REVIEW: ARCANUM UNBOUNDED (THE COSMERE COLLECTION)

Tales from across The Cosmere...


Years after purchasing this during a Barnes and Noble sale, I have finally made my way through this collection.  

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 This collection of stories set in Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere pairs punchy standalone novellas with essential stories that build upon his lineup of mainline series like MISTBORN and THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE

THE COLLECTION
As far as compilations go, this is an interesting one. I had initially bought it early on in my Cosmere journey, not realizing that so many stories in this collection contained major spoilers for Sanderson's flagship novels and series. Given how interwound this collection is with his other works, I think there are a couple of different ways that it can be enjoyed. For me, I waited until I'd caught up on ELANTRIS, THE BANDS OF MOURNING (MISTBORN #6), and WORDS OF RADIANCE (THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE #2) among some others that were not required reading to fully read this collection. I read it over the span of several months, just enjoying a section or two at a time (roughly 2-3 novellas/stories a month). I quite liked reading it in this way, but there are certainly plenty of other approaches. One I can think of is to treat this as a sort of companion to one's Cosmere journey and just read through each section as you progress through Sanderson's work (roughly in publication order). Another is to jump around, reading the standalone pieces in any order while saving the spoiler-laden entries for when you are ready for them. Regardless of the manner in which you choose to read this, it's just worth repeating that this is not necessarily a great place to dip your toes into the Cosmere unless you are just looking to sample some of the novellas that can be enjoyed without any prior context, including THE EMPEROR'S SOUL which kicks this collection off, while ignoring the other stories within the collection until you are ready for them. 

THE STORIES
Though there is quite a variety of stories contained within these covers, they all carry the signature Sanderson qualities that fans have come to know and love. I quite liked how everything was broken down into separate planets/systems within the greater Cosmere and I think speaking to each is probably the easiest way to organize my thoughts. 

The Selish System
Things start off pretty strong here with THE EMPEROR'S SOUL, which Sanderson himself has identified as a great place for people to start with this writing. Although it is set on the same world as ELANTRIS, it is an entirely separate story set in a different part of the world. This is so much the case that I found myself wishing that there were some stronger connections between the two. That said, this is a fantastic story with a great protagonist. Also included in this section is a short story that retells the ending of ELANTRIS and therefore contains some heavy spoilers for that novel. This short story ultimately didn't add all that much to what we got in the original, but it was cool to revisit this world and see the story's climax play out from a different perspective that was incredibly dramatic in it's own way. There are also some bits at the beginning and end that give some small insights into what some of the main characters got up to after their adventure concluded which was quite nice as well. I still think that this world has a ton of unexplored potential, so I would love to see a proper follow up to Sanderson's debut at some point. 

The Scadrian System
The world on which the MISTBORN series takes place is one of Sanderson's most popular destinations given how nicely these books can help transition readers into the wonderful world of Adult Fantasy. This section of the collection comes with two short stories and one novella. The first short story offers a glimpse at Kelsier's training before the events of THE FINAL EMPIRE (MISTBORN #1) and also gives us a chance to meet his old mentor who is mentioned in the novels, but never actually makes an appearance. I loved getting this chance to spend more time with the character and get to know him better. Contrary to some of my earlier comments about how this collection overall might be better suited to established Cosmere fans, I actually think this quick story is a fabulous way to sample Sanderson's writing, get a glimpse at what this series is like, and have a little taste of what this fabled "magic system" is all about. The second story was a little goofier as it focused on a gentleman adventurer and broadsheet sensation from MISTBORN's second era. I'm not sure if everyone will appreciate this one as much as I did, but I think it was a worthy addition to this collection all the same. It also offers some very interesting insight into the Kolos of this era. Rounding things out is the MISTBORN SECRET HISTORY novella which not only contains massive spoilers for the original MISTBORN trilogy, but also cracks some of the mysteries of the more cosmic side of The Cosmere wide open. Though the disclaimer warns that this also contains minor spoilers for THE BANDS OF MOURNING (MISTBORN #6), I would actually argue that these reveals are quite major and would encourage people to maybe consider waiting until they've reached this point (which shouldn't be too bad since the Era Two books are generally shorter than Era One). Spoiler-density aside, this was an absolutely mind-blowing novella and one that felt absolutely essential to the development of The Cosmere. 

The Taldain System
This part of the collection is a little bit of an oddity in that it doesn't really contain an actual story, but rather serves a couple of different purposes. On one hand, it kind of felt like this was a little promotion for the WHITE SAND graphic novels which have received a somewhat mixed reception among fans. Having read those, I think that they are worthy of people's time, especially since it doesn't take long at all to read through them all. The other purpose of this section is that it sort of offers an interesting glimpse into Sanderson's writing process. Half of the section gives a colorless preview of the published graphic novel's opening sequence and the other half shares the draft chapter that mirrors the events of the comic panels. It was really fascinating to compare the two both in terms of how much of the prose was accurately reimagined in a graphic format as well as how some things got lost in translation like how the main character's father comes off quite different in one vs. the other. 

The Threnodite System
This is the first section of this book to really just contain a single piece, that being a novella titled SHADOWS FOR SELF IN THE FORESTS OF HELL. This one absolutely blew my mind and absolutely lived up to it's top-tier title. It is some of the darkest writing I have seen from Sanderson that really showcases just how brutal he can be, even in keeping with his relatively clean style. I love the scenes that bookend the main plotline, I found myself hooked on the characters, and I was on the edge of my seat pretty much from the inciting incident to the shocking final act. The world depicted here is crazy and I hope Sanderson writes more stories that are set here at some point, even if they are just more novellas/stories. 

The Drominad System
I'd actually read THE SIXTH OF THE DUSK years ago. It served as a fine enough way for me to dip my toes into Sanderson's writing back then and I remembered loving this novella. I loved it even more on reread and appreciated it more now that I had some context into the greater Cosmere. The planet this takes place on is fascinating, the main characters are great, and the plot is incredibly snappy. I also loved some of the little twists and realizations that came in at the end and how everything kind of came full circle when it came to the story's main themes. As with the previous section, this is the only story included, but what a fantastic tale it was!

The Rosharan System
In keeping with the last two sections, there is only one novella to be found here, though this is definitely on the longer side of the novella spectrum. I'll admit that I wasn't initially impressed with EDGEDANCER and was worried that it would end the collection on a bit of a whimper. It follows the young Lift who is a character from some of the interlude chapters of WORDS OF RADIANCE. Without spoiling anything other than her inclusion in that story, I would also just say that I find her to be a somewhat grating character and I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way. It seems as though she is being positioned to become a more important player within THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE, but the way her adventure kicks off in this novella felt rather inconsequential, partly due to how Lift is a rather erratic sort who seemingly moves about without much purpose. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by how well her story ended up connecting to the series as a whole and included a surprising number of important moments and reveals that will surely be followed up on in future books. Lift herself goes on a decent journey of personal growth and her companion spren served as a nice foil to her silliness. This story also takes place in a portion of the world that the mainline novels don't really spend any time in, so the setting of this novella will likely delight some, if only for that reason. All in all, this ended up being a very worthy end to things. 

THE COSMERE
Probably the number one reason that someone should pick this book up is to expand their understanding of Sanderson's Cosmere. Each system is introduced by Khriss who is one of the world-hopping characters that will sometimes make small cameos within different series. Her intros to each world were not only fun, but also offered some really interesting insights that can't be found anywhere else. One example is that her notes on The Drominad System added so much context that I never had when I originally read THE SIXTH OF THE DUSK as a standalone Kindle book. It was also cool to see representation from worlds that aren't home to a flagship series as it gave some insight into lesser known corners of this shared universe. Surprisingly, there is very little Hoid to be found here, but I liked the parts he was involved in and I appreciated having the opportunity to get to know Khriss a little better through her notes. The extent to which the secrets of this universe are unveiled really surprised me in the best possible way. The final novella being so crucially tied into the rest of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE is undoubtedly another key selling point for many readers. As a whole, I think this strikes a nice balance of really mapping out some of this universe that Sanderson is building while simultaneously moving things forward in meaningful ways. I also really appreciate how the presentation of it all leaned in to that almost-scifi feel of Sanderson's work. 

THE HARDCOVER
As far as standard hardcovers go, this is definitely on the nicer end of things. There's nothing too special about the cover design itself, but the embossed lettering on the front looks quite nice. It's the interior that really shines with some nice endpapers that offer a decorative star map of The Cosmere. Each section has a cool title page with some nice iconography sprinkled throughout. Every story also has a black and white illustration that kicks it off. Illustrations of any kind are always something I appreciate, so this was great to see in a standard edition and I think the images themselves did an awesome job of representing the stories they were attached to without giving any spoilers away. 

CONCLUSION
As long as you have the right expectations, this collection is absolutely a worthwhile purchase for folks who are either just beginning their Cosmere journey or are reasonably far along. This isn't really a true anthology that can be enjoyed purely on it's own, but it does serve as some wonderful companion reading to Sanderson's main body of work. 

(+) Standalone Novellas offer some of the best of Sanderson's writing
(+) MISTBORN SECRET HISTORY offers some wild reveals into the greater Cosmere
(+) Cool to see stories from a diverse set of Cosmere planets
(+) Fun section intros by Khriss as well as Afterwards from the author
(+) A high quality hardcover with some really nice interior formatting
(+) A piece of artwork at the start of every story
(-) Readers need to be aware that a number of these stories really can't be read until they have gone through different Cosmere novels/series.
(-) The Taldain section may or may not be as interesting to other people as it was to me. I did feel like it was slightly out of place even though I liked its inclusion. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

REVIEW: EVERYONE'S A ALIEBN WHEN UR A ALIEBN TOO

REVIEW: MARVEL 1602

REVIEW: DRAGON AGE: THE SILENT GROVE (DRAGON AGE GRAPHIC NOVELS #1)