Coming in under the wire yet again this year. I have my reasons, though. The woman I love had a lot of…misfortune this summer. A man I’m beginning to despise has denied me a fortune of my own. And then we have all those other trifling things happening in the world, but I digress.
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Before I start talking about the book itself, I need to tell the story of how I got it. This was not just something I picked up on Amazon, you see. In fact, I thought it was an ebook-only release, since I’d only ever seen it listed with electronic versions. That, to me, meant that I’d have to give it a miss.
I prefer physical copies for multiple reasons. One is simple texture: I love the feeling of a real book in my hands. That’s why I was so excited to be able to get real paperbacks of Nocturne, Before I Wake, and my other novels. The pleasure of reading real words on real paper is something no screen can match.
Beyond that, I avoid purchasing ebooks because I know that I wouldn’t really be purchasing them. Because of DRM and other nastiness, electronic media sidesteps the traditional first sale doctrine, which basically states that once you buy something, you own it. Publishers, greedy leeches on society that they are, hate this, so they long ago introduced artificial scarcity into online shopping. (It’s not only in books. Steam turned gamers into a culture of renters. TV and movies are now primarily streamed, where their very existence is ephemeral and fluid in a way no physical copy could ever be.)
So I thought I’d never have a chance to read Dawnshard by "legal" means. But then my partner and I went on vacation.
We went to Gatlinburg in April. If you don’t know Tennessee, Gatlinburg is the closest thing we have to a mountain resort. Definitely not an Aspen or Lake Tahoe, but maybe a very slimmed-down Vail or Snowshoe. It’s a beautiful place for a mountain-lover like me, and it’s only about a three-hour drive from where I live. Ahem. Where we live.
In this little hideaway, far from the ski lifts that were closed for the season, the nature park with its four-hour line (and 60 dollars I’ll never get back…), and the bustling town next door, there’s a back road that leads through the Gatlinburg Arts & Crafts Community. We went there searching for fudge on the one rainy day of our trip, but there was something even better across the street from the mediocre fudge shop.
Indie bookstores are a dying breed everywhere, but this one seemed almost perfectly placed in our journey. I’d seen it on the map, so I knew I wanted to check it out, but I thought it’d be a quick little peek and nothing more. Instead, my partner found no fewer than six books that interested her, plus the self-guided journal I talked her into getting.
As my tastes are more eccentric, I doubted I’d find anything worth buying. Indeed, the fiction section was mostly full of woke nonsense, as is common throughout the industry now. What was left after I ignored all that didn’t leave me enthused: multiple copies of A Song of Ice and Fire books, way too much Stephen King, and a handful of oddities. And Dawnshard, in a pocket hardback format. I was so surprised that I showed it to both my partner and the bookshop’s sole employee—he seemed almost as amazed by its presence. And now I had something to remember The Next Chapter besides the freebie bookmarks.
That’s the story behind my copy of this book. What about the story itself, though? Well, it’s a typical Sanderson tale, really, just in a much condensed format. This is the first time I’ve read one of his shorter works—Dawnshard is basically an oversized novella, about the same length as one of my mainline Otherworld stories—and I have to say that the pacing is dramatically different.
The plot is kind of a side quest for the Stormlight Archive series. It follows a couple of random B-team characters (Lopen, the one-armed guy whose dialogue has a lot of made-up words that make me imagine him as Hispanic; Rysn, who was so forgettable that I can’t even remember which book she’s from) as they search for…various things. It’s a Pirates of the Caribbean bit of swashbuckling, in a way. Almost the entire story takes place at sea, far enough from the main series’ action that it isn’t necessary to read it.
Of course, knowing Sanderson, he’ll find a way to tie it into everything else. And I don’t just mean the Stormlight Archive, either. This is a part of his own little cinematic universe, after all, and there are vague references to the Mistborn books and probably others that I missed because I haven’t read them. These don’t overpower the story, because there just isn’t room for much more than name-dropping.
What I like best about Sanderson’s works is the worldbuilding. Even in its meager 280 pint-sized pages, Dawnshard delivers on that. As always, the world of Roshar baffles with its sheer alien nature. Now that it’s canon that this world is being affected by beings from other worlds in his shared universe, though, that takes things up a notch. Now we get to see his take on the old "ancient guardians protecting something too mysterious for mere mortals" trope.
As you may expect, I utterly detest that trope, and that’s because I reject its very premise. There is nothing in this world (or any other) that is too dangerous to be known. Knowledge is power, but knowledge is also humanity’s birthright. So you’ll never catch me rooting for the guardians, even if their intentions are shown to be completely honorable. In this case, they aren’t—that would make for a boring story, to be honest—and they’re thus the bringers of conflict.
All told, Sanderson handles that conflict well. He doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of battle (as he did in Rhythm of War) or lose himself in intricate plots. The pacing is swift, and the action flows in a way that even Mistborn couldn’t manage. Either he’s grown as a writer over the last 20 years, or this format suits him better than thousand-page doorstops. Of course, the prose is still a little clunky, but even that is improving. (On a side note, can somebody out there teach him how to make a proper conlang? From the names and the few words he tosses in, I assume Rysn and her people are supposed to be some kind of Slavic analogue, but the sheer lack of vowels hurts my head.)
Dawnshard is a good read, and a good way to wrap up an eventful summer. It’s nothing special or spectacular, because it just isn’t big enough for that. Instead, it’s…cozy. And yes, that opinion is very much colored by the circumstances by which it came into my life. For a book where supposed fate is a major plot point, that makes sense.