One of the newer names making a big splash in the fantasy book realm is Brandon Sanderson. And while anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve been…. whelmed… by most of his books that I’ve read so far, one thing I will concede without argument: Sanderson is a master world builder.
So what are some things that this author does well when it comes to creating new worlds. Today, I’m going to focus on the Mistborn trilogy because that’s the series I’m most familiar with (fewer people seem to have read Steelheart, and I still haven’t finished that series, though it’s on my TBR).
The number one thing that Sanderson does well, possibly better than most other authors I’ve ever read, is that he focuses his world building on things that will most impact the plot and characters. This makes it easier for every aspect of the world-building that we see as readers to feel like it is essential to the plot and characters in some way, and keeps us from running into anything that seems superfluous. One good example is as follows: in Mistborn, he’s said he didn’t do much with linguistics/languages since everyone would be speaking the same language, while in another series, that was something he had to think about. So, clearly, Sanderson does a great job thinking about his story and outline and making educated decisions about where to spend his time and energy when it comes to world building. But the various cultures, the map, and the magic system all work together to pull you into the world and make it real.
Speaking of magic, another strength of Sanderson’s is his ability to come up with creative and logical magic systems that follow strict rules and are clearly explained. For example, in Mistborn, there are two main methods of magical use: Allomancers and Feruchemists. The Allomancers swallow powdered metal which they are then able to “burn” internally and use it to do certain things (different metal types allow them to do different things). Most Allomancers only have the ability to burn a single type of metal, but there are rare “Mistborn” who have the ability to use all fourteen types. The Ferochemists, on the other hand, can store a physical attribute inside a metal to use it later. They wear metal on their bodies or keep it in their pockets to use later, but if they use any of their magic to enhance their ability, they must spend an equal amount of time with that ability severely weakened. So if a feruchemist uses one of his “metalminds” to enhance his vision to twice his normal range for five minutes to see if an enemy is approaching, then he must spend five minutes later in the day with only half his normal vision.
These “hard” magic systems are intriguing and quite rare within the larger speculative fiction genre. Where many authors let magic happen simply because: magic! Sanderson makes the magic system integral to his world. There is no hand-waving in Sanderson’s stories. No “wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff” here, folks! The cultures, characters, and plots often utilize the magic system as a core component to tell the story. Not only is it integrated, but each of his magic systems are set with clear boundaries of what they can and cannot do. This attention to detail and almost mathematical precision allows very unique, unorthodox magic systems become something new and exciting for the reader to enjoy, while maintaining a level of control on magic and not letting it take over his stories.
A third thing that Sanderson excels at is creating different cultures within his worlds. And from what I’ve read and heard, he does a good job at not merely copying his own ideas from series to series or world to world. He creates completely new systems and cultures for each of his worlds and this adds a level of interest to his books that helps transport the reader into these new worlds. It also makes them feel larger than life and more realistic, more like our own world, which has multiple cultures and people groups that are often quite different from one another.
Have you read any of Sanderson’s books? Did you enjoy the world building? If you’re a fan, what is your favorite Sanderson book or series? Do you prefer a hard or soft magic system? What is your favorite fantasy culture you’ve ever encountered while reading?
Make sure you come back tomorrow, because we are going to explore one of my favorite fantasy realms: The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Have you read this series? Even if you haven’t, it’s an intriguing fantasy realm and has much to teach us about world building!