Brandon Sanderson is a titan of the fantasy genre, one of the most innovative and popular writers and one of my favourite authors. I was thinking about his books lately and for fun I started comparing them and trying to rank them. On the one hand, this was easy because most of his books take place in different worlds with settings and plots that you are unlikely to confuse (unlike some authors who write books in one long series and all the books get muddled together in my head). On the other hand, Sanderson doesn’t write bad books, only books that are not as fantastic as his best. Sanderson at his worst is still one of the best fantasy writers. That’s why this list will start with the best, because there isn’t any bad. I gave the top 9 books 5/5 and the last 3 still got 4/5, so it’s all quality.
It should go without saying that this is merely my personal opinion and everyone probably has their own rankings. This is not an objective ranking of quality and there’s going to people who feel the books at the bottom should be at the top and vice versa. There was tough competition, especially at the top of the list and there is very little between some of the books.
The Way of Kings
Perhaps it is because this is the first Sanderson book I read, but this one edged its way to the top of the list. There is fantastic world building, a brilliant plot and some of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever read. What makes it the best and top of this list is Kaladin, who is my number 1 favourite Cosmere character and probably my favourite in all of fantasy. His journey from the depths of misery and despair, as he builds hope in the Bridge 4 crew, is one of the best plotlines I’ve ever read. It shows one of Sanderson’s key strengths, the ability to create dark and dangerous worlds without becoming melodramatic or gritty just for the sake of it. The struggle to overcome this is really uplifting and inspirational.
The other characters too are fantastic and there are too many to mention, but Shallan deserves special attention. I especially enjoyed how she wasn’t merely a hopeless orphan, but plans to do something about her problem. Stealing a soulcaster isn’t exactly an honest thing to do, but it is daring and exciting. What nudges Way of Kings ahead of Mistborn is that while Mistborn describes a country, Stormlight describes a whole world. The setting is just so in-depth with a rich history and culture.
The Final Empire
Sanderson is rightly famous for his amazing characters, detailed magic systems, brilliant world building and excellent plots (all of which are present in this book) but what I really think makes him special is the premises he uses for his books. In this book, Sanderson asks an intriguing question, what if the Dark Lord won the final battle? The final battle between good and evil is such a common feature of fantasy novels that it’s surprising no one has ever wondered what would happen if the evil side won. There are other importance questions like how do you launch a revolution in a slave society and what are the best methods, do you destroy the ruling class like Kelsier believes or try to work with them like Elend believes? Trying to undertake a revolutionary heist in such a world makes for a great story.
Mistborn also has some of Sanderson’s best characters like Kelsier and the crew, but most of all, Vin. Her journey from abused street orphan to powerful allomancer and undercover noblewoman is fascinating and kept me hooked. There is also another classic feature of a Sanderson novel, a mind-blowing ending that puts everything into a new perspective.
Words of Radiance
There are a lot of incredible moments in this book, from the battle scenes to the growth and development of the characters (and their knowledge). There’s no denying that the Stormlight Archive puts the epic in epic fantasy. Kaladin is still my favourite but this is Shallan’s book. She grows a lot as a character and it was a joy to read her being witty and intelligent. One feature of this book, but Sanderson’s writing in general, is that he writes proactive characters who actively try to solve problems. There are amazing characters as usual and intense emotional moments, from the potential loss of Syl, to Shallan and Kaladin being trapped in the chasm, the battle during the storm and culminating in saying the words of the oath.
Well of Ascension
Many fantasy books involve a revolution or war against an evil enemy, but few ask what happens next? What do you do after you defeat the Dark Lord? We all agree that a slave society is wrong, but what do you replace it with? Sanderson uses skill to show it’s not enough to kill the King, that alone won’t solve all the problems. Elend’s and Vin’s struggles with the weight of leadership and the difficulties in building a new society, shows a realism often forgotten in fantasy. The ending is one of the most incredible and mind-blowing I’ve ever read.
The Hero of Ages
Many fantasy books deal with an evil force bent on destruction, but few make the threat as convincing as Ruin. I genuinely felt the mounting sense of despair at the seemingly unstoppable destruction of the world. It does lose some points for Sazed being moany and whiny for most of the book and his “atheism” is too melodramatic to be convincing (although his plot is redeemed by the payoff at the ending). It was good to see Spook become a main character in his own right and see him struggle with the challenges of leadership. But that doesn’t compare with the dream team of Vin and Elend.
This series of short stories shows Sanderson’s skills at creating new worlds and incredible, yet believable settings. The Emperor’s Soul is some of Sanderson’s best writing and stands tall with his best novels. Sixth of Dust is also incredible, especially for its examination of the clash between colonialism and indigenous societies without romanticising either or falling into the noble savage trap. Shadows for Silence is another great example of Sanderson creating an intriguing premise executed with great characters and a page-turning plot. Allomancer Jak is a funny parody of 19th century adventure stories and a nice way to pass the time. Edgedancer starts poorly and Lift deeply frustrated me (am I a grumpy old man or is she more annoying than funny?) with the contrived difficulties. It eventually gets good, but it takes a while. The Secret History is the only one I didn’t like, I hate the trope of bringing back dead characters. Especially when there’s not much of a plot, instead it’s mainly just a teaser for other stories and hints that might be significant down the road.
Shadows of Self
I’ve rarely been as amazed as by the jump in quality between the 1st and 2nd book in the 2nd era of Mistborn. I was underwhelmed by the first one, but I was really impressed at the character development in Shadows. The plot is a lot more interesting, the world is more engaging and the characters just clicked and became smoother and more natural. Steris in particular completely changed, she went from a nuisance side character to a well-developed and interesting person in her own right. Wayne became less annoying his jokes actually became funny and I even wamered to Wax. I haven’t been as stunned by such an ending since the Well of Ascension.
This is Sanderson’s first published novel and it’s a bit rougher than the others. I can see some elements were taken and reworked into Stormlight Archives. Some parts are a bit too easy and convenient but it’s still a solid story with an excellent premise and setting. It’s hard not to be impressed and inspired with how Raoden and Sarene overcome their challenges and who doesn’t love a happy ending?
The Bands of Mourning
This further developed the character growth in Shadows and shows how Sanderson has successfully created a gang of memorable characters. The outsider perspective chapter in the hotel is one of the funniest scenes Sanderson has written and shows how well together he has woven the various quirks of the gang. Once again, the plot is engaging and exciting, and the ending took it in a new direction that I’m not quite sure of. I wouldn’t say this weakened the book, but it doesn’t quite have the same power as the others.
Oathbringer isn’t a bad book, but it fares poorly in comparison with the two preceding Stormlight books. The love triangle is the only part that’s actually bad, but there is a general feeling of middle book slog. At times it is repetitive, such as Dalinar’s flashbacks and his attempts to organise meetings and some sections drag with little payoff, like most of the section in Kholinar and with Azure. Other parts are underwhelming, like finding out the Spiritual Realm is pretty ordinary and similar to the Physical Realm.
The focus is much more on Dalinar, who I don’t find as interesting, but it’s the underuse of Kaladin that really annoyed me. He’s the best character yet he’s hardly in the book and his relationship with Shallan was poorly handled (her “jokes” were cringey and childish). There is a strange lack of interaction between the characters and even the side-characters are oddly compartmentalised, Kaladin’s friends only talk to Kaladin, Shallan’s people only deal with her etc. Shallan’s mental issues are at times masterfully written, although they somewhat undermine her character development in the previous books and the ending isn’t well handled. That being said, it is still a good book and I’m happy to have another addition to one of my favourite fantasy series.
The question “what would it be like if the gods lived among us?” is a great premise, but unfortunately the execution isn’t quite as good. Lightsong has his moments, but he’s not as captivating as some of Sanderson’s other characters. The character of Blushweaver is the only bad character Sanderson has written and feels like getting hit over the head with the Bible. There’s a lot of clunky writing about how she can’t be trusted because she is seductive and promiscuous, and the only time she is complimented is when she dresses modestly and “respects herself”.
I found it very hard to engage with Vivenna’s plot, which does end well, but it’s a slog to get there. You know what I hate most about a mercenary? Constantly repeating the same catchphrase. But Siri’s plot more than made up for this and her relationship with the God King is genuinely charming. There is still great world building and the payoff makes the story worthwhile.
The Alloy of Law
Maybe I don’t like Westerns enough to enjoy this book. This felt like Sanderson had a checklist of Western clichés and was just ticking them off. There’s a fight on the roof of a train for no particular reason other than that’s what people do in Westerns. It didn’t seem plausible for the Mistborn world to experience industrialisation the same way as 19th century America did and it felt forced to fit the Wild West theme. The characters are decent but they don’t really click and feel like rough drafts. Wax is too uptight, Wayne is just annoying who jokes don’t really land and Miles is a clichéd villain.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling very tempted to reread the entire Cosmere series again. I enjoyed every single book in this series and even Alloy of Law is only bad in comparison to the 1st era of Mistborn. How would you rank the books? Which is your most and least favourite? Unfortunately, it’s too complicated to create a poll with all the options, but here’s a poll ranking each series in the Cosmere.