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Interview: Brandon Sanderson on The Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson is the author of the forthcoming thirteenth novel in the Wheel of Time series created by Robert Jordan. He is the author of the popular YA series of Alcatraz novels, and has written two stand-alone novels and a trilogy. The Way of Kings (my review) is the beginning of an epic series set to rivel Goodkind, Jordan, or Eddings in length and breadth. While in the process of completing Towers of Midnight, Brandon was kind enough to pause and answer a few questions I had about his newest solo project.

John Ottinger: How did the idea germinate and come to fruition for the gem-studded magic system of The Way of Kings?

Brandon Sanderson: One of the things to keep in mind is I that developed this book before Mistborn was published. I do wonder if sometimes people are going to say, “Oh, he did metals before, and now he’s doing crystals.” But the thoughts arose quite independently in my head. You may know that there is a unifying theory of magic for all of my worlds–a behind-the-scenes rationale. Like a lot of people believe there’s unifying theory of physics, I have a unifying theory of magic that I try to work within in order to build my worlds. As an armchair scientist, believing in a unifying theory helps me. I’m always looking for interesting ways that magic can be transferred, and interesting ways that people can become users of magic. I don’t want just to fall into expected methodologies. If you look at a lot of fantasy–and this is what I did in Mistborn so it’s certainly not bad; or if is, I’m part of the problem–a lot of magic is just something you’re born with. You’re born with this special power that is either genetic or placed upon you by fate, or something like that. In my books I want interesting and different ways of doing that. That’s why in Warbreaker the magic is simply the ability to accumulate life force from other people, and anyone who does that becomes a practitioner of magic.

In The Way of Kings, I was looking for some sort of reservoir. Essentially, I wanted magical batteries, because I wanted to take this series toward developing a magical technology. The first book only hints at this, in some of the art and some of the things that are happening. There’s a point where one character’s fireplace gets replaced with a magical device that creates heat. And he’s kind of sad, thinking something like, “I liked my hearth, but now I can touch this and it creates heat, which is still a good thing.” But we’re seeing the advent of this age, and therefore I wanted something that would work with a more mystical magic inside of a person and that could also form the basis for a mechanical magic. That was one aspect of it. Another big aspect is that I always like to have a visual representation, something in my magic to show that it’s not all just happening abstractly but that you can see happen. I loved the imagery of glowing gemstones. When I wrote Mistborn I used Burning metals–metabolizing metals–because it’s a natural process and it’s an easy connection to make. Even though it’s odd in some ways, it’s natural in other ways; metabolizing food is how we all get our energy. The idea of a glowing object, illuminated and full of light, is a natural connection for the mind to make: This is a power source; this is a source of natural energy. And since I was working with the highstorms, I wanted some way that you could trap the energy of the storm and use it. The gemstones were an outgrowth of that.

JO: Your battle system involving bridges and plateaus is both complex and innovative. In writing these scenes, was a significant amount of research necessary, and did you encounter any difficulties when writing the sequences?

BS: Yes to both questions. This is not going to be immediately obvious, but the big difficulty was in designing bridges that were mobile but also strong enough to support a cavalry charge. It took a lot of research and talk with my editor, looking at the engineering of it and the physics of the world to actually be able to create these things. I’m sure fans are going to try to diagram them out. That was one aspect of it: how were the bridges going to be set?

I approached this first from a “how would you actually fight on these plains?” direction. But also I wanted to evoke the concept of a terrible siege, with a man running with a ladder toward a wall. And yet that’s been done so much. The Shattered Plains came from me wanting to do something new. I liked the idea of battles taking place in a situation that could never exist on our planet, what it would require, what it would take out of the people, and how it would naturally grow. And so I did a lot of reading about siege equipment. I did a lot of reading about weights of various woods, did a lot playing with the length, the span between the chasms, etc. One thing that people should know if they are trying to figure all this out is that Roshar has less gravity than Earth does. This is a natural outgrowth of my requirements both for the bridges and for the size of the creatures that appear in the book–of course they couldn’t get that large even with the point-seven gravity that Roshar has, but we also have magical reasons they can grow the size they do. That’s one factor to take into account.

JO: The sprite-like spren seems to be an odd addition to The Way of Kings. Understanding just when and how a spren appears and how and when people are able to notice them is the most confusing part of the novel. Could you elucidate the reasoning behind them, and how one might be able to predict their appearance?

BS: The spren felt very natural to me. I didn’t anticipate them being as controversial as they’ve become. I think part of the reason for this is that the people of the world take them as natural. They’re just there, and everybody in this world is going to treat them as familiar. Asking them why a spren appears the way it does is a little like asking a layman in our world why sometimes the wind blows and sometimes it doesn’t. If you walk outside, sometimes the wind will be blowing and sometimes it won’t, and you just take that for granted. You don’t ask why, you just say that it’s windy or it’s not windy. These characters in this world will say, “Oh, there are some fearspren; someone’s scared,” but sometimes they don’t appear and sometimes they do. Some of the rationale around that will become more and more clear as the series progresses, but the reason it’s not explained in this book is because the characters have just all grown up with these things all their lives. They don’t necessarily ask those questions any more than most of us ask why a particular leaf falls off a branch when another one stays attached. It’s just the natural process of the world. There are lots of reasons why they’re there, but I don’t think I can get into those without spoiling the series.

JO: You have stated elsewhere that your story is about a world recovering, a world that has fallen from the height of its power. Why did you choose to set your story in such a setting, what about it makes it an appealing place to write about?

BS: Several things. There’s a real challenge in this book because I did not want to go the path of The Wheel of Time in which there had been an Age of Legends that had fallen and that the characters were recapturing. Partially because Robert Jordan did it so well, and partially because a lot of fantasy seems to approach that concept. But I did want the idea of a past golden age, and balancing those two concepts was somewhat difficult. I eventually decided I wanted a golden age like existed in our world, such as the golden of Greece and Rome, where we look back at some of the cultural developments etc. and say, “Wow, those were really cool.” And yet technologically, if you look at the world back then, it was much less advanced than it is now, though it was a time of very interesting scientific and philosophical growth in some areas. What we have in Roshar is that the Knights Radiant did exist, and were in a way a high point of honor among mankind, but then for various reasons they fell. The mystery of why they did and what happened is part of what makes the book work.

Why is this world appealing to write in? Well, I like writing my worlds like I write my characters, where at the beginning of the book you’re not starting at the beginning or the end of the characters’ lives; you’re starting in the middle. Because when we meet people, their lives don’t just start that day. Interesting things have happened before, and interesting things are to come. I want the world to be the same way. Interesting things have happened in the past, and interesting things are to come again. I want there to be a depth and a realism to the history. It’s fascinating for me to write at this point because on the one hand, there are things to recapture in the past, but at the same time there are things that the people in the past never understood and could never do. The former heights of scientific reasoning didn’t go at all as far as they could have gone. So there are new places to explore and there are things to recapture. In a lot of ways, this plays into my philosophy for storytelling. The greatest stories that I’ve loved are those that walk the balance between what we call the familiar and the strange. When a reader sits down and there are things that resonate with stories they’ve read before that they’ve loved, there’s an experience of joy to that. At the same time, you want there to be things that are new to the story, that you’re experiencing for the first time. In this world, that’s what I’m looking for. There is that resonance from the past, but there’s also a long way to go, a lot of interesting things to discover.

JO: You avoided using the traditional races of epic fantasy (elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.) instead giving the reader variations on humanity. Why did you avoid using the standard tropes, but still create significant physical deviations in your races?

BS: A couple of reasons. Those are really two questions. Why did I avoid the standard tropes? Because I felt they had become a crutch in some cases, and in other cases they had just been overplayed and overdone by people who were very good writers and knew what they were doing. I certainly don’t want to point any fingers at people like Stephen Donaldson who wrote brilliant books making use of some of the familiar tropes from Tolkien, but one of the things to remember is that when he did that they weren’t familiar tropes. They were still fresh and new. The same can be said for Terry Brooks. I feel that some of these authors who came before did a fantastic job of approaching those races, and I also feel that we as a fantasy community have allowed Tolkien’s worldbuilding to become too much of a crutch–in particular, Tolkien’s storytelling in epic fantasy. And really, if we want to approach the heights of great storytelling and take it a few more steps so that we don’t just copy what Tolkien did, we do what Tolkien did, which is look to the lore ourselves and build our own extrapolations.

But personally, why do I include the races that I include? I’m just looking for interesting things that complement the story that I’m telling. The races in The Way of Kings come directly into the story and the mystery of what’s happened before. If you pay close attention to what the races are, it tells you something about what’s going to happen in the future and what’s happened in the past. It’s very conscious. This is just me trying to explore. I feel that epic fantasy as a genre has not yet hit its golden age yet. If you look at science fiction as a genre, science fiction very quickly got into extrapolating very interesting and different sorts of things. Fantasy, particularly in the late ’90s, feels like it hit a bit of a rut where the same old things were happening again and again. We saw the same stories being told, we saw the same races show up, we saw variations only in the names for those races. For me as a reader, it was a little bit frustrating because I read this and felt that fantasy should be the genre that should be able to do anything. It should be the most imaginative genre. It should not be the genre where you expect the same stories and the same creatures. This is playing into what I like as a reader and my own personal philosophies and hobby horses, but it really just comes down to what I think makes the best story.

Many thanks to Mr. Sanderson for answering my questions, being so awesome at his signings, and being an all around great writer who puts in 14 hour days just to please his fans.