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Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere: a journey beyond fantasy 

Movies aren’t for me. 

As someone with a vision impairment, I miss things in movies and TV shows that others don’t. They are often small, but add up to a general feeling of disappointment. 

As a result, I’ve always loved audiobooks, specifically the fictional variety. Biographies and memoirs are all well and good, but there’s nothing like getting lost in an imaginary world expertly crafted by a skilled author.

You can lie in bed, eyes closed, and be vividly transported to another time and place. It’s a window into the imagination that the screen simply can’t provide. 

Yet deciding to read fiction is one thing – deciding what to read is a different matter entirely.

As a child, I was fed books by my parents, and accepted what I was given with little complaint. As I grew up though, my tastes and expectations became, shall we say, more nuanced.  

At first, I didn’t even know what genre best suited me. I loved Harry Potter as a kid, so should I go for fantasy? Perhaps more action adventure was the way to go? Or maybe even something like romance – I’m a bit of a SNAG after all, too often seen bawling my eyes out watching PS I Love You or Love Actually

The fact is I hate being held down by stereotypes because I like all genres, and want to read books where I know anything can happen.

I want adventure, magic, romance, mystery, and coming-of-age all-in-one. I thus consider myself fortunate that about five years ago, a friend introduced me to the Cosmere universe of Brandon Sanderson.  

The Cosmere is a shared universe where most of Sanderson’s stories take place. Each standalone novel or series is set on a different planet in the Cosmere, with its own environments, cultures, politics and magic systems.

While each can be consumed on its own, there are hidden connections and secrets that span across the worlds and characters who can travel between them.

Therein lies the beauty of the Cosmere. It’s a massively delicious cake with different flavoured layers. Eat one layer only and you’ll be satisfied. Eat more and you’ll be rewarded for your commitment. 

So yes, as you might have figured, the Cosmere is technically in the realm of fantasy, but it breaks so many rules of the genre and introduces so many unfamiliar elements that the genre lines quickly become blurred.

Traditionally, high fantasy heroes are faultless embodiments of the perfect human that are consequentially unrealistic and unrelatable which is not the case in Sanderson’s creative style.

Of course, ‘perfect human’ is an oxymoron; to be human is to be imperfect. It’s far easier to get invested in characters that are familiar. 

Many of the Cosmere novels, particularly those of the Stormlight Archive series, are marathons to read, and large plot elements can at times be sparse.

Yet, moving through these books is never a chore because even if the story is barely progressing, the characters are. They evolve their relationships, experience the ups and downs of life, and undergo self-growth. Most importantly, they have faults and make mistakes accordingly. 

The Stormlight Archive series’ character development is especially intriguing as it explores the theme of mental health in detail something quite uncommon in the genre.

Using one of the characters, Kaladin, as an example, you can clearly see the internal conflict he has with which career to purse and how to protect his family in a time of feeling powerless. The reactions and emotions illustrated make him seem reasonable and human, helping to create an incredibly deep and endearing character.

Another distinguishing feature of Sanderson’s Cosmere is the nature of its magic systems. Magic in fantasy tends to be simplistic but not in this realm.

In the Harry Potter universe for example, you cast a spell by moving your wand and saying some words – that’s it. Sanderson’s magic is complex in the best possible way and provides consistency, logic and continuity.

In the novel Elantris, Sanderson essentially builds a coding language where drawing and altering symbols elicits distinct powers, none of which the reader is required to understand. It is simply there to add complexity to the novels – and that’s just the tip of the Cosmere-magic iceberg.

The third and final distinctive aspect of the Cosmere books is their variety. The Final Empire, the first of the Mistborn trilogy, is centred around a heist – think Ocean’s 11.

Meanwhile, Warbreaker involves a planned betrothal that slowly turns into a lovestruck romance, while Elantris contains elements of horror.

All Cosmere novels explore non-traditional themes like philosophy, religion, politics, language, science and economics. Best of all, there are multiple entry points to suit different readers.

Stormlight Archive is complex but fulfilling, Mistborn is relatively contained within itself and less daunting than Stormlight, while Elantris and Warbreaker are standalones that require less commitment.

Even the most recent entry, Tress of the Emerald Sea, has been lauded as a great entry point for its light and whimsical story and themes. It is also narrated by the character Hoid who has appeared in most of the Cosmere books.  

But genuinely I believe that there is something in the Cosmere for anyone who loves a good story. The themes are so broad and wide-ranging, and the plot and characters so compelling, that even the pickiest reader will find something that hits home.

Personally, Sanderson’s novels have given me a healthy escape from reality by successfully transporting me to another universe, activating my imagination and improving my mental wellbeing.

Brandon Sanderson and his Cosmere have changed my life – they can change your life too.