Brandon Sanderson – To Read or Not To Read?

Everyone has that one book or movie. They love it to a thousand pieces but have reservations about recommending.

“Yesssss! It was amazing. The arcs were so real, and the characters. And I can’t believe the plot twists. But…” *tries to explain what others might consider objectionable content without making it seem the worst piece of work on the face of the earth.*

There are a few things like this for me. The musical Hamilton. Movies like Hart’s War. And Brandon Sanderson.

Brandon Sanderson books

I love Brandon Sanderson’s books and am slowly working my way through all his novels. His worlds are epic. His themes are amazing. His characters are among the most realistic and relatable I’ve ever read. His plots, subplots, arcs, twists, politics, and foreshadowing are bewildering in a good way. Think Charles Dickens, but fantasy.

Sure, his prose leaves things to be desired. He could show more and cut down on unnecessary exposition. Still, I can ignore those faults due to the story catching me up. Which says a lot since I’d probably not read any other author with prose like Sanderson’s.

And yet… there are things in his books that I wouldn’t write myself. If books had ratings, I’d give most of Sanderson’s work a PG-13 rating.

So—to read or not to read?

The violence doesn’t trouble me and isn’t too graphic or gory simply for the sake of violence. It’s realistic, and sometimes horrible, but that’s the point. There is swearing to some degree, made up in some worlds, ‘minor’ swear words in others. Generally such language is only for a single character when it’s part of their character. There isn’t swearing just because.

Then there is the occasional sensuality, for lack of a better word. Sometimes it is cultural. Or a character who has a mistress. Or we see a man’s thoughts about his betrothed or his wife. They aren’t thrown in simply for the sake of it—they’re part of a character. It doesn’t venture beyond speech or thought in any detail. Still, there are things that make the books something I’d not just recommend to every reader I come across.

Yet I read them myself and love them. This brings the question: do the good aspects of the books cancel out the bad?

I’d present the option that the outlook of a book matters as much as the actual content.

A villain or antagonist will generally act in ways that are morally wrong. It’s expected from villain. A writer must show the darkness, otherwise the light has no power. Even good characters will slip or start in a dark place. The point is not so much what they do as how it is portrayed. If a character lies, steals, or murders, are there consequences?

A book could be completely ‘clean’ of any sort of graphic details, yet not be a good book because a child stealing to help her sick mother is lauded as a great act. A book might show a character murdering someone at the beginning, yet be a very good read as it brings the readers on his journey of guilt, consequences, and eventual justice. A man thinking about his betrothed or wife in relation to the physical aspect of his love toward her may be more right than a story where it’s acceptable for two characters to become lovers because they don’t want the bonds of marriage.

Moral problems make for exciting dilemmas, but in the end the right needs to be portrayed as right and rewarded while the wrong needs to be portrayed as wrong and judged. Poetic justice must take place.

The second aspect is focus and builds on the first. Say the end portrayal of right and wrong is sound, does this justify reading anything you please? What does the scene, or book, leave you thinking about? Is the focus on sensuality or violence and leave you with pictures you’d rather not have in your head? Or is the focus on the love or anger of a character and the results of their actions?

The two ‘guidelines’ are fairly simple. How are actions portrayed and what is their focus? When it comes to Sanderson, good and evil are masterfully portrayed as right and wrong through the struggles and results with each character. While he goes more in-depth with some aspects of life than I would, they are merely a natural extension of his characters and not a focus of the scenes.

The aspect of how detailed a book can get and still be good is as much a matter of personal conviction as anything else. I don’t think anything is acceptable so long as a Christian label or right worldview is slapped on. At the same time, there are those who are uncomfortable with too much drinking in a book, while others don’t even notice heavy swearing. What lines there are and where they might be is too long a topic for here.

For me, if a book promotes a right worldview and doesn’t go into graphic sensuality or swearing, then I can enjoy and learn from it even if I don’t agree with every point. With Sanderson, I would say yes. Read him. His books are fascinating in general, but studying what he does and how he does it can help writers learn and grow as well.

What do you think makes a book good or bad? Where is the line for you and how firm do you think it should be?

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20 Comments

  1. This is ironically exactly what a friend was telling me yesterday when I worried about my own stories being too dark.
    The outlook. Clearly portraying sin as sin and violence as violence.

    Thanks for the post, Hope. Very encouraging.

  2. I agree with this post and your conclusion wholeheartedly. 😀

  3. I totally agree here. I can put up with quite a bit in a book so long as the “wrong” is not ultimately condoned as “right”. And also, as I’m reading, I appreciate when certain things are implied rather than spelled out clearly. That really helps me to keep looking on to the overall message of the story and the intentions of its author.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Haven’t read Sanderson, but your description of his approach sounds just like mine. And I agree that what truly matters is the portrayal of consequences, while staying aware of any gratuitous content.
    I don’t like Disney’s Little Mermaid, because it encourages teens to rebel against their parents, showing it will all work out in the end.
    But I can recommend Schindler’s List to many people, as a brutally honest portrayal of the Holocaust and how anyone can change to make a difference. The film has every possible detail to offend people, but none of it is gratuitous. All the harsh details are designed to show the real horrors of the time.
    It also shows Schindler having ongoing affairs, but this makes his later re-commitment to his wife very real. Most Christian-published novels would never even hint at details of an affair, which can leave the repentance feeling somewhat hollow.
    If we as readers can’t connect with the emotions of a character’s sin & temptations, how can we connect to the triumph of their repentance and restoration? As writers, we need to take people on an emotional journey that includes relating to a character’s temptations, without tempting the reader when we do it.

  5. This might be the most thoroughly and convincingly thought-out answer to this question I have ever read. Nicely done.

  6. I love his books… but I was very disappointed in with the homosexuality he put in Stormlight #3. The Pg-13 doesn’t bother me too much as it’s realistic and dealt with well… but I the other thing bothered me because Sanderson is Mormon and his character that represented honor in his books had no issue with the gay couple.

    For awhile I was obsessed with his books. But they are long… and then there was this. So I think I’m going to steer clear of most of his newer books

  7. I like this.There are so many ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ stories out there that present a skewed morality and reality, and many important themes that cannot be dealt with in any depth without having heavier, darker content.

    I personally have a rather mixed opinion on Sanderson’s work. There are parts i really enjoy, brilliant plots, world and characters, but some of the religious themes that pop up are a bit odd. For example, in Mistborn, you have characters becoming gods or god figures. And that unsettles me sometimes.

    There also are times to read stories from a very different world view. They’re not story I’, likely to recommend, but it can occasionally give needed understanding on how others see the world, and even illuminate one’s one world view by the contrast.

    • The religions are interesting, yeah. They make more sense when you study what Mormon’s believe. I still enjoy them though, because I’m not reading them for the religious aspect.

  8. So well put! You do an excellent job of presenting moral arguments with an graceful, encouraging tone. I don’t think anyone who reads this could feel judged unless they really wanted to. 🙂 The argument itself is so well presented.

  9. Hi Hope Ann,
    Excellent article on dealing with excellent but “controversial” books/authors. I’ve been hearing Sanderson mentioned positively many times for his skills in storytelling and themes in fantasy (other than Tolkien of course!). I plan to trying one of his soon. Which would you recommend to start with? (And why? If you can give it a content rating that would be great as well so I’d know what I’m getting myself into.)

    Thanks!

  10. This puts into words exactly what I’ve thought about Brandon Sanderson and other “Christian” authors. I love Brandon Sanderson’s works but I had a hard time talking to my parents about it. I didn’t want to make it sound terrible but I also wanted to warn them about it before they let my younger brothers (ages 14, 13 and 11) read The Stormlight Archive. This was perfect. Thank you!!

  11. This post is a vast relief for me. I read a lot of books that I love but am tentative to recommend because of language or slight sensual material. An example is Alex Grecian’s ‘The Yard’. Now I feel freer to recommend it to others of an appropriate age level and let them decide themselves.
    I personally draw the line at excessive language and crude, sensual material.
    Thank you for this. <3

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