Brandon Sanderson’s Secret Project Novels, Ranked

Brandon Sanderson has always been a prolific author, but 2023 was a good year, even for him. He published a whopping four novels as part of his record-setting “secret novels” Kickstarter — plus another novel from the Skyward series, an Audio-exclusive title he co-wrote, and a short story. Impressive stuff. Now that us hardcore Brandon Sanderson fans have had time to read all of the Secret Project novels (at least) once, it seems as good a time as any to look back over them, and rank them!

#4 – The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England

This is the only non-Cosmere* title amongst the Secret Projects, and that fact has no doubt influenced how we feel about Frugal Wizard. However, it’s arguably the weakest of the four even when judged solely on its own merits: the protagonist is hard to like (although that’s almost certainly by design); the world is not nearly as imaginative as most of Sanderson’s settings, and the plot as a whole — guy wakes up with amnesia in an unfamiliar place and has to retrace his steps — is far from inspired.

Still, despite all of its weaknesses, it’s a page-turner. Plus, Brandon does a convincing job writing from the perspective of a lazy whiner (and said lazy whiner does grow on you after a while). And while it’s far from his best magic system, his twist on Nordic Gods and Goddesses is a fun one.

*The Cosmere is Brandon Sanderson’s book and series-spanning extended universe

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A man awakens in a clearing in what appears to be medieval England with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or why he is there. Chased by a group from his own time, his sole hope for survival lies in regaining his missing memories, making allies among the locals, and perhaps even trusting in their superstitious boasts. His only help from the “real world” should have been a guidebook entitled The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England, except his copy exploded during transit. The few fragments he managed to save provide clues to his situation, but can he figure them out in time to survive?

#3 – The Sunlit Man

The last of the secret projects to be released, The Sunlit Man was a big deal for Cosmere fans, as it revealed a ton of interesting new tidbits about the universe. It also gives us our best glimpse yet of the Cosmere’s space age. As with Frugal Wizard, the basic conceit is a well-trodden one, and very similar to Frugal Wizard’s: a man arrives in a strange new world, can’t leave, and ends up embroiled in a local problem. To be fair, this time our protagonist has managed to keep his memories, so that’s something.

The familiar set-up is used to great effect, however, and the Sunlit Man feels like the entire book is one big climax — the story starts out action-packed and only gives you a couple of brief moments to catch your breath. It’s like the whole book is a Sanderlanche*. The world of Canticle is also strange and fascinating, and one of Sanderson’s most inspired settings yet.

*Sanderlanche – A portmanteau used to describe the way in which Brandon Sanderson’s masterful plotting leads to a climactic crescendo.

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Running. Putting distance between himself and the relentless Night Brigade has been Nomad’s strategy for years. Staying one or two steps ahead of his pursuers by skipping through the Cosmere from one world to the next.

But now, his powers too depleted to escape, Nomad finds himself trapped on Canticle, a planet that will kill anyone who doesn’t keep moving. Fleeing the fires of a sunrise that melts the very stones, he is instantly caught up in the struggle between a heartless tyrant and the brave rebels who defy him.

Failure means a quick death, incinerated by the sun…or a lifetime as a mindless slave. Tormented by the consequences of his past, Nomad must fight not only for his survival—but also for his very soul.

#2 – Yumi and the Nightmare Painter

Another standalone Cosmere novel generally means another incredibly clever magic system — but in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter, it’s a 2-for-1 deal. Both Yumi and the Painter perform key magical roles in their societies — but the manner in which they engage with said roles is very different. Naturally, when they do a Freaky Friday body swap, things get humorously awkward fast.

Like some of Sanderson’s other novels that start off with multiple protagonists, Yumi is a bit slow to start, but the meandering pace just means more time to explore not only the characters, but the magic systems they are intimately involved with. The theme of contrasts is used to good effect throughout the novel, quite literally at times — one world is always dark, the other dangerously sunlit. The narrative tackles a number of other themes as well, including the purpose and meaning of art, and the burden and value of responsibilities. It’s also sneakily a romance novel (in a somewhat anime-flavored way), and the journey the characters embark on is deftly plotted and satisfying.

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There is a world. One of endless night, surrounded by an even deeper darkness. Filled with nightmares come to life, twisted shapes that slink to windows and ease open doors, sliding across floors to look down on helpless faces.

There is another world. A bright world, so bright it burns. Filled with stacked stones that call forth miracles, raised by callused hands that tremble in their work, drained with each stone lifted, settled, lifted again.

Between these worlds two souls connect. Collide. Entwine.

A bridge. A path.

A road to both worlds changing forever.

Yumi has spent her entire life in strict obedience, granting her the power to summon the spirits that bestow vital aid upon her society—but she longs for even a single day as a normal person. Painter patrols the dark streets dreaming of being a hero—a goal that has led to nothing but heartache and isolation, leaving him always on the outside looking in. In their own ways, both of them face the world alone.

Suddenly flung together, Yumi and Painter must strive to right the wrongs in both their lives, reconciling their past and present while maintaining the precarious balance of each of their worlds. If they cannot unravel the mystery of what brought them together before it’s too late, they risk forever losing not only the bond growing between them, but the very worlds they’ve always struggled to protect.

#1 – Tress of the Emerald Sea

Number 2 on our list may have offered two new magic systems, but the magic system on offer in Tress of the Emerald Sea just might be Sanderson’s best yet — it’s certainly one of his most unique, at any rate. With Tress, Sanderson experimented with a new narrative voice: the recurring Cosmere character Hoid tells the tale, and he does it in his characteristic, never-quite-serious manner.

The experiment was a success, in our eyes, and Hoid’s narration adds interest (and a healthy dose of snark) to what could have ended up a too-twee Young Adult novel. Instead, we get a tightly plotted adventure across seas of spores — that’s not a typo — with a colorful cast of characters and just the right amount of twists and turns. It also has plenty of moments that Cosmere-aware readers will surely note with interest.

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The only life Tress has known on her island home in an emerald-green ocean has been a simple one, with the simple pleasures of collecting cups brought by sailors from faraway lands and listening to stories told by her friend Charlie. But when his father takes him on a voyage to find a bride and disaster strikes, Tress must stow away on a ship and seek the Sorceress of the deadly Midnight Sea. Amid the spore oceans where pirates abound, can Tress leave her simple life behind and make her own place sailing a sea where a single drop of water can mean instant death?

This was a tough list to make, because all of the Secret Project novels were such fun reads. Let us know your own personal rankings in the comments below!

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A huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy (really anything with tons of weird proper nouns), music, and video games. Enjoys the outdoors, but has plenty to do on a rainy day.

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