Without a doubt, Brandon Sanderson is one of the most talented and prolific fantasy and science-fiction writers of the 21st century (if not of all time). Starting with his highly-acclaimed Mistborn series, Sanderson has introduced readers to his complex Cosmere collection, which includes several different book series all based within the same universe. Think Marvel, but more magic, less mutants. Although the Cosmere book entries are probably the most nail-bitingly anticipated of Sanderson’s work, The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England is an exciting entry for different reasons.

It was written as part of a crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter, Sanderson teased four new books to be released in 2023. The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook was the second entry in this highly popular (and sure-to-be-emulated by other authors) marketing strategy.

Although it doesn’t take place in the Cosmere, The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook is a solid stand-alone romp that brings up a subversive array of existential-adjacent questions. Here are 3 of the best ones.

What Happens if Jason Bourne is a Screw-Up?

More hand-drawn sketches from The Frugal Wizard's Handbook

In his afterword for The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook, Sanderson describes basing the main character, Johnny, on what he terms a “white-room story.” Essentially, this format positions the protagonist as a blank slate — an amnesiac who is experiencing the story for the first time just as the readers themselves are. With no memory of who they are, how they got there, and why they can’t remember anything, these characters typically spend much of the remaining plot trying to figure out their identity.

Like Jason Bourne from The Bourne series, Johnny wakes up in an unfamiliar location. Worse than that, he wakes up to a completely different time period — in this case, medieval Britain. It’s no major spoiler that this version of Britain is just that: a version of the dimension that Johnny is from. 

With no memory, Johnny is forced to rely on the titular handbook, one which, it turns out, is pretty much a sales pamphlet for inter-dimensional vacationing. Regardless, Johnny uses the ripped, half-burned pages as a resource for navigating a medieval world with key differences from his own. For one, magical creatures that live just outside the line of sight seem shockingly common. And two, Johnny’s crime boss from his native world has decided to claim this particular dimension for his own nefarious purposes.

As Johnny slowly regains his memories, he realizes an uncomfortable truth: he isn’t a very good guy. All his survival instincts stem not from a background as a police officer, but as a crooked boxer paid to throw fights for his boss, Ulric Stromfin. This realization underscores the strange twist of fate his life has taken. He’s a lower-than-mediocre guy treated as a powerful, magical being within a new dimension. And, at least initially, Johnny has literally no idea how to reconcile those two personas.

What if Gods Were Just People with More Technology?

Hand-Drawn Sketches including in The Frugal Wizard's Handbook

Sanderson’s novel jumps between Johnny’s narration and excerpts from the actual Frugal Wizard’s Handbook, a work supposedly created by the travel company Frugal Wizard Inc. The guide claims that its corporate entity had “done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver one pristine, Earth-lite dimension to you.” With legal disclaimers and marketing speak, Sanderson introduces the concept of inter-dimensional travel right out of the gate as “unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with [it].”

As tourists with access to 21st-century technology and a general understanding of how society changes in the post-medieval period, buyers can reshape the history of their dimension however they want. Of course, the implications of supernatural or divine creatures being regular middle-class people from a futuristic society are, suffice it to say, disheartening. In Sanderson’s hands, though, the concept is dealt with lightly, particularly as Johnny transitions from a depressed flunky into a hero worthy of his status as an “aelv.”

Unlike Ulric, Johnny views his mystical status with the solemnity it deserves. His actions — no matter how seemingly benign — can literally have history-altering consequences in his new dimension. In this understanding, Johnny proves himself, if not a better man, at least a better minor deity.

Are People in Other Dimensions “Less Substantial”?

Brandon Sanderson and the cover of The Frugal Wizard's Handbook

In The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook, travelers purchase alternate dimensions that they can shape politically, economically, and culturally — sort of like The Sims on steroids. Although the handbook casually explains that these alternate dimensions don’t have the same “substance” to them as Johnny’s own, they still are fully populated worlds, filled with Vikings, Celts, and visitors from the Far East.

Sanderson is a master at infusing big ideas within digestible, entertaining stories about regular people thrown into extraordinary situations. In the case of The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook, Sanderson deftly evokes the dismissive attitudes Western European colonizers had towards people living in other parts of the world through the idea of medieval Britons being ruled by an “advanced” civilization.

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook lays bare the problems with people choosing to exert power over others simply because they can. At its core, though, is the redemption story of an everyman who, instead of flaunting his power, uses it for good in improving the lives of his newfound friends.

Is this journey of an individual’s moral growth worth the consequences created by the intrusion of people from his world? Maybe, but hard to say. It depends on how substantial you believe that dimension to be.

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