, get a new take on our strange-yet-familiar life stories.
Hell, maybe even an idea for a makeover.
Epic Post-Victoriana Afro-Steampunk
That’s right—this book is all those titles. And more. And less. A steampunk take—no, a steampunk revolution against—the brutal and overlooked colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, and the stuffy European ideals that still haunt racial and sexual politics today. Sounds awesome, right? A lot of things about Nisi Shawl’s post-Victoriana epic are awesome—the multicultural cast of Chinese and European immigrants, indigenous Africans, and people born somewhere in between; the clever African inflection she gives to steampunk technologies (like taking the rubber industry driving colonization and making it improve dirigibles); the religious and political factions all struggling to create their own kind of African state—it’s all awesome.
It’s just hard to follow.
That could be because instead of one viewpoint character, or even two or three (see most epics), or five or six (think Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan), we’ve got eleven. They are well-written and unique and fun to read—but even so I struggle to remembered who each one was and what had happened last time we met them.
Add to that some significant time jumps—the book takes place over twenty years, and sometimes a year or more has passed since we last followed a particular character—and they’re in a new place, and a lot politically has happened since then. Technology itself leaps forward—we go from steam tractors to fast dirigibles in the space of a chapter or two, in which the main settlement has also been attacked and had to retreat somewhere else to caves, and we’ve switched character heads…
You get the idea. Really cool stuff is happening, but instead of a single story Everfair feels like six or eight novellas shuffled together. It expects a lot of the reader, and much as I’m ready for mental leaps, for imaginative stretches—that’s part of why we love fantasy—at a certain point the readability gets in the way of the awesome. And bottomline, I found myself less excited to return to Everfair than other books I was reading at the time, despite all the things it has going for it.
So take this for what you will. If you love historical fantasy/steampunk, really diverse casts of characters, or are interested in steampunk imagining some of the wrongs of Leopold’s Congo righted, this book will be worth the work. If that all sounds good, but you’re looking for a book to draw you in rather than having to pull yourself in, it might not be the one.