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Artwork from the cover of the Spanish version of Brandon Sanderson’s book Shadows of Self shows a stylish character attacking another while dual-wielding staffs in an alley. Image: Nova

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A guide to finally getting into Brandon Sanderson books

From Elantris to the latest crowdfunded blockbusters, here’s how to jump in

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Brandon Sanderson is one of the most successful and prolific fantasy and science fiction authors of all time, with a devoted following that funded the most successful Kickstarter campaign to date and has pledged over $20 million on Backerkit for his latest crowdfunding effort.

But his expansive bibliography can make it difficult to figure out where to start if you want to jump into his many worlds and series. With new books set for this spring, we’ve put together a primer to help guide you through the Cosmere and beyond.

Where to start

Sanderson published his first novel, Elantris, in 2005 and began building an audience with impressive world-building and a focus on complex magic systems. Sanderson recommends Elantris as a starting point for his work, especially for readers who don’t have much experience with the fantasy genre.

Elantris is a strong debut, a twisty tale of a cursed prince, a princess who won’t let a failed engagement get in the way of doing her duty, and a warrior priest on a mission of salvation. It’s not too long or full of jargon to be intimidating, and it introduces many of the themes of faith and hope against despair that would be iconic of Sanderson’s work. It’s the first book of his I read, and I immediately wanted more.

A 10th anniversary book cover for Elantris shows a woman standing on steps while looking at a city off in the distance. Image: Tor Books

Elantris doesn’t currently have a sequel, but the Hugo Award-winning novella The Emperor’s Soul shares its setting. (Technically, so do a lot of Sanderson’s books, but I’ll get to that later.) The Emperor’s Soul, which tells the tale of a jailed forger given an impossible task, is also on Sanderson’s list of good starting points. It’s perfect if you want to get a tiny taste of the level of creativity and detail the author brings to the genre without much commitment.

My personal favorite Sanderson book is Warbreaker, and it’s where Sanderson recommends fans who like a good romance begin. Warbreaker follows a princess wedded to a terrifying God King, her sister on a mission to save her, and an amnesiac trying to puzzle out the mystery of his own past and the truth about his faith. The book stands alone, but it’s a must-read if you want to delve into Sanderson’s later books given that some of its characters appear in his Stormlight Archive series.

Sanderson kicked off his first series with the 2006 release of Mistborn. Set in a grim world controlled by an immortal tyrant, it follows a young woman with great power who joins a thieving crew with a plan to change things that involves equal parts ballroom dancing and rooftop fighting. The rest of the trilogy gets progressively more political and cosmic, and Sanderson offers Mistborn as a starting point for veteran fantasy fans who don’t mind diving into the deep end.

The Wheel of Time and Sanderson’s ascension

Mistborn caught the attention of Harriet McDougal, wife of Robert Jordan, who died in 2007 without finishing his epic series The Wheel of Time. He’d asked McDougal to find someone to complete his work and she chose Sanderson for the job. The release of The Gathering Storm, the first of three books Sanderson wrote based on Jordan’s notes for how the series would end, propelled him to the New York Times bestseller list.

A man stands outside a house in a fantasy setting with his fist in the air on the book cover for The Gathering Storm. Image: Tor Books

Reading The Wheel of Time is its own massive 15-novel undertaking, but anyone who put down the series wondering if they should revisit it will find that Sanderson used his deep respect for Jordan’s work and his own skills juggling big casts of powerful characters to bring it to a satisfying conclusion. The generally positive reception to Sanderson’s work on the series brought him a new influx of fans. There were even jokes that Sanderson would finish George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, though it would be hard to pick a worse candidate given how different the authors are tonally.

But Sanderson’s reputation as a closer gave publishers and readers the confidence to invest in his ambitions for a series of his own that would rival The Wheel of Time. After completing the Mistborn trilogy with the The Hero of Ages in 2008, Sanderson released The Way of Kings in 2010 as the first entry in a planned 10-book series called The Stormlight Archive. But it’s turned out to be a lot more than that.

What is the Cosmere?

It turns out Sanderson always intended to make his books part of a shared universe, even though it didn’t seem like it at first glance. The ending of the Mistborn trilogy provided the first real glimpse of his ambitions to tell the story of the Cosmere — a universe based around a murder.

A long, long time ago, the story goes, a being known as Adonalsium — a riff on a Hebrew name for God — was killed and its power was split into 16 Shards taken by people who then scattered to different planets. Whatever they were before gaining those Shards, those people became known by the power they became Vessels for, embodying abstract concepts such as Honor, Ruin, and Devotion.

Sanderson has invented several distinct magic systems over the years, with Mistborn operating on properties of consuming different metals while Warbreaker is all about color and breath. And it turns out the variation is caused by which Shards inhabit which planet, and those who know enough about the way Shards work can move between Sanderson’s worlds, furthering their own ambitions. Sanderson is a huge fan of Magic: The Gathering, and there are strong parallels to that game’s Planeswalkers in his books.

The book cover for The Way of Kings shows a simple golden design on a blue background. Image: Gollancz

The Way of Kings starts off much like many of Sanderson’s other books, introducing a fascinating world and a big cast of characters. The world of Roshar is filled with squabbling princes, giant crabs with gems for hearts, powerful storms, and warriors carrying oversized swords. Along with releasing four 1,000-plus-page books in the series so far, Sanderson has also published two Stormlight Archive novellas, Edgedancer and Dawnshard, between books. Edgedancer is a particularly fun read, following a very hungry thief who gets embroiled in a complicated attempt at a succession. The fifth Stormlight Archive book, Wind and Truth, is due out at the end of this year.

You can enjoy The Way of Kings without having read any of Sanderson’s other books, but if you have, the series quickly becomes much more complex, with Sanderson’s world-building growing to encompass thousands of years of history spread across multiple planets. The clashes on Roshar turn out to be just a front in a war between Shards that has roped in characters from previous books. Even if you’ve read everything Sanderson’s written, it can be hard to figure out who’s who, since characters often go by different names or hide the full extent of their abilities and knowledge.

Working on one epic series would be enough for most authors, but from 2010 to 2022 Sanderson also penned four more Mistborn books, starting with Shadows of Self in 2015. These are set 300 years after the original trilogy in a version of the world that’s more akin to urban fantasy or a Western. The characters from the first three books are revered as religious figures, though some are actually still around due to their powers. The events of the fourth book in the series, The Lost Metal, are closely tied to The Stormlight Archive.

Reading all of the Cosmere books in order isn’t necessary. You just might be baffled by why there’s a talking sword or who’s explaining the nature of Shards in a chapter’s intro text. The real problem can come if you get hooked and want to go backward in Sanderson’s bibliography, because you may become unknowingly spoiled for some events.

An easy workaround is to read the Cosmere books in the chronological order here:

  1. Elantris (2005)
  2. Mistborn (2006)
  3. The Well of Ascension (2007)
  4. The Hero of Ages (2008)
  5. Warbreaker (2009)
  6. The Way of Kings (2010)
  7. The Alloy of Law (2011)
  8. The Emperor’s Soul (2012)
  9. Words of Radiance (2014)
  10. Shadows of Self (2015)
  11. The Bands of Mourning (2016)
  12. Edgedancer (2017)
  13. Oathbringer (2017)
  14. Dawnshard (2020)
  15. Rhythm of War (2020)
  16. The Lost Metal (2022)

If you want to focus on individual series to follow the same set of characters, here’s how you would do that, with notes on books you should read first to avoid major spoilers.

  1. Elantris
  2. The Emperor’s Soul

  1. Warbreaker

  1. The Way of Kings
  2. Words of Radiance
  3. Edgedancer
  4. Oathbringer (read Warbreaker before Oathbringer)
  5. Dawnshard
  6. Rhythm of War (read the Mistborn trilogy before Rhythm of War)

  1. Mistborn
  2. The Well of Ascension
  3. The Hero of Ages
  4. The Alloy of Law
  5. Shadows of Self
  6. The Bands of Mourning
  7. The Lost Metal (read Elantris, The Emperor’s Soul, and Rhythm of War before The Lost Metal)

The ‘secret projects’

Unable to go on book tours, attend conventions, or do any other type of traveling during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Sanderson did what he does best and wrote four more books. He turned to Kickstarter in 2022 to fund their publication and raised nearly $42 million. The campaign remains the site’s most successful campaign of all time.

The book cover for The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England shows an illustrated book, a hat, and a futuristic gun. Image: Tor Books

All of the books have since been delivered and are widely for sale. The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England is a stand-alone story about an amnesiac time traveler. Tress of the Emerald Sea, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter, and The Sunlit Man are Cosmere novels, each set on a different planet that hasn’t appeared in any of Sanderson’s other works and narrated by Hoid, a mysterious character who is prominent in The Stormlight Archive.

They all work as stand-alones, though they do have concepts that are integrated into other series, and knowing Sanderson, they’ll probably tie back into his greater plans eventually. You can read them in any order while waiting for the next Stormlight Archive book or potentially even as an intro to Sanderson based on if you like post-apocalyptic settings (The Sunlit Man), The Princess Bride (Tress of the Emerald Sea), body swapping (Yumi and the Nightmare Painter), or just want to try something that has nothing at all to do with the rest of his bibliography (The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England).

A new secret project is also expected to ship in 2025 as part of a crowdfunding campaign for leather-bound copies of Words of Radiance, the second (and, in my opinion, best so far) book in The Stormlight Archive.

Sanderson for young adults

While Sanderson’s books often deal with heavy themes like genocide, mental illness, and abuse, he’s never gratuitous or explicit with his sex or violence. He also doesn’t curse, preferring to use swears made up for each world, like “Storms” or “Rust and Ruin.” That means there isn’t anything parents are likely to find objectionable in most of his novels. He’s also written plenty specifically for kids and young adults. The main difference is really the age of the protagonists and the complexity of the plots.

The Alcatraz series about a disaster-prone teen was Sanderson’s first entry in kids’ fantasy and now includes six novels. The Cytoverse series, which focuses on pilots fighting aliens, includes four novels and three novellas. Janci Patterson worked with Sanderson on some of the entries in both series.

The Reckoners trilogy is Sanderson’s YA exploration of the superhero genre, set in a world where almost everyone with powers is an evil tyrant. The Rithmatist is a stand-alone magical school novel.

What else is Sanderson working on?

Sanderson penned a theory of magic systems in 2007, dividing them into hard and soft — like hard and soft science fiction — based on how much time an author devotes to explaining how they work and adhering to the rules they set out. Sanderson is a believer in hard fantasy to the point that his books all feel like they could easily be converted into settings for tabletop RPGs, so it’s not particularly surprising that one is in the works.

After the publication of Wind and Truth, Sanderson plans to put The Stormlight Archive on hiatus and work on some of his other projects. That will include more Mistborn books, sequels to Elantris, and a novel based on his White Sand graphic novels, which are also part of the Cosmere.