Books (Almost) Like Brandon Sanderson

A lot of people are looking for books like Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series—Mistborn, the Stormlight Archive, and other stories from his Cosmere. He’s a longtime favorite of mine and a bigger name every year. Search anywhere for similar reading, and you get mostly the same choices, starting with Patrick Rothfuss or George R. R. Martin.

What I’ve designed here is more like an Atlas Obscura of recommend lists. It does include a few famous examples (like Tolkien and Dune) but from a slightly different perspective. If you’ve burned through the other listicles, let this guide take you to new territory. Here I’ve picked out books or series with three criteria:
1. I really liked it on its own merits,
2. I believe a Sanderson fan would first be willing to read it and then enjoy it,
3. It’s getting no attention on other lists, perhaps for being too different.

There are a lot of books I love that don’t make this list. There are so many other books I haven’t read yet that would totally deserve to be here. Let us know if you have any additions that fit those three criteria for you.

What are you looking for?

(Feel free to skip straight to the books.)

If you came here in search of books like Sanderson, what do you mean by “like”? This simple word stands for a complex relationship between his particular style and the whole world of books. Every reader likes different aspects more than others.

That’s why I’ve mapped out several qualities people expect from Sanderson books. These are drawn from my personal thoughts, Sanderson’s self-characterization, interactions with other Sanderson readers, and online conversations I’ve come across. The categories are: Puzzly magic systems. Cosmic scope. Vivid worldbuilding. Beloved tropes, reinvented. Stunning reveals and explosive climaxes. Rousing action sequences. Political intrigue. Witty dialogue. Sheer quantity.

Puzzly magic systems
I don’t even have to elaborate. From the beginning this has been quintessential in his books. Often the plot hinges on something gone wrong in the magic, or characters learning new implications from the framework they know—and if not, the magic still influences the shape of the story. Cosmere magic has a coherent theme and logic.

Cosmic scope
He’s writing the great saga of the Cosmere. Same root as cosmic. This surely ranks among the biggest interlinked universes ever created by one person in fiction. Certain books, especially from the Stormlight Archive, deal overtly in the fate of planets and other planes of existence.

Vivid worlds
Invented worlds are of course a distinguishing feature of all SFF. What I love most is how Sanderson’s worlds are not based in some romanticized Northern European past, nor entirely fixed on just one real-world culture, but instead extrapolate in strange new directions. One of the strengths of Mistborn (and Elantris, Warbreaker, even Stormlight) is the immersive focus on one place, one city, without losing the expansive feeling of a greater world.

Reinvented tropes
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Sanderson: he subverts and reimagines fantasy, blends in elements of other genres, takes inspiration from a diverse spread of sources. A classic trope subversion is the failed prophecy that launched the Final Empire of Mistborn.

Twists and climax
A Sanderson book is plot-oriented, and deftly so. Multiple threads converge. The long buildup pays off. The puzzles and politics reach their surprising yet satisfying conclusion, characters have epiphanies, and sudden twists drive the stakes up to cosmic proportion.

Rousing action
Quality over quantity. It isn’t (always) thriller pacing, but the action is engaging. Heroism is an important aspect. Character flaws and epiphanies often intertwine to make the action more memorable. The magic systems are designed for field use. They have a strong aesthetic presence, even more abstract concepts like Aons, Breaths, or burning steel. Think of the Szeth prologue in The Way of Kings, where Szeth portrays a clear system for harnessing gravity, resents his own competence, and performs cool stunts in the process.

Witty dialogue
It’s subjective. Some people roll their eyes at Shallan’s quips, but I think many of us enjoy the verbal sparring. There’s almost a comic-book energy to some of these interactions.

Sanderson doesn’t emphasize the diplomacy, social conflicts, and power struggles as much as some authors. Yet intrigue at all levels of society is integral to the character and plot development, from Vin to Dalinar—both of whom have violent instincts, but must learn the more difficult arts of social interplay.

Thick books, and more coming every year. Sometimes a whole extra bundle when no one’s watching.

The Book Map

Illustrates which Sanderson qualities are most comparable to Sanderson in the given author/book/series. Authors and books I recommend are in the left columns. The qualities are spread across the top. For a given row, I’m pretty much limiting myself to the top 3–5 qualities that distinguish it. So don’t be offput by a blank cell. A lot of my recommendations here have varying degrees of everything. They all have worthwhile climaxes, for example, while some have that spectacular energy of a Sanderson ending. You can see a couple examples of Brandon’s books at the top of the chart for a better sense of how I’m using it.

For now it follows my intuition. At some point I’d like to figure out a more systematic or statistical approach here.

AuthorBook [*and sequels] (Series)PuzzleScopeWorldReinventionClimaxActionPoliticsWitQuantity†Parents
Brandon SandersonMistborn*
Brandon SandersonThe Way of Kings* (Stormlight Archive)
Brandon SandersonSteelheart*
Vernor VingeA Fire Upon the Deep*
N. K. Jemisin- The Fifth Season*
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms*
Isaac AsimovI, Robot
Dan WellsI Am Not a Serial Killer*
Nicky Drayden- Escaping Exodus
- The Prey of Gods
Lloyd Alexander- Westmark*
- The Sign of Three* (Chronicles of Prydain)
J. R. R. TolkienThe Silmarillion (and the legendarium)
Dante AlighieriInferno
S. A. ChakrabortyThe City of Brass*
Ann LeckieAncillary Justice*
Frank HerbertDune
Anne McCaffreyDragonflight* (Dragonriders of Pern)
Mary Robinette Kowal- Ghost Talkers
- The Calculating Stars*
VariousOld epics and legends: Odyssey (Greece), Shahnameh (Persia), Sundiata (West Africa), MoʻOlelo (Hawaii), etc
Amie Kaufman & Jay KristoffIlluminae*
Terry PratchettDiscworld: The Colour of Magic, Mort, Going Postal, etc
Jonathan StroudThe Amulet of Samarkand*
Roger ZelaznyNine Princes in Amber* (Chronicles of Amber)

†Parents: a dot in this column means there is no more violence, sex, swears, and difficult or disturbing content than you’d find in a typical Sanderson novel. Disclaimer, it’s my best judgment for the books I’ve read and from what I remember—sometimes years afterward.

Notes on the books

(Skip to closing?)

Vernor Vinge
I’ve blogged about Vernor Vinge. He writes science fiction rife with epic fantasy elements, like the politics, heroic struggles, thoughtful worldbuilding, as well as thriller-style suspense. A Fire Upon the Deep is a prime example. On the fringe of the galaxy, a malevolent power awakens and begins to conquer. A few escapees, carrying a vital weapon, crashland on a planet of fjords and castles dominated by an alien species of group minds. This book is intense and just brimming with brilliant ideas.

N. K. Jemisin
Jemisin is a big name in fantasy, perhaps best known for her Broken Earth trilogy, an apocalyptic science fantasy. Many lists recommend it, as do I. Read it if you haven’t, and try her other work too. I also enjoyed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its sequels: these are lively epics with their courts of gods and rogues, love, intrigue, and world-shattering finales. Jemisin has great skill in magic and worldbuilding. Her fiction has a somewhat more grim tone than Sanderson, but it’s more hopepunk than grimdark.

Isaac Asimov
You’ll recognize I, Robot as a classic of sci-fi. If you never read it, forget whatever you think you know. I’ll confess I don’t consider Asimov peak science fiction, but I love the puzzles presented in this short story collection. His real strength is not the physical sciences so much as social dynamics. I, Robot explores paradoxes in the three Laws of Robotics, designed to keep harmony between humans and robots. It brings the rigor of “magical” constraints together with a system of ethics, like the Oaths of a Knight Radiant. Sanderson has often cited Asimov as a significant influence. If you want to go deep into Asimov territory, you’ll find precursors to many concepts within, and including, the Cosmere as a whole.

Dan Wells
Maybe you don’t read horror. I usually don’t either, but if you like that puzzly magic, the John Cleaver books (starting with I Am Not a Serial Killer) are worth your time. These have excellent plots structured around finding and stopping murderous demons. Each demon, disguised in human form, has unique powers and weaknesses that must be deduced from the bodies they leave behind. Dan Wells writes in a number of different genres, and I enjoy anything of his I’ve picked up so far.

Nicky Drayden
Drayden has a wonderful imagination and loves to intermingle sci-fi, fantasy, and other genres. Her worlds are zesty and fresh, full of queer and quirky characters. The Prey of Gods combines dark gods with the robot uprising in a near-future South Africa. Escaping Exodus features a colony of exiles voyaging on a generation ship—which also happens to be a massive spacefaring creature.

Lloyd Alexander
I have the sense Lloyd Alexander is not widely known, maybe in part because his most famous series, The Prydain Chronicles, was published for children in the 1960s. These are high fantasy based in Welsh mythology, a good blend of new and familiar for those who love the Northern European tradition. I ventured to Prydain as a kid, and later Westmark as a young adult. So although they’re brief and geared toward a younger audience, they can appeal to different ages.

J. R. R. Tolkien
Yes, you know this guy. I don’t know if I’ll make any new converts here, but if you’ve finished The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, consider delving into his whole legendarium. Start with The Silmarillion: millennia of fictional history leading up to the War of the Ring, including episodes from the Undying Lands, a version of Atlantis, and the origins of ancient characters like Gandalf and Sauron. Just know it reads a bit like Greek or Norse mythology, which is less immediate and viewpoint-driven than modern fantasy. The multi-volume History of Middle Earth expounds even further. Tolkien’s fantasy worldbuilding is perhaps the most thorough that we all have in full detail.

Dante Alighieri
Dante’s Inferno—the first of three parts in a grand epic poem—could be my favorite piece of Renaissance literature. Don’t fret about the poetry. There are many translations, and depending on your taste you can find one that’s more lyrical or something in plain modern English. It’s rife with mythological creatures and supernatural torments and fits in between fantasy and horror. Dante devised a whole intricate logic for the underworld and its place in a geocentric universe. Tour the nine circles yourself for a masterclass in world design.

S. A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass brings together fantastical beings from across the wide Islamic world. As with Mistborn, a thief girl from the streets is thrust into the intrigues of high society. The power struggles between factions are riveting. The central city of Daevabad seethes with courtly politics, oppression, rebellion, assassination, mazelike streets, lush palace gardens, flaming swords and magical creatures.

Ann Leckie
Leckie delivers consistent quality. The Ancillary books are slow-burn, following a character who once possessed almost godlike power and presence, hundreds of avatars in service to a rising galactic empire, now reduced to one exile on a quest of vengeance. The different cultures are vivid without piles of description. Most of the conflict happens in social arenas. Every word, every gesture is nuanced. Outgunned in almost every situation, the protagonist makes use of her limited resources to beat enemies in clever and unexpected ways.

Frank Herbert
Dune is brilliant, and getting some revival of interest after the recent movie. I’d say it shares more with epic fantasy than sci-fi, despite the interstellar far-futer setting. Herbert weaves strands from a plethora of Earth’s cultures into a past which then feels deep and genuine. Mental powers have replaced computers. Duels with blades are as common as gunfights, and space travel is only a background element, for all its importance. Prophecy drives the hero to defy powerful enemies backed by empire.

Anne McCaffrey
Yet again fusing some sci-fi concepts with fantasy—the world of Pern is colonized from another planet, threatened by extinction from a passing celestial object, defended by the native dragons who teleport. Most of the plot is given to politics and interpersonal drama. The dragons’ magic holds surprising secrets that will become vital to solving an impossible problem. (Sound like a familiar plot structure?) If you really enjoy these, Pern offers a lot of books spanning almost three thousand years in-world.

Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s stuff is a lot of fun. His books overflow with clever parodies of real life and fantasy tropes. The majority of these are standalones in the Discworld universe. So there’s as much or as little commitment as you want! Read one or two or twenty. Whether the premise looks like fantasy fare (Death takes an apprentice) or something more unexpected (criminal escapes death row on a deal to revive the world post office), the author always manages to lead you on a rollicking adventure. They’re not just funny—you get a whole range of feeling in a Pratchett book. Visit the Discworld page to find a quick guide for choosing among the books.

Mary Robinette Kowal
Kowal writes smart low fantasy and hard science fiction, among other things. There’s always a major historical element to her work. The Calculating Stars kicks off soon after World War II when a meteor slams into the Washington DC area, triggering a mass extinction event and launching the space race ahead of schedule. Ghost Talkers is a different alternate history, this time with magic: spiritual mediums are recruited in secret during the Great War. One of them discovers an act of treachery through her psychic power, drawing her into a sticky web of espionage. Political dynamics are the prime source of tension in Kowal’s books, and her characters often find themselves investigating or improvising magic/tech to solve problems.

Anonymous, etc
Epic fantasy takes half its name from a genre much older than Tolkien, who of course found inspiration in some of these sources, like the medieval Icelandic sagas. You too can experience the original epic fantasy—the gods, monsters, and heroes of old time. I’ve named some of my favorites in the table and where they come from. Cultures across the world and through all its (pre)history have created epics and legends. These have a learning curve, but find a good translation that explains the unfamiliar details and what do you know, it’s like delving into the bizarre, wondrous world of Roshar, one layer after another. The more famous ones will even have different kinds of modernized versions, retold by fiction writers or adapted into graphic novels. You may find where your most beloved tropes began, or discover new loves. It’s happened to me.

Jonathan Stroud
The Amulet of Samarkand is a gem I enjoyed before finding The Wheel of Time or the Cosmere, and thinking back, I believe it really has the spirit and energy of Brandon’s books. Fun and funny, reads something like Harry Potter or Sanderson’s own The Rithmatist (and likewise aimed at a younger audience). The best part is droll Bartimaeus, an ancient djinni summoned by his unprepared young master. Bartimaeus has the sizzling wit of a mouthy spren, up to and including the Stormfather.

Roger Zelazny
Here’s another series that was popular in its time, some decades past, and I think is almost forgotten now. I’m not even sure how I stumbled on it. The story begins with a man emerging from total amnesia, surrounded by foes and allies without knowing who is which, trying to find his way home through dangers unknown. Each mystery leads to another. Through the series, Zelazny explores the concept of multiverse from a fantasy perspective.

Sideline Brandon Sanderson
I would also suggest trying the non-Cosmere stuff if you haven’t. His YA series and shorter works are all good. They’re also faster-paced, so all the better if you think the epic fantasy drags at times.

Closing thoughts

Not all new things were published last year. The past is a deep hoard of forgotten jewels; a lot of them are new to any one of us. I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to look askance at a book that’s older than I am. They have what I see as campy covers, “old people” are keen to make me read them, and they reek of historical limitations. Maybe you can relate. You read Asimov, Bradbury, or others from their time,** and recoil from the appearance of microfilm on interstellar ships. Or from casual sexism, Cold War overtones, and other issues embedded in the story. It happens in every genre. These are genuine concerns. And yet there are some brilliant plotlines, pioneering concepts, and memorable characters mixed in with all that. Besides, we keep reviving retro sci-fi aesthetics (Depression-era to midcentury) because they’re actually really cool. Consider two recent examples: Mary Robinette Kowal’s punchcard punk timeline in the Lady Astronaut series, or the Time Variance Authority in Marvel’s Loki TV show.

**I mention two of the more famous authors of that era of sci-fi, and they’re fairly good, but don’t stop at the famous ones. So many good books have fallen into relative obscurity.

What are you looking for? I really want to know. If you have insights I haven’t considered here, or want to clarify the ones I have, please leave comments or contact me through

I plan to maintain this post with occasional updates as I keep reading and get suggestions from other people. It’s not going to be a comprehensive index, but hopefully it will offer Sanderson readers some good branching points into books they might not find otherwise.

Last updated: August 4, 2022
Related: Slow-Cooker Epic Fantasy

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