Review Secret Project #3: Yumi and the Nightmare Painter

In March 2022, author Brandon Sanderson announced that he had secretly written five additional books. He decided to offer four of those Secret Projects in a non-traditional way, through self-publishing funded by the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever.

Since Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy authors, I decided to support this campaign in order to get my hands on the super deluxe editions of these books.
But before the physical copies reach their new owners, a digital copy is sent to campaign backers every first day of a new quarter (January 1 – April 1 – July 1 – October 1), so that everyone can access the new stories at the same time.

For the previous two quarters I refer you to the following posts:

  1. Review Secret Project #1: Tress of the Emerald Sea
  2. Unboxing Secret Project #1
  3. Review Secret Project #2: The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England
  4. Unboxing Secret Project #2

In the meantime, we’re already on the third and penultimate secret book, which I promptly received in my inbox in e-book format on July 1!

This was the first time that I had slightly overlooked the fact that I was going to receive another Brandon Sanderson book and therefore had not immediately planned to read it.

I also have to admit that I was in a bit of a strange reading mood at the time.
On the one hand, I really felt like reading, but on the other hand, there wasn’t a single book that really appealed to me.
I ultimately decided to wait a bit before diving into this book. While I started reading the previous Secret Projects on the day I received them in my inbox, I only started this one halfway through the month. Even then, my reading mood was still not optimal, so I may have forced myself too much to actually want to read the book that month. This may have coloured my experience and opinion a bit?

Brandon Sanderson – Yumi and the Nightmare Painter ★★★★

Genre: Fantasy

Yumi comes from a land of gardens, meditation, and spirits, while Painter lives in a world of darkness, technology, and nightmares. When their lives suddenly become intertwined in strange ways, can they put aside their differences and work together to uncover the mysteries of their situation and save each other’s communities from certain disaster?

Due to my aforementioned weird reading mood, it took me a while to get into the book and visualize the world we were exploring, especially Painter’s world.
In hindsight, Sanderson did in fact a wonderful job (again) to introduce both Painter’s and Yumi’s worlds and when I reread the first chapter now, where Painter’s world is detailed, I find it kind of embarrassing that I couldn’t see it, which strengthens my conviction that I should have waited to read this book until my weird mood was over.

The star was particularly bright when the nightmare painter started his rounds.

Despite my weird reading mood, Sanderson’s worldbuilding was (as always) top notch and super original.
Painter lives in a city that’s shrouded in darkness, kept at bay only by the twin hion lines – bands of pure energy one teal, the other fuchsia – transecting and forking throughout the city, providing not only illumination and power, but also keeping literal walking Nightmares at bay. These are dark, nebulous creatures, who sometimes emerge from the shroud to feed on human dreams. And this is where painters come in, to forcefully paint the Nightmares to take on a different, harmless shape until they flee back into the shroud. Painter identifies so fiercely with his job as a painter, that he no longer goes by his given name, but his job title. His self-inflated sense of importance however serves as a mask to ignore the fact that he’s tremendously lonely.

Yumi had always considered the appearance of the daystar to be encouraging.

Yumi, on the other hand, lives in a much less advanced, more rural place, where people rely on yoki-hijo, women chosen by the spirits for their ability to master creation, beauty and organization through art. By showcasing this mastery, spirits are drawn forth into the physical realm, to then be transformed into useful items needed to keep everyday life running smoothly.
Yumi is one of only fourteen yoki-hijo in her world, which is as bright and light as Painter’s world is dark. As a yoki-hijo, everything is done for her – from dressing to feeding – so she can fully focus on her art: the stacking of rocks into intricate, beautiful and seemingly impossible piles.
Despite her blessed life, Yumi longs for a different one, where she can be an actual person and not be so alone.

You worked so hard today, the spirit said. Can we give you something? A gift?

Then one day, something happens to intertwine Painter’s and Yumi’s lives in a sort of Friday-the-Thirteenth-body-swap kind of way, forcing our two protagonists to learn how to work together.
And with their coming together, we get to read a type of story I’m not used to reading from Sanderson: a very introspective, romantic and cute story.
Even though the story didn’t lack in fantastical elements, it was not a story of big sweeping action, but a story where we slowly got to learn about our characters, hearing their thoughts, inner monologues and how they come to a certain conclusion. And while I on the one hand really enjoyed this slow, contemplative, almost meditative side, it also removed the urgency from the story, making it real easy to put the book aside for a while, to pick back up later. Especially the middle portion dragged somewhat.

All right, let’s talk about me.

Uncharacteristically, I don’t want to discuss the topic. This isn’t a bright point in my career, and I would rather the attention be on other less statuesque people for the duration of the narrative. That said, I know it’s going to distract some of you unless I explain at least a tad.

In juxtaposition to the serious story is our narrator, once again our favourite Cosmere worldhopper Hoid. Just like with Secret Project #1, Hoid feels compelled to explain certain things to us and provide a running commentary, in his customary silly way, lending comic relief and flippancy. However, his voice in this story was a lot more subdued than in Tress of the Emerald Sea, which fitted this introspective story really well.
His overall role in the story is also rather minimal, since he’s stuck frozen as a statue functioning as a coat rack in a noodle shop, while his spren Design steels the show running the aforementioned noodle shop.

It’s a common mistake to assume that someone is weak because they are accommodating

Overall, I did like Yumi and the Nightmare Painter, despite its slowness and my difficulty getting into it.
I loved the obvious inspiration drawn from Asian media and the use of some of their common tropes. I loved the distinct Asian-inspired settings, once I managed the brain power to visualize. I enjoyed slowly getting to know both Painter and Yumi, but I was never completely emotionally involved. I like the narration and it was fun to recognize the hints towards the Cosmere, even though they felt misplaced sometimes and taking away from the story.

So certainly another great book, but for me at least, it does not surpass Tress of the Emerald Sea.

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.

And to finish this off, I’d like to talk about the ending and the Cosmere in a spoilery way, so beware!
Look, I really loved Yumi and I’m so happy for her that she gets to actually live a real life, but it also felt a bit like a cop-out?!
With what we know about Kelsier too, it feels a bit like Sanderson can’t bear to let his characters die. Will we also see Wayne again?
At the same time, I know that this comment is a bit hypocritical of me. I honestly feel that the story would have been more poignant if Yumi was allowed to pass on. It would have been gripping and bittersweet, but I probably would have been unhappy with an unhappy ending too, lol.

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