Brandon Sanderson’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. Ever since finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, he has grown more well-known and beloved. On his Writing Excuses Podcast, he has described himself as a Mormon and a rationalist, and his philosophical themes have always enriched his storytelling in a complex way that secular authors rarely manage. He often develops the abstract philosophical realms of his fantasies and space operas. But his latest release, a young adult science fiction sequel called Starsight that debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller’s list, breaks his pattern. In it, Sanderson spent much more time developing the concrete politics and ethics of the world than the abstract worldbuilding. The result is a predictable and rather mundane political plot. His decision to focus almost exclusively on politics and modern ethics in Starsight also may signal his future direction as an author.
Brandon Sanderson revels in developing worldbuilding philosophies in his popular Cosmere universe books. In various lectures, he elaborates at length on the metaphysics of the Cosmere, and in his website’s archives he explains his theory of three realms: “Each of the ‘Shardworlds’ I’ve written in (Mistborn, Elantris, Warbreaker, Way of Kings) exists with the same cosmology. All things exist on three realms–the spiritual, the cognitive, and the physical…I do have a cohesive metaphysical reasoning for how my worlds and magic works[sic].” In contrast to his metaphysically-oriented Cosmere universe books, Starsight explores a more political concern: how to get along with hostile aliens.
Starsight’s predecessor, Skyward, begins the series with the teenaged human protagonist Spensa Nightshade. Spensa desperately wants to become a military pilot. Humanity lives below ground on a planet called Detritus where their mortal enemies, the Krell, have kept them trapped. Spensa’s father served as a pilot, but everyone claims that he committed a traitorous act when Spensa was young. As a result, nobody will allow her to join the military. Spensa wants to join anyway. She knows her destiny is to redeem her family’s pride by successfully piloting her own ship, and she feels positive that her father was no traitor. Skyward entertains on several levels; its plot especially outshines its sequel in its mysteries and revelations, and Spensa shines as an example of faith in her determination to restore honor to her ancestors.
Book two could hardly be more different from its predecessor. Sanderson surprised many readers by changing the setting, the plot type, and practically the entire cast of Starsight. The plot shifts from Skyward’s battle of good versus evil to a morally grey political thriller. After the opening fight sequence, Spensa leaves Detritus behind and becomes a spy, infiltrating the mysterious Krell civilization and stealing one of their hyper drives. To obtain a hyperdrive, she needs information. As a result, she must make “friends” among the Krell and several other species, learning about their political loyalties and deciding whom to trust.
By forcing Spensa to interact with her enemies, the plot focuses on her struggle to overcome her bias. Spensa and several other characters must learn to question their hard-headed assumptions about their enemies in order to trust the right people. The development of social ethics leaves little room for Sanderson’s trademark metaphysical plot twist. For example, he spends time establishing gender fluidity among certain species and integrating the concept into the plot, rather than developing a more characteristically epic twist. The main plot revelations involve characters who see — or can’t see — past their prejudices and into the hearts of their “enemies.” Even the resolution of the fight with the “big bad” turns out to be a simple misunderstanding. Although Sanderson attempts to overturn reader expectations, few of his “revelations” were genuinely surprising. Overall, the plot is far less riveting than Sanderson’s normal fare.
Several of Sanderson’s past books, dating back to The Final Empire, have handled the same theme of overcoming prejudice using more plot-creative methods. In The Final Empire, an underprivileged and persecuted people group called the Skaa decide to overthrow the Final Empire and the evil Lord Ruler. They blame the “evil” nobility for centuries of oppression and suffering. Clearly, the nobility needs to make changes; but throughout the series, the fiery Skaa are also forced to check their assumptions. The characters learn — or fail to learn — that everyone is flawed, yet valuable. In addition, the plot rises above this character and thematic development into a supernatural battle. In this way and in others, The Final Empire creates a complex commentary on the traditional fantasy theme of good versus evil. No philosophy is sacred. In fact, most philosophies get overturned, to the reader’s delight. Sanderson examines several themes as integral pieces of a puzzle, rather than presenting one or two with a hard angle focus. It manages to convey the same theme as Starsight without sacrificing the plot.
In order to surprise Spensa and the readers with the “humanity” and trustworthiness of various aliens, Sanderson uses Spensa’s perspective almost exclusively; unfortunately, this limited perspective damages the complexity of Starsight’s plot and theme. Normally, Sanderson uses large casts and multiple perspectives, allowing him to develop a complex awareness of how every character feels about every issue. Skyward, the predecessor to Starsight, does this. By contrast, Starsight’s plot prohibited the technique. The limited perspective also limits the main thematic potential to “overcoming prejudice,” instead of using it as one theme among many; as mentioned above, this resulted in a rather thin plot twist. For such a lengthy novel, and in comparison to Sanderson’s previous work, this simplicity came as a letdown.
Starsight’s intensified focus on communication, bias-free language, and a global experience of various issues may be the sign of Sanderson’s larger thought trend. Several years ago, he began exploring modern ethics in his podcast and he now invites authors of diverse backgrounds to advise listeners on speaking and writing with a more diverse audience in mind. Both Starsight and Sanderson’s latest Stormlight Archives release, Oathbringer, reflect this goal. For example, one of the lead characters in Oathbringer devolves into an unintentionally racist stooge who must learn to check his privilege and assumptions about his enemy. Spensa’s growth arc is more gentle but very similar. Sanderson walks the fault lines between his worldview and others with amazing dexterity and has been known to use past writing mistakes as teaching tools, such as his stereotypical portrayal of autism in his debut novel. Unfortunately, his social and political emphasis in Starsight took the focus away from the supernatural elements that Skyward and his past oeuvre seemed to promise.
My lukewarm opinion of Starsight falls in the minority. The Goodreads overall ratings remain miraculously high: readers have rated Skyward a whopping 4.54/5 and Starsight follows closely behind with 4.50/5. One of the science fiction and fantasy reviewers I trust most — Mogsy from The Bibliosanctum — appreciated Starsight for the very reasons that disappointed me. “To say that this is a book everyone needs in their lives right now is an understatement. At its heart, Starsight is a story about unity, empathy, looking past our prejudices and differences because deep down inside we all want and care and fight for the same things. But unlike a lot of YA you find on the shelves today, this novel manages to get all these points across without being preachy, divisive, or smugly self-congratulatory about it”. Clearly, Mogsy has noticed the political trends in youth literature and appreciated Sanderson’s more skillful take on them. However, in my opinion, Sanderson has handled politics and modern ethics more skillfully in the past without damaging the plot depth. I hope Sanderson’s future works in this series and others will recover the depth of the Cosmere, while he continues to incorporate relevant social commentary.
Christians can appreciate much about Sanderson’s work. In it, he takes faith and religion seriously as a truly powerful force for good — or evil. Sanderson’s work, including Starsight, gives me hope for the direction of modern publishing. After all, most Christians concern themselves with political matters and whole-heartedly support the theme of “overcoming prejudice.” However, we also look forward to representations of the spiritual world and spiritual individuals in worthwhile fiction. Sanderson’s work has often satisfied this desire, which is a rare treat for apologetics-minded Christians. But if Sanderson spends less time on spiritual and metaphysical aspects of his fiction, such readers will notice the lack.
Christy Luis has worked as a library assistant and currently runs a YouTube channel called “Dostoevsky in Space,” where she reviews books. She has an Associate of Arts in Humanities and graduated cum laude from Regent University with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Regent University.
Christy Luis, “Starsight,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 164-174.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/book-review-brandon-sandersons-starsight-neglects-philosophy-in-favor-of-politics/
 “Starsight,” Brandonsanderson.com, accessed March 3, 2020, https://www.brandonsanderson.com/skyward-series/#STARSIGHT.
 “What Are The Three Realms?” Brandonsanderson.com, accessed March 9, 2020, https://faq.brandonsanderson.com/knowledge-base/what-are-the-three-realms/.
 Eric (Chaos), Ian (WeiryWriter), Alyx (FeatherWriter), Shannon (Grey), and Ben (Overlord Jebus), “Starsight Reactions,” Shardcast, December 6, 2019, accessed April 21, 2020, https://youtu.be/N0wrSGZ0G_Y
 Daniel Green, “A Chat With Brandon Sanderson,” Fantasy News, November 11, 2019, accessed February 20, 2020, https://youtu.be/FLPGhJOFEoE.
 Mogsy, “Audiobook Review: Starsight by Brandon Sanderson,”The Bibliosanctum, December 3, 2019, accessed April 21, 2020, https://bibliosanctum.com/2019/12/03/audiobook-review-starsight-by-brandon-sanderson/