Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

February 1, 2013 at 1:48 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 5 Comments
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The Alloy of Law coverSome people have called Alloy of Law a fantasy western, but this isn’t quite right. The premise is that Wax, the main character, is coming back to the biggest city in the world after many years spent as a gunslinging lawman on the frontier. He acts like, and thinks of himself as, a good-guy sheriff, but the novel is actually a mystery set against the backdrop of industrialization. Wax isn’t just a sheriff, he’s Lord Waxillian, a previously unimportant member of an important noble house who has unexpectedly found himself running the show after some unexpected deaths. He tries to take over his family’s extensive business empire, but when a brazen group of railroad thieves start kidnapping people, he can’t help but try to take matters into his own hands as a vigilante. Making this a more attractive proposition is the fact that while he doesn’t really know what he’s doing as the CEO of a huge business, he’s an extremely effective vigilante. This owes a little bit to his hard-earned experience as a lawman and a great deal to his genetic luck, which has given him access to some rare and very useful magic powers.

From that summary it should be obvious that what we have here is not a western or a steampunk fantasy but a retro-superhero story. Wax is Batman, translated into an 1870s-analogue society and radicalized by grief in his adult life instead of his childhood. He even has a sidekick, a wisecracking deputy from Wax’s old life who has his own different but only slightly less devastating combination of magic powers and the name “Wayne”. It takes a lot of cheek to simultaneously reference John Wayne and Bruce Wayne in a book like this, but Sanderson evidently felt he could get away with it in a story that aims its tone at light, fun vacation reading. In fact, Sanderson famously wrote the original draft of the novel in a month as a way to take a vacation from writing the last three Wheel of Time books. Only someone as absurdly prolific as Sanderson (who has published 11 original novels in only seven years…and also the three gigantic Wheel of Time novels based on Jordan’s notes) would take a vacation from writing a novel by writing another novel, but the difference in attitude is unmistakable. Compared with Sanderson’s normal adult writing, the story is much shorter, much more personal, and somewhat less serious. As a superhero story, for example, it operates on what we might call a pre-Watchmen level. The idea that as one of the wealthiest people in the city Wax could help people more by deploying that wealth than running around fighting bad guys isn’t seriously examined, nor is the possibility that the police deferring to a self-appointed vigilante rich person may not be a positive step toward bringing justice to the city. In his other work Sanderson has often shown an interest in trying to reverse common tropes, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his unironic use of the traditional superhero formula here (the formula that even Hollywood understands should be taken apart, even if it usually doesn’t know quite how to do it) is likely a conscious decision to stick to telling a fun story.

There’s nothing wrong with light reading. Viewed as “just” a fun story, Alloy of Law is reasonably successful. The mystery that Wax solves over the course of the novel has a few interesting elements and the plot moves quickly between its generous helping of action scenes. Sanderson’s normal chroegraphist tendencies are on display here, showing step by step how magic is used by combatants. The novel is set three hundred years after the Mistborn trilogy, so Sanderson is able to leverage the complicated but entertaining magic systems from those books and add a few new wrinkles.

No characters return from the Mistborn trilogy, so Alloy of Law theoretically can be read first, but I’d recommend against it. One reason is that perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, and the one aspect that elevates it above the fantasy equivalent of an airport thriller, is the way it establishes the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world since the earlier trilogy. Sanderson has never made any secret about the fact he expects technology to progress in his world just as it does in ours and that furthermore he wants to write a sequel trilogy set a thousand years in the future when the once-medieval society has spaceships and ray guns to go along with their magic. In Alloy of Law the difference in technology is less dramatic, moving from the trilogy’s horses and bows to guns and railroads, but Sanderson has put a lot of thought into how an industrializing and increasingly capitalist society would make use of his magic. Because he is writing a short, fun story there’s not as much emphasis on the setting as one might expect from a fantasy book, but better too little than too much. The good news is that the ending clearly points to a sequel, so Sanderson will be back to further explore this world.

But that’s also bad news, because while immediate matters are resolved, the ending isn’t nearly as conclusive as it might have been. The bigger problem, and the real reason I would recommend reading the Mistborn trilogy instead of Alloy of Law, is that Sanderson’s strengths as a writer are best served (and his weaknesses best minimized) by long, epic fantasy. Sanderson’s characters have never been much of a selling point and this story is no exception, populated mostly with familiar types and not spending enough time with the few interesting people (Steris and Miles). The other potential selling point of a shorter story, style, is also not Sanderson’s forte. His prose is transparent at best and while he attempts to liven up the story with humor, none of those moments merit more than a chuckle and few enough get even that far. All these things are characteristic of Sanderson no matter what he’s writing, but the reasons why he’s very much worth reading in spite of these faults are his great virtues: his rigor, his control, and his discipline. By rigor, I mean he approaches fantasy with the mentality of a science fiction writer: he establishes the rules by which magic operates and then proceeds to speculate on how those rules might be used and abused by the characters of his story. A little of that is on display here, but the magic system and therefore most of its implications are borrowed from the Mistborn books. By control, I mean he is one of the greatest writers of plot in the genre, carefully tying events in the story to revelations about the world so that the end of one of his long stories is incredibly satisfying, paying off all sorts of earlier little mysteries and unexplained elements by dropping in the last missing pieces that make everything fit together perfectly. This too is mostly absent, both because the novel is short and because when not in the epic mode there’s no chance for the sweeping revisions of previous conceptions that make his stories so compelling. And by discipline, I mean that unlike many authors, Sanderson can write very long stories without letting the structure and pace of the story fall apart and he can do it in a reasonable amount of time. Few fantasy authors can say they’ve done as well on this front as he has with both Mistborn and, to a certain degree, the Wheel of Time conclusion, but while that is a rare gift in very long form storytelling, many authors can do it at Alloy of Law‘s short length.

In interviews, Sanderson says that not every story has to be a long, epic, doorstop fantasy and that with Alloy of Law he wanted to do something more along the lines of a standalone episode in a television series. That’s a worthy goal, but good standalone television works because the audience is invested in the characters and is happy to spend forty minutes with them even if the plot doesn’t amount to much. That investment is achieved first by having very well-drawn characters and, second, by putting out a lot of “episodes” so that the audience develops a strong sense of familiarity. In the genre, this technique is most commonly used by urban fantasy series, though it’s not unknown elsewhere. But this isn’t that sort of book, and all the evidence is that Sanderson simply isn’t that kind of writer. Those new to his work should start with the Mistborn trilogy, which still doesn’t have great characters but does put Sanderson’s unique strengths to excellent use. Alloy of Law isn’t a bad, especially if approached with appropriate expectations, but it’s probably best left to big Sanderson fans.

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