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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Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

May 23, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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WarbreakerSince reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy I’ve paid close attention to his career. The Mistborn books were uneven, but their particular strength, the way revelations about the world fed back into the narrative, was one that really appealed to me. Since then Sanderson has mostly been sucked into working on big series, from a trilogy to finish Jordan’s Wheel of Time to a ten book series (sigh) of his own. I’m not as resistant to reading unfinished series as I used to be (I never read Wheel of Time for that reason, or Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire) but I still prefer complete stories. So I was very happy when Sanderson, who apart from any other virtues may be the most prolific author working today, somehow squeezed a standalone novel, Warbreaker, into his schedule.

First and foremost, Warbreaker shares the rigourous approach to its backstory that I was so impressed by in the Mistborn books. The magic system is laid out clearly and functions according to rules, but the characters don’t know all of them. In this respect, Sanderson’s fantasies have a very modern attitude, for some (though not all, or even most) of his characters take a scientific approach to magic, studying it to unlock the mechanisms by which it works. Throughout the novel the reader (along with some characters) learns more about the magic system, and each new revelation fits in marvelously both with what had come before as well as the dramatic demands of the narrative.

Another trait, less positive in my view, it shares with Mistborn is a capacity for introducing interesting sociological structures but not following through on them. Most of Warbreaker takes place in a city ruled by a council of “gods” who turn out to be humans (sort of) with special powers. Some characters like this approach to government and others despise it, but while they each get chances to (briefly) state their reasoning, the question is never explored in depth. Both here and in Mistborn, the narrative ultimately takes what I would call a pre-modern view of governance: different nations have different political systems, but what matters is the people in charge. If these are good people, then all will be well. If they are bad people, then the nation will decline. The ultimate goal of the characters, then, is to replace the bad people in charge with good people, and if changing the system of governance is necessary to make this happen then so be it, but otherwise sticking to tradition is probably best. At least in Mistborn this was fleshed out a little bit by the fact that once in power, the good people found it was harder than they expected to achieve good outcomes, but Warbreaker doesn’t even resolve its most basic question: is a monarchy preferable to a pseudo-theocracy?

Finally, I should mention that I found the characters in Warbreaker to be considerably more appealing than those in Mistborn, but this was counterbalanced somewhat by the way the final third of the book seemed rushed. There are two characters in particular with concealed histories who suffer from the inadequate amount of time between the revelation of who they really are and the conclusion of the book. As a semi-twist revelation, it’s fine, but as is so often the case with such maneuvers, in concealing the twist the narrative also obscures their true motivations and feelings, and they end up being ciphers. In any case, although Sanderson had elegant resolutions to the stories of the many viewpoint characters, it felt like none of them quite got the time they deserved. I’m not sure if this is a genuine failing in the story or if my “story sense” is simply calibrated for trilogies due to how common they are in fantasy, but I can only report the impression.

I can’t help but wonder if another revision might have improved the final result had Sanderson not been so busy with other matters, but Warbreaker is still a very enjoyable book and recommended for fantasy readers interested in rigorous magic systems and careful plotting.

Mistborn Trilogy by Brandson Sanderson

June 15, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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The basic premise of the Mistborn trilogy goes something like this: an evil force stalks the land, causing suffering and death. No one can stop it, causing widespread despair. But the ancient prophecies speak of one man who might journey to a distant place and there discover a power that can vanquish this evil. A sage discovers an unlikely man who fits the portents, and through much adversity he eventually does succeed in his quest.

If that sounds like a generic fantasy plot, it is. The twist here is that this all happened a thousand years ago. The hero, upon vanquishing the evil force, made himself the Lord Ruler of the world he had saved. Under his reign the vast peasantry are oppressed in miserable conditions while the opulant nobility carries on at their expense. Generation after generation has come and gone, but he remains, immortal and invincible.

Apparently when the first book in the trilogy, The Final Empire, came out the marketing leaned heavily on this setup as being mind-blowingly subversive. Well, it’s nothing mind-blowing for even a moderately well-read fantasy reader, but it’s certainly a good beginning. On this foundation, Sanderson builds an entertaining heist plot in the first book, a very detailed and well-thought-out magic system, and the usual mix of action, intrigue, and romance. Unfortunately, while this is a work with multiple viewpoints, it has a main character, Vin, who I personally found to be boring. She had a hard life before her unexpected awakening into magic powers, and now she…eh, whatever. Kelsier, Vin’s mentor, is more interesting, but for me at least the attraction here is not the characters.

It’s not really the world-building, either. Sanderson is not much interested in geography, so there aren’t long Tolkienian landscape descriptions. He’s more interested in the society he’s constructed. That would have been fine by me, since I have similar preferences, except the trilogy wastes much of its time on well-travelled ground. For example, the oppressive nobility gained their status because their ancestors helped the Lord Ruler when he was a young hero. Since then, they’ve become fractious, wasteful, and even occasionally rebellious, but he tolerates them due to the fond memories he has of their long-forgotten (by everyone else) ancestors. Obviously this is not how nobility worked either historically or in most fantasy, but alas this fascinating difference was remarked upon and left alone. When it comes to the nobility most of the trilogy’s energies are spent on whether or not every one of them is complicit in the Lord Ruler’s oppression and if so what punishment they might deserve, if not who is and who isn’t, etc. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

I should mention that Sanderson has built an elegant magic system that is complicated without being confusing. The Mistborn of the title generate magic through the digestion of various types of metal, and much of the power comes from the abilities they gain to magically manipulate metal. Sanderson has rigorously worked out the implications for magical combat, and so the fight scenes are remarkable. Unfortunately these days I have less patience for textual choreography, but if you enjoy fun action there’s no shortage of it here.

What the trilogy does really well, however, has to do with the plot and backstory. Because I’ve already said that I found Mistborn decent but not amazing in the areas we traditionally grade fiction (characters, world-building), this is going to sound like faint praise. But the fact is, there are tons of sprawling fantasy series being written these days and hardly any of them come together in a reasonably satisfying way. Either the author loses control of the story, or the ending makes no sense, or the whole thing is brutally predictable. Sanderson, displaying perhaps the same rigor he used in developing his magic system, has done a superlative job laying out a backstory and plot that never are hard to understand but also steadily dole out surprising revelations. With many series, readers complain afterward that loose ends were left untied. Here, not only are the loose ends tied up, but the whole thing is so well-orchestrated that I never realized the loose ends were there until they were dealt with. Successive revelations forced reexaminations of past events, reexaminations that made me realize things hadn’t been hanging together as well as I (and the characters) had thought, but upon learning this new information everything made sense again.

The result is a story that fits together like a gleaming crystal, each facet carefully polished to achieve the desired effect. This is not my favorite fantasy trilogy since as I discussed before it didn’t cover precisely my personal favorite themes, but it is surely the best constructed that I’ve ever read. In light of this, I recommend that the trilogy be read all at once, for the more you remember from the first two books when finishing the third the more you’ll be able to see everything fit together perfectly.

One last thing I should mention is that Brandon Sanderson has some pretty extensive “behind the scenes” type material on his site about how he wrote the book and the choices he made while writing.  It’s kind of like extras you get on a DVD.  I’m not sure how interesting it would be to most readers, as it may be a sort of inside-baseball for writers, but I found it fascinating and wish more writers did this.

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