Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
One Sentence Synopsis: A man with no memory of his past finds himself in medieval England with only singed scraps of a mysterious handbook to guide him.
Formats: Hardcover, Ebook, and Audio book
Release Date: April 11, 2023 (HC: June 27, 2023)
Number of Pages: 384 pages
MSRP: $29.99 HC/$9.99 Ebook/TBA Audiobook
Purchase Site: https://a.co/d/fBhNT4C
Reviewed by: J.T. Hanke
Final Score: 4.0 Moons (out of 5)
[Editor’s Note: If this is the first review from DGM that you’ve read of Sanderson’s Four Secret books of 2023, suffice it to say that Brandon Sanderson wrote four private novels for his wife in 2020 and, after she encouraged him to share them with the world, he launched a kickstarter in 2022 for folks to help him publish them—sight unseen. It gained the largest contribution chest Kickstarter has ever received, with over $46 million coming in. I and many others helped pay for the right to see what one of our favorite storytellers had created in his “down” time during the Pandemic. We all were insanely curious to see what Brandon Sanderson might come up without input or control from his publisher: what would a truly private book from the mind of Brandon Sanderson look like? This is the second book in the series. If you want to read our review of the first book, Tress of the Emerald Sea, click here. -JTH]
For those of us who helped fund Sanderson’s Secret Books of 2023 Kickstarter, we knew that one book would NOT be in the Cosmere–his galaxy of interconnected dimensions. It would be a true standalone tale from an author whose penchant for interconnectedness regularly tells the Marvel cinematic universe to “hold his beer.” (Or, as Sanderson doesn’t drink alcohol, maybe his soda.)
Well, this is that book. And with something akin to a cross between Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with a heavy splash of Edward Packard’s The Cave of Time, this book grabbed my attention in a truly Sandersonian way—although it’s usually not until the latter third of his books (which fans call the “Sanderlanche” section) that I normally feel myself so intrigued; not the first five pages!
Sanderson uses humor in his books regularly, but they’re usually fairly subtle and work to break tension (to see what I mean, search for memes: “I am a stick.”). In this book however, he begins with a first person narrator who doesn’t have his memory, so he has the ability to comment on what he’s seeing without any of the complexities that a fully fleshed out character has. This allows Sanderson to channel the wit of both the aforementioned Douglas Adams and Discworld’s Sir Terry Pratchett—at least until the main character remembers more of who he is, at which point things shift a bit. (There’s also a certain amount of Christopher Nolan’s Memento woven into this tale, as Sanderson asks us as readers to imagine what we might be capable of if we didn’t have our baggage and assumptions about ourselves all the time.)
The book starts off with a bang as our amnesia-riddled protagonist finds himself in a field with a flaming outline of his body behind him and the burned remnants of a book scattered to the four winds. As he tries to figure out how he got to wherever this is, he realizes he knows things about the world and time he comes from, but nothing specific about himself. For some reason, he has a great desire to review everything around him in multiple-Star ratings, including trees, rivers, and forts. For example, after hiding behind a tree to evade ominous looking thugs, our protagonist mentally comments:
“You’re a good tree. Tall, thick—and most importantly—wooden. Four and a half stars. Would hide behind you again. Half a point off for lack of refreshments.”
As he begins to explore the world (which, as the title completely spoils, is in fact a version of Medieval England) and gets to know the natives, he begins to remember not only that he’s a dimensional traveler (rather than a time traveler) but more about who he is and why he leapt to this dimension in the first place.
What starts out as a humorous romp, however, delves into the deeper places of humanity until we are actually dealing with a tale that is quite dark and full of shame. These places of deep introspection are the places that Sanderson most excels.
If this book is your first introduction to Sanderson, fear not. It’s a fine entry portal—and one where you needn’t really worry about many interconnections. (I say “many,” because even when Sanderson is trying to not interconnect universes, he can’t resist doing some light connection, so he does tap a single character from one of his young adult book series to play a small, but pivotal role in this novel.)
For fans of his work, you will find shadows of other characters from his books. For me, the protagonist (who is given the name “Runian” because of his willingness to write) feels very much like an elseworlds version of Teft from The Stormlight Archive—and that is a very cool thing, indeed.
At 384 pages, this books is much shorter than most of his other books, but most first person books are shorter. There’s a more limited amount of information that is easily woven into first person accounts, which tends to be self-limiting as far as length goes. (Don’t worry, however. Sanderson includes additional information in between the chapters to provide fun worldbuilding opportunities that first person doesn’t excel at.)
The ending is clever, but also very earned and sincere. I quite enjoyed it.
This book focuses on two sets of dynamics: “magical”/world-building dynamics and interpersonal dynamics.
Even though this feels most like a science-fiction novel, its science feels very much like magic—and even brings up the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
To give us the facade of science-fiction despite the magical feel, Sanderson provides us with interstitial content between the main chapters of the book that are apparently from the aforementioned, The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England, which reads much more like an ad brochure than a useful document (such as the more informative excerpts from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy found in Douglas Adam’s books). Very little from these excerpts actually tell you much about surviving Medieval England, as most of the words are devoted to how you can purchase upgrades and combat matches for your dimension. However, these excerpts do a great job of helping you to understand where in the future your protagonist comes from, how Frugal Wizard, Inc.™ has allowed people to own their own dimensions, how different dimensions’ timelines flow differently, and how owning a dimension can make you feel like a time traveler.
The interactions with these world-building dynamics are generally quite strong, but they are a tad anachronistic. (Not for merry old England, but for the future that they’re supposed to be from. Even though it seems like our hero is from approximately a hundred years into our future, he still makes comments that’s are firmly planted in the world of the early 2020’s. It’s a small quibble, but, in my opinion, no one will be googling anything in a hundred years. Something new will have replaced it and no one will even remember there ever was a google. With that said, it makes his thought processes more easily interpretable to us, so I understand why he decided to do it. Plus, maybe Sanderson decided that, when finally doing a sci-fi sendup, why re-invent absolutely everything the way he does for all of his fantasy novels? And it’s a fair question.)
The other part of the “magic” of this book actually appears to truly be magic. This is shown in the way hidden spirits interact with mortals in this world and the way in which the gods harass and promote their chosen cultures. When we first meet the skop (bard) Sefawynn, it is because her mystic poetry and boasts are able to soothe and placate the spirits that live on the edges of the physical world—which gives her a place and respect in society. When people write things, fire actually comes from the sky to smite them due to angry power-wielders. It’s an interesting way for Sanderson to sort of thumb his nose at a science-fiction tale to actually put magic within it—while still being careful to not undermine the power coming from science for the protagonist and antagonist. (A beloved literature teacher once told me that in fantasy, magic is what provides power to the protagonist and antagonist, while, in science fiction, science provides power to the protagonist and antagonist. I’ve found it to be a very useful clarification.)
The interactions between the characters in the book are really quite lovely and interesting, especially between Runian and the aforementioned Sefawynn, as well as a tribal chieftain named Ealstan who both fulfills and reimagines the strong, quiet warrior leader. Each local that Runian has to work with pulls out a different part of himself and his background, even triggering memories thought lost to his dimensionally-addled mind. With that said, because of his shaky memories and meeting so many new people to him, I actually had some trouble keeping part of the characters straight for the better part of the first half of the book.
The interesting mix of humor and dark commentary on society and shame are really appropriate for our audience. There’s a reason Sanderson is so well loved in our community.
While I didn’t find it to be quite as good as his first book in these Secret Novels, I really enjoyed what Sanderson did with this novel. I highly recommend you give it a shot. The digital version is available now, while the hardcover version will be coming out this summer for folks who weren’t involved in the Kickstarter.
When I conclude reviewing all four of these books at the end of the year, I believe I’ll write an article about them as a whole—because they all started as private works to be shared with his wife, who encouraged him to put them out into the world. But when he did so, he did it in secret. You got the right to glimpse these hidden books in the future, sight unseen when you paid your money. (For years, people have suggested that filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg or Christopher Nolan could avoid trailers and just have people pay money based on their reputations alone. No one’s ever dared try that—and I suspect no one ever will—but this test that Sanderson has done here might just tempt one or two studios to give it a whirl!)
Each of these books is very unique from what Sanderson has done in the past and I wonder if his publisher might’ve greenlit them, since they were so unique? But when you give all your fans the ability to bankroll four very uniquely different moonshots, saying simply: “Trust me. I think you’ll like what I can do,” there’s a certain magic to it that defies explanation.
I don’t suspect any of these four will be actual Sanderson masterpieces—but they don’t have to be. Instead, I think they’ll make us all stop assuming we know what Sanderson will do next and re-invigorate our imaginations with what COULD happen. (And hopefully we won’t discover that we’ve all crowdfunded a new version of the George Lucas from the dark times of the prequels when he was whisperingly called, “Emperor.”)
Story: 4.0 Moons (out of 5.0)
Dynamics: 4.0 Moons (out of 5.0)
Audience Fit: 4.5 Moons (out of 5.0)
Final Score (not an average): 4.0 Moons (out of 5.0)
Credits: Images by Howard Lyon. Images © 2023, Dragonsteel Entertainment.