I’ve never been much of a graphic novel reader, but when the release of White Sand coincided (give or take a month) with my birthday, I put it on the gift wish list. I’ve read almost everything Sanderson has written, and since he has yet to disappoint, I decided to give it a try. I’m really glad I did.
The story and world-building are pure Sanderson. Geography, flora/fauna, and cultures are all intricately integrated to make this place feel exotic but real. The plot follows the familiar, but still compelling, arc of a young man struggling to find and fulfill his leadership role. He is surrounded by a plethora of other personalities, all with their own arcs, and the threads combine to tell a story that is as much about a time and a place as it is about individual characters. Rik Hoskin does a great job of preserving the Sanderson “feel” in the writing—no mean feat, when we consider that even Sanderson’s novellas tend to be of substantial size. The best compliment that I can pay is that I really felt I was listening to a unified story-telling voice—there was no way to tell where Sanderson ended and Hoskin began.
But I was pretty sure going into this that I was going to be ok with the words. I live, think, love, and work in words. But pictures are generally out of my league. (Yes, I’m the one who groans in despair when she opens an instruction booklet to find a series of pictograms.) In fact, I wouldn’t have had the courage to try White Sands had I not—in the relatively recent past—rediscovered picture books. Yes, those brightly colored, simply phrased volumes we give to young children because they are “easy.” Let me tell you—ain’t nothin’ easy about it.
Take the classic “Stella Luna.” There is an entire second narrative relayed in the tiny black and white pictures that accompany each page of text (these are in addition to the full page, color illustrations across from each page of text). This second narrative is never acknowledged by the book’s words, but when you realize it’s there, the story doubles in depth. But I digress.
My first time through White Sand, I focused on the words. I’m a strongly linear reader and I have to get to the end. So I gave the pictures only enough attention to ensure that I knew basically what was going on and could move to the next panel. Once I’d finished the book, however, the itch for progress was satisfied, and I could go back and pay the illustrations proper attention.
My first impression during my hasty read-through was that the artwork was extremely busy and hard to understand.
My second impression, when I went back and took my time, was WHOA.
These illustrations are complicated. Most of them can’t be fully understood with a quick glance. And even those that can tell so much more if you just give them a chance. Even the battle scenes—which I found incomprehensible the first time—resolved themselves into powerful and intelligible meaning when I looked at them properly.
Take, for example, the middle panel on p. 4 (there aren’t actually page numbers, so I’m counting from the page that says “Chapter 1″). It’s a pretty simple setup. Kenton (the hero) is locking eyes with his father. Behind them rise the rock spires that mark this part of the desert. There are also two figure representing the crowd witnessing the conflict. Kenton speaks the single word, “No.” That’s it. But if the scene conveyed by this picture were written out, it would probably go something like this:
The pale, shriveled face of the Lord Mastrell glowered at his son. Kenton stared back, eyes gleaming in the dark face that was his heritage from his mother, but with a stubbornness that was all his father.
The single word dropped into the desert stillness, a single pebble exploding the surface of a glassy pool.
The watching Sand Masters drew back, faces shuttered, eyes downcast. They wanted no part of this conflict between their leader and his troublesome offspring.
See? All that emotion and tension and relationship is in the picture. The dialog is just the icing.
So. Did I enjoy White Sand? Yes. Am I anxiously awaiting the release of volume 2? You bet. Did this book make me a better reader? Absolutely.
I highly recommend White Sand for all Brandon Sanderson fans. But if, like me, your previous graphic novel experience is limited to Persepolis, know that it’s going to take some work to read this properly. Take your time and remember that pictures don’t necessarily equal easy or simplistic.
They do, however, equal awesome.