Sometime it’s best to make a distinction about what type of fiction you’re reviewing. For example, I’ll often point out I’m reviewing YA because the genre will come with some built-in attributes, such as simpler language and structure and while my favorites of said novels are often exceptions to these generalizations, it really isn’t fair to hold the majority to being the exception, since, well, then those words wouldn’t mean what they mean. This doesn’t, however, mean that those novels can’t be good or even great; they just do it within the confines (and even that has a negative connotation I’d rather avoid but am too lazy right now to do so) of those generalizations. All of which is a long-winded way of getting to Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law, a new installment in his MISTBORN series, and what it is and what it is not. What it is not is literary fiction, the newly trendy “gritty” fantasy, or an in-depth Mieville-like exploration of culture and economy. What it is is entertaining. Wholly, exuberantly, non-stop, entertaining. It’s not the best book I’ve read lately, but it absolutely is one of the most fun.
Even before I get to the book itself, however, I want to give Sanderson a lot of props for the premise of this book. Too often “change” is a dirty word in fantasy. First, we get these medieval settings that seem to have been around for millennia and are presented as if they will continue in this same state for millennia to come, so long as the “good guys” can succeed in their quest. The only change it seems we ever get is when the Dark Lord rises and the whole point of the quest is to bring back the status quo by taking down the Dark Lord and returning (key word there) the king. What Sanderson has done in The Alloy of Law, though, is jump ahead 300 years from his MISTBORN books. And these are three hundred real-people years, not three hundred fantasy-world years. Enter Change, stage left. Big change. We’ve dumped the medieval setting and are just entering the Industrial Age in this world. We’ve got railroads, new-fangled horseless carriages, guns, and just-installed-by-the-rich-folks electric lights. I love that Sanderson went down this road rather than the safe “the very next year…” sequel. In other words, he had me at “change.”
Which still wouldn’t have been enough had he not also given a rip-roaring western fantasy filled with alomancy and feruchemy (MISTBORN fans will recognize these; those new to MISTBORN’s magic system will have it all explained to them); guns, guns, and more guns; train robberies; hats, hats, and more hats; “lawmen” doing good and lawmen doing bad; clashes between frontier manner and citified manners; disapproving butlers who make great tea; and explosions, explosions, and more explosions. He even throws in the requisite fight-atop-a-moving-train and not one but two bad-guy-holding-his-gun-to-pretty-girl’s-head scenes. Sure, one could criticize Sanderson for dealing in clichés, but then one would be, I think, missing the point. These aren’t clichés; they’re archetypes of scene and character and he’s having a ball with them. And so will the reader. Not everything needs to be subversive, folks. When I tuck into a great pizza, I don’t want my food subverted and I don’t want my accompanying beer turned upside down so I can examine my underlying assumptions regarding beer. I just want good food and drink. And Sanderson delivers both. With good to spare.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Waxillium Ladrian (luckily for us known throughout the book mostly as “Wax”), decades ago left his upper-class family and the city behind for the frontier (the “Roughs”), where he took up being a lawman, helped by his being a Twinborn — one who can use both types of magic: alomancy and feruchemy. After a tragic event in the Roughs and the death of his uncle back home, Wax returns to the city where he tries to give up the frontier/lawman way of life and re-enter polite society. And we all know how that will go. Soon, he’s involved in trying to solve a rash of mysterious robberies and kidnappings. He’s joined, much to his dismay at first, by his former partner Wayne, whose character makes this as much a Buddy-cop story as a Western and who also provides a lot of the (at times forced) comic relief. Also helping is Marasi, a young woman studying crime at the city university and cousin to one of the kidnap victims. She’s also been reading the write-ups of Wax and Wayne’s exploits out in the Roughs and so was already enamored of the idea of Wax; meeting him doesn’t change that much, though he isn’t exactly as he’s been portrayed in the stories.
The characterization is sharp throughout though, as mentioned, is dealt with mostly at the archetype level. Wax is torn between his past life and the one he thinks he’s about to join, symbolized by his potential choice of romance between Marisa and her rigidly upper-class cousin (whose character is a bit too much on point I’d say, though funny in places). He’s also torn by his doubt over whether what he does matters or not in the grander scheme of things. In many ways, the major villain in the novel has the same questions and it is his answers that has put him on the opposite side of Wax. His attempts to justify himself to Wax are the few moments I’d say of true depth in the novel. That’s not a complaint though, merely an observation. Because as I said, this was one of the most purely enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while.
The action was briskly paced throughout, the fight scenes filled with energy and cinematic flair — I found myself often envisioning them unfolding on the big screen, such a when an explosion is slowed down so to the witnesses it gradually flares larger and larger. The byplay between the characters, particularly Wax and Wayne was mostly witty and sharp. It had its occasional forced moments of humor, but I also laughed aloud several times while reading. The world-building was strong for such a relatively short book — just over 300 hundred big-print pages. The characters are likable and easy to spend time with. The mystery suitably engaging. The prose is, as is often the case with Sanderson, serviceable to the story. I almost never will linger over a line or marvel at it, but it also rarely pulls me out of the story (one unfortunate example is when he described the afore-mentioned slow-moving explosion as looking like a “pastry expanding in an enormous oven” — hardly the destructive force kind of simile one is looking for there). Sometimes Sanderson’s characters feel like they are pronouncing rather than talking, but not often enough to matter. And he does get some good lines in, such as describing a plan as more of a “hunch with scaffolding.”
The major conflicts and mysteries are resolved by the end, but Sanderson certainly leaves room for a sequel. Personally, it can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned. Like any good showman, he left me wanting more at the end. If you’ve read the MISTBORN series, you’re in for a treat; it’s rare I get this freshly enjoyable a feel for revisiting a fantasy world. If you haven’t read MISTBORN, the jump ahead in time to new characters and conflicts means you really don’t need to have in order to enjoy The Alloy of Law.
I’m sure some will complain, as they seem to often do with Sanderson, that The Alloy of Law isn’t gritty enough, isn’t dark enough, subversive enough, that characters don’t f–k enough or say f–k enough. As if any of those trappings, or lack thereof, make a book inherently better or worse. Here’s a hint; they don’t (I’m not sure THE LORD OF THE RINGS would have been greatly enhanced by Aragorn giving a big “F— You!” as he charged the Nazgul). Good is good. Fun is fun. And The Alloy of Law is out and out fun. I can’t wait for the next one.