An Introduction to Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive

What is an Oathbringer and why should you care? We break down Sanderson's epic fantasy saga for you.

Photo: Michael Whelan

Ten planned books. 286 chapters. More than 1.2 million words.

Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy epic series, The Stormlight Archive, is already daunting and — with this month’s release of Oathbringer, the third installment in the series — it’s not even halfway through it’s run.

Epic fantasy series can feel overwhelming before you dive into them, but, in the case of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, the risk is well worth the reward. Let me contextualize Oathbringer for you within the world of Sanderson’s work, and explain why now is the perfect time to dive into The Stormlight Archive

Credit: Michael Whelan

Enter the Cosmere…

We are living in a glorious time for stories and storytelling, but this means there are more stories than ever demanding our time and attention. This is why interconnected storytelling worlds and recycled narratives have become so popular. Who has time to get narratively invested in a new world, characters, setting, or series? It’s much easier to delve into something you already care about. 

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This is also why Sanderson’s books are such a worthwhile investment of your time and interest. From his debut novel, Elantris, back in 2005, Sanderson has been quietly building a shared fictional universe. Elantris, The Stormlight Archive, and the Mistborn trilogy are all part of the Cosmere, a huge fictional universe that is home to almost every book that Sanderson has ever written. 

Each book/series on Sanderson’s resume takes place on a different planet — with its own culture, politics, and magical systems — in the same universe. That’s incredibly ambitious on Sanderson’s part and endlessly fun for readers. While it is in no way necessary to read all of Sanderson’s books in order to understand and enjoy the respective series, it is a pretty rewarding reason to check out Sanderson’s work past his fantasy opus, finding Easter eggs along the way.

Enter The Stormlight Archive…

So I’ve convinced you to dive into Sanderson’s work, but what the heck is The Stormlight Archive even about? I’m glad you asked…

The story starts with The Way of Kings (2010), which introduces us to Roshar, a planet where violent storms shape everything. These “highstorms” sweep from east to west across the continent, leaving destruction in their wake, and, like all environments, have shaped the respective cultures, religions, and societies that make up this world. These storms are also integral to this world’s magical system, as they imbue Roshar’s gemstones with Stormlight, an energy that powers much of this world’s magic.

Most of the action in The Way of the Kings follows three main characters: warrior Kaladin, ruler Dalinar, and scholar Shallan. Each story in The Stormlight Archive gives us a set of flashbacks centered around a different character’s story. In The Way of Kings, we learn about Kaladin’s past. In Words of Radiance (2014), we learn about Shallan’s past. In Oathbringer (2017), we learn about Dalinar’s past.

Sanderson plans to have a total of 10 books in the series, separated into two major story arcs. The first five books will make up one long story, with the second five books serving as a “sequel” of sorts to that first story, following different main characters.

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The world of Roshar is incredibly intricate, with every small detail having weight. Sanderson wrote hundreds of thousands of words worth of worldbuilding before The Way of the Kings was even published, and it shows.

While the action of the first book is more or less confined to two kingdoms within Roshar, it expands out from there in the subsequent two novels. Oathbringer centers around the struggle to unite Roshar’s many countries against Odium, a god-like being with plans to destroy all of human civilization. #AchievableGoals

Sanderson talked to Tor about his worldbuilding aspirations in an interview following the release of The Way of Kings:

I consider Roshar my showpiece for worldbuilding, and as such I wanted everything about it to display some of the best of what science fiction and fantasy is capable of: new ecologies, new cultures, cultures that feel real but that at the same time are not just earth analogues. Because of that, I’ve done a lot of work to individualize and distinctify a lot of the various cultures on Roshar.

Now, that said, creativity is really the recombination of things you’ve seen before. We as human beings, by our very nature, can’t imagine something we’ve never seen. What we can do is take different things we’ve seen and combine them in new ways. That’s the soul of creativity. It’s the unicorn idea—we’ve seen things with horns, and we’ve seen horses. We put the two together and create something new, a unicorn.

Credit: Tor Books/Michael Whelan

Enter Oathbringer…

As I previously mentioned, Oathbringer, the third book in The Stormlight Archive series, was released this month. It is the middle book in the first five-book half of this larger saga and, from where I’m standing, the perfect time to get invested in this world.

Many readers are hesitant to start unfinished series, but I am a big believer in the journey being part of the experience, especially when it comes to fandom. Sure, it’s nice to have all installments of the book published before you start, but where’s the fun in that? You don’t get to take part in the speculation, the anticipation, the waiting in lines at bookstores with fellow fans.

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In the age of bingeable TV, there tends to be an undervaluing of the wait, the anticipation, the period of processing the media you just consumed as its own entity before moving onto its next part.

Besides, Sanderson is no George R.R. Martin (sorry, George!). He is incredibly prolific. In the span of five years, he finished the final three books in the Wheel of Time series following the death of James Oliver Rigney, and wrote several original novels, including his young adult Alcatraz series; standalone fantasy Warbreaker; and the final installment in his Mistborn trilogy.

In other words, barring any unforeseen circumstances, we can expect to see the next installment of The Stormlight Archive series in 2020, as Sanderson has set an ambitious one installment per three/four years rate — and has actually delivered on it, despite his other projects and commitments.

So what are you waiting for? If you love Game of Thrones or are slowly dying inside waiting for the final installment in The Kingkiller Chronicles, try diving into the rich, magical world of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. It could be the start to a whole Cosmere of adventures.