How Brandon Sanderson's "Stormlight Archive" gave me hope in a time of darkness
Sometimes the best escapism can help you cope with what's right in front of you.
For as long as I can remember, I have watched my older brother struggle with depression.
I have discovered there is deep-rooted fear and helplessness in loving someone who struggles to love themself. Little things suddenly become panic-inducing. An unreturned phone call. A closed door. Suddenly these moments turn into "what ifs," leading to a downward thought spiral. What if something happened? What if he is he going through another bad spell? What if I am too late?
What if I didn't love him enough?
You are probably wondering what any of this has to do with choosing the best fantasy novel. Have a little patience. I'm getting there.
The truth is, the fantasy genre revolves around fictional escapism. However, dealing with mental health — much less, the mental health of someone around you — is nearly impossible to fully escape from ... no matter how good the book is.
Perhaps this is why I was so drawn to Brandon Sanderson's "Stormlight Archives" series: though I looked for escape, the story instead led me to come to terms with my reality.
When I picked up the first book over a year ago, my brother was going through a particularly up-and-down month. I was overwhelmed by the paranoia and restlessness of never knowing how he was doing and if I was loving him well. When I came across the brick of a book that happened to be "The Way of Kings," I figured it would be a good time to leave my problems behind for a moment and jump into a world that fought its battles with a sword versus the mind.
Boy, was I wrong with that assumption.
Sure, Sanderson's series involves a beautifully crafted fictional world, one that tops most fantasy novels I've read. There are raging battles that take place over the craggy, barren landscape of the kingdom of Roshar. There are heroes and anti-heroes and villains and gods that have mysterious powers, granted to them from bonds with multidimensional spirits called spren. Those who are bonded can walk on walls, fly, heal, and cast illusions — among other things. There are religions, cultures, races, and hierarchies. There are even swords — sorry, shardblades.
I could write this whole essay on the intricacies of Sanderson's world building. But honestly, there is no way I could come close to explaining it without sounding like I'm tripping on some heavy duty drugs. These books are dense (literally, each book is over a thousand pages), filled to the brim with details ranging from the scientific anatomy of the creatures in the realm to the politics of several nations. And let's be real. When I say the books have a group of people with carapace-covered skin who can change body shape by jumping into storms and have been possessed by eternal void spirits to bring about the fall of humanity, not to mention they sing everything they say — I come across insane.
So, to save you (and me) from trying to understand my inadequate descriptions on Sanderson's masterful storytelling, I'm just going to focus on what impacted me most: the characters.
What truly sets Sanderson's books apart from the rest of the fantasy genre is the tangibility of the characters' emotions and mental health struggles. In the midst of a fictional world that is seemingly broken beyond repair, the characters have relatable and authentic reactions that remind readers of the fact that our world is broken too.
“This is life, and I will not lie by saying every day will be sunshine. But there will be sunshine again, and that is a very different thing to say. That is truth.” — Wit, "Rhythm of War"
I'm not joking when I say that every character in the "Stormlight Archives" struggles with something. Dalinar fights alcoholism, rage, and the regrets of the past. Shallan copes with her trauma by creating multiple personalities to keep her memories buried deep. Adolin wants to prove to his father that he is his own person, but he wrestles to figure out his identity.
And then there is Kaladin.
The "main hero" of the series, Kaladin is the strong, fearless, and witty fighter that everyone wants to read about. He's an excellent warrior. He battles tooth and nail for those he loves. He exudes leadership at every turn. I mean, the guy is a surgeon turned soldier turned Radiant. His story is simply epic.
However, under the mask of the hero, Kaladin struggles with depression. In the midst of saving the world time after time, there are moments where all he can feel is darkness. And throughout the series, there are many times where he seriously considers giving up.
When reading Kaladin's character development, there were times I had to bite back tears. Unlike many fantasy novel characters who fight battles and come out joking or exultant on the other end, Kaladin feels the consequences of his every action, the burden of each life he took or failed to save. Even when times are "good," he doesn't understand why he can't escape the gloom that follows him like a cloud. Kaladin is raw and hopeless and heavy — and it feels all too real.
The darkness Kaladin feels is extremely relatable. And as I was reading, I couldn't help but think of the darkness my brother also feels in his difficult seasons. Of the weight he must be carrying. Reading about Kaladin's strength to continue moving forward despite the pain — it helped me see my brother's battle with mental illness in a new light, one where I saw his strength to carry on.
"Our weakness doesn’t make us weak. Our weakness makes us strong. For we had to carry it all these years.” — Veil, "Rhythm of War"
Because that's what dealing with mental illness is — strength.
It takes strength to push beyond the emptiness to hope again. It takes strength to fight when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and let the world pass by. It takes strength to get up and try again and again and again.
I found comfort in reading because there were characters I identified with too. Not only does Kaladin struggle with deep depression, but Sanderson includes characters that love and want to help him. Syl, Kaladin's spren, often struggles with how to support Kaladin when she doesn't feel what he's feeling. She doesn't know how to lift him up, so instead she dives into the darkness with him. She listens, she relates, and though she can't fix, she's there.
Like Syl, I also find myself feeling like a failure to care for my brother. I don't know the right words to say, and sometimes, it feels like I am simply making things worse. I put pressure on myself to heal, but at the end of the day, all I can do is love and stay.
It takes strength to walk alongside those who are hurting.
The mantra that runs throughout the "Stormlight Archives" is this: strength before weakness, journey before destination. These are not empty words. The journey is hard, and often it feels better to let weakness overcome. However, each character in Sanderson's books battles these trials in different ways. It's hard. It's messy. It's sometimes hopeless.
But I don't think it is coincidental that the word "light" is in the title of the series. Because light always comes at the end of the day, and the darkness can't hold its grip forever. Reading this series, engaging with its characters — it gave me the hope that there may be light coming for my brother and I too.
“A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us. But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fail, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination.” — Dalinar, "Oathbringer"
So no, Sanderson's books didn't help me escape my situation. But it did inspire me to be present, to fight harder, and love more deeply.
And that, folks, is what makes an excellent fantasy novel.