April rolls along, and it brings with it nice weather for this winter-addled Chicagoan. And lo, an added bonus! Brandon Sanderson’s second Kickstarter book—The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England—dropped on April 1. It’s the only non-Cosmere book of the bunch, fitting in well with his other projects like Skyward. Mild setup spoilers follow.
Our protagonist awakens in a forest clearing with no memory. Who is he? Where is he from? Where is he now? The answer to the latter question, it appears, is Medieval England. He sets out to regain his memories and befriend locals and soon discovers he isn’t the only one from his time period in this mysterious land. He then finds a few pages of The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England and starts to piece together both his past and present.
Of Sanderson’s four secret projects, Frugal Wizard’s Handbook was the lowest on my anticipation list. It gives me no pleasure to report that my trepidations were well-founded. There are glimmers of the typical Sanderson flair, but they’re overshadowed by pacing issues and lackluster characters.
First, the good. This novel interlaces its chapters with sections from the in-universe book that shares the novel’s title. These sections are fun parodies of marketing vernacular with a sci-fi twist. It seems like Sanderson had a lot of fun with these segments. Steve Argyle’s cartoonish illustrations add to the levity.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book feels oddly clunky. I think the first problem is that it’s an amnesia plot. I haven’t read many books in this vein, and I don’t know of many famous iterations of the idea (except perhaps The Rook). In theory, I find the idea intriguing. There’s something joyful about making discoveries alongside a main character, learning information only as it makes its way to them. Here, though, it stunted any connectivity I felt with the main character. Rather than strolling through the book’s plot, I felt jerked along without any time to appreciate the characters within.
The side characters are a slight improvement over the amnesiac protagonist. I enjoyed Sefawynn, a plucky skop (a play on bards), and the strong and kind Ealstan. Both characters had a lot going for them, and they gave me some modicum of relatability. Still, I find myself comparing these characters to other Sanderson creations, and none of them can hold a candle to even the smallest characters in his other series. The main problem here is a lack of depth. The characters feel surprisingly one-dimensional for a Sanderson outing. Beyond their archetypes, the roster doesn’t offer much by way of detail. Every character has a name, a few defining traits, and not much else. They feel like they exist as pieces on a chess board, moving along in the way Sanderson needs to advance the plot.
In some books, I’m okay with mediocre characters. The thriller and crime genres have a tendency to provide scant details about characters and allow the plot to drive the book. In the early aughts of Frugal Wizard’s Handbook, I thought that might be the case here. Could Sanderson let characters take a backseat and focus on a story? Turns out he couldn’t escape himself with this one. The book relies on flimsy character connections to wrap up its convoluted plot. It all adds up to a rather disappointing conclusion and a mildly intriguing sequel setup. I am firmly against a sequel, mind you—I’d rather have new Cosmere works—but I do think a continuation could reframe my thinking about this concept.
Would this be a real Sanderson review if I didn’t touch on the magic system? Answer: no. I won’t harp on it for spoiler reasons, but Frugal Wizard’s Handbook deploys two-ish magic systems. I use that term lightly, as the first is essentially sci-fi technology and the second is an ill-defined mystery for most of the book. I see nothing wrong with a soft magic system based more on whimsy than fantasy science. However, Sanderson has trained me to expect just the opposite from him, so I felt put off by the lack of defined rules and systems governing the magic. Further, I think other authors do better work in this space. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus comes to mind. The book makes excellent use of a whimsical magic system without a lot of explanation, and it doesn’t detract from the book’s story. It serves the narrative. In Frugal Wizard’s Handbook, the magic feels like an afterthought. Every reader’s mileage will vary, and far be it for me to tell Sanderson what to write. This specific case just didn’t click with me.
If you come to Sanderson specifically for his hard magic systems, I suggest you visit one of his many other worlds.
I think some folks will enjoy an easy romp through the world of The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England. I thought it was one of Sanderson’s weakest books. The ideas collide but never properly mesh, making for a fast but disappointing read.
Rating: The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England – 5.0/10
One thought on “The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England – Not Quite”
Another quite famous book in the amnesiac genre is Project: Hail Mary, which I just happened to read very close to Frugal Wizard. I think both books used the trope to reveal key plot points at key times in the story. They’re both Sci-Fi, but PHM is hard sci-fi FWG leans more on the fantasy side. I enjoyed them both very much and recommend either of you’ve read one or the other.