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A Cosmere Primer: What’s Going on in the Background of Sanderson’s Fictional Universe?


A Cosmere Primer: What’s Going on in the Background of Sanderson’s Fictional Universe?

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A Cosmere Primer: What’s Going on in the Background of Sanderson’s Fictional Universe?


Published on June 11, 2020

Arcanum Unbounded cover art by David Palumbo
A robed figure holds a large book on the cover of Arcanum Unbounded
Arcanum Unbounded cover art by David Palumbo

Hello, Cosmere fans! Many of you have been following Alice Arneson’s fantastic “Everything We Know About…” series of review articles for The Stormlight Archive, but today we’re looking at the bigger picture. In this piece, we’re digging deep into the Cosmere itself to see what we actually know about the characters and plots hiding in the background of Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy books.

(Here’s the place where I give you a giant SPOILER WARNING. This discussion, by nature, will be touching on spoilers from every series Sanderson has set in the Cosmere thus far, as well as answers provided at signings and Q&As—also known as Words of Brandon.)

Let’s start off with the basics.


Where did all of this start, and who are the principal players?

Most fans of the Cosmere will be familiar with two key names: Adonalsium and Hoid. After all, they just keep popping up, don’t they?

Adonalsium, by all accounts, was the creator of the Cosmere, a godlike entity or force of supreme power. It is unknown whether Adonalsium was a being, a power with a Vessel, or something else… Any way it’s cut, however, Adonalsium is the source of all Investiture in the Cosmere, the ultimate source of all magic. Beyond that, Adonalsium created humanity (among several other races) and most of the worlds on which the stories take place.

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Rhythm of War
Rhythm of War

Rhythm of War

Before we move on with Adonalsium, though, we need to establish a few things about the enigmatic Hoid. Originally a human from the planet Yolen (which may or may not be the place where Adonalsium originated all of creation), Hoid grew up with a different name and served under a master (named Hoid—stick with me here) before assuming his master’s name after the original Hoid’s death. In addition to “Hoid,” he has gone by many other names over the course of thousands of years, including Midius, Cephandrius, Topaz, Dust, Wit, and more. Some speculate that Midius is his original name.

Hoid, during his adventures on Yolen early in his life, became involved with a group of people who, for one reason or another, took it upon themselves to oppose and destroy Adonalsium. This event was of Cosmere-altering importance, and is now known simply as the Shattering. When they killed Adonalsium, the power Shattered into sixteen Shards, each with a specific Intent. Sixteen of the people involved took up a single Shard each, Ascending and becoming Vessels.

Hoid was instrumental in the Shattering, bearing an enigmatic artifact called the First Gem, which not only allowed the group to kill Adonalsium but also grants him his immortality. When the sixteen Ascended, Hoid was not among their number—though he was offered the chance and declined.

Along with Adonalsium and Hoid, the sixteen people who Ascended are major players in the Cosmere…


What are the Shards and what are their motives?

When Adonalsium Shattered into the Sixteen Shards, many of the people present were able to Ascend and become the equivalent of gods in the Cosmere. There were more than sixteen people present—knowing that Hoid was offered a Shard and declined it makes the number at least seventeen, while the enigmatic figure Frost was also involved. It’s unknown whether or not Frost Ascended, but the semi-canon short scene titled “The Traveler” (read at JordanCon 2018 and subsequently published it in the 2019 JordanCon Anthology) would indicate that he has a normal body and interacts with Hoid in a normal fashion.

Not all of the sixteen were human before Ascending: one, named Uli Da, was of a species called the Sho Del and Ascended to the Shard of Ambition. Additionally, there is speculation that Edgli, the Vessel of Endowment, may have been a dragon like Frost before Ascending. Among the confirmed humans were Ati and Leras, the men who became Ruin and Preservation; Tanavast, who Ascended to Honor; and Rayse, the Vessel of Odium. Bavadin, Aona, and Skai (the Vessels of Autonomy, Devotion, and Dominion, respectively) are unknown as far as species goes. Meanwhile, Cultivation is active on Roshar, but the name of its Vessel is currently a mystery. Another Shard of an unknown Intent is bent on surviving, though that desire is only tangentially related to its purpose. Yet another unknown Shard is not currently in residence on any planet.

An interesting twist in all of this is how the Vessels interact with their Shards. Over time, the Intent of a Shard overwhelms the personality and will of its Vessel. In a letter to Frost, Hoid noted that Ati was “once a kind and generous man,” but was subsumed in Ruin and attempted to destroy Scadrial. Rayse, in control of Odium, seems to be particularly well-suited to his Shard’s Intent, and has retained more of his personality over the approximately 11,000 years since the Shattering.

Indeed, Rayse/Odium has been moving about the Cosmere, attacking and killing Vessels while splintering the Shards they held. Though he could have attempted to take up the power of those Shards, he did not want his own intent corrupted by more forces. He simply wants to be the last Shard standing, so to speak, and become the ultimate power in the Cosmere. So far, he’s mostly been going after Shards who decided to work together, possibly because of the potential for powerful rivals to appear (as happened on Scadrial, with Harmony), but also because there was some sort of agreement among the sixteen Shards at the Shattering that they would go their separate ways.

In a letter to Hoid, Endowment expressed dissatisfaction with how few of the Shards kept to that arrangement, saying that if Rayse were to get out of hand, he’d be “dealt with.” In another letter to Hoid, this time from what appears to be Patji, an avatar of Autonomy, they expressed admiration for Odium’s progress. While Odium is currently trapped in the Rosharan system and has at least four Shards ticked off his kill list, not all of the remaining Shards are as worried about his plans as might be expected. Frost, too, seems content to let Odium be, expressing a desire for “nonintervention” when Hoid implored him to direct the agents of the Seventeenth Shard to help stop Odium.

And speaking of those Seventeenth Shard folks…


What are all these worldhoppers up to?

The Shards aren’t the only ones crossing the Cosmere and getting up to things. There are many worldhoppers throughout the Cosmere, but not all are involved in Shardic-level maneuverings and plots. Many are simply part of an extensive trade system, while others are parts of organizations with their own goals or who simply want to learn more about what’s going on in this crazy cluster of planets.

Beyond Hoid, the worldhopper with the biggest impact on the books is undoubtedly Khriss, a woman from Taldain, who writes the Ars Arcanum featured at the back of each book and the essays on each planetary system in Arcanum Unbounded. While she’s only appeared on the page in a few books so far (White SandMistborn: Secret History, and The Bands of Mourning), her studies have helped to guide readers’ understanding of how the magic works in Sanderson’s books.

Khriss doesn’t subcribe to the beliefs or motivations of any specific group, preferring to keep herself and her assistant, Nazh, operating as free agents. Her main interest is, essentially, disseminating information about the Cosmere to those of whom she approves. Nazh helps her out by acquiring information (and especially maps) on special missions, playing out a role as a sort of Cosmere James Bond.

But while Khriss and Nazh prefer to stay mostly independent, there are others who have banded together in common cause. The Set, as seen in Mistborn Era 2, has members who serve the mysterious entity known as Trell, helping to destabilize Harmony’s rulership on Scadrial.

Then there are the Ghostbloods. A group of mysterious people with mysterious goals and origins, they have been active on Roshar for some time. Two of their number, Iyatil and Mraize, have interacted with Shallan Davar, attempting to recruit her into their ranks. Both Iyatil and Mraize are worldhoppers—Iyatil was born in the Cognitive Realm city of Silverlight, while Mraize has amassed a large collection of Invested artifacts from worlds across the Cosmere.

Given the importance of the Cognitive Realm in helping people travel from world to world, it should be no surprise that there are groups and even full cities hanging out there. Silverlight is home to universities of renown, and is the home base of Khriss and Nazh. Another group of worldhoppers, known as the Ire, have a fortress in the Cognitive Realm near Scadrial and have taken it upon themselves to keep Threnody under watch, lest the Shades there start wreaking havoc elsewhere. The Ire also have at least one agent in Roshar’s area of Shadesmar: the lighthouse keeper and fortune teller named Riino.

Last (but certainly not least) is the aforementioned Seventeenth Shard. They are, apparently, working to stop Hoid from interfering with other Shards—Demoux from Mistborn, Galladon from Elantris, and Baon from White Sand are members, and were present on Roshar, hunting for Hoid. (They also may have started a plague of the common cold on Roshar in the process.)

And as with all roads in the Cosmere, this leads us back to Hoid…


Most importantly, what’s Hoid’s deal?

Since the Shattering, Hoid has traveled across the Cosmere, visiting all the worlds we’re familiar with and collecting Invested Arts along the way—he is confirmed to have Breath, Allomancy, Lightweaving of both the Yolish and Rosharan varieties, the ability to use Fortune, and a healing factor in his arsenal. He is functionally immortal and can even survive wounds as serious as beheading. He attempted to become an Elantrian at one point, though he was unsuccessful. While his motives remain nebulous, the aforementioned scene “The Traveler” shed some more light on what Hoid is up to.

Frost believes that Hoid is seeking to return someone from death, though Hoid insists it’s not as simple as that. From his letter in The Way of Kings, it’s clear that Hoid has beef with both Rayse (Odium) and Bavadin (Autonomy), which is presumably the “vendetta” which Frost speaks of in “The Traveler.”

Whatever his goals, Hoid does seem hellbent on getting mixed up in major events, though the degree to which he’ll expose himself varies. Hoid uses his Fortune to know where and when he needs to be, though he most often doesn’t know why and must figure that out upon arrival. It may be scant comfort, but at least Hoid is often just as confused as we readers are…



If all of that isn’t enough to get your head spinning, the next book in The Stormlight Archive is only months away—and if previous volumes are any indication, we can expect plenty of new tidbits and information about the Cosmere and the hidden story of the Shards to chew on when Rhythm of War arrives!

Drew McCaffrey lives in Fort Collins, CO, where he’s spoiled by all the amazing craft beer. He is a Brandon Sanderson beta reader and co-hosts the Inking Out Loud podcast, covering science fiction and fantasy books (and some of that Colorado craft beer). You can find him on Twitter, talking about books and writing, but mostly just getting worked up about the New York Rangers.

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Drew McCaffrey


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