Brandon Sanderson hopes to avoid A Song of Ice and Fire's biggest issue in The Stormlight Archive

Brandon Sanderson praises Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin, but says Martin "eventually added so many characters that it threw off the whole pacing for him."
Game of Thrones - Cersei Lannister
Game of Thrones - Cersei Lannister /

Brandon Sanderson is an author who needs no introduction; the creator of The Stormlight Archive and Mistborn, the man who finished The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan's death, the guy who shattered Kickstarter records because he loves to write books in his spare time when he's not writing books. Take your pick.

Right now, the big news on the Sanderson front is that he's announced another Secret Project book set in the future era of his fictional universe, the Cosmere. It's currently available as a backer reward for the Words of Radiance leatherbound crowdfunding campaign, which has only a few days left. Presumably it'll become more widely available at some later date, though no details about that have yet been revealed.

But for all the excitement around the new secret book, that's not what's taking up the most of Sanderson's time at the moment; that would be The Stormlight Archive, his epic fantasy opus. The fifth book in the series, Wind and Truth, comes out later this year, and as of this writing Sanderson is still deep in revisions on it.

Stormlight is an epic fantasy in the vein of other massive series like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, or The Wheel of Time. Writing that type of story comes with certain dangers, including the risk of inundating readers with so many different characters they can hardly keep track. Having so many characters on the field can affect the pacing of the story. This is something Sanderson is especially mindful of as he nears the end of Stormlight 5, which marks the end of the first arc of the series.

"It is one of those things, with epic fantasy," Sanderson said on a recent episode of his podcast Intentionally Blank. "And you have to really watch the sprawl of the number of characters. George [R.R. Martin] is famously really good at this pacing beat, jump between characters, but he eventually added so many characters that it threw off the whole pacing for him, and he had to write entire books without groups of characters. Otherwise the book wouldn't pace like a novel. You wouldn't have a beginning, middle and end."

"Which has its own problems, where it's like, 'my favorite character isn't even in this book' sort of problems," he added.

Photograph by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO /

Sanderson is referring to the fourth and fifth novels in A Song of Ice and Fire here, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and he's completely on point. Martin has talked at length about the issues which led to him splitting that story into two books, in order to have a full story for each set of characters in each novel. He was very much aware it was going to ruffle feathers right from the start for people who missed seeing their favorites in Feast, as evidenced by the afterward in the original 2005 publication of the book:

"Hey, wait a minute!" some of you may be saying about now. "Wait a minute, wait a minute! Where's Dany and the dragons? Where's Tyrion? We hardly saw Jon Snow. That can't be all of it..."

Well, no. There's more to come. Another book as big as this one.

I did not forget to write about the other characters. I wrote lots about them. Pages and pages and pages. Chapters and more chapters. I was still writing when it dawned on me that the book had become too big to publish in a single volume...and I wasn't close to finished yet. To tell all of the story that I wanted to tell, I was going to have to cut the book in two.

The simplest way to do that would have been to take what I had, chop it in half around the middle, and end with "To Be Continued." The more I thought about that, however, the more I felt that readers would be better served by a book that told all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters. So that's the route I chose to take.

Tyrion, Jon, Dany, Stannis and Melisandre, Davos Seaworth, and all the rest of the characters you love or love to hate will be along next year (I devoutly hope) in A Dance with Dragons, which will focus on events along the Wall and across the sea, just as the present book focused on King's Landing.

I forgot about the "will be along next year" bit for Dance until I was transcribing that. Oh, we were all such sweet summer children back then. A Dance With Dragons didn't come out until 2011.

The Wheel of Time Season 2
Dónal Finn (Mat Cauthon) and the Heroes of the Horn. /

How The Stormlight Archive will avoid George R.R. Martin's fantasy sprawl problem

Sanderson didn't have too much more to say on the topic, but he did drop a pretty interesting clue about what we might expect in his own books: "Robert Jordan had some of that same issue [in The Wheel of Time] once the character sprawl happens," he said. "Which is why I built The Stormlight Archive the way I did. Which will be more clear...I can talk about it more, eventually."

It's true that The Wheel of Time faced a similar hurdle as the series went on. There is a renowned "slog" in the middle of Jordan's series, roughly books 8-10, where certain characters feature far less and others have their plotlines dragged out for an excruciatingly long amount of time. The biggest instance of this that I recall from the series actually happened under Sanderson's watch in books 12 and 13, The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight, which split up the characters in a very similar way to A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.

So what does Sanderson mean about building The Stormlight Archive in such a way that it might avoid that? The first thing that jumps to mind for me is how the books are structured. While all our favorite characters appear in each book, different characters feature as the focal point in each novel, with flashback sequences that often give them even more page time. That makes the series feel sprawling while still making sure we get at least a little time with all our favorites.

But I imagine that's not what Sanderson means, given the way he trails off with a smile as he says his meaning will be clear "eventually." My guess is that he's referring to the time jump we're expecting to see after Wind and Truth wraps up the first major arc of the series. Perhaps he's planning on killing off a bunch of characters? Sanderson doesn't have the bloodthirsty reputation of George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, but he's still perfectly willing to kill characters when it best serves the story. My heart still hurts from that mid-book turn in Oathbringer.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe there's something more to Sanderson's cryptic words. The final Secret Project book he released from his Kickstarter campaign was The Sunlit Man. I'm not going to spoil the plot of that story...but the one thing I will say is that it gives us a glimpse into what the future era of the Cosmere will look like. It's no secret that Sanderson is bringing his fictional universe into the space age; Mistborn has featured a technological progression in each "era" of the series, while Stormlight sees the return of magic and advent of new ways to use long-forgotten technology to, among other things, traverse different planes of existence.

So with The Sunlit Man giving us a glimpse at the future of the Cosmere and the newly announced Secret Project #5 being set in that same sort of futuristic setting, the thing I'm now wondering is if the time jump after Wind and Truth is going to be more substantial than we originally thought. Maybe instead of it skipping ahead a decade or however many years to focus more on characters like Jasnah and Renarin Kholin, it will skip forward to something near the space age, bringing it alongside Mistborn technology-wise. After all, even if that is the case, interplanetary travel is sure to look very different between the cultures of mystical Roshar and metal-powered Scadriel.

That sounds to me like it has the potential to get pretty complicated...unless Sanderson focuses on this new era of the Stormlight world and different characters to such a degree that it almost feels like a new five-book series instead of a strict continuation of the previous arc. Maybe we're going to get a shift for Stormlight that's more in line with what he did with Mistborn?

Time will tell. And with Wind and Truth slated to come out this December, we won't have to wait too long before we know more.

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