I’ve been re-reading the Wheel of Time series, which has led me to thinking about Brandon Sanderson’s own original works, and comparisons are unavoidable. After Robert Jordan died, Brandon Sanderson completed the 149-book epic based on Jordan’s notes. This work put Sanderson on the map, which enabled him to publish massive books such as Stormlight Archive, Sanderson’s current work-in-progress. He has planned several 5-book arcs; the first four books of the first arc have already been published. Unlike George RR Martin, Sanderson can actually keep a schedule, so I suspect Book Five will be out on time. Although, Stormlight hasn’t completed a full arc yet, I feel confident in saying it’s a worthy successor to Wheel of Time.
Guests in Tolkien’s House
Fantasy has been subdivided into dozens of categories: high fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, etc. Whatever. There are only two kinds of fantasy: fantasy that imitates Tolkien and fantasy that answers Tolkien. There’s considerable overlap between these two.
Tolkien’s epic is British mythology, a series of epic stories and myths designed to make the English look cool. Because he’s a master of the craft, Tolkien actually succeeds in making the UK seem pretty epic. Wheel of Time is basically answering Tolkien but with heavy doses of imitation. The series is American mythology updated for the 80s and 90s. Instead of wizened Gandalf, the Merlin figure is an agelessly beautiful Moraine. The heroes aren’t the humble smallfolk that Tolkien loved; instead, they’re powerful warriors who sling magic, run with wolves, and command armies. You know, American tough guy shit.
So, where does Stormlight Archive fit? Sanderson’s epic is very firmly in the answering Tolkien category. He seems to take measured and deliberate steps to reject Tolkien instead of just merely updating him. But, you can’t reject something without acknowledging it. Sanderson is still a tenant in Tolkien Mansion.
Magic As Math
Sanderson has many strengths as a writer, but I believe his strongest ability and the one that will launch him towards the Rushmore of Fantasy Authors is his ability to craft magical systems. It’s also one of the most glaring rejections of Tolkien. Think back to Lord of the Rings: how does magic work? Gandalf just kind of does it, right? And Tom Bombadil maybe can do it too? And the elves are so hot that they have superpowers. It’s all very vague and soft. Sanderson doesn’t get down like that.
The magical system in Stormlight Archive is incredibly thorough and detailed. A careful reader with a tab open to stormlightarchive.fandom.com can understand basically everything the characters understand and sometimes more. That means that when you’re reading, you can accurately guess what characters are capable of doing in different situations. There’s no deus ex machinas to save the day. Sanderson doesn’t break his magical rules; they’re physical rules like gravity and magnetism. There’s real tension there.
Stormlight Archive features heroes who are flawed in unique ways. These aren’t Punisher type flaws, either. Frank Castle’s biggest flaw is that he just does way too much murder, and it’s just too cool. That’s not a real flaw.
The characters in Stormlight suffer from mental illnesses, though they’re not really diagnosed as such (technology and medical knowledge are vaguely medieval). These mental illnesses allow them to access different parts of their brains that facilitate their magical abilities; however, they’re still illnesses. A character suffering from depression does not suddenly become un-depressed when the danger rises. He attempts to drag himself through the motions of hero shit, but he’s debilitatingly depressed.
It’s unnervingly real. It’s also very un-Tolkien. Can you imagine Aragorn lying in bed for an entire chapter because he just can’t bring himself to stare epically into the middle distance like he normally does?
Book Five will conclude the first Stormlight Archive story. It’ll probably be out some time in 2024, so you have plenty of time to catch up on the first four books. Then, they’ll likely make a TV series. It will look great, it will be mediocre at best, and I’ll love it. Then, it will truly be the heir to Wheel of Time.