Intro to the Cosmere
So, you've read some of Brandon Sanderson's books, and you liked them enough that you want to talk about it with other fans online. But then it doesn't take you long to realize that you have no idea what everyone's talking about. Shards of Adonalsium? Realmatic theory? Worldhoppers? "I don't remember any of this in the books I read!"
Fear not! This page is for you!
What is the Cosmere?
The Cosmere is the fictional universe in which many of Brandon Sanderson's novels take place. Stories set in the Cosmere share an underlying theorem of magic, a creation myth, a cosmology, and a few other key concepts. Characters and cultures can (and do) cross over between worlds. While early connections merely consist of a few scattered Easter eggs, they become more obvious and meaningful with time. Seeing and understanding it can greatly enhance your experience with his books -- there's a reason we can't stop talking about it! We've designed this page to point out all of the main things you may have missed, or that Brandon has said in interviews with fans, so that you can discover the secret world hidden in Brandon's books and be ready to participate in the discussion as quickly and as effortlessly as possible.
For a more in-depth answer to this question, keep scrolling. For Brandon's own short answer to this question, see the FAQ on his website. For the complete list of works set in the Cosmere, see here.
A note on spoilers: This post may contain minor spoilers for some Cosmere books--particularly Mistborn and Stormlight Archive. Links to the Coppermind wiki often contain many spoilers. If you haven't read all the books, we would encourage you not to read beyond the reading order recommendations!
Does it matter?
Knowledge of the Cosmere is generally non-essential to understand and enjoy Sanderson's work as each story/series stands on its own. That said, understanding the Cosmere can enhance your experience and give you something extra to chew on if you'd like to dive deeper into Sanderson's universe. So if you start looking into the Cosmere and find all of this to be overwhelming or uninteresting, that's totally okay. Take your time, or just don't even worry about it!
Sanderson ultimately has plans for some books that will involve the overarching story of the Cosmere more directly. At this time, experiencing the Cosmere primarily involves connecting the universe's basic concepts and identifying characters who show up in unexpected places and seem to know more than they let on.
There is no “right order” to read the Cosmere in. Publication order is a common suggestion, which allows you to experience the books as if reading them from the start, but you should read the Cosmere in whichever order you most enjoy. If you want to try something new, branch off to a different world or series. If you really like the series/world you've been reading, then keep going down that road. Most reading orders will point out a few books that can be considered “starter” books. From these you can dive deeper into a particular series or branch off to something new. Some commonly recommended starting points include:
Elantris -- If you like the idea of reading in publication order, this is where you should begin. This is the first book Brandon published.
Mistborn: The Final Empire -- The original Mistborn trilogy (Era 1) is the most frequently recommended place to start.
Warbreaker -- This is a standalone book that's available for free on Brandon's website.
The Emperor's Soul -- This Hugo Award-winning novella is a great way to experience Sanderson's strengths with very minimal commitment.
The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive) -- This epic is far from complete and requires the reader to place a lot of trust in Sanderson--it opens with a lot of worldbuilding and a slow start. But if truly epic fantasy is your thing and incomplete series don't give you pause, this is perhaps Brandon's finest work.
For an interactive reading guide, see this page. Brandon's own recommendations can be found on his website.
Two final notes on reading order:
We highly encourage reading Warbreaker sometime before Words of Radiance.
We highly encourage reading Mistborn: Secret History after The Bands of Mourning.
Adonalsium, Shards, and Investiture
Adonalsium and the Cosmere
A long time ago, there existed an entity called Adonalsium. Very little is known about who or what Adonalsium truly was. Adonalsium's touch suffused the Cosmere, and many worlds, such as Roshar, were grown by it and bear its design. It was the source of all of the Cosmere's magic and was said to control the powers of creation. One day, Adonalsium broke into sixteen fragments in an event that became known as the Shattering of Adonalsium. Why or how Adonalsium was shattered remains a mystery.
The Shards of Adonalsium
Sixteen of those who were present at the Shattering took up these fragments, or Shards, and became godlike themselves. They went their separate ways, (well, some did) creating worlds and seeding the Cosmere with more life. The magic of the Cosmere continues to stem from these Shards. Each Shard has an "intent" that it strives to fulfill, which gradually molds and warps the holder of the Shard, the Vessel, until they are absolutely incapable of acting against it. This nature is so dominating that both the Shards and the Vessels are usually referred to simply by the Shard's intent. Note, however, that the intent of a Shard cannot be precisely conveyed in a single word, and there is some room for interpretation as to what each Shard's intent incorporates. Some Shards include Ambition, Autonomy, Honor, Ruin, and Devotion.
Though these demigods may appear godlike to mortals, they are neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. Shards may be Splintered--a process which leaves the Vessel dead and the power of the Shard dispersed. Shards are also able to subdivide themselves into avatars, each with a distinct identity, though the exact nature of these entities and how they relate to the Shard and its Vessel is unclear.
Investiture, Splinters, and Slivers
Investiture is the catch-all term for magical energy in the Cosmere. Investiture, which comes from the Shards, is the power source for all of the Cosmere's magic systems. Most humans in the Cosmere have some innate Investiture, which makes up their soul. Humans generally obtain magical powers when their spirit (sometimes called a spirit web) becomes suffused with Investiture.
A Splinter is a portion of a Shard's Investiture that has been severed from it, either willingly or unwillingly. Sometimes, these Splinters will develop sentience and sapience, and they can become highly intelligent beings. (Note that non-Splintered Shards can still have Splinters.)
A Sliver, on the other hand, is a person who once held a significant portion of a Shard's power. Holding that much power stretched and expanded their soul.
There was an original world named Yolen. Yolen was home to three intelligent races (human, dragon, and Sho Del), and is the planet that the original sixteen Vessels came from. All human life in the Cosmere either came from Yolen or was modeled after it. After the Shattering, the Shards spread and settled down on many different worlds throughout the Cosmere.
Planets where one or more of the Shards settled down are sometimes known as "major Shardworlds." Other planets, where there is still life and some magic, but no Shards, are "minor Shardworlds." Major and minor Shardworlds include the following:
First of the Sun
Sixth of the Dusk
The Stormlight Archive
Elantris, The Emperor's Soul
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell
Worldhoppers and Notable Characters
A small number of enterprising individuals in the Cosmere have learned how to travel between these worlds. These worldhoppers have a huge variety of backgrounds and motivations. Some worldhoppers are acting individually while others are part of an organization, like the Seventeenth Shard.
Among the Cosmere's worldhoppers, there is none so prominent as the ever-mysterious Hoid, originally of Yolen. Hoid, which isn't even his real name, is thousands of years old, having been present at the Shattering of Adonalsium. Whatever happened to Hoid in his past, he's no longer exactly human, at least in the traditional sense. He has a way of knowing where he needs to be at the right time, and he uses this to subtly influence events behind the scenes. Hoid's true motives and goals are as hidden as his real name.
Hoid has appeared in every Cosmere novel so far, though he is often in disguise and will occasionally use pseudonyms, such as Dust, Topaz, Cephandrius, and Wit. Trying to spot him in every book is part of the fun of the Cosmere. He seems to prefer disguising himself as a beggar, an informant, a storyteller, or a jester, so look for him to be playing one of these roles. He is also often, though not always, described as having white hair and an angular, hawklike or arrowlike face. Among many other things, Hoid has the ability to Lightweave (create illusions), he can heal from extreme injuries, he doesn't age, and he has a way to dilate time so that he doesn't have to wait as long for important moments.
The planned series Dragonsteel will tell the story of Hoid's origin and the Shattering of Adonalsium, and Hoid is planned to be a main character in the final Mistborn trilogy.
Khriss and Nazh
Khriss, from Taldain, is the worldhopper who writes the Ars Arcanum at the end of each book, and she's the most knowledgeable of anyone—including Hoid—about the Cosmere as a whole. Khriss has been described as dark-skinned, with her hair woven into tight braids. Nazh is her assistant, a worldhopper from Threnody, tasked with collecting various maps and drawings from throughout the Cosmere. They are often included in the books with his personal notes to Khriss in his distinctive handwriting. One of his most identifying characteristics is his tendency to use Threnodite swears, such as "shadows". He has also been described as lanky, with a narrow face and sand-colored hair.
The Three Realms
Almost everything in the Cosmere has a body, a mind, and a soul, and each exists in one of three Realms. The Physical Realm is world of the body, where physical objects exist. This Realm is the only one that normal human beings consciously perceive.
The Cognitive Realm, also known as Shadesmar, is the world of the mind. The Cognitive Realm is strange and alien: Water is solid, land is fluid, and shadows point backwards. Thoughts and ideas take on real form in this Realm. After a person dies, a leftover impression of their mind, their Cognitive Shadow, will linger shortly in the Cognitive Realm before passing on. The Cognitive Shadow can sometimes persist for longer periods of time, however, by various magical means.
Worldhoppers have learned to use junctions between the Physical Realm and the Cognitive Realm called perpendicularities to cross between them. Often, these perpendicularities can be found where the power of a Shard is concentrated into a pool of liquid that fans call "Shardpools." The Cognitive Realm is of particular interest to worldhoppers because distances are compressed there in places where there is little or no mental activity (such as outer space), meaning worldhoppers can use the Cognitive Realm to actually walk from one planet to another. Depending on the Shardworld, the Cognitive Realm can be an extremely dangerous place.
The Spiritual Realm is the world of the soul. Once you reach the Spiritual Realm, there's no such thing as space or distance anymore, just Connection between people and places. Those who peer into the Spiritual Realm can see all the branching possibilities of the future. The power of the Shards resides mostly (usually) in the Spiritual Realm.
While in most cases we don't know how many years take place between books in different series, we do know the chronological order of most of them. In order, they are:
The Emperor's Soul
Mistborn Era 1
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell
Mistborn Era 2
Mistborn Era 3
Sixth of Dusk
Mistborn Era 4
For more information, see this post.
The best way to dive into the Cosmere is to find a fan community to interact with. While you may see a lot of confusing conversations going on, just ask questions and you'll be caught up before you know it. The 17th Shard offers both forums and a Discord chat server to this end.
The other two important resources to be aware of are the Coppermind wiki and Arcanum, both operated by the 17th Shard. But beware that BOTH of these resources include heavy spoilers for all of Brandon's books! The Coppermind is a wiki covering all of Brandon Sanderson's works, with an emphasis on the Cosmere. Just dive right in by searching for pages that interest you, or by browsing through the page categories. Arcanum is an archive of everything Brandon has said publicly about his stories, drawing from interviews, social media, book signings, and more. There's a LOT to learn about the Cosmere just by hearing directly from the man himself! Search for specific terms or browse entries by tags.
We could always use help adding more information to the Coppermind or transcribing audio on Arcanum, and you don't need to be an expert to help. Stop by the #coppermind and #arcanum channels in our Discord server to help out. There's no better way to learn more about the Cosmere than by helping improve these resources!
Note: This is an update to the original Cosmere 101 topic by @Zas678. Feel free to recommend additional content, but please avoid major spoilers!