Shadows of Self: A breezy weird Western romp

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsShadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsBill: Let’s see, last week in September. That means I’ve got to grade my first-years’ first essays. Call the guy to clean the gutters. Make sure the furnace and gas fireplace are set to go. And, oh yeah, it’s been a month, that must mean I have a new Brandon Sanderson novel to review. Yep, Shadows of Self, the second book in his second MISTBORN trilogy (or, if you prefer, the fifth book in the entire MISTBORN series). Apparently it’s due out in two weeks, which means I better get on this now or the third book will be out before I review the second (I swear, if Brandon Sanderson and Joyce Carol Oates ever had a child, their love child would be a high-speed printing press).

Interestingly enough, although this is, as I mentioned, the middle book of a second trilogy, my promotional material is telling me that like its predecessor, The Alloy of Law, it can be read as a standalone. I suppose on a technical level that’s true, but I wouldn’t advise it. First, the magic system in the MISTBORN books is relatively complex, and here it’s constantly referenced/applied but only briefly sketched, which means it seems to me that on a basic plot level, a reader just come to this universe would feel more than a little at sea (“wait, what’s he doing?” “How’d he do that?”) and also be a bit overwhelmed by the system’s jargon (“A ferro-what?”). But more importantly, the reader would miss out on the depth of feeling that lies within these characters and between them, especially the singular emotional event that drives the main character Wax as well as fuels this book’s climax. What do you think, Kevin? Have you read the earlier ones and if so, do you think this would work as a standalone read? Or, if you’re new to MISTBORN, did you feel like you were tossed in the pool to learn how to swim?

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsKevin: I have indeed read all the MISTBORN books, though the details of the magic system are a bit hazy now. I agree that I wouldn’t recommend reading Shadows of Self as a standalone novel; reading this as a standalone without context just makes the plot near incomprehensible for Shadows of Self. Also, it makes it very difficult to understand the broader themes in the work, in addition to most of the action. I think Alloy of Law might kinda-maybe-perhaps be a standalone since it doesn’t quite explore the entirety of Sanderson’s world, but I still wouldn’t recommend that either.

Yeah, I think you might be right about Alloy of Law standing a bit better on its own, but like you, I’d still say it’s far better read after the original novels. I suppose one reason the publisher calls Shadows of Self a potential stand-alone is that it does have a clear starting point and a clear resolution (even if it points to more story to come). The narrative begins with a bang. Actually, a bunch of bangs, as both opening scenes — the first a flashback and the other taking place seventeen years later — involve a hail of bullets. The prologue reintroduces our main character — a younger Waxillium Ladrian than we saw in Alloy — chasing down a bad guy out in the Roughs, this world’s version of the Wild West. Things don’t go as planned, but he does meet a great gal: Lessie, the eventual love of his life.

When we jump forward to current time in Scene Two, we jump in space as well, to Wax’s home city of Elendel, a bustling urban hotspot at the cusp of a new era, thanks to the nascent technologies transforming society: automobiles, electricity, incandescent lights. The cusp, however, is an unstable place to be, and the city is threatening to pull itself apart due to increasing labor strife, class conflict, and governmental corruption. That last is the topic of Scene Two, as the governor’s brother, Winsting, is preparing to auction off his council vote and influence to a group of the city’s crime lords he’s gathered at his mansion. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well (do gatherings of crime lords even end well?), and what happens at Winsting’s party kicks off the mystery Wax is brought in to solve, along with his constant companion Wayne and his fiancée’s sister Marasi, a rising star in the city’s constabulary. Using a combination of magic, brains, brawn, and lots of bullets, along with some supernatural help, the trio races to stop whoever is inflaming the city’s internal problems, as well as employing murder, terror, and assassination, in an attempt to push a city already on the brink wholly over the edge.

The violence, death, and general mayhem are leavened by the good amount of humor sprinkled throughout. The character banter often provokes a chuckle, and Wayne especially is a reliable source of comedy, thanks to his pretty unique way of looking at the world. In fact, for all of the grim events that occur, Shadows of Self has a surprisingly light, often even breezy tone.

Definitely. I think this work would have been much too dark without the humor.

Agreed. The plot is a rollicking one, zipping along at a mostly fair clip, though Sanderson does a nice job of balancing the running fight scenes, chases, and bouts of violence with quieter moments of self-reflection, showing many characters struggling with their personal issues or their roles in society. This includes Wayne, who has a subplot that movingly ensures he is seen as much more than just the comic relief. Beyond the characters’ internal conflicts, Sanderson also offers up more than a few moments of thoughtful consideration of wider societal, moral, and religious issues, such as the impact of new technology on workers and an inquiry into just how much is a god responsible for.

And even just how difficult it is to be a god and have to balance good and evil, creation and destruction.

Good point. And while we’re in that binary mode, I admit I did at times struggle briefly with the dichotomy between the two tones, which did not always mesh smoothly, though mostly the story carried me along quite happily in its fast-moving wake. What about you, Kevin? How did you see the interplay of tone/mood throughout the novel?

Well, I don’t think I found the transitions between the action and the internal conflicts particularly disturbing. I do agree it is a bit of a hard shift each time, but most of the time I felt like those shifts served a purpose. So, for example, when Wax visits the Terris village, a lot of that scene gives us insight into Wax’s past and a counterfactual narrative of what could have been instead of what is. Moreover, there’s a lot of discussion of the violence/non-violence theme you expound on below.

Yes, I’m with you on the shifts having a purpose; though at times they just jangled a bit discordantly for me. This may be a timing issue, however; I’ve found I’ve grown a bit less tolerant of humor or gleefulness side-by-side with lots of violent death, thanks more to my movie viewing than my reading. So I might just be a bit sensitive to that issue nowadays.

Even given those shifts, though, I agree the pacing kind of just sweeps you along and carries you out to sea like a riptide does an unaware swimmer. I have to add that I love the plot and setting of Shadows of Self/Alloy of Law. I tend to read a lot of high/epic/military fantasy, so I found this kind of urban, Western-style fantasy unique and refreshing. Additionally, Sanderson made some great world-building choices in terms of this Western feel; it really adds more flow and naturalness to the gun fighting, the plotting, the mysteries.

I too loved this Western feel. And in fact this whole, if not new at least plumbed more fully lately, genre of “Weird West” has really been a pleasure to fall into (I’m thinking of these books, but also R.S. Belcher’s GOLGOTHA series and Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World).

Along with this great setting, the characters are also a lot of fun to spend time with, even as they move through a spectrum of emotion, and their characterization is solid, though one would, as mentioned, have a better sense of them after reading The Alloy of Law. Sanderson probably tells a bit more than I’d prefer, not leaving a lot for the reader to do when it comes to sussing out a character’s interior, but that’s more a matter of personal taste than a flaw, I’d say.

Hmmm… not sure I agree it’s too much, but like you said – matter of taste.

I did like how each character struggles in terms of finding a way to fit in their lives. Wax, for instance, is torn between two lives: his Wild West side and his to-the-manor born Lord Waxillum side, between Law (and its implied Order) and his reliance on violence.

Yes, out in the wilds, Wax definitely begins to rely too much on brute strength as a solution to every problem that just happens to come his way. He has a ton of trouble adapting to his new life, as evidenced by all his frustration with parties and his short temper when it comes to society as a whole. Additionally, I loved that Sanderson showed us that the constabulary really found Wax annoying, almost like a necessary evil. He’s really quite rude and inconsiderate at times, and someone needed to tell him that!

Absolutely. And I like how Marisa herself stands in for the reader as she starts to see things from the constabulary’s point of view. She, meanwhile, is also trying to find her place: a woman in what is mostly a man’s job, a young up-and-comer plucked from down the row and advanced ahead of those senior to her (who now resent her), and a colleague who struggles to be treated as more than a sidekick. Wayne, meanwhile, is both a fish out of water in this urban landscape of wealth and high society, and a chameleon, able to transform himself into nearly anyone, perhaps because he is so much his own self, maybe more than anyone else in this novel.

I wonder about this. Sometimes I’m not really sure Wayne even has his “own self,” mostly because he’s always pretending to be someone else!

Funny you should say that. When I was first writing this, that was actually my original thought. But then after thinking about it, I went in the other direction. I can see both views, and I wonder if this will be made more explicit in the next book.

Sticking for a moment with the characterization, beyond the protagonists, even the villains and quasi-villains, for the most part, had their complexities and struggles as to where they belong or how, adding a nice bit of shading to Resentful Sexist Colleague Guy (RSCG) and Sadistic Whacked Out Villain (SWOV). My only real complaint, beyond the one mentioned above, was that one disappeared nearly entirely and another came out of nowhere for a bit of a cameo-slash-plot-necessity appearance.

Stylistically, well, I’ve always considered Sanderson a better storyteller than craftsperson. The prose is almost always smooth and more than adequate to the story, with the random inelegant metaphor or sentence. It (usually) doesn’t call attention to itself, for either good or ill, meaning you’re rarely jarred out of the story due to poor writing, but then, you also rarely if ever come across a line you want to linger over. I will say that, more than in the past, I found the shifts in POV occasionally jarring. Not often, but a few times. Any issues for you with style or structure here, Kevin?

To be quite honest, I also don’t think prose is one of Sanderson’s strongest suits. Not to say his prose isn’t well written by any means, just that, like you apparently, it’s not what I read Sanderson for. In general, the flow is fine, and I do think that for some if not many readers, the pacing may just be quick enough that you won’t notice the breaks in style. However, sometimes I can’t help but feel like Sanderson would do better to slow down a bit more, especially in moments of character’s self-reflection, and insert some more subtext into the story. That would be really nice.

As to the point of view transitions, this was a bigger issue for me, I think. There were many section/chapter transitions that seemed a bit unexpected or random in terms of the switch to the next scene.

Finally, as much as I enjoyed Shadows of Self, I couldn’t escape this sort of background sense that the book was a bit “draft-y,” which is a term I just made up because I’m having difficulty enunciating exactly what that sense was, beyond a feeling that the book wasn’t fully honed: the flesh not quite fully formed on the bones, the blade not quite sharpened to a cutting edge, the boots not quite spit-polished to a sheen, the… well, you get the idea. Maybe. I’d love to nail that down further for you, but the sense was so ethereal that every time I tried to grab it and wrestle it to the ground (or at least this page), it would slip right through my fingers. The action was swift and exciting, the banter charming, the characters pleasant company (well, save for the ones meant not to be), the plot tightly constructed. I mean, what’s a guy gotta do to win over a reader, right? I don’t know. Maybe it was just an illusory sense based on everything being given so easily to me. I wanted to work a bit more, and so something felt a little left out or unsettled. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I agree with this completely. There are some rough edges in places, and for me there’s sometimes not enough contrast between scenes, whether in tone/voice/action/etc., to get me completely hooked. Without those differences, the entire novel seemed like a giant lump of action and intrigue more than anything else. In many ways, I feel like Shadows of Self lacks depth when compared to some of Sanderson’s other works. For me, there needs to be some more slow scenes or a subplot that doesn’t lean so much on action, or something else of some sort to really make the action stand out more. Kind of like my comment above: Shadows of Self has a comedic aspect to it, which contrasts with the blood and grime in it. Likewise, there need to be more breaks in the action.

Regarding your comment about making the reader work, I didn’t really feel like I was being handed an entire story on a silver platter until the conclusion. I mean, Sanderson certainly lets his readers off a bit easily, but for me it wasn’t a problem until the last 50ish pages. There was a bit of a complex ending, and while I like complex endings, I think Sanderson needed to leave some room for reader interpretation since this particular ending felt manufactured.

I agree with you about the manufactured feel. So, in the end, I thought Shadows of Self was a lot of fun, a fast read, a good action yarn with some moments of seriousness, but missing that one spice it needed to bring out the full richness of flavor. Any of that make sense to you, Kevin?

Yup!

There you have it, folks!  ~Bill & Kevin


Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsI enjoy the Brandon Sanderson books I read, usually. I have problems with them, too. Clearly, with Shadows of Self, I had more problems than either Kevin or Bill did. Everything that Sanderson does well is in this novel, the fifth “Mistborn-themed” book; and everything that frustrates me stands out in high relief. I’m giving it three stars, because I did want to know what was going to happen, but this is perilously close to being a two-and-a-half star book for me.

Shadows of Self follows shortly after The Alloy of Law, set in a mildly industrial world a few hundred years after the events of the original MISTBORN trilogy. That trilogy was epic fantasy. This series is slightly more steampunk-themed, with blazing pistols and fancy boots (and hats!) and “lawmen” who wear dusters as well as mistcloaks. It’s set smack-dab in the center of Elendel, a city, we are told, that is filled with social unrest. Wax Landrian is the son of a noble, back from the Roughs, assuming his role as a nobleman but also as a mix between “consulting detective” and vigilante. Helping him are his sidekick Wayne and a woman constable named Marasi, who is the illegitimate half-sister to Wax’s fiancée-by-arrangement, Steris. (Yes, there will be a quiz later.) One high-profile murder happens, and then another, and soon Wax and company realize they are up against a super-powered being, perhaps even a godlike one, and Wax’s own god, Harmony, seems to be struggling himself with how to deal with it.

It really helps if you understand about Allomancy and Feruchemy, twin components of Sanderson’s metal-based magical system, which explains how Wayne can create time bubbles and Wax can sail around the city in prodigious leaps like a character from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And Wax does that a lot. While Wayne and Marasi actually interview people and investigate, Wax leaps around the city. He pines for his lost love. He broods. Wax gathers evidence at some point, like when he visits a relative in the Terris village, but when I think back, I remember him mostly tossing back his mistcloak and… well, brooding.

On the other hand, the moments of humor and lightness, while sometimes misplaced, carry this story along. One of my favorite moments is when Marasi’s boss takes out his cigar case and opens it, only to find it empty except for a note from his wife advising him that there is fruit in his desk drawer. Clearly, she wants him to cut back on the cigars, and develop some healthy habits. This is a startlingly human moment, and I actually got an image of the wife, a woman we never see and whose name I don’t think I even know. And Sanderson indulges in some social-commentary jokes that are funny — aluminum hats play a part in this story, with much the same meaning as a tinfoil hat in our world.

That becomes a problem for me, however, about a third of the way into Shadows of Self. MISTBORN was marketed as a second-world fantasy. I will accept guns and cannons in a newly industrialized society, and I probably won’t question factories (even though we have no ideas what these factories produce, where they sell whatever it is they produce and what they might import). When Wax’s god, however, talks to him, he says this:

“… I fear that I have made things too easy for men. This city, the perfect climate, the ground that renews… you were to have had the radio a century ago, but you didn’t need it, so you didn’t strive for it. You ignore aviation…”

Radio? Excuse me, what? (Which, to be fair, is what Wax asks.)

Harmony apparently has a timetable of Earth-based inventions, even though, to my knowledge, we aren’t on Earth, and humans are falling behind schedule. What does this mean? Is this world a far-future Earth, and did Harmony in his pre-God form find information about previous technological advances? Is this really a VR reality, and these characters simply collections of code in a world being monitored by, say, a human scientist somewhere? If that’s the case, shouldn’t we have had clues before now? And if that is the case and everyone knows it but me, please, Sanderson fans, drop me a line in the comments and tell me how we know that from the books, because I have completely missed it.

Let’s talk about this world’s “frontier” for a minute; the Roughs. Wax was a lawman in the Roughs. We all know what the Roughs are; they’re the American West without any supporting history. What do people do out there? Farm? (There’s no need. The city grows all the food it needs.) Mine? (Apparently not, since the noble families own all the mines.) Raise some kind of meat animal? Raise sheep for wool? We don’t know. We know there are gamblers, saloons and gunfighters, but there is nothing else behind that veneer.

This, like the teeming factories with their overworked workers, that produce “something,” like the “ angry mobs” of people that the writer tells us about but we never quite see, all contribute to a world that feels, well, static. It’s like a stage set; each individual set has props and details, but the world ends at the foot of the stage. And like a stage set, we frequently get direction rather than detail. It’s as if he’s writing, “Visualize angry mob HERE.” Sanderson writes good action sequences and there are many in Shadows of Self, but the so-called rioting is silent and the sense of a city as part of a greater world is nonexistent. Nicely detailed maps at the front of your book are no substitute for creating a world within the work. Against this vague background, characters like Wax look even flatter and more artificial. I was always aware that I was reading a book and that each dialogue and each action sequence was a set-piece, checking off a box on a list that moved the plot to its conclusion.

I say “always,” but there were a few exceptions when we were in Wayne’s POV. Wayne is a slightly more complicated character with a sense of fun. He could not and should not carry the book, but he was a welcome break from Wax.

I am really torn about reading The Mourning Bands, the third book in this series. I finished Shadows of Self but my frustration nearly equaled my enjoyment, and I’m not sure I’m that interested in where things are going. On the other hand, I like Wayne and Marasi, and Steris is starting to emerge as her own person. I guess I’ll have to give this some serious thought.

~Marion

Publication date: October 6, 2015. The #1 New York Times bestselling author returns to the world ofMistborn with his first novel in the series since The Alloy of Law. With The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson surprised readers with a New York Times bestselling spinoff of his Mistborn books, set after the action of the trilogy, in a period corresponding to late 19th-century America. The trilogy’s heroes are now figures of myth and legend, even objects of religious veneration. They are succeeded by wonderful new characters, chief among them Waxillium Ladrian, known as Wax, hereditary Lord of House Ladrian but also, until recently, a lawman in the ungoverned frontier region known as the Roughs. There he worked with his eccentric but effective buddy, Wayne. They are “twinborn,” meaning they are able to use both Allomantic and Feruchemical magic. Shadows of Self shows Mistborn’s society evolving as technology and magic mix, the economy grows, democracy contends with corruption, and religion becomes a growing cultural force, with four faiths competing for converts. This bustling, optimistic, but still shaky society now faces its first instance of terrorism, crimes intended to stir up labor strife and religious conflict. Wax and Wayne, assisted by the lovely, brilliant Marasi, must unravel the conspiracy before civil strife stops Scadrial’s progress in its tracks. Shadows of Self will give fans of The Alloy of Law everything they’ve been hoping for and, this being a Brandon Sanderson book, more, much more.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is a Math-Stat and Economics major at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea (a href="http://www.fantasyliterature.com/fantasy-author/funkecornelia">Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of SF/F at the ripe old age of 5). Kevin loves epic fantasy, military SF/F, New Weird, and some historical fantasy; some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. In his view, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he's extremely particular about this last bit. Outside of his SF/F life, Kevin loves politics, the startup lyfe, non-fiction, and more. You can find him at: kevinlwei.com

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. Great joint review, you two! I especially liked the way you examined how your interpretations or reactions to the novel diverged in certain places, but you still managed to agree on so many things.

  2. I will probably read it because I really enjoyed Alloy of Law. I like the observations you both made, and I have a pretty good idea what I’ll be getting.

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