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The Knight of Roshar

Brandon Sanderson, who once completed 12 novels with nothing to show for it but publisher rejections, is now a household name in the fantasy genre.

Fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson’s reputation is finally as big as his novels — and that’s saying a lot.

His Words of Radiance (Tor Fantasy), all 1,087 pages of it, crashed onto The New York Times best-seller list late last month, debuting at No. 1, and has been on it since. The three books he finished in The Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death all hit the top spot, but Radiance is Sanderson’s first No. 1 written by him alone.

Radiance is Book 2 in The Stormlight Archive, a projected 10-volume series, whose first book, The Way of Kings, came out in 2010. Stormlight is a sprawling epic set on Roshar, a world regularly scoured by huge hurricanes called highstorms. There are soldiers and scholars, slaves and magic, and Brightlords and Voidbringers.

It is all traditional stuff for fantasy fans, but what sets Stormlight apart is how Sanderson raises genre stakes through detailed world building. The richly imagined books — he calls them a “love letter of sorts to the epic fantasy genre” — also contain notes on Roshar poetry and illustrated tips on how to raise chulls (oversize crustaceans domesticated on Roshar).

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As in raising chulls, it takes patience to learn to write fantasy. And for Sanderson, 38, it hasn’t quite been a straight shot to the top. First, he secured the perfect job in which to hone his craft — working the graveyard shift as a hotel clerk in Provo, Utah. “I was really appreciative of how quiet Provo is after 10 pm,” Sanderson said.

After six years, though, all he had to show was a dozen unsold manuscripts.

“I was getting stacks and stacks of rejections,” he said in a video interview with the alumni magazine of Brigham Young University, where he went to school. “When you’ve finished 12 novels and haven’t made a single dime, you really ought to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing.”

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Sanderson’s stubborn work ethic, though, paid off. Tor Fantasy accepted Elantris, the sixth of those 12 forlorn novels, in 2003 and published it in 2005 — and Sanderson was on his way, building his readership brick by literary brick. In all, he has published more than 20 books, including six middle grade/young adult novels.

Now he has become a fan favourite whose book signings can last as long as five hours. His peers admire him, too.

Patrick Rothfuss, author of the popular Kingkiller Chronicle series, referring to The Way of Kings, wrote: “I loved this book. What else is there to say?”

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Jacob Weisman, publisher of Tachyon Publications, which published Sanderson’s The Emperor’s Soul, winner of the 2013 Hugo Award for best novella, said, “Brandon is part of the new breed of epic fantasy authors who have redefined the genre.”

Weisman was referring to writers like Peter V Brett (Demon Cycle trilogy), Rothfuss and Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy), whose novels reject the stateliness of Tolkien and his imitators and have the feel of gangster fantasy.

Sanderson’s goal isn’t to churn tired genre themes, either, but to subvert them. In his Mistborn trilogy he asks: What if the prophecy-designated hero fails? What if the evil dark lord prevails?

“He’s not going to do the standard thing,” said Moshe Feder, the veteran editor at Tor who discovered him. “He’ll surprise you.”

While HBO’s Game of Thrones (based on George R R Martin’s novels) has given fantasy at least a temporary patina of cultural legitimacy, Sanderson has been beguiled by wizards and swords for a long time. He says that growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, he was a reluctant reader until an eighth-grade teacher gave him Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. From then on, fantasy hooked him.

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He said he still liked how “fantasy challenges the reader with imagination — with fantasy, we can throw out the baggage of what we think we know about the world”. His favourite writers in the genre include Anne McCaffrey, Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett.

While he spends his days dreaming up fantastic realms, Sanderson’s actual life takes place in a suburb outside Provo with his wife, Emily, and their three young sons. After writing eight to 10 hours a day most days, he says, his greatest pleasure is to play Star Wars Legos with his boys.

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And when you write that many hours a day, your books tend to be long, very long. Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books knocked on the thousand-page door, and although not as long as Words of Radiance, The Way of Kings totalled 1,007. Fantasy writers give good weight.

Referring to The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson said: “I want the reader to have a very immersive experience. When the reader is done, I want them to feel like they’ve lived there.”

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He certainly lives on Roshar most days, hoping to complete the next Stormlight saga in time for spring 2016.

You can almost hear Sanderson, not far removed from three in the morning at that Provo hotel, pinch himself as he talks about his success.

“The dream was that someday I might sell a book,” he said.

“But the high point now is that at the end of the day, I get to tell stories for a living. I just really, really enjoy doing this — and I’m having a blast.”

First published on: 20-04-2014 at 12:18:34 am
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