Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law
November 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
One of my biggest complaints whenever I try to read multi-volume epic fantasies is the amount of extraneous detail that often goes into trying to depict a setting that ultimately is intended to be static, immutable. There are only so many iterations of a cod-medieval setting replete with swords, pageantry, and nefarious forces that I can stomach. Sometimes, I just want to see development, change that spans more than just a move from a quasi-Venice to a quasi-Alexandria on a fictitious map.
Despite my well-known reservations regarding his prose, in particular his often-wooden dialogue, I will admit that I was intrigued by the vision Brandon Sanderson laid out for his fantasy writings, especially for his Mistborn milieu, which I consider to be his most entertaining in regards to setting, characters, and “magic system.” When I reviewed those three novels back in 2007 and 2008, I had more positive things to praise than negative elements to critique. Yet changing the setting drastically, having virtually no characters in common with the first Mistborn trilogy, with technological levels approximating those of the late 19th century American West, is risky for those who may perhaps have wanted more of the same: more Mistborn/Misting duels, more magical pyrotechnics, more quasi-Manichaean struggles akin to the Preservation/Ruin conflict that spans the original three volumes. For the most part, Sanderson manages to strike a balance between preserving those elements that made the original trilogy an adventure-filled read while also introducing new characters and setting the stage for his planned second trilogy set on the world of Scadrial.
Set roughly 300 years after the events of The Hero of Ages, The Alloy of Law follows the duo of Waxillium Ladrian, a Twinborn (able to use one Allomanic power – Push – and one Feruchemic power – the ability to store or release weight through his “metalminds”), and his close friend Wayne, who also posesses Feruchemic healing powers. The story begins in the sparsely-settled west, known as the Roughs, with Wax and Wayne confronting a rogue who is holding a female companion of Wax’s hostage. Things go awry and the lady is not saved, setting up the rationale for Wax’s actions in the latter half of this roughly 320 page novel.
Sanderson attempts to show Wax’s trauma over the shooting months after the event, yet there’s a lack of depth to it, as though the hero must suffer for the villain’s outmaneuvering of him. Take for instance this passage from the first chapter following the Prologue:
Though it had been five months since Lessie’s death, he could still hear the gunshot, see the blood sprayed on the bricks. He had left the Roughs, moved back to the city, answering the desperate summons to do his duty to his house at his uncle’s passing.
Five months and a world away, and he could still hear that gunshot. Crisp, clean, like the sky cracking. (p. 28)
There is nothing “wrong” with that passage nor with the ones sprinkled throughout the first half of the narrative that alludes to Wax giving up his gun and trying to settle in as head of his noble house, but there is a sense that this emotion is but a surface detail, soon to be subsumed by the mysterious outbreak of violence and kidnappings directed toward those who are descendants of Mistborns. It is as though Sanderson needed a conflicted, reluctant hero, yet the rationale behind his reluctance is only sporadically explored, leaving the sense that Wax’s motivations are not as strongly developed as they otherwise could be.
The second half of The Alloy of Law contains the fast-paced, adventure-filled elements that fans of the original series, particularly Mistborn itself, enjoyed most. The antagonist is perhaps the best-realized of Sanderson’s villains in that his motives are clear, understandable, and easy to sympathize with, yet without ever truly blurring the line between what is “right” and what is “wrong.” The almost-obligatory fight between the underdogs Wax and Wayne and this adversary is perhaps the best that Sanderson has written, as the action scenes flow seamlessly from locale to locale until the finale.
One does not read light, fast-paced duel novels for their depth of character or their sparkling prose (although such elements are always a plus when encountered). Those who have derided Sanderson for the seemingly simplicity of his characterizations and how he constructs their scenes and dialogues will doubtless find The Alloy of Law to be more of the same. Those who favor directness in action and narrative will find The Alloy of Law to be at least the equal of his other novels and perhaps his most enjoyable to read. Due to this novel being roughly 200 pages shorter than any of his previous non-YA fiction, The Alloy of Law is tighter, more compact, and yet it contains a surprisingly amount of revelations about the previous trilogy and a surprising hint at what is to come in his planned future trilogy. It is not by any means a “perfect” novel, but The Alloy of Law certainly is one of Sanderson’s two best novels in terms of its action and that will be more than enough to sate the appetites of those who enjoyed his earlier Mistborn offerings.