Book Review: Yumi and the Nightmare Painter by Brandon Sanderson

Book Review: Yumi and the Nightmare Painter by Brandon Sanderson

This review is a copy of the transcript of my video review on Yumi and the Nightmare Painter.

Cover art by Aliya Chen

Yumi and the Nightmare Painter by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Series: The Cosmere

Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Romance

Pages: 479 pages (Kindle)

Published: 1st July 2023 by Dragonsteel Books (Kickstarter) & 11th July 2023 by Tor Books (US Ebook)/Gollancz (UK Ebook)

This was utterly brilliant and satisfying. Yumi and the Nightmare Painter will be the best of the secret project novels, and it is easily one of Sanderson’s finest books in his career.

“But then again, there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about any kind of art. That’s not me complaining or making light. It’s one of the most wonderful aspects to art— the fact that people decide what is beautiful. We don’t get to decide what is food and what is not. (Yes, exceptions exist. Don’t be pedantic. When you pass those marbles, we’re all going to laugh.) But we absolutely get to decide what counts as art.”

Since its announcement, the third secret project novel by Brandon Sanderson, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter, was already on my list of most anticipated books. It IS my most anticipated book of the secret project novels. This is due to two reasons. First, Sanderson has mentioned that the manga/anime Hikaru no Go by Yumi Hotta (writer) and Takeshi Obata (illustrator) is one of the main inspirations behind this new Cosmere novel. Hikaru no Go is another childhood favorite of mine, and I knew this would bode well for me. And, of course, the other reason, Aliya Chen is the designated illustrator for this book. Aliya Chen is one of the best artists I have come across. You do not need to hear my words on how amazing she is at her art. Check out her artwork portfolio. Or, to put it more simply, read this book and witness her illustrations. Suffice it to say I had high expectations and excitement going into this book, and still, I was astounded. The inspirations that gave birth to this novel are all stories I cherished. I, as some of you might know, LOVE video games, manga, anime, and books. As it turns out, not only Hikaru no Go, but the anime Kimi no Nawa (Your Name) and the video game Final Fantasy X influenced the creation of Yumi and the Nightmare Painter as well. And as a big fan of Sanderson’s Cosmere books plus these three main inspirations, this is a knock-out book for me.

“Art is about feelings and emotion. It’s about letting them escape, so they can be shared. It’s about capturing a truth about yourself. Like you’re ripping a hole in your chest and exposing your soul.”

Two locations. Two protagonists. Duality, contrast, and cooperation are evident in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. In the city of Kilahito, a world of darkness, technology, and nightmares, Nikaro (Painter) works as a nightmare painter. While in Torio, a land of light, gardens, meditation, and spirits, we follow Yumi as a traveling yoki-hijo—a rare priestess capable of summoning and commanding spirits to serve Torio’s inhabitants through rituals and stacking stones. Suddenly, an event unpredictably intertwined their lives together in ways they never imagined. In Torio, Painter now appears to others as though he is Yumi, and Yumi turns into a disembodied spirit visible only to him. In Kilahito, the reverse situation occurred. Both of them must put aside their differences and work together to learn each other’s jobs and skills to uncover the mysteries of their situation and save their respective communities from a predicted imminent disaster.

“Human beings are bundles of emotion puppeting muscles like a marionette. We emote not only with our bodies, but with our very souls.””

That’s pretty much the premise, and if you have read or watched Hikaru no Go, you will see the intentional similarities here. In Hikaru no Go, the main character Hikaru finds a haunted Go board someday. The Go board is haunted by a ghost named Sai, the emperor’s former Go teacher in the Heian era. But Sai doesn’t have a physical body of his own to control. He is dead. He is trapped in Hikaru’s mind, and he tells him which move to use every time Hikaru plays Go. You can probably imagine the several frustrations that came from Sai and Hikaru’s circumstances. This is the kind of dynamics and struggles Sanderson implements into Yumi and Painter’s story. The story is once again told through the narration of Hoid, but do not expect this to be done in the same voice as Hoid’s in Tress of the Emerald Sea. It is different, and it works amazingly for the narrative and atmosphere. And I should really point this out. Even though Hoid is narrating here, the entire book is, without a shadow of a doubt, Yumi and Painter’s story. We read from their POV like usual, hear their thoughts, and feel their emotions. However, we get the occasional commentary, interruptions, and philosophical musings from Hoid. For me, there was never any dull moment in this book. Even though it is a different kind of Cosmere novel, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter remain Sanderson’s storytelling at its prime.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a tad awkward. It is a sign of a new experience— and new experiences are among the cosmere’s best forms of emotional leavening. We shouldn’t be so afraid of showing inexperience. Cynicism isn’t interesting; it is often no more than a mask we place over tedium.”

Even in Tress of the Emerald Sea, which I highly enjoyed, a few sections in that book felt a bit dragging, in my opinion. That wasn’t the case with Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. It was thoroughly compelling, and the book was incredibly well-paced. I applaud other readers who started and finished this book in a day or two and then immediately proceeded to talk about the book in detail online. Granted, I failed to prolong my reading of this book as well. But I certainly savored every page. And upon finishing it, I was left dazed, charmed, and positively bewildered. I still am at the time of making this review. I was mesmerized by the buildup, execution, and entire narrative that eventually led to a form of Sanderlanche finished by a hugely satisfying ending. Do not expect actions or battle scenes here. A form of Sanderlanche is existent in the last portion of the book, no doubt about that, but at its core, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is a beautiful, relatable, and charming slow-burn story about the connection and relationship development between two individuals with different personality and upbringings. And yes, I absolutely love the two main characters: Painter and Yumi.

“That’s because you’ve lived this so long… It feels normal to you. It sometimes takes an outsider to point out how broken something is.”

Picture: Dress Shopping by Aliya Chen

Although Painter and Yumi are characters of opposite personalities and backgrounds, they have attitudes, mentality, and struggles I can relate to. I read Mistborn Trilogy for the first time in September 2016, and although it’s almost seven years since I read Sanderson’s books for the first time, I still think, to this day, he is one of the greatest authors when it comes to characterizations and development. I found Painter to be a genuine character. He strives to fix things. To do right. The issues he’s dealing with revolve around loneliness, his own value as an individual, and the insurmountable pressure he faces. It’s not only Painter. I find this to be so relatable to our society. Often, but not always, we are valued and treated based on what service we can offer and provide to other people. If we fail these services, the result can be devastating sometimes. Dismissal. Ignored. Oblivion. These were several issues Painter is dealing with, and that resonated a lot with me. I assume other readers will, too. His insecurity, his aspiration to be needed, to do good, and of course, his passion for art.

“The true hero is the one in your mind, the representation of an ideal that makes you a better person. The individual who inspired it, well, they’re like the book on the table or the art on the wall. A vessel. A syringe full of transformational aspiration. Don’t force people to live up to your dreams of who they might be. And if you’re ever in the situation in which Painter found himself, where your ideals are crumbling, don’t do what he did. Don’t make it slow. Walk away and patch the wound instead of giving the knife time to twist inside.”

Yumi, in her own way, encounters this issue of having her value determined by her service as a yoki-hijo. She follows tradition as strictly as possible, with no room for freedom. Because of this, for me, Yumi did take a bit of time to like as a character. Initially, she was uptight and strict with her ritual and rules. This, however, does not mean she ever behaved out of character. This first impression is stringed with the gradual character development she went through together with Painter, which gave rewarding results to their relationship and, more importantly, the reader’s reading experience. As I said, compromise and empathy are some of the main themes in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the name Yumi is most likely inspired by Yuna in Final Fantasy X video game. Yuna works as a summoner and is one of the two main characters in Final Fantasy X. At the same time, the name Yumi matches the name of one of the creators of Hikaru no Go, Yumi Hotta, the writer. Tidus, the other main character in Final Fantasy X, is a blitzball player. Tidus, a blitzball player, and Yuna, a summoner. Nikaro, a painter, and Yumi, a yoki-hijo. This is practically where Final Fantasy X came in as an inspiration for this novel.

“It’s a common mistake to assume that someone is weak because they are accommodating. If you think this, you might be the type who has no idea how much effort— how much strength— it takes to put up with your nonsense. Yumi wasn’t weak. She wasn’t a pushover. Don’t assume fragility where you should see patience.”

There are a few similarities between the pair Nikaro-Yumi and Tidus-Yuna. And I loved it, especially the slow-burn romance between each pair. Some of you might already know I am not a reader of romance novels. And yes, this book can definitely be categorized as one. But Sanderson deftly handled the balance between plotting, mystery, characterizations, world-building, fantastical aspects, and romance. The romance never overwhelmed the other spotlights of the novel for me. And I will argue that the romantic scene here is relatively few. I understand each reader’s tastes are different, but from my analysis, only someone who despises having any tiny moments of romance in their books will hate this. The majority of this book is just about relationship development. Building characters. Understanding each other. It is a standard human connection. It is believable. And it is well-written. Life is not made up of a few colors. It is brimming with multitudes of emotions, good or bad. Relating to how Tidus and Yuna complement each other, Nikaro and Yumi bring their missing colors and puzzles to complete each other. Not instantly, but gradually. Through hard work, effort, and patience. And I love the two of them. Assuming we are not talking about teenagers, I personally think Sanderson is excellent at writing romantic relationships between characters. Vin and Elend. Wax and Steris. Suri and Susebron. And now Nikaro and Yumi. This is also why I generally prefer slow-burn romance much more over insta-love. I am not saying insta-love is not believable, but in books I read, I tend to prefer connections being nurtured, navigated, and fought for first before the two characters in question become a couple.

“Together they enjoyed the silent presence of one another, drinking in the moment. It’s said that everything you eat, even the air you breathe, becomes part of you. The axi that make up the matter you take in come to make up you instead. I, however, find that the moments we take into our souls as memories are far more important than what we eat. We need those moments as surely as the air, and they linger. Potent. Yes, a person is more than their experiences, stacked up like stones. But our best moments are the foundations we use to reach for the sky.”

Through Nikaro and Yumi and their interactions with the supporting characters, the resonating themes of friendship, responsibility, loneliness, freedom, the need to belong, and art shine through. As you can expect from Sanderson’s writing, his prose remains accessible, engaging, and vivid. Although some readers have felt dissatisfied with Sanderson’s prose, I always love his writing and storytelling style. His writing is vivid, and the scenes are constantly easy to visualize in my mind, with emotionally impactful and hard-hitting passages placed at the right moment. One of the things I love most about reading, illustrations, and art, in general, is the feeling of being impressed with human creation and creativity after experiencing the emotional effect of the art. A cooking machine that succeeded at creating a noodle will never top me feeling awed by a chef cooking a delicious noodle for me. Or even better, a delicious noodle I cook myself. Similar to The Emperor’s Soul novella, another Asian-inspired fantasy story by Brandon Sanderson that I cherished, one of the main themes of Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is art, its creation, recipients, and what it means. For these reasons, this is why I will ALWAYS prefer human-created art over AI art. I want to feel awed by the story and illustrations painstakingly built by a fellow human. Sanderson handled this topic and theme magnificently in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter, and it is one of the big reasons I adore this book.

“Art is about intent, Yumi. A rainbow isn’t art, beautiful though it might be. Art is about creation. Human creation. A machine can lift way more than Tojin can— doesn’t make it less impressive when he lifts more than almost any human being… I don’t care how well a machine piles rocks. The fact that you do it is what matters to me.”

Everything about Yumi and the Nightmare Painter click with me. The mystery was intriguing, the characters were lovable, the world-building was intricate, and the writing was compelling. And as an Asian reader, it goes without saying that I have an affinity toward Asian-inspired fantasy books. The anime Your Name is one of the inspirations behind this book. The well-realized world-building in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is Japanese and Korean-inspired. Japan and Korea are two countries I visited in the past for holidays, and they remain strong as some of the most memorable experiences for me. And through this experience, Kilahito really feels like modern Tokyo (probably going back a bit in the past) in my mind, and honestly, I thought the setting in Yumi’s story was, too. However, Sanderson has mentioned that Yumi’s world is inspired by historical Korea rather than Japan. And Sanderson, as proven in The Emperor’s Soul and now this, is bloody good at writing Asian-inspired fantasy books. The clothing, the setting, the cultures, the food, the eternal night and day. The azure and magenta. It is all so atmospheric and imaginable. I hope Sanderson will contemplate writing more Asian-inspired fantasy books in the Cosmere.

“In school… the teachers always talked about the importance of our job. They’d preach about the meaning of art, about theory. They said painting was about passion and the whims of creativity. They teach us we’re supposed to see the shape of the nightmare, and paint that. Then you get into the real world, and find that it’s hard to be creative like that every moment. You realize they didn’t teach you important things, like how to work when you don’t feel passion, or when the whims of creativity aren’t striking you. What then? What good is theory when you need to feed yourself?”

As usual, when it comes to every new book in the Cosmere now, people will ask, which books you must read before you start reading this? I’m happy to say, for once, none. Yumi and the Nightmare Painter can be read and enjoyed without reading other books in the Cosmere. Hear me out. I am someone who is very sensitive about spoilers. And yes, first-time readers of Brandon Sanderson or Cosmere will miss out on understanding the Cosmere terminologies and who Design is if they start here. But honestly, if the reader hasn’t read The Stormlight Archive yet, none of these actually count as spoilers. A relatively very minor spoiler, too, if we count some things I can’t say here. I’m caught up with all the Cosmere books, and the knowledge I had from reading The Stormlight Archive did not significantly enhance my reading experience of this one. Some readers will and have argued you must read up to Rhythm of War before reading Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. I understand the sentiment, but this is a bit crazy. The effort and reward of doing this are imbalanced. You can’t possibly expect readers to read 4000 pages (currently almost 2,000,000 words) long of books to have a small benefit in reading this 110,000 words long standalone novel. That would make Yumi and the Nightmare Painter as a standalone novel inaccessible to many readers, which I’m pretty sure is not Sanderson’s intention. This is a standalone novel. You WILL benefit from reading other books in the Cosmere first, no doubt about that, especially The Stormlight Archive. But a requirement? I don’t think so. From now on, I will actually recommend Yumi and the Nightmare Painter as one of the good starting points in Cosmere. Especially if that specific reader is looking for a standalone novel.

“This was art. Something the machine, however capable in the technical details, could never understand. Because art is, and always has been, about what it does to us. To the one shaping it and the one experiencing it.”

Lastly, Aliya Chen (the illustrator behind Yumi and the Nightmare Painter) deserves a standing ovation. No offense to Howard Lyon and Steve Argyle, the illustrator behind Tress of the Emerald Sea and The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England. I loved their contribution, and their illustrations were compatible with the books they were in charge of. But based on my experience, history, and preference, Aliya Chen’s illustrations reigned as the best out of the secret projects so far. It is my favorite, and I think Aliya will still reign even after the last secret novel is published. Some readers might consider Aliya Chen fortunate to have the opportunity to work on Sanderson’s books. The way I see it, it is the other way around. For me, well, I am a happy spectator. Sanderson’s book is now filled with one of my favorite artist’s illustrations! I have nothing to complain about here. Similar to my experience reading Sanderson’s books, I have been an enthusiast of Aliya Chen’s illustrations for years. This collaboration feels like a match made in the Cosmere. No words are sufficient enough to convey how much I love the stunning artwork in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. The lighting, the facial features, the characters, the tones, the mood; everything was superbly done. That feeling of finding an artist delivering illustrations that capture or exceed the quality of my own imagination always feels like a blessing to me, and that notion has been achieved here. Aliya’s artworks undoubtedly elevated the overall quality of Yumi and the Nightmare Painter to a higher plane. A picture speaks a thousand words. Including front and rear endpaper in the equation, there are 24 interior illustrations inside this book. I have shared three of them in this review. As for the rest, you have to witness them for yourself.

“You might be thinking at this point of the old adage that says having heroes is not worth it. There are variations on it all around the cosmere. Cynical takes that encourage you never to look up to someone, lest by turning your eyes toward the sky you leave your gut open for a nice stabbing. I disagree. Hope is a grand thing, and having heroes is essential to human aspiration. That is part of why I tell these stories. That said, you do need to learn to separate the story— and what it has done to you— from the individual who prompted it. Art— and all stories are art, even the ones about real people— is about what it does to you.”

Picture: Thirty-Seven Spirits by Aliya Chen

Stories like this are a necessity for me. While it is true that the book is devoid of massive epic fantasy battles, conflicts, and political intrigues found in other Cosmere books, Yumi and the Nightmare Painter triumphed as the best standalone novel by Brandon Sanderson. For me, this top over Elantris, Warbreaker, and The Emperor’s Soul. Wholesome, romantic, intimate, atmospheric, immersive, and timeless. The inspirations, Aliya Chen’s illustrations, and Sanderson’s brilliant storytelling and creativity are a union resulting in the immaculately crafted Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. This book intensified why Cosmere is one of my favorite fantasy universes. We decide what counts as art. Books. Paintings. Illustrations. Anime. Storytelling. We have the freedom and power to place a personal and intimate value on any specific art. And for me, the value of art as incredible as Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is priceless. So thank you so much, Brandon Sanderson and Emily Sanderson, for sharing this story for us to read and emotionally experience.

“Why do we tell stories? They are a universal human experience. Every culture I’ve ever visited, every people I’ve met, every human on every planet in every situation I’ve seen… they all tell stories. Men trapped alone for years tell them to themselves. Ancients leave them painted on the walls. Women whisper them to their babies. Stories explain us. You want to define what makes a human different from an animal? I can do it in one word or a hundred thousand. Sad stories. Exultant stories. Didactic morality tales. Frivolous yarns that, paradoxically, carry too much meaning. We need stories.”

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Yumi and the Nightmare Painter by Brandon Sanderson

  1. Hi Petrik – thanks for all these reviews! Agree that this is the best of the Secret Novels and unlikely to be beaten!

    You usually do a best books of the six months of the year – is that something you’re planning to do again?

    1. Thank you so much, Nick! Unfortunately, no. For this year, I’m going for quarterly favorite books on my Youtube channel to experiment around. But I will still post my favorite books of the year here in December! 🙂

  2. Excellent review. I have not had time to commit to the Stormlight Archive series, but I’m desperate to get back into the Cosmere universe. Sounds like this will be a great start. Sanderson is spoiling us with these secret projects, I can’t keep up! Are there any other Sanderson standalones you recommend in the meantime? So far, I’ve only read the original Mistborn trilogy.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, you can definitely start from here. I also recommend Warbreaker or The Emperor’s Soul as terrific standalones by Sanderson to read! 🙂

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