There was a time, a long time, where I didn’t read any fantasy. It was my lifeblood as a kid, reading and re-reading Tolkien, Terry Brooks’s Shanara series, and dozens upon dozens of careful perusals through my tattered copies of my Dungeons & Dragons tombs. I used to take colored pencils so I could bring the various beasts and gods to life in the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Deities and Demigods.
And then something happened. I got older. I put fantasy away for science fiction, which gave way for horror, which then transformed into the surreal work of more contemporary fiction, finding the absurd and unexplained in books by Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Tom Robbins…chances are if it had the Vintage imprint I bought it. And I loved those books – still do – but felt at the time I had no need for the flights of fancy fantasy provided in my youth – the things of wonder I wanted from them I could find in more serious, “literate” books.
I’m guessing a lot of us fall down that path in our 20s.
What brought me back to my senses was a combination of things, but the primary driver was fear. In this case it was the very real fear of my younger brother dying. In the late 90s he was diagnosed with Berger’s disease, also know as iGa nephropathy. With no known cure, it was a waiting game for him to go into renal failure. One of the things you may not know is that even if you have a match for a kidney donor, you can’t actually donate the kidney until the other person goes into renal failure. Which meant that for almost 10 years I had to watch my brother slowly get weaker and weaker, become bloated and sick from all the drugs, and sit for hours on an uncomfortable chair in my mother’s bedroom (he had to move back home) doing dialysis before I could actually do anything to help.
The stress of that final year – 2005 – was compounded by the discovery of issues with my liver. So in order to qualify as my brother’s donor I spent a year significantly altering my life. I dropped 45 pounds, stopped drinking, exercised every day. All the while being interviewed and having blood drawn every week and MRIs done and consultations with my wife over the chances of anything happening to me during the process. We had just bought a house, and were coming around to having kids, and had to sit and be told of the exact percentages I had of dying during the procedure.
Aside: it was low, but they have to give you all this information before an organ donation. You can opt out at any moment, up to and including them wheeling you into surgery. They even had lines they would tell the patient so that it didn’t look like you said no. Weird to remember this now, 12 years later.
I understand we haven’t even spoken about Oathbringer yet, but I wanted to try and paint the frame of mind I was in when I started writing for a British book review site called Un:Bound (sadly defunct now). The site primarily focused on fantasy and romance, but I became online friends with the site owner Adele (an incredible woman who now runs her own publishing imprint) and I came aboard to write reviews and help out moderating the insane romance forum they established. Wanting to get into the spirit of the site more, I posted an article asking about the current state of fantasy and – if I were to dip a toe back in – where should I start? This may not come as a surprise, but even 10 years ago people were voracious to impart their opinion online, so I had a host of choices to pick from, with only 80% of them being George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.
The other consistent choice from folk was Brandon Sanderson, who at the time had a stand-alone novel called Elantris and I think was about to or had just kicked off his Mistborn series. So I started with Elantris, and immediately fell in love with how complex and thought out the world building and magic systems were, and how character was replacing action. It was a far cry from the small boy hero journey that was the run of the mill fantasy in the 80s, often accompanied with illustrations by the Brothers Hildebrandt.
This focus on flawed characters, and on the intricacies of how magic works in the world is a defining trait with Sanderson’s work, and over the course of Elantris, the (now 2 trilogies) Mistborn series and one-offs like Warbreaker this emphasis has not only become more pronounced, but other small clues led to what is now spelled out in his ambitious, masterwork The Starlight Archives: that all the worlds are connected, although time and place vary wildly.
If it sounds like something every movie studio is shooting for, well…yeah, it is. But as Sanderson tells it, there’s no need to worry about remembering every little nuance that connects the series together – each piece can be taken on its own. And with Oathbringer, the third book in the Stormlight Archive, I’d take that a step further: you really don’t have to even remember a lot of the previous books in the series to get a lot of what Sanderson is trying to do. This is a full-on exploration of who we are, how our missteps define us, and how without them we cannot becomes the people we need to be. It’s also aa quest to understand the nature of belief, in faith and in how we respond to a crisis of faith – no surprise considering Sanderson’s religious beliefs. With a huge cast of characters each book rotates a primary, providing backstory and context to what is happening as the world is set upon with a desolation, humanity at war with a force called the Voidbringers. In Oathbringer the focus is on Dalinar, the new leader of humanity who attempts to bring the various kingdoms together despite a wicked history of distrust in an effort to repel the coming storm. What we discover over the course of 1,200 pages (much of which is filled with awesome battles and displays of magic so don’r freak out) is a history of a man who had done terrible things, lost his faith in God, and only comes to realize his full self when he acknowledges the pain and suffering that is his burden to bear.
It’s that last piece that really resonated with me, as the past few months have seen me reflect on my life and what I’ve done to myself, how I’ve lost my faith time and again and rather than look to own the burden I brought to forget it, losing myself in music, or movies, or food or drink or really anything to keep from recalling my faults and sins. Brandon Sanderson’s writing awakens that curiosity in me, and the best current fantasy with authors like Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, and others (even George R.R. Martin, I suppose) manage the same feat: to use the genre as a foundation to talk about issues that matter, even if they only matter to you.
All that from a book with a talking sword that loves to kill people.