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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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!