Cruising the Cosmere: Visit Magical Arelon!
Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for Elantris. Please read with caution if you have yet to finish the book.
I just read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: Secret History, and it got me thinking about scope. Epic fantasy is its own magnificent genre of course, but it tends to take place on a single world. It deals with the politics of multiple countries, but it rarely planet-hops, leaving that particular trait to its cousin: the space opera. Space operas land squarely in the realm of science fiction, dealing with the same things as epic fantasy but on a grander galactic or universal scale. I love both genres, so Sanderson’s Cosmere is predictably one of my favourite things to come out of the fantasy world in the last decade. It’s the fantasy version of a space opera! Honestly, is there anything better?
Sanderson sent Elantris into the world as a standalone and immediately established himself as someone who did cool magic systems. While not his most polished work, Elantris set a baseline for interesting and apparently arbitrary magical rules, rules that, when broken, simply didn’t work. This baseline was reinforced with the first Mistborn series, an epic fantasy set in a completely different world and bearing, it appeared, no relation to Elantris. Looking back of course, I can see that none of the rules of AonDor are arbitrary, just specific aspects of the Shards who invested their power into the world.
Missing the connections between the worlds of the Cosmere in those early days is excusable. Sure, there’s at least one character who shows up on more than one world, but that happens in fantasy sometimes. Authors often have a pet character that they stick everywhere, regardless of continuity. It’s a little nod to their dedicated fans, and it doesn’t mean anything. Of course, that’s not the case with Sanderson, as anyone who has read through the Cosmere knows by now.
There are hints of a wider, Cosmere-spanning story woven into and between the worlds. Anonymous letters punctuate the Stormlight Archive, to and from persons unknown but clearly familiar with more than one world. We see a few characters, notably Hoid and Vasher, show up in more than one book and world. Hoid in particular gets around, and remains inscrutable wherever he goes. We don’t know his agenda, though it’s clear he has one. He’s especially forgettable in Elantris, where he barely appears at all.
One major difference between the Cosmere and a standard space opera (so far) is that while characters occasionally slip between Realms (Jasnah comes to mind, with her ability to move between the Physical and Cognitive Realms) each individual book stays squarely on its own planet. Although characters like The Drifter, Hoid, or Vasher move from world to world, we don’t follow them. We see them at their destinations, not in transit. This means that each book and series can be read on its own without actually needing the Cosmere – but as soon as you read more than one you get a glimpse of the huge, universe-spanning story. It lets Sanderson combine two genres into each book – epic fantasy and space opera – and keeps readers coming back hoping for more snatches of the background story.
Elantris started it all, and so we begin on Sel, where a mysterious magical disease strikes without warning. Those afflicted cannot die, cannot heal, and must live segregated from the rest of the population. When the book begins we don’t know that this planet has been a major battleground between Odium, Devotion, and Dominion, resulting in the death and Shattering of both of the kinder Shards.
Sel is a particularly interesting world, mostly because of the attributes of the two Shards who landed there. Devotion and Dominion no longer exist, but you can see Splinters of Devotion in the loyalty and love given by the Seons to their bonded humans, and you find more forms of magic than usual because Dominion gave each sovereign nation its own. The Shaod doesn’t come to those who aren’t from Arelon, for example, and the Jindoese art of ChayShan seems limited to that country’s citizens. Soulforging only comes up in The Emperor’s Soul and never gets mentioned in Elantris, suggesting that it doesn’t exist in Fjordell, Teod, Arelon, Jindo, or the other countries mentioned in the book.
Hoid appears as well, as a poor beggar living in the abandoned cities around Elantris. Sarene uses him to deliver weapons to the Elantrians, but we don’t see him take any direct actions himself. He has been on Sel for quite a while, but we see him only when he converses with the gyorn Hrathen, and when he speaks to Sarene. It’s a small, bit part, but knowing Hoid we must assume he has a reason to be there. It’s possible he’s just stopped by to check on the world now that Devotion and Dominion are dead, but I think he’s on an information-gathering trip. My guess is that Hoid wants to know how Sel works after Odium’s been through. Is it falling to pieces without its Shards? Are people driven by hatred? Secondarily I think Hoid wants to learn as much magic as he can from each planet he visits. On Sel he stays hidden and lurks around Elantris, which used to be a center of godlike magic. He speaks to Hrathen, a high-ranking representative of another country, with powers of his own.
Word of Brandon is that with Devotion and Dominion gone, Sel became very hard to travel to via the Cognitive Realm. This might account for Hoid’s long stay, though I’m inclined to think there’s just more to learn on Sel about the destruction of two Shards than there is on many other planets. Hoid probably wants to see how the planet develops over time. He stays close to the transit point (the pool Roaden brings the old Elantrian to, and later falls in himself), but he keeps an eye on events around the country by disguising himself as a beggar and moving by night.
Upon rereading Elantris I think the most obvious hint of the larger Cosmere is not Hoid, or the pool, or even AonDor. It’s Raoden’s obsession with Seons. Sanderson sprinkles this in carefully. Raoden is frustrated by not knowing how Seons are created. He can find nothing in the books he reads, no reason for them to go mad when their bonded human gets taken by the Shaod. It irritates him through the whole book, enough that one of the final scenes includes him musing on the matter.
From my privileged viewpoint I know that Seons are Splinters of Devotion, each probably representing a single Aon. It’s possible they bond to people of strong will, or even that bonding a Seon changes the human it’s bonded to – certainly Sarene, Roial, Hrathen, and Raoden all have strong personalities and great influence. Additionally, they inspire loyalty in their companions, something Devotion would probably encourage.
Rereading Elantris made me feel less silly for not spotting the Cosmere earlier. Sanderson did a good job of hiding his Easter eggs, particularly in this first book, when he couldn’t be sure of success. He dropped enough hints that I can look at them now and catch them with glee, but if the book had flopped no one would have been left with cliff-hanger questions. That takes skill as a writer.
My next post will be a lot of wild speculation about Seons, AonDor, the Dakhor Monks, and ChayShan, so get ready! For now I’ll leave you with Elantris, a city of wonder and a delightful book. For more discussion about the Cosmere, head over to the Fantasy-Faction forum and join the conversation!