The Ultimate Guide To The Cosmere: Exploring Brandon Sanderson’s Shared Universe
Brandon Sanderson is the most prolific fantasy author of our time. He has published over 30 titles since 2005. Many of these books exist in a shared universe known as the Cosmere. In this guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere we take an in-depth look at how the universe operates, and why it is integral to readers of Sanderson’s work.
How Did Brandon Sanderson Get Here?
Sanderson published his first novel Elantris in 2005, followed by his Mistborn trilogy (published from 2006-2008). But it was the Wheel of Time series that made him a household name among fans in the epic fantasy genre. Sanderson stepped in to complete the 14-book series after author Robert Jordan died in 2007. Working with Jordan’s editor (and widow) Harriet McDougal, Sanderson finished the series based off Jordan’s outlines, notes, and previously written text. And now, it’s being adapted by Amazon, who recently put out a Wheel of Time teaser.
The critical success of these final Wheel of Time novels (The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light) gave Sanderson both the clout and the experience to start his own epic fantasy. His planned 10-book series – The Stormlight Archive – might be the first place readers learn about the Cosmere. But what exactly is the Cosmere? And why is it important for Sanderson fans to understand? Let’s explore the mythology that the books have given us thus far in this guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere
(Beware: Minor Book Spoilers Below. Proceed with caution.)
Image by Nihonjoe via Wikimedia Commons
A Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere
The Cosmere is a shared universe where the majority of Sanderson’s novels take place. (This is not dissimilar to the work of Stephen King, who tied all of his novels into the universe of The Dark Tower.) But when I say universe, we aren’t simply talking about a shared setting or characters. Every series takes place on a different planet on various solar systems within the same galaxy. There are numerous planets and unique worlds in the Cosmere. But the 10 primary planets, known as Shardworlds where the major events play out.
A cataclysmic event shaped the Shardworlds in the history of Sanderson’s universe. In the beginning, there was God called Adonalsium – a being of immense power. At some point, a group of mysterious individuals decided to get together to murder this god and claim its power for themselves. Adonalsium shattered into Shards that represent different aspects of its power. Among these aspects were traits like Honor, Cultivation, Ambition, Devotion, Dominion, Ruin, Preservation, Endowment, Autonomy, and others still unnamed.
The individuals who shattered Adonalsium then absorbed these powers, and each of them became the Vessel of a Shard. These Shards eventually ended up on the planets of the Cosmere. The power of the Shards shaped the world around each them, investing each planet with specific magical properties. This process – called Investiture – explains why each Shardworld has its own unique magical system, despite the shared universe they exist within.
A Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere: Elantris and Mistborn
Mistborn Ebook Trilogy Cover Art by Sam Weber | Tor/Forge
In his debut novel Elantris, the first pair of Shards come into play. These aspects of Adonalsium were Devotion and Dominion. The Vessel Aona carried the Shard of Devotion away from the Shattering to the planet Sel. With her went the vessel of Dominion, an individual named Skai. Long before the events of Elantris occur, Aona and Skai are killed by a force known as Odium (whom we will discuss more in depth with The Stormlight Archive below). The Shards of Devotion and D0minion splintered into even smaller fragments of Adonalsium’s power. These fragments that evolved into magical beings, called the Seon, that feature prominently in Elantris.
The Mistborn trilogy directly introduces readers to the Shards of Ruin and Preservation, located on the planet Scadrial. These Shards once worked together to create sentient life on the planet but they remain at odds throughout the Mistborn series. The magical systems on Scadrial are the Metallic Arts. Magic is fueled by ingesting (or being pierced by) different types of metal. The Shard of Preservation powers the magical skill set known as Allomancy. Preservation is about stability and endurance, while its counterpart Ruin is about change and chaos. The Shard of Ruin powers the magical skill known as Hemalurgy. The third Metallic Art – Feruchemy – strikes a balance between Ruin and Preservation.
A Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere: Warbreaker
Warbreaker Cover Art | Tor/Forge
Warbreaker is one of Sanderson’s standalone novels (currently). And its planet of Nalthis is home to a single shard: Endowment. The Vessel for this Shard is a woman named Edgli, although the novel gives few details about her. The Shard of Endowment grants a Breath of Life – a power that can ‘Awaken’ objects into sentience. The Breath of Life can also ‘return’ individuals from the dead, as seen in Warbreaker. This ability also brings to life a talking sword that later hops several worlds to end up in the hands of a key character from The Stormlight Archive.
A Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere: The Stormlight Archive
Art by Michael Whelan | Tor/Forge
At last we come to The Stormlight Archive, where much of the Cosmere mythology comes into play. In the first book (Way of Kings) readers learn of a malevolent Shard called Odium. This Shard, held by the Vessel Rayse, is the aspect of Adonalsium that represents extreme passion. Not bound to any specific planet, Odium was once free to wander the Cosmere wreaking havoc. Determined to become the most powerful entity in the universe, Odium seeks to destroy the other Shards. It was Odium who killed Devotion and Dominion. Odium also destroys several other Shards, including those of Ambition and Honor. We know little of Ambition, but the death of Honor is a significant plot point in The Stormlight Archive.
The Vessel for Honor was a man named Tanavast. He traveled with the (unknown) Vessel of the Shard of Cultivation to the planetary system of The Stormlight Archive. The humans of Roshar revere Honor as a God. When Odium killed Tanavast, the Shard of Honor splintered into fragments. One of these splinters is personified as the mighty Stormfather. The Stormfather is responsible for the dramatic highstorms that rage across Roshar. These (un)natural occurrences produce the titular stormlight that is the primary source of both magic and economy. Roshar is the primary Shardplanet in a solar system that contains 16 planets (a notable number in the Cosmere). An icy world called Braize is also in the Rosharan system, this is where Odium is trapped following his battle with the Tanavast.
A myriad of other planets hold places of importance in the Cosmere. These Shardworlds and their distinct magical systems feature in Sanderson’s short stories and novellas. A collection of these stories appear in the tome Arcanum Unbounded – essential reading for any fan of the Cosmere.
A Guide to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere: World-Hoppers Abound
There are several characters in the Cosmere who appear in various novels, often with different names. These ‘World-Hoppers’ can move between the planes of existence that link all of the planets of the Cosmere together. The most important World-Hopper to appear in every Cosmere novel (and short story) is Hoid. He is also known as a character named Wit – and often called the Fool.
According to lore, Hoid was present for the Shattering of Adonalsium but did not claim a Shard for himself. He was once human, but it is unclear what he has since become. He appears to be immortal and ageless, despite his shockingly white hair (that he often dyes black). Hoid is a master of disguise who often appears at pivotal moments in a Shardworld’s history to nudge events along a specific path.
The World-Hoppers Hold The Answers To Cosmere’s Biggest Mysteries
Hoid possesses the magical abilities of several Shardworlds, although he does not originate from any of them. He comes from a planet called Yolen, a world at the heart of the Cosmere. Yolen and Hoid are both a mystery to readers right now. However, Sanderson is working on a duology about the character that is due for release after completion of The Stormlight Archive. This mysterious individual is one of the primary characters that link all the worlds of the Cosmere together.
Another World-Hopper of note is Khriss, the author of the Ars Arcana. Khriss has a presence in every book of the Cosmere through the glossaries written as in-universe text. She is one of the primary scholars of the worlds and magics within the Cosmere. This makes her one of the most valuable sources of information, despite rarely appearing within the text itself. Khriss appears as a character in Sanderson’s White Sand graphic novels. She also notably shows up in one of the short stories in Arcanum Unbounded while traveling through the Cognitive Realm.
Cover of White Sand | Dynamite Comics
Three Realms: Physical, Spiritual, and the Cognitive In Cosmere
The Cognitive Realm exists as an inter-dimensional plane that spans the Cosmere. According to the Realmatic Theory of the Cosmere, there are three realms: Physical, Spiritual, and Cognitive. The Cognitive Realm is the Realm of the Mind. An alien world to anyone crossing over from the Physical Realm. It is a place where everything is inverted, where the living mingle with the souls of the dead. The Cognitive Realm is a type of purgatory. Souls of the dead must pass through this realm before moving on. A ‘cognitive shadow’ is the result of souls lingering in the Cognitive Realm (these are essentially ghosts with a higher degree of agency than most).
A city called Silverlight does exist in the Cognitive Realm. This is the primary spot of civilization on this plane of existence, populated initially by World-Hoppers. Silverlight is the home base for the World-Hopper Khriss (and her assistant Nazh). It is also home to several universities, presumably dedicated to the study of Cosmere lore and the art of World-Hopping.
Hopping Worlds In The Cognitive Realm
Certain characters can travel over long distances on their own world, or from one planet to another via the Cognitive Realm. Conscious beings are reflected in this realm. But the cold void of space still lacks a mind in the Cosmere. The vast expanses of the galaxy separating the planets from one another do not exist in the Cognitive Realm. As a result, time and distance are heavily distorted. World-Hoppers know tricks to travel quickly and safely through the Cognitive Realm. But those who stumble into this Realm by accident often find themselves in over their heads.
Within the Cognitive Realm are junctions known as Perpendicularities. These are gateways from the Realm of the Mind into the Physical Realms of various planets. Through these junctions World-Hoppers can travel vast distances. Much more of the Cognitive Realm can be seen in Arcanum Unbounded, along with the third book of The Stormlight Archive: Oathbringer.
Oathbringer Cover Art by Michael Whelan | Tor/Forge
Where To Begin?
There is no set entry-point to the Cosmere universe, and it is not strictly necessary to know about the Cosmere in order to understand Sanderson’s books. However, knowledge of the Cosmere will certainly help enrich any reader’s understanding of Sanderson’s novels. We have kept this guide fairly basic in an effort not to spoil any major plot points for new readers. That said, this guide only scratches the surface of the Cosmere mythology.
Sanderson recommends reading the series (such as Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive) in sequential order. But he also states that any of these books would make an excellent entry into the Cosmere. Personally, I always recommend people start with the Mistborn series. But if you are looking for a standalone book to give you a feel for the Cosmere, and Sanderson’s writing style, then you should consider Elantris or Warbreaker. Looking for something even shorter? Check out Sanderson’s Hugo award-winning novella The Emperor’s Soul. Wherever you start, you will have plenty of Cosmere to explore for years to come.
Feature image: Michael Whelan | Tor/Forge
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.