Words of Radiance and the Fantasy Epic

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Written by Brandon Sanderson

Introduction

I can be reasonably certain that Dragon Prince, by Melanie Rawn, was the first thick fantasy book I read. For those who don’t know my story, I was not a reader in my youth—and so the thought of approaching something that huge was daunting to me. However, I was just coming off of the high of having discovered something beautiful and wonderful in this genre, and I was hungry for more. This book, with its gorgeous cover (thank you, Mr. Whelan) seemed like the best shot.

Dragon Prince by Melanie RawnIt didn’t let me down. Soon, I was reading everything thick I could find, from Tad Williams to Stephen Donaldson, and was therefore perfectly primed to read The Eye of the World when I discovered it. You might say I learned to swim by jumping into the deep end. I went from hundred-page middle grade novels directly into seven-hundred-page epics. But it was only in these pages that I found the depth, the imagination, and the powerful storytelling that I thirsted for.

If you can’t tell, I love epic fantasy. I have nothing against the shorter forms of fiction—indeed, I have a blast reading stories of all sizes. But epic fantasy holds that first and most important piece of my heart, as it was the genre that made me into a reader, and that in turn made me a writer. It is hard to define myself without epic fantasy.

So, I find myself in an odd place when the genre is mocked. Most of that mockery is good natured—the genre’s thick pagecounts and sometimes ponderous leanings do paint a large target. We comment about “doorstoppers,” warn people not to drop the novels around any small pets, and joke about authors being paid by the word. Some people call the books “fat fantasies with maps” as if to reduce everything the genre seeks to accomplish to the thing you often find on page one.

It’s not my intention to stop such mockery; as I said, it’s mostly good natured, and we in the genre have to be willing to laugh at ourselves. Oftentimes, what one person finds a book’s most compelling aspect (whether it be breakneck pacing or deep world-building) can be the very thing that drives another person away. If there were only one sort of book that people liked, the world would be a much sadder place overall.

However, after ten years in this business, I somewhat shockingly find myself to be one of the major voices for epic fantasy. I released the biggest (see, even I can’t resist the puns) fantasy book of the year last year, and will likely do so again this year. (Unless George or Pat unexpectedly slip their quarter onto the top of the arcade machine.)

So, I feel that it’s my place to talk a bit about the genre as a form, and explain a little of what I’m trying to do with it. Not because I feel the genre really needs to be defended—the number of people who enjoy epic fantasy indicates it is doing just fine without a defense—but because I think awesome things are happening in my genre right now, and I want to involve you all a little more in the behind the scenes.

An Evolving Genre

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin HobbI’ve talked at length about my worry that epic fantasy seemed to hit a rut in the late ’90s and early 2000s, particularly in regards to what new authors were attempting. This isn’t to say that great stuff wasn’t coming out. (See Robin Hobb and Steven Erickson.) It just seems that—from my experience both with my own reader friends and the fans I meet at signings—a large number of readers jumped ship at that time. While their favorite authors, like George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan, were still producing great stories, it seemed like every new writer was trying to copy what had come before. It felt repetitive.

I’m sure I’m being reductionist here, and am failing to note some of the awesome things that happened during this era. But as a whole, I know that I myself felt a fatigue. As a fan and aspiring writer, I wrote a number of essays and editorials about the need for epic fantasy to move on, experiment more, and evolve. I felt, and still feel, that the things that define epic fantasy aren’t the specific races, locations, or familiar styles of magic—instead, the genre is about a deep sense of immersion and scope.

Fortunately, epic fantasy has evolved. It is evolving. In truth, it was evolving back then, it just wasn’t moving fast enough for some of us. If you look at what Pat Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and N.K. Jemisin are doing with the genre, you’ll find all kinds of cool things. Pat is experimenting with non-linear storytelling and use of prose as lyrics; Brent is making epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller; Nora is experimenting with voice, tone, and narrative flow in fascinating ways. They’re only a few of the ones doing great things with the genre.

These stores are very different from what came before, but they still feel right. I love where the genre is right now. I’m excited for what comes next. I’m trying my best to be part of that.

So Why Is It So Long?

Interestingly, my essay has three prologues, as I’m almost to where I get to what I originally wanted to talk about.

Words of Radiance is, famously, the longest book that Tor can physically bind into one volume using their current bindery. By word count, it’s not actually the longest fantasy book in recent years—I think GRRM gets that crown. My book has a large number of art pieces, however, which increase the thickness pagecount wise.

A few weeks back I had a conversation with a gentleman who had run the numbers and determined that if Tor had split the Wheel of Time into 30 parts instead of 14, it would have made hundreds of millions more in revenue. It was a thought experiment on his part—he wasn’t suggesting the indiscriminate cutting of books—but it opened a discussion of something I get asked a lot.

Why don’t you just make your books shorter? At the size they are, they’re very inefficient to produce. I’m certainly capable of writing shorter works. Why not write these books shorter? Or why not split them? (Several countries already cut the Stormlight books into pieces when they translate them.)

The answer is simple. This is the piece of art I wanted to make.

The Stormlight Archive is intended as a love letter to the epic fantasy genre. I wrote the first version of The Way of Kings during a time when I wasn’t certain I’d ever sell a book, and when I was determined to write something that did everything I envisioned fantasy doing. I gave no thought to to market constraints, printing costs, or anything of that nature. The Way of Kings is, in a lot of ways, my most honest work.

It is what I always dreamed epic fantasy could be. Length is part of that, and so is the hardcover form—the big, lavish, art-filled hardcover. A big book doesn’t indicate quality—but if you find a big book that you love, then there is that much more of it to enjoy. Beyond that, I felt—and feel—there is an experience I can deliver in a work of this length that I could never deliver in something shorter, even if that’s just the same book divided up.

And so, I present to you Words of Radiance.

The Piece of Art I Wanted to Make

Words of Radiance is a trilogy.

It’s not part of a trilogy. (I’ve said that Stormlight is ten books, set in two five book arcs.) It is a trilogy. By that I mean I plotted it as I would three books, with smaller arcs for each part and a larger arc for the entire trilogy. (Those break points are, by the way, after part two and after part three, with each of the three “books” being roughly 115,000 words long, 330 pages, or roughly the length of my novel Steelheart, or Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest.) When you read the novel, you’re actually reading an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume to encourage you to see them as one whole, connected and intertwined, with a single powerful climax.

Words of Radiance is also a short story collection.

I’ve blogged about my goal for the interludes in these books. Between each section of Words of Radiance, you will find a handful of short stories from the viewpoints of side characters. “Lift,” one of these, has already been posted on Tor.com. There are many others of varying length. Each was plotted on its own, as a small piece of a whole, but also a stand-alone story. (The Eshonai interludes are the exception—like the Szeth interludes in the first book, they are intended as a novelette/novella that is parallel to the main novel.)

Words of Radiance is also an art book.

Many book series have beautiful “world of” books that include artwork from the world, with drawings and descriptions to add depth to the series. My original concept for the Stormlight Archive included sticking this into the novels themselves. Words of Radiance includes brand-new, full-color end pages, as well as around two dozen new pieces of interior art—all in-world drawings by characters or pieces of artwork from the setting itself.

My dream, my vision, for this series is to have each book combine short form stories, several novels, artistic renditions, and the longer form of a series all into a single volume of awesomeness.

I want to mix poetry, experimental shorts, classic fantasy archetypes, song, non-linear flashbacks, parallel stories, and depth of world-building. I want to push the idea of what it means to be an epic fantasy, even a novel, if I can.

I want people to feel good about dropping thirty bucks on a novel, since they know they’re actually buying five books in one. But most of all, I want to produce a beautiful hardcover fantasy novel like the ones I loved as a youth. Not the same. Something different, yet something that still feels right.

I feel grateful to Tor for being willing to go along with me on this. It turned out wonderfully. It is the book I always dreamed it could be.

But do avoid dropping it on any small pets.

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From the Tor/Forge March 3rd newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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More from the March 3rd Tor/Forge newsletter:

44 thoughts on “Words of Radiance and the Fantasy Epic

    • Your bookie brain of expression into what you love in a book, specifically a fantasy book, matches mine exactly! It’s all about the book, not the technology. My fingers want to touch a page, not a screen. AND LOVE THE ARTWORK. Love seeing what you are seeing in your mind. So. I expect my copy tomorrow on my porch. Extreme bookie excitement here. Thank you for being, what is it, old-fashioned? As well as HOLY COW talented. DO NOT CHANGE. XXOO.

  1. Your work is wonderful and I collect it all. But I really hope that when it comes time to publish the paperback version of this work, you split it up into manageable pieces. I have no trouble understanding that the multiple volumes of a trilogy make up a single narrative artifact. On the other hand, I have a *lot* of trouble fitting some of these single-volume epics into my pocket, which makes it far more difficult for me to take them with me to places where I could actually read them!

    I’ll also take issue with your characterization of Jemisin’s work as epic. Her work has a personal tone and focus on the individual that to me feels the exact opposite of epic (clashes of armies, the great game of nations) regardless of how many words it actually takes to tell the story. Is Middlemarch epic simply because of its length? I think not.

    • Epic, adj: 1580s, perhaps via Middle French épique or directly from Latin epicus, from Greek epikos, from epos “word, story, poem,” from PIE *wekw- “to speak” (see voice). Extended sense of “grand, heroic” first recorded in English 1731.

    • I don’t know how you could call the Inheritance Trilogy anything other than epic. Enslaved gods loosed upon the world, an immortal made mortal, and a struggle against the annihilation of existence itself.

  2. I loved sci-fi/fantasy from a young age, and it seems like every book I read was part of a series – Narnia, Everworld, Young Wizards, LOTR, HP. My favorite quality is the characters. As I once read, Star Wars wasn’t great because of the star ships and the death star and blasters, but because of Han Solo and Luke and Leia – and even C3PO and R2D2. That is, it’s great not because of what makes it fantastical, but because of what makes it real. My favorite series is probably the Ender series because Card explores his characters and their relationships so well (within all the awesomeness of battle school and alien races and crazy astrophysics). There’s so much truth in it.
    My other favorite is definitely WoT. Having such an epic world where I know the characters so well that I’m laughing and crying with them (and getting weird looks when I read in public) is incredible. The thing is, I didn’t fall in love with it until somewhere in the 3rd book. I found it ponderous at times, and not because of the heft.
    I want to express that my love of the Stormlight Archive already matches (if not exceeds) my love of WoT. I appreciate everything you are trying to do with this series, and the characters are already so real to me – I’m already so invested. Thank you for your hard work and your vision for what epic fantasy should be. It’s refreshing and I’m excited to receive my biggest ever fantasy book by Amazon drone tomorrow. (ha)

  3. Your completion of the “Wheel of Time” series was superlative. Is there any plan in the works to have you write the second prequel and the two sequels?

    • Team Jordan has already spoken on this.
      No more WoT books. Not by Sanderson, or anyone else.

      We will get a new Encyclopedia in 2 years or so. That is the end.

      • Exploit away, as far as I’m concerned! And I’m sure many fans would agree.

        Should WoT dead-end and die while other series go on virtually forever (GRRM, Donaldson, Shannara, D&D, even Star Wars)? In 10 years are all the volumes in WoT still going to be on the shelves in Barnes & Noble? Will they still be prominent on iBooks or on lists of “Best Fantasy Series”?

        Let’s honor WoT by ensuring it stays at the forefront for new generations to discover. And I don’t care how much money Harriet & Brandon make; I’ll keep buying as long as they keep writing!

        • WoT as it is now is an amazing series, trying to do more, particularly since it was against the wishes of Robert Jordan, would do that world and those characters a disservice.

          I look at the Dragonriders of Pern series, and I always feel a dissatisfaction because the series never really resolved and was never put to bed. I probably haven’t read half of what has been written in that world, and never will, because it got diluted with stories and writing that weren’t as good. I feel similarly frustrated about the Sword of truth, but that’s another story. I find series that finished strongly much easier to recommend to friends, or to look back on with good memories, because it is a story well told. A story well told, no matter how long, always has an ending.

          WoT lives on in my head and I go back to visit my old friends every so often, but the right choice was made not to continue it.

  4. I love that you’re doing so much with the books in the Stormlight Archive. It makes it a beautiful experience for the reader. As a bookseller, it helps me out when customers ask for something different than what they’ve been reading. But all of your books do that, they are so unique & special. Can’t wait for Tuesday!

  5. I just want to say, thank you for opening this door in the epic fantasy genre.

    For far too long have books been simple, unadorned doors into a new world. What you have done with the SA books takes that simple, utilitarian door, and turns it into a massive, varnished Brazilian Mohagony gateway with gold inlays with a massive ruby for the door knob.

  6. What a great piece – not just for the love of fantasy, but for the love and defense of the ‘doorstopper’ novel. I cut my teeth on the likes of Melanie Rawn, Tad Williams, Stephen Donaldson, and Robin Hobb as well, and I was always on the lookout for that next monstrous paperback.

    The idea of the book as a piece of art, constructed the way you want, illustrated the way you want, and presented the way you want is awesome to hear. I admit, I always wonder how much influence marketing folks have on the publishing process. I mean, Wheel of Time may not have been split into 30 parts, but that finale was certainly dragged out, and then restricted to hardcover only for the initial release. That, to me, seemed like purely a marketing decision, not an artistic one.

    Kudos to you, sir, for insisting that Words of Radiance be presented as a single piece, the way you wanted, and the way we (your readers) crave.

  7. I can’t wait until my copy arrives. The first volume was the first book I read of yours. I loved that one so much that I read through all of your other books and the entire Wheel of Time series. So excited for this book! Keep them coming.

  8. Thank you Brandon.

    I really had no intention on starting another book series I knew had a decade to go before it finished. 20+ years for WoT was hard. But your writing convinced me to give WoK a try. So glad I did. The wait for WoR on Tor.com with all the other fans has been a blast.

  9. Thank you so much for your wonderful body of work (I’ve enjoyed all of them) and for insisting on and giving us such beautiful and superlative Stormlight books. I LOVE your characters, your writing, and the art works are sublime and made the story so alive! Thank you!!!

  10. Thanks Brandon! I love to get a peak into the mind of an author, especially when it pulls back the curtain and shows us WHY you write in the way that you do.

    I agree that the genre can be stale at times. Five heroes, one from each class/race, travel across the world battling evil. If it isn’t broken don’t fix it, but it has become tedious. We don’t need to reinvent the world of fantasy writing, but we do need to refresh it. Whether it is your intention or not, you are poised to become a pioneer in this field.

    Keep up the exemplary work, and I’m looking forward to seeing you in March!

  11. I think one of the best things about The Way of Kings was the fact that when I looked at how immense it was, I was so happy there was still so much more time I would be spending in that world with those characters. Don’t change a thing Brandon! I love your colossal books! You inspired me to get to writing again (see my short story on amazon Daggerfist Jake and the Sufferspeaker;) http://www.amazon.com/Daggerfist-Jake-Sufferspeaker-Michael-Thom-ebook/dp/B00IEDCPVM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393862913&sr=8-1&keywords=daggerfist+jake

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  13. I LOVE epic fantasy, and I have no problem with their length. In all honesty, sometimes the shorter thrillers and other fictional books feel rushed. Granted, Tom Clancy took it to extremes, but I hate feeling that a book’s just about over before your really get into it. I understand the economics of it–shelf space, production costs, and all, but that part of the equation doesn’t mean much to me. I recall a time when I wouldn’t even look at an epic fantasy unless it was long. I’m still that way. It’s not just fantasy, either. Shogun just wouldn’t be Shogun if it was one page shorter.

  14. Oozing with excitement for book 2, “The Way of Kings” Was by far and away the best book I’ve read in years. I love all types of fantasy but there is something about sinking ones teeth into a large epic that I enjoy more than anything.

  15. Tor and Brandon, take note. For the last two years I have purchased ebooks almost exclusively, but I’m buying the hardcover version of Words of Radiance. Why? Because you’ve added value where ebooks can’t. Color illustrations on the inside covers and many pen and ink style drawings throughout the text that (I think) are actually an important part of the story and the riddles being presented. This is how you get people to actually buy paper books. Excel in the areas where ebooks cannot. If you only provide words on a page, print publishing is doomed.

  16. As both an epic fantasy reader and a book artist, I’m looking forward to reading the paper copies of these. They sound lovely. Thanks for not being ashamed of gigantic books, Brandon.

  17. Honestly, there are very few reasons for the average consumer to go buy a hardcover on the day of release anymore, but what you’ve been doing with the Stormlight Archive books has really made getting a hardcover version a necessity. It’s simply the best way to enjoy the book.

  18. Yesterday I heard a phrase on Goodreads “Have you ever loved a book so that you can’t bear to finish
    It?” Well that’s how I feel about “The Way of Kings.” So feel free to continue to write pet endangering, doorstopping volumes of delight, and I will continue to look forward to picking them up and risking the possibility that I might require a rotator cuff repair by the end of each one! :)

  19. Can’t wait to get my hands on Words of Radiance.. But I have to say that the ending MOL in the WOT series left me with unanswered questions.. Many of them.. Elayne’s babies.. Matt and Tuon, Perrin and his Falcon. I find it so sad that I will never have answers.

  20. Loving the Stormlight series so far, I just read Alloy of Law and that was great. I wonder if Brandon is going to switch back and forth between Stormlight, Mistborn and other series the whole time. I would like it if he just focused on one at a time, but that just me! All in all a great writer for our time. Thanks to TOR for giving him the support to do these great HC novels with all the artwork etc.

    • Brandon will be switching between series a bit. The Stormlight Archive books take quite a bit out of him, and he recharges by writing lighter things in between. You can find his full prospective schedule on his blog somewhere, but I believe that the current plan is the first 5 SA books, then the 2nd Mistborn trilogy, then the last 5 SA books, with his YA series and the Wax&Wayne novels fit in between the bigger books.

  21. I honestly didn’t think about your book being thick. I think people who are scared of big books are just cowards; and like most cowards, they miss out on the best things. A really great story should be told just as it is imagined, without having to apologize for being what it is; an epic journey into the imagination of another person.

  22. Love the Melanie Rawn mention. While I wouldn’t put her on your company, those were some pretty good books she wrote. I seem to remember she had another series with two books that she never finished….

    Can’t wait for WoR!

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  25. I guess I’m in the minority here. I won’t read a series until *all* the books are done (unless they’re each a standalone such as Bujold’s Vor books). I read a lot and forget too much of the world and characters in the usual year between series books. That means I’d have to reread previous books. There are too many good books out there that I haven’t read for me to (forgive me) waste my time rereading.

    And, frankly, few series authors are able to leave me with a satisfied feeling at the end of series books. Some authors are truly awful, with purposeful cliff hanger endings. I distinctly remember an author I had read and bought faithfully wrote the first book in a series. It ended in a horrible cliff hanger (hero is discovered and shot. The end.) The publishers didn’t want more books in the series. I was so angry I will not read any of her books ever again.

    • Lol. This shouldn’t be funny, but I find it hysterical that the last mention on this page has the phrases: “hero is discovered and shot. The end. The publisher didn’t want any more of her books”. Too funny.

      But I am sad for that poor author.

  26. I’ve read everything you have published and have anxiously awaited this book. Keep up the great work Brandon, and don’t change a thing. You are my favorite author!

  27. Hi, Brandon.

    ” I was just coming off of the high of having discovered something beautiful and wonderful in this genre”

    >> what was this?

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  29. Lucky for us that you didn’t start with Rawn’s Exiles series that she abandoned! Maybe you can finish it for her. She doesn’t have the will or the talent to get out of the corner she painted herself into.

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