Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A Rough Guide to Sanderson's Cosmere

Brandon Sanderson's latest fantasy novel, Words of Radiance, is out and doing very well, topping the New York Times bestseller list and hitting #2 on the UK's Sunday Times list. The novel is the second book of ten planned in The Stormlight Archive series, but it is less well-known that it is also the eighth novel in his Cosmere setting, which will eventually total over 40 novels.


SPOILER WARNING

This article includes detailed discussions of events some readers may be unaware of in Sanderson's novels. Spoilers for Elantris, Warbreaker, the Mistborn trilogy, The Alloy of Law, The Emperor's Soul and both Stormlight Archive books (including the recently-released Words of Radiance) follow.


Overview

The Cosmere can be likened to how most (or indeed all) of Stephen King's novels and stories take place in the same universe, something that is for the most part completely irrelevant to the book at hand but occasionally becomes important when characters cross from one novel to another (like Randall Flagg appearing in both The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon). It wasn't until King wrote and completed his epic Dark Tower cycle that the connections between all of these books and characters became clear; prior to that point it was more like an assorted collection of Easter eggs for hardcore fans to puzzle over and analyse.

Sanderson's take is a little bit more involved and slightly more prevalent in each book, however. The Cosmere itself is a collection of various planets all linked by a shared extradimensional realm known as Shadesmar. Collectively these worlds are located (relatively) close to one another in a compact dwarf galaxy, and Sanderson has indicated that later books will show people crossing between worlds using starships equipped with magic-powered FTL drives. However, at this stage crossing between the worlds is only possible by magical means and limited to a very small number of people.


The following is a list of works by Sanderson set in the Cosmere, listed by publication order:
  • Elantris (2005)
  • Mistborn: The Final Empire (2006)
  • Mistborn: The Well of Ascension (2007)
  • Mistborn: The Hero of Ages (2008)
  • Warbreaker (2009)
  • The Stormlight Archive: The Way of Kings (2010)
  • Mistborn: The Alloy of Law (2011)
  • The Emperor's Soul (2012, novella)
  • Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell (2013, short story published in Dangerous Women)
  • The Stormlight Archive: Words of Radiance (2014)
The following is a list of works by Sanderson planned to take place in the Cosmere:
  • The Stormlight Archive: Books 3-10
  • Sixth of the Dust (short story, set on a minor Shardworld)
  • Mistborn: Shadows of Self and a sequel
  • The Mistborn II trilogy (set in a semi-modern time period)
  • The Mistborn III trilogy (set in a futuristic time period with space travel)
  • Elantris II (and possibly a third book)
  • Warbreaker II: Nightblood
  • Two stand-alone novels, The Silence Divine and Aether of Night
  • White Sand and two sequels
  • Skyward, a YA Cosmere novel
  • The Liar of Partinel, a stand-alone novel which will also apparently be a prequel to Dragonsteel
  • Dragonsteel, a seven-volume series which will apparently explain much of the Cosmere backstory
  • Hoid, either a stand-alone novel or trilogy focusing on the Cosmere's most visible character

Worlds of the Cosmere

The Cosmere appears to hold countless inhabitable (and maybe inhabited) planets. At least ten of these worlds are important in being 'core Shardworlds', where one or more Shards of Adonalsium are located.

The confirmed core Shardworlds so far are:
  • Sel: the planet on which Elantris and The Emperor's Soul are set.
  • Scadrial: the planet on which the Mistborn books are set.
  • Nalthis: the planet on which Warbreaker is set.
  • Roshar: the planet on which The Stormlight Archive is set.
  • Ashyn: the planet on which The Silence Divine will apparently be set, located in the Roshar system.
  • Braize: a planet located in the Roshar system, will apparently be glimpsed in The Stormlight Archive.
  • Taldain: the planet on which White Sand and its sequels will be set.
  • Yolen: the planet on which The Liar of Partinel and the Dragonsteel series will be set and the apparent original homeworld of humanity in the Cosmere.
A further planet named Threnody is the setting for Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell. Threnody is apparently a minor world of limited importance in the grand scheme of things. Sanderson is also writing a short story called Sixth of the Dust which will similarly be set on one of these 'minor Shardworlds'.

The Cosmere and its Shardworlds (core and minor) seem to mostly work as does the real universe: there are galaxies, stars, planets orbiting them, moons circling them etc. Roshar, for example, is apparently less dense planet than our Earth (and is possibly smaller) and this results in a gravity field only about 70% as strong. Earth does not exist in this universe, and Sanderson uses this to help delineate which are Cosmere novels and which are not (so his Alcatraz, Reckoners, Rithmatist and Legion series, which are all set on Earth or a parallel universe version thereof, are not part of the Cosmere). In the Cosmere universe, the original homeworld of humanity appears to be Yolen.


The Shards of Adonalsium

Adonalsium is a force named several times through the books, but its nature, origin and purpose remain totally unknown. Some have speculated Adonalsium was a supernatural entity of some kind (like a god or deity) whilst others has suggested that Adonalsium was a binding force of energy or reality. For reasons that remain unknown, Adonalsium was shattered into sixteen 'Shards'. The Shattering appears to be the most important moment in the backstory of the entire Cosmere setting, and it would appear possible that it will be explored in either The Liar of Partinel or the later-set Dragonsteel series, which are set on Yolen where the Shattering seems to have taken place.

The Shards can best be described as forces of magical power and focus. Each Shard has different capabilities, and each one of the magic systems in Sanderson's books appears to be derived from one Shard, or sometimes the interactions between several. Shards are not physical objects, as such, but seem to be conceptual ideals/ideas which can be possessed by humans. Humans who take control of Shards take on the characteristics and personalities associated with that Shard, sometimes with disastrous results. For example, the original holder of the Shard Ruin, Ati, was said to be a kind and gentle man but was corrupted by the Shard into the monstrous force of destruction mentioned in the backstory to the Mistborn novels, and eventually had to be slain. Shards can be 'splintered', which appears to dissipate their power amongst lesser forms, but it is unclear if they can be recombined later on. More intriguingly,  the effects of Shards can be combined into new forms. For example, at the end of the first Mistborn trilogy the powers of the Shards of Ruin and Preservation are combined to become Harmony. Whether it is possible for all sixteen Shards to be recombined and Adonalsium, whatever it was, to be recreated in this manner is not known.

The known Shards and their locations and holders are:
  • Ruin: originally held by Ati, apparently a kind and gentle man who was corrupted by the Shard into a merciless destroyer. Vin slew Ati at the conclusion of the first Mistborn trilogy and its power was transferred to Sazed, who then combined it with Preservation to become Harmony.
  • Preservation: originally held by Leras, who sacrificed his power to imprison Ruin at the Well of Ascension. At the conclusion of Mistborn, Sazed took possession of it and combined it with Ruin to create Harmony.
  • Endowment: a Shard located on Nalthis. Its holder is unknown. Its influence is felt in Warbreaker.
  • Devotion: a Shard located on Sel and held by Aona. Aona was slain by Rayse and the Shard was splintered. It is theorised that Devotion is linked to the AonDor and the magic of Elantris.
  • Dominion: a Shard located on Sel and held by Skai. Skai was also slain by Rayse and his Shard splintered. The Skaze magic (in Elantris) may be linked to Dominion.
  • Honor: a Shard located on Roshar and originally held by Tanavast. Honor was also known as the Almighty or, simply 'God' (to his, and others', disquiet). Odium destroyed Honor and splintered it. Apparently the highstorms of Roshar are a manifestation of Honor's power and splintering. The Stormfather appears to be a former servant of Honor, if not a splinter directly. The ten magical forces represented by the Knights Radiant may also be derived from Honor.
  • Cultivation: a Shard located on Roshar. Its Shardholder is still alive, appears to be female and may be in hiding. There are numerous fan theories on her identity.
  • Odium: the Shard of hatred, destruction and conquest. Held by a man named Rayse, who was apparently an unpleasant and violent individual even before he became a Shardholder. Unlike the other Shards, which appear content to remain on their particular worlds, Odium has moved from world to world, slaying other Shardholders. Rather than taking their Shards, which would risk altering his personality, he splinters them to prevent them being recovered and used against him. His plan is to do this to all other Shards until his is the only one left, by default giving him control of the Cosmere. He slew Devotion and Dominion on Sel, splintering them, and did the same to Honor on Roshar. However, his attempts to further his conquests on Roshar failed and he was somehow bound to the Roshar star system. According to some reports, he is imprisoned on the planet Blaize (one of Roshar's sister-worlds) and seeks to escape with the help of human servants on Roshar. The Voidbringers and Parshendi may be (willingly or not) his servants.
  • An unknown shard: held by a man named Bavadin and located on the planet Taldain. Bavadin is regarded, like Rayse, as an antagonist. White Sand will apparently explore his role further.
There are seven as-yet unidentified Shards. The so-called 'Seventeenth Shard' is not a literal further Shard, but an organisation of worldhoppers who keep track of the Shards and what is going on on the various Shardworlds.


Hoid

Hoid is notable as the only character to appear in all of Sanderson's Cosmere works to date, either directly or through writings or other evidence. According to Sanderson, Hoid is not the most knowledgeable or experienced 'worldhopper' in the Cosmere, but is notable for his independent streak (not being part of the Seventeenth Shard, at least not anymore) and also for having been present at the Shattering. Hoid appears to be quite old, intimating on occasion that he is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Hoid's origins are murky, but a letter suggests that Hoid is not his real name and he took the name from his slain mentor (sample chapters from The Liar of Partinel suggest that Hoid's real name is Midius, but this information is non-canon until the book itself is completed and published).

Hoid's appearances in the Cosmere books are as follows:
  • Elantris: Hoid, disguised as a beggar, helps Sarene smuggle weapons into Elantris.
  • The Emperor's Soul: Hoid, disguised as the Imperial Fool for the Rose Empire, betrays Shai to arrest and imprisonment for reasons unknown.
  • The Final Empire: Hoid acts as a street informant in Luthadel, giving intel to Kelsier.
  • The Well of Ascension: Hoid, disguised as a Terrisman, spends the book hunting for the Well in Terris before backtracking to Luthadel and briefly meeting Elend and Spook outside the city.
  • The Hero of Ages: Hoid acts a street informant again, this time in Fadrex City. Vin goes to him for information, but an overwhelming feel of dread fills her and she decides not to talk to him. It's been theorised that Vin had been touched by the power of Ruin at this point and this may have given her the feeling of antipahy towards Hoid.
  • The Alloy of Law: Disguised, again, as a beggar, Hoid attends the wedding of Lord Yomen and Lady Ostlin. He also appears to have directly written the book's appendix.
  • Warbreaker: Disguised as a storyteller, Hoid recounts tales to Lightsong and Siri.
  • The Way of Kings: Hoid takes the name 'Wit' and works behind the scenes at the Alethkar royal court. He also writes a letter to the Seventeenth Shard that is periodically referenced in the book.
  • Words of Radiance: Hoid continues in his role as Wit, taking an interest in both Kaladin and Shallan. He appears to have received a reply to his letter from the previous book, which is again quoted extensively.
 

Other worldhoppers

In the earlier books, it appeared that Hoid was the only worldhopper at large in the Cosmere. However, both The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance reveal the existence of other worldhoppers, some of whom we have met before in other books. These are as follows:
  • Galladon: a native of Sel and a former resident of the city of Elantris, Galladon later reappears on Roshar, taking the name Temoo. He appears to now be a member of the Seventeenth Shard and is looking for Hoid.
  • Demoux: a native of Scadrial. He was formerly a captain in the rebel army led by Kelsier, and later a general in Elend's forces. During the events of Mistborn he became a Seer. He later reappeared on Roshar along with Galladon, looking for Hoid. He has the nickname 'Thinker' and is likely also a member of the Seventeenth Shard.
  • Blunt: Blunt is a companion of Galladon and Demoux's and, like them, originates from another world. According to Sanderson, we will meet Blunt (presumably under his real name) at an earlier part in his life in a novel yet to be published.
  • Nazh: an artist who has worked on Scadrial (where he annotated the maps in Mistborn: The Alloy of Law) and Roshar (some of his artwork appears in The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance).
  • Vasher: also known as Warbreaker the Peaceful, Vasher was a Returned on Nalthis and played a notable role in the events of Warbreaker, most notably forging the sentient sword Nightblood. He reappears on Roshar as Master Zahel, a sword-trainer in the Alethi army. He has lost Nightblood by this point.
  • Nightblood: a sentient magical sword created by Vasher on Nalthis with the somewhat vague goal of 'destroying evil'. Nightblood is noted for its psychotic single-mindedness and quite devastating levels of power. At the end of Words of Radiance, Nightblood is given by Nalan, Herald of Justice, to Szeth (the Assassin in White) to replace his lost Honorblade. How Nalan came into possession of the blade is not known. It is assumed that the mooted Warbreaker sequel may explain more of this, entitled as it is Nightblood.
  • Khriss: an as-yet unseen character named by Sanderson as the most experienced worldhopper out there. Some fans have speculated that he/she is the leader of the Seventeenth Shard and is the person exchanging letters with Hoid in the first two Stormlight books.


So what does it all mean?

The shape of Sanderson's cosmology and setting is much clearer now and we will certainly learn more about the Cosmere through future books. However, it sounds like we might have a very long (more than a decade?) wait before we get to The Liar of Partinel and the Dragonsteel books which will fully explain what is going on. In the meantime, we can theorise and assess.

For those interested in exploring these things further, the Seventeeth Shard website features significant discussion of the topic. The accompanying wiki, Coppermind, also features a lot of more detailed information about the Cosmere and what is and is not a part of it.

10 comments:

Paul Weimer said...

Excellent (and detailed) compilation, Adam!

I need to finish Words of Radiance, myself.

srs said...

I stopped reading at the "spoiler warning" but have a question as I do intend to get around to reading Sanderson - is there a set order I should read his books in? By publication date? Some of his series but not others? (or am I over-complicating things...?) Thanks.

Adam Whitehead said...

Publication order is fine. I also think you can mix up the order of ELANTRIS, MISTBORN and WARBREAKER any way you like (ELANTRIS may not be the best place to start, as it's his weakest novel). STORMLIGHT is where all of these connections become much more apparent than in the earlier series, so I'd suggest familiarising yourself with his other work before that one. STORMLIGHT is designed to stand alone, but I think taking on board all the Cosmere stuff and being aware of it makes it a richer series.

Mike said...

I'm loathe to even start a 40-book series...

writingaboutreading.com said...

This is fantastic! Thank you!

Ed Page said...

Great job summing it up. Not sure if coppermind is an appropriate place for a central "Quick Start to the Cosmere" but it'd be great to have this on a wiki somewhere so it can be updated as new books are published.

A couple of things I can think of for improvement (but they'd be a lot of work and understand if not done)

1. Citations for both facts and speculation threads. There were a couple of surprises for me in here and I'd like to look back at where we found it out or to see people's justification for their speculation.

2. Flagging the speculation somehow so its easier to find and update when new books are published.

3. You mention Shadesmar. Maybe put that in context of Realmatic Theory

http://www.17thshard.com/forum/topic/3045-realmatic-theory-and-magic-101/
http://fantasy-faction.com/2012/brandon-sandersons-cosmere-a-primer

Peter said...

Had no idea of the future Mistborn plans. Really makes me want to read that series too!

I need to read book 2 of the Stormlight archive. Just reluctant given the size.

Roxanna said...

When I read Mistborn 6 years ago I had no idea I was getting sucked into a 40+ book series!

Abhisek Dash said...

Thanks for this... Concise and informative. I knew most of this that is canon. The only thing that surprised me is, I finished WoR without having the faintest idea that Zahel is actually Vasher...

To those asking where to start, I suggest Mistborn trilogy, followed by Elantris, then Warbreaker, and finally The Stormlight Archive...

Sarah Hugo said...

Mike - everything I've read from the Cosmere has been very satisfying. I loved Mistborn, the series is fantastic and works as a stand alone.