Young Man’s Burden

burden-small.jpgIt’s one of the most successful fantasy series of all time, and the author died while writing the twelfth and final volume. What to do? The show must go on, but who would want to take time out from their own work to finish the damn thing? A young writer named Brandon Sanderson said goodbye to a normal beginning to his writing career… err, rather, said yes to finishing Robert Jordan’s mega-selling The Wheel of Time.

So, a few things to talk about here: The Wheel of Time itself, Sanderson’s career to date, and some speculation about the conclusion of Robert Jordan’s epic series (a book which is tentatively titled A Memory of Light).

I was an old-time fan of Jordan, I admit – rereading every previous book when a new one came out, the whole deal.  The Wheel of Time seemed to be that ultimate achievement: an epic fantasy of such scope that it out-epic-ed any possible competitor. But he should have been wrapping up around book 5 or 6; as the scope got wider, less and less happened in each book. By books 10 and 11, the plot advanced so slowly that I was baffled that Jordan was claiming he could finish it in one more book. He wasn’t getting much practice in plot resolution, only plot procrastination.

When a series gets this long – the first book came out in 1990! – fans have had decades to project their own longings onto the final volume. In a case like this, my own gut reaction is to be more worried about the crappy bill of goods I’m being sold in the mean time, never mind getting wrapped up in the mostly mythical ability of an author to create a perfect ending. That’s part of why the whole Stephen King/Dark Tower thing was so interesting to me.

So we’ve established that I’m like one of those snobby music fans who discovers a band and then ditches it once they break big (I wonder what a Pitchfork review of Robert Jordan would be like, especially the later books!). Like a lot of people, I decided to take a look at Sanderson once I heard the news that he was hired for the big job. Maybe he could turn the franchise around.

burden-big.jpgThat’s when the turn of the screw became especially agonizing, since I think Sanderson is a promising young writer; he was presented with a temptation apparently too good to turn down, but at what cost? What kind of a burden was he picking up?

Elantris is Sanderson’s much-hyped debut from 2005, and it’s a polished page-turner of a one-volume epic fantasy. He started a longer series in 2006 called Mistborn, two books are out already (The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension) and at least one more is forthcoming. I’ve read Elantris and the first Mistborn book. Both are quite good.

An unusual feature: both books, although fantasy, have a thoroughly mechanistic view of magic. It’s not mysterious or sacred or impenetrable. There’s a system, and while a particular character might or might not possess the ability to use the system, each action is mapped directly to a result. I don’t mind this, but it’s a long way from here to, say, Patricia A. MacKillip, whose magic (and books) are esoteric to the point of near-bafflement.

Also, Sanderson’s two books feature a very similar emphasis on revolution. I love this stuff, since I’ve waded through too many fantasy novels where it’s the kings and queens going about their high and mighty business while the ordinary people (like you and me!) are wallowing in the filth being repressed by the system. Elantris backs down a bit, with a return to the rule of the glorious prince, but The Final Empire puts the entire social structure in contention in a clever/thoughtful way that grabbed my sympathies right from the beginning.

Sanderson’s recently started a new YA series with a book called Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians. It’s fun stuff, and I happened to like the “smug and self-satisfied” narration.

So, Sanderson has been doing just about everything right for his career so far: a nifty website with some extras for the fans, a blog with frequent updates, but mostly cranking out solid books that are generally worth reading. And along comes the… for lack of a better phrase, opportunity of a lifetime. If it all goes well, it’s a huge step up for his career.

(Sanderson definitely falls into that group of young writers who
are web-savvy – one of my own peeves is book titles (and other things
like band names) that are too nondescript to ever be found in a search
engine, so I’m impressed that both “Elantris” and “Mistborn” are unique
phrases that are nevertheless easy to remember. Some good google-juice!)

(As another parenthetical remark, the examination of Sanderson’s books
and blog remarks is a visceral example to me of what it’s like to live
in the public eye, much more so than when I think about celebrities or
movie stars. Maybe I don’t think of them as regular people?).

But will A Memory of Light go well? Is it an opportunity at all? It’s finishing someone else’s book, to very detailed specifications. If Jordan’s plot notes are really that complete, Sanderson will be putting on a straitjacket. My own suspicion is that Jordan himself wasn’t going to do a good job of finishing the series, since, to reiterate the point, he had more practice, recently, at churning out crap than anything worth reading. Considering the sky-high sales numbers for The Wheel of Time, Jordan was probably the smarter one of the two of us, but I reserve the right to be offended that what was once an interesting series in addition to being commercially successful settled into only the latter, and that with a vengeance.

I was always planning to read book twelve (let’s just call it the sunk cost fallacy), but it wasn’t a pleasant idea to me. I’ll be reading it with an extra angle now, hoping that Sanderson hasn’t screwed himself over and can get back to the list of his own projects in short order.

3 replies »

  1. I have a confession: I’ve never read even a sentence from a Robert Jordan book. I used to work in a bookstore back in the early to mid ’90’s, and I got so annoyed at the whining fans were were constantly demanding to know when his next book would be out (often the day after one had just been released!) that I ended up blaming the author for the behavior of his fans. Unfair, I admit. I’ve read some Brandon Sanderson, however, and really liked what I’d encountered. To think he’s stepping into the ultimate side-track machine that was the Wheel of Time series is actually kind of sad to me.


  2. I think it was savvy move for Sanderson. The Jordan books sell in numbers that the fantasy genre as a whole just doesn’t see, and now he gets to partake of that kind of success. If even a fraction of those readers pick up his own books afterwards, he’s set. And it’s only the one book, after all. Sanderson, at least, hasn’t pledged untold years and uncountable sequels, just Memory Of Light.
    I also think he’s very brave: there are millions of fans who will savage anything they construe as ‘different’. I hope he pulls a Daniel Craig.


  3. Good point, Chris!
    Also, I hadn’t thought of the Daniel Craig analogy, which seems to indicate that there’s hope in a situation like this. Although I don’t think Sanderson has as much room to put in his own performance as Craig did in Casino Royale; I would argue that it’s more like as if Pierce Brosnan made another movie as 007 and the director pasted Craig’s face overtop Brosnan’s in a few scenes… Or something like that 🙂


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