Reading Roundup: March 2022

March books! As you can see, I’m still on my Brandon Sanderson kick, albeit not so overwhelmingly this month. Here’s the full list:

  • The Flight (Dan Hampton)
  • Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson)
  • And It Was Good (Madeleine L’Engle)
  • Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
  • Twelve Angry Men (Richard Rose)
  • Elantris (Brandon Sanderson)

The Flight was a library discard book I picked up at my local branch, and it chronicles Charles Lindbergh’s world-changing solo flight across the Atlantic. Although there is some necessary biography mixed in, the book’s focus really is an hourly play-by-play of his 33.5-hour flight. Dan Hampton is also an aviator, which made his narrative rich in technical details, although I found his prose somewhat clunky. It was a slow read, but I now know a bunch of facts about aviation in the 1920s, which is not the worst thing in the world.

Warbreaker is an early standalone novel in Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere, set on a planet that uses a magic system based around Breath (with a capital B) and colour. A tense peace exists between neighbouring nations Idris and Hallandren, and Idrian Princess Vivenna has been training her whole life for a treaty-negotiated marriage to Suseron, the Hallandren God-King. At the last moment, however, her sister Siri is sent in her place. Vivenna is determined to rescue her hapless sister, but soon enough both women find out that nothing they’ve assumed about Hallandren is as it seems. (Fun fact: Warbreaker was written two years before Apple’s virtual assistant was released, so the name “Siri” is purely coincidental — but if you read the book with Google’s ebook reader, it changes her name throughout to “Google Assistant,” with predictably hilarious results.)

And It Was Good is one of L’Engle’s nonfiction offerings, this one a long meditation on the first chapters of Genesis, from creation to Abraham. It’s a bit of a meandering text, sprinkled throughout with both memoir and short fiction as she works to relate these Biblical stories to her own life, and to imagine some of the stories that scripture doesn’t give us (what did Eve feel when she birthed Cain?). L’Engle is ultimately building a universalist case for salvation, which I don’t think is true and correct, but I appreciate her willingness to engage with the texts and to challenge some of my own assumptions.

And It Was Good actually sent me to Jayber Crow. I’ve read some of Berry’s poetry, but this was the first time I’d read any of his fiction. The novel is written in the form of a memoir by the eponymous Jayber Crow, the barber in Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. It’s much more than Jayber’s life story, really, making up a long elegy for a way of small town American life that began to pass away in the 1950s-70s with the advent of large-scale commercial farming and the construction of the highways and superhighways that suddenly connected small enclaves like Port William to the outside world, for both good and ill. The prose is beautiful (no surprise) and, as with this passage that L’Engle quoted, often indicting:

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said — it was about the third thing said — “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. I thought of Athey’s reply to Hiram Hench.

It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”

I said, “Jesus Christ.”

And Troy said, “Oh.”

It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

I’ve heard many times that the 1957 film 12 Angry Men was an incredible movie about a jury trial, but I wanted to read the stage play before I watched it. So I did. It’s a quick read, and a great play. The movie is also available for free on vimeo — at least until whoever owns MGM these days notices and takes it down.

Elantris was my other BrandoSando book in March, also concerning a treaty wedding — except when Princess Sarene arrives in Arelon to marry Prince Raoden, she finds out that he has died. Except Raoden hasn’t died — he’s been hidden, cast into the lost city of Elantris, after being taken by the shaod… which is sort of like being turned into a zombie? Except living. Mostly. While Raoden works to survive in Elantris and figure out what has happened to the shaod — which, until ten years ago, deified instead of zombified — Sarene must figure out how to prevent a holy war against her adopted nation, led by the grim Derethi priest Hrathen. This was Sanderson’s first published novel, and it shows. It’s not a bad book, I enjoyed it, but it’s full of bewildering fantasy names, many of which sound nearly the same as each other, and doesn’t have the tight plotting or polished prose of later books. Still worth a read, but if you’re starting Sanderson, I wouldn’t start with this one.

Reading Round-Up: February 2022

You may notice a theme here. Last month I read the following books, most of them door stopper-sized and every one of them by Brandon Sanderson:

  • The Way of Kings
  • Words of Radiance
  • Edgedancer
  • Oathbringer
  • Dawnshard
  • Rhythm of War

Only six books… but those books together held over 1.7 million words, so by that measure it was still a pretty heavy reading month!

These are the books that currently make up Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” series, which is part of his overarching fictional universe, the Cosmere, which is a little hard to explain without ending up looking like this guy:

In my (admittedly still limited) understanding, the Cosmere is a universe in which a group of ~15 persons conspired to and managed to kill their god/the universe’s creative force, Adonalsium, who/which shattered into a bunch of pieces that flew off into different planetary systems. Those sixteen “shards” of godhood/creative force, each carry one aspect of Adonalsium’s divinity (or whatever) and ended up picked up various individuals in each system, who took on each specific aspect/power and functionally became gods of their planetary systems. Each planetary system has its own distinct magic system, and one of the Cosmere’s overarching themes is what happens when fallen humans end up with divine powers. The books in the Cosmere span thousands of years in time, and although each one is set on a particular world, there are characters who appear in different books/worlds, known as “world-hoppers”. With 18 Cosmere books currently in print and something like a total of 40 planned, there is a lot to explore.

Anyway. The six books I read last month take place on the planet Roshar, part of the Rosharan system. Edgedancer and Dawnshard are novellas that fill out the stories of some minor characters. The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, and Rhythm of War are all novels, part of Sanderson’s planned series of 10, and provide the meat of the story. Point of view rotates between a large cast of characters that gradually expands as the series progresses, detailing the war between the Alethi princedoms and the not-quite-human Parshendi peoples on the enormous battlefield known as the Shattered Plains. In The Way of Kings we begin with the stories of Dalinar Kholin, brother of the Alethi king whose assassination opens the book; Kaladin, a darkeyed slave sent to fight on the plains; Prince Adolin, Dalinar’s son; and Shallan Davar, a young woman sent to steal an important piece of technology from one of the preeminent scholars of the day, in hopes of saving her family’s fortune. From there, things get… considerably more complicated.

One of the things that I absolutely love about Brandon Sanderson’s work is his worldbuilding. Roshar is unlike Earth; it’s also unlike other planets in the Cosmere. It’s a watery world, and its people live on one huge continent (there are many more kingdoms/peoples than the Alethi and Parshendi). Roshar is subject to terrible recurring storms, highstorms, that sweep across the continent from East to West before circling the globe and passing over again. You don’t want to be caught out in a highstorm — but you do want to set out your gems, set in glass spheres, so that they can be refreshed with stormlight. Stormlight is the basis of Roshar’s magic system; captured in gemstones, it functions as currency, provides illumination, and is used to power the “fabrials” of Rosharan technology as well as provide the energy needed by Soulcasters, who can transform materials (people into stone, stone into grain, that sort of thing). Also the animals are mostly crabs which is… surprisingly charming. And unlike in this paragraph, Sanderson doesn’t info-dump his worldbuilding; he just plops you right in the action and you piece it together as you go. I love that.

Sanderson also does some interesting things with Rosharan societies. In the Vorin religion, followed by a large swath of the continent, gender roles are highly stratified: for example, only women are literate. This means that a man who wishes to read a book needs a female scribe to read it to him, which in turn means things like noble Alethis going to war as married couples — the husband to fight and lead troops, and his wife to manage the scouts and any reports that need to be read or sent. In Vorinism, a woman’s most private and erotic body part is her left hand, so Vorin women keep it covered at all times — the poor with a simple glove, and the right with a full encapsulating sleeve. And speaking of rich and poor, Alethi society is a caste system. This one isn’t based on skin colour (they uniformly have tan skin and black hair) but on the lightness or darkness of one’s eyes. The dark-eyed masses make up the lower classes, and the light-eyed rule. Members of the ruling caste are therefore addressed as Brightlord or Brightlady.

This was my second time reading through these books; I first encountered the Stormlight Archive about a year ago, as briefly touched on in last year’s round-up post. It had been long enough that I remembered most of the outlines but had forgotten most of the details, which to my mind is just about the perfect condition for a reread. This month I’ve branched out into further reaches of the Cosmere, which you will hear about (though probably not at this length!) later 🙂 I’m so happy to have discovered Brandon Sanderson’s fiction, and I’m sure that I will be reading him for years to come.