Brandon Sanderson: “The Alloy of Law”

04/09/2012 § Leave a comment

I’ll say this for the prolific Brandon Sanderson, who churned out this novel while completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga and developing an entirely new series (The Stormlight Archive): here’s a man who isn’t afraid to experiment, and authors would do well to take note. Sure, there have been plenty of fantasy novels before that span a generation or two — Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s work within the Dragonlance universe, for example — but this is the first time I can recall an author exploring an entirely new era. Everybody you knew from the Mistborn trilogy is dead, and that medieval setting has given way to a steampunk world (there’s a city being filled with trains, electricity, and skyscrapers, but it’s surrounded by ramshackle ghost towns and outlaws). The scope’s been reduced, as well; our hero this time around, Waxillium Ladrian, isn’t battling immortal emperors or discovering new metallurgical powers (this universe is established on allomantic theories; metals are burned internally or channeled externally to enhance or store physical/mental/spiritual properties). Instead, he’s simply embroiled in a detective story, what with his noble house being robbed and his social-climbing fiancee being kidnapped by a group of high-end thieves known as the Vanishers. What follows is closer to the loose, witty charms of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files — Wax’s rough, wise-cracking ex-thief friend Wayne even wears a duster — than the epic world-building present in even his other one-offs (WarbreakerElantris), but every writer needs to let off steam. (Pun intended.)

And it’s not as if The Alloy of Law doesn’t have legs: it’s a quick read, sure, but it’s a lot of fun, and easily sets the stage for a sequel. At the same time, however, this is due largely to the shorthand Sanderson uses for some of his scenes, which robs us of some of the emotional development we’d normally get. In the prologue, Wax accidentally shoots his wife after she’s taken hostage by a too-clever serial killer; it’s effective in explaining Wax’s decision to give up his rogue, lawman ways, and the trauma helps to lightly handicap Wax’s masterful gun-slinging — but brief as these events are, they carry no real weight. Lessie, we hardly knew ye, and the same can be said for his refined fiancee-of-convenience, Steris, and her scholarly, adventuresome half-sister Marasi. Too often, Marasi is used to push the same buttons — sexual tension, academic exposition — and she ends up coming across a stereotype of the sexy-nerd female characters this genre knows only too well. (In a film, she’d be played by Felicia Day.) None of this is bad; it’s just comparatively shallow against the body of Sanderson’s other work: it’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as opposed to Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you will. (But better, obviously, than the unspeakable Crystal Skull.)

The action sequences work, and they’re jazzed up a bit from the slightly worn sequences from the Mistborn series by the addition of guns. Coinshots now use bullet casings to allomantically “push” against, and the twinborn Wax can also increase or decrease his weight to the point at which he can crush a building by pushing from high above it or to where he can float through the air by firing a shotgun and allowing the recoil to move him. Late in the novel, there’s also the introduction of “hazekiller” rounds, which are special armaments made by a fiery gunsmith named Ranette, designed to kill specific types of allomancers. Wayne’s melee combat, on the other hand, is an amusing bit of trickster showmanship: he can drop speed-bubbles, around which the world is slowed down, making him faster than, say, a ninja. Beyond these powers, though, and the gold-infused immortality of their rival, a former lawman named Miles Hundredlives, The Alloy of Law fails to fully explore the ramifications of its magic. (Wouldn’t a Chromium bullet kill Miles in a single shot, draining him of his powers as it penetrated his skull?) Talk of alloys beyond the sixteen “known” metals (and the two “god” metals that featured in The Hero of Ages) spices things up a bit, and yet the novel still falls into some magical repetition, leaving it to the set-pieces (the ever-popular battle atop a speeding train) to be inventive.

The Alloy of Law doesn’t exactly cheat its readers, but it leaves them hungry for much, much more. Here’s hoping Sanderson takes his molten pen back to the forge really soon.

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