Arcanum Unbounded (2016) Brandon Sanderson, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 590pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21803-1
A series of novellas and short story out-takes and extensions to Sanderson’s Cosmere books, in effect the literary equivalent of DVD extras. Though most stories do stand alone, a few clearly depend on familiarity with other works in the series.
The Cosmere is an often tenuous linking story arc to stories set in different galaxies and dimensions, rather like Moorcock’s Multiverse. A great artefact has shattered into destiny shaping shards that influence and interact with life across the cosmere.
There are similarities between characters in each world depicted. Most of his heroes have a single name, Shai, Kelsier, (who dies in one story and gains his resurrection later in the book), Kanten, Silence, Sixth, and Lift. Many of the stories involve a magical ability to manipulate matter in the manner of superheroes. Lift can move very quickly on her own ‘awesome’ oil slick body oils, Kenton can shape sand, Kelsier can move metal, Magneto style, Shai can forge just about anything, including human souls.
The Shai story that opens the book, 'The Emperor’s Soul' is perhaps the best, as Shai is trapped and tricked into saving the life of the near-assassinated Emperor of a Ming Dynasty China-like kingdom. She is confident that she can escape any time, but se feels compelled to complete the recreation of his soul for the Emperor who she begins to admire in the study need to complete her work. The story has echoes of Kurosawa’s epic samurai film, Kagemusha. The story is surprisingly bloodless and has a powerful pacifist message, though later stories get very violent.
Another contrast is the absurdly light-hearted Indiana Jones spoof, 'Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania', of which we are treated only to chapters twenty-eight to thirty, and it clear that while not totally made up, the hero is blatantly exaggerating his own get out of any danger skills outrageously. A secondary narrator adds numerous footnotes highlighting how Jak is out of continuity or simply repeating stunts recounted in earlier (unshared) chapters. Sanderson in outright Pratchett-esque comedy mode is a hoot.
Some stories exist simply to fill in gaps in Sanderson’s own continuity. 'The Hope of Elantris' is an extension epilogue to events in the novel Elantris, and added to explain how some children and other citizens were led to safety from a hospice when their city was sacked and its population slaughtered in the parent work.
The story, as others, has an added author’s postscript explaining how the work came to be written, which gives a fascinating insight into the author’s mind. This story was inspired by a child’s homework. A girl at his future wife’s school wrote an illustrated essay on Sanderson and his Elantris novel, unaware that her teacher knew him. Sanderson read the story, loved it, met the girl, and gave her name to Matisse, the central character of the short story given here.
Less impressive is the collection’s inclusion of a graphic novel extract, 'White Sand', in which a young sand-manipulation apprentice goes from being the worst student in class to the best sand wizard of all very quickly. In a test to find five magic baubles, he fights a Dune-style sand-worm, and comes back with six baubles, creating a mystery about the source of the extra one.
Having told this Last Airbender-like tale once, Sanderson then immediately retells it as an unillustrated prose work. One version or the other would suffice, and the text version actually works a little better though Julius Gopez’s art work is terrific enough.
Sanderson captures a variety of moods and atmospheres, tension, melodrama, humour and horror, and he makes the reader care about his characters, with even the aging, ruthless kill bounty hunter Silence, in 'Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell' being someone we care about. The author’s compulsion to glue his entire canon of work together seems needless beyond a desire to compel readers to buy the rest of his output whatever stories they start with though but each work here deserves to stand in true independence, released from the Cosmere’s linking chains.
See also Ian's take on Arcanum Unbounded.
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