Books That Make Me Happy: Arcanum Unbounded

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I enjoy the fantasy fiction of Brandon Sanderson, specifically the stories set in the universe he calls the Cosmere. He may not be the most stunning prose stylist or the most profound thinker in SFF, but he weaves gripping tales that draw me in nearly every time. Yet my favorite aspect of his work is, ironically enough, also my least favorite. He gives female characters important roles in his stories. His heroines are brave, intelligent, powerful, or some delightful combination thereof. Yet in his novels, at least the ones that I’ve read thus far, they don’t quite save the day. They may come very close. They may contribute substantially. Yet at some point at the climax, some male character or other will make that crucial day-saving move. (One exception may appear in the final volume of the original Mistborn TrilogyThe Hero of the Ages. I still need to read this one.)

This is why I’m thrilled with the collection of Cosmere short fiction, Arcanum Unbounded, and three stories included therein — The Emperor’s Soul, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” and Edgedancer. They aren’t the only good stories the collection includes (I’m also fond of Mistborn: A Secret History and Sixth of the Dusk), but they are special to me, because in them at last we find, not heroines, but female heroes.

The Emperor’s Soul gets the collection off to a rollicking start. The plot itself is fascinating, as it introduces a new kind of magic user, a “Forger,” who can duplicate almost anything, from famous paintings to furniture to human flesh and bone. One such Forger, Shai, sits in prison awaiting execution when the country’s powerful Arbiters offer her a tenuous chance at freedom. An assassination attempt has left their Emperor still alive but brain-dead. The people can’t know this. Shai must Forge a soul for him, a new personality so close to the old one that no one could possibly suspect anything wrong. If she fails or tries to escape, she’ll be destroyed in a uniquely gruesome way, and she has never Forged anything as intricate as a soul. From this premise springs some of Sanderson’s most engaging writing, as he describes the work in careful detail, making the magic seem not nebulous but tangible, even real.

Shai is a complex protagonist, deeply distrustful of rules, governments, and authority of any kind. As she pieces together the Emperor’s consciousness, she gains a new view of power and its workings, and also begins to re-evaluate who she is and what she wants out of life. She learns she cares about people more than she thought, as she slowly comes to like and admire the grandfatherly Arbiter who keeps her under observation. In the end she gets the better of those who would cheat her out of her promised freedom and ensures her work will not have been in vain. She may not have asked for all this responsibility, but in the end she sees the right thing and does it.

The collection starts with one novella centering on a powerful young female hero who defies the system and ends with another, Edgedancer, set on Roshar, the world of the Stormlight Archive series. No previous acquaintance with the world on which it’s set is necessary to understand The Emperor’s Soul, but it does help if a reader dipping into Edgedancer has some acquaintance with The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance (the book in which our hero, Lift, first appears). In those books we learn about a group of empowered people called the Knights Radiant — who and what they are, why they’re regarded as traitors by some and potential saviors by others, and why Edgedancer‘s villain, called “Darkness,” feels he has a mission to hunt them down and kill them. Lift is one such Radiant, who keeps herself well fed so that she may become “awesome” whenever the need arises. Lift has already escaped Darkness’s clutches once. Now they’re headed for another confrontation.

Lift is another outcast, dwelling on the fringes of society, taking care of herself as best she can and trying not to incur debts of any kind. A female Huckleberry Finn, she’s on the run from a kingdom she’s helped to save because they want to “civilize” her by teaching her to read and write and wear fine clothes; one of her key powers, the ability to make herself “slick” so that she can slip away from any and all who would get her in their grasp, works as a sign of her refusal to be pinned down or confined. But also like Huck Finn, Lift has her own ethical code, as signified by her other key power, the ability to heal others. Having survived her first encounter with Darkness, now she is chasing him, and it becomes clear in the course of her pursuit that she means to stop him from killing any other Radiants.

I’ve already Spoiled the ending so far as to say Lift saves the day, but how she saves the day wins my heart. She’s not always likable. She can come across as selfish, impulsive, and rude, as we might expect from someone who has made a fateful wish to say ten years old forever. Yet her vow of power is to “listen to those who are ignored,” and she gets the better of her foe in a way that reminds me strongly of one of my favorite female heroes in comics, Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. In the story’s final moments we see this eternal child accept adult-like responsibility at last (the idea of responsibility is a very big theme in Sanderson’s work), and while her decision may seem like defeat to those who admire Huck Finn’s perpetual flight from civilization, by this time I know Lift well enough to have confidence that she’ll remain true to her essential self.

In between the two novellas we find another female-hero story, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” a reprint which first appeared in the anthology Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin. Silence Montaigne (and let us pause a moment to take in the beauty of that name) is unusual among Sanderson’s female leads for being, not a young ingenue, but a stout middle-aged widow with two young daughters, the keeper of a waystop (inn) just outside a forest haunted by carnivorous shadows called “Shades.” Silence may have less arcane power than Shai or Lift, but she is skilled, so much so that her success as a bounty hunter has brought her substantial, albeit anonymous, renown. (Nobody knows who the “White Fox” is, but everybody knows what “he” is capable of.) Silence isn’t the kind to make trouble for innocents on the lam. If she comes after you, you darn well deserve it, because Silence too has a moral code. Her mission in this story: to bring in an especially loathsome quarry, and thereby free herself and her daughters from the stranglehold of a slimy creditor. But to do it, she must venture into the haunted wood, her eldest daughter in tow.

In some ways, this story is the most emotionally gripping of my three favorites. First, it’s terrifying, a foray into Gothic fairytale horror; at times I could almost picture it in the style of a German expressionist silent film. The stakes are high, as Silence and her daughter William Ann (another great name) must make the collar and evade both rival bounty hunters and the deadly Shades. Also, while Shai and Lift walk away from their adventures more or less unscathed, Silence’s triumph comes with a heavy cost. Yet for all she suffers, she never surrenders. Even at her lowest, she finds a way to pull herself up and come out on top.

Sadly, Shai, Lift, and Silence remind me why I don’t usually like short fiction. Though their stories are complete, I wish I could have more time with these characters. I wish I could be in their company for two hundred pages or more. All the same, even in the brief time they’re given, they’ve earned places on my list of favorite female heroes in SFF.



One thought on “Books That Make Me Happy: Arcanum Unbounded

  1. Sanderson’s said that one of the Stormlight novels will focus around Lift, so we’re seeing more of her for sure. Unfortunately, it may be a while, since I think it’s supposed to be one of the later Stormlight books…


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