Somewhere tens of thousands of years ago, evolution took a leap and the human species achieved the ability to project and grasp abstract concepts. Although this is what allowed civilisation to flourish and that is a grand story, our ability to absorb abstractions also allowed us to develop our love for myths, stories and story telling.
The best kind of stories- the ones that told by a crackling open camp fire and under starlight by a shaman, the stories you heard growing up from your grandmother half asleep and half awake, are the kind of stories that take you back to an older time which was much more magical than where we are now. So it’s always nice when I read authors that make me feel like I was sitting by that fireside or listening to the radio on a quiet night in the middle of a forest.
Last year I spoke about how surprised I was in finding out that I enjoyed Chinese writer Ken Liu’s short stories rather than his multi-part long form novels. Somehow his writing sparkled more in his more condensed short stories- Mono no aware, Paper Menagerie and a few other stories whose titles I can’t remember now- all stood out much more than his novel.
Imagine my surprise when I picked up Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson. The original reason I went for this book was because it had a long short story called “The Mistborn Secret History”. I had read all the other six books of the Mistborn series and thought this would round out the collection.
Arcanum is a collection of short stories that are set in the different worlds of the Cosmere- the fictional universe designed by Sanderson. Most of the stories in the book were standalone whereas some were spoilers to other books he had written (like the Mistborn). After reading the book (I didn’t read one story- Edgedancer as it was a spoiler to books I hadn’t read) I felt that the Mistborn story was the weakest and most shallow in the entire collection. It felt like something that had been tacked on retrospectively to the original stories.
The showstealers were actually three other stories- The Emperor’s Soul, Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell and Sixth of the Dusk. While the Emperor’s Soul deals with what is art and what is forgery; Shadows is a true thriller to boot. The atmosphere that Sanderson creates in the story is so oppressive and thrilling that at one point I didn’t want to read ahead because “I didn’t want to see what happened next”. It’s been a long time since that happened to me with a book. Sixth of Dusk explores the ever present clash of the ways of the old vs modernity in an atmosphere both haunting and poignant. Monsters that hunt through your thoughts? Check.
There was also an excerpt from a graphic novel “White Sand” which had overtones from Dune (sand monsters?) but I couldn’t be sure.
I am truly in awe of this man’s rich imagination. Maybe in some cases it is easier to write a powerful short story without having to go with the rigorous process of having to stretch out narratives and descriptions. Maybes sometimes it is more powerful to just plant a seed and let the reader’s imagination do the rest?
That is after all what those stories around campfires did right? The ones that leave you feeling like the meme below?