Arcanum Unbounded. Book Review

ARCANUM UNBOUNDED by Brandon Sanderson
Gollancz, p/b, 672 pp, £9.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Some writers, having created a diverse number of scenarios for their novels, are happy to let their work speak for itself and allow the reader to accept that there may be infinite possibilities. Just because they envisage different futures, pasts or fantasy worlds doesn’t mean that they cannot exist independently of each other. Other writers devise time-lines along which stories and novels are placed indicating connections despite the settings being separated by space and time. While some of these show progression of the human race and make sense within the context, some seem forced especially if every story in the author’s oeuvre is added to the sequence. Brandon Sanderson has taken a different approach.

Sanderson has created a number of worlds permeated by magic – different in each case. Although none of these has a connection with each other, he envisages them as part of the Cosmere. Each of the planetary systems is influenced by one or more Shards, fragments of something larger. He doesn’t expect the reader to make absolute connections, these are just hints as to the way he is thinking. The stories in Arcanum Unbounded are set on various worlds in his Cosmere and are linked to his published novels, sometimes by characters in common, sometimes by the planet, sometimes by the type of magic the characters can yield. For those unfamiliar with his work thy can be regarded as stand-alone stories but those who know some of his novels he acknowledges the fact that there will be spoilers within them.

Each story or group of stories comes with a description of the planetary system in which they are set with the Shards that influences it. Both ‘The Emperor’s Soul’ and ‘The Hope Of Elantris’ are set on Sel, a planet large enough that the Empires extant there have no knowledge of each other. In the former, Shai’s trade is as a Forger. She can make the seals that, when set on an ordinary object transforms them. The seal causes components of the objet to remember and be what they were thus an old broken table can remember and become the glorious object it was originally made to be, a piece of stained glass remembers to be a magnificent window. Shai is given a difficult and almost impossible job. The Emperor was injured in an assassination attempt and is brain dead. Shai must Forge his soul so that the populace will recognize the man they see as the real thing. Should she fail, she dies. Elsewhere, in ‘The Hope of Elantris’ the magic lies in the runes they sketch, as long as they do them right.

In another system of the Cosmere, the magic is Allomancy. Willing the body to burn the metals within it allows the allomancer to effectively fly or provides them with weapons. (Difficult to describe but makes perfect sense within the text.) Each metal has a different function. ‘The Eleventh Metal’ is from the early life of Kelsier, set before The Mistborn Trilogy when he is learning his skills. ‘Mistborn: Secret History’ follows a different aspect of Kelsier’s existence. The third story of this set, ‘Allomancer Jak And The Pits Of Elantia, Episodes Twenty-Eight Through Thirty’, is written as if it were over-the-top pulp fiction but has the seriousness of indication the origin of the koloss, the other race of this world.

The magical ability in the world of ‘White Sand’ is the way a sand master can use the energy desert sand absorbs from the sun to manipulate the grains. The story here is presented both in prose and as the first part of an exquisitely drawn graphic novel. It tells of Kenton’s ambition to succeed to the rank of sand master.

Both ‘Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell’ and ‘Sixth Of The Dusk’ are isolated stories on worlds of the Cosmere that have yet to be revisited, but ‘Edgedancer’ belongs with the Stormlight Archive’ series. Although it takes place outside the remit of those volumes already published, the characters here, Sanderson assures us in his postscript, will have more prominent roles in later books.

Does the idea of the Cosmere work as a link between Sanderson’s major works? In the respect that he has conceived a link between them, maybe. Ultimately, though, these are magnificent stories that fit in with their respective series and that can either be read in isolation, or be regarded as giving greater insight into the characters and situations of those series. For anyone, they are well worth reading.