I haven’t read any of Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN books previously, but I picked up the mass market paperback edition of The Alloy of Law over the weekend. This is the first book in a new series, set in the same world as MISTBORN but three hundred years later. Sanderson creates a nice steampunk vibe while getting full use of his metal-based magical system and his pantheon of very involved gods. The book has some philosophical questions about society, wealth and crime, but it’s mostly a great action yarn.
Waxillium Ladrian is the scion of a wealthy family in the capital city of Elendel. Years ago he left the city and went to the frontier, where he became a lawman. Wax is Twinborn, gifted with two types of metallurgic magic, allomancy and feruchemy, and he used those magical skills to catch outlaws in the Roughs. A personal tragedy and a call from his family draws him back to the city, though, where he assumes control of a powerful but bankrupt family and estate. His uncle, who died in a carriage accident along with Wax’s sister, ran the estate into the ground with his gambling. Now Wax must shore up the resources and more importantly make a marriage into a family with money. His perfect and disapproving family butler persuades him that he must leave his lawman days behind.
Unfortunately, though, those days won’t leave him behind. Wax soon discovers that the city has been plagued by a series of bizarre thefts and robberies, and recently the group of thieves, dubbed “The Vanishers” by the local papers, has begun taking hostages, all of them women. While Wax struggles to decide the right thing to do, his fiancée Steris is abducted during a robbery at a society dinner. Wax and his visiting deputy Wayne make short work of most of the robbers, but the survivors get away with Steris. From there, the book is one adventure after another, with explosions, fights on the tops of train cars, chase scenes and shootouts. Wax’s iron-based allomantic ability lets him nearly fly and Sanderson makes the most of this, with Wax gracefully leaping thirty-and-forty foot spans, floating and plunging as the story needs. Wayne can create a personal bubble in which he speeds up time, and he is also extremely fast-healing, although at a cost. In between the action sequences, the reader meets a number of interesting characters including the gun-maker Ranette and Marasi, a young woman introduced as Steris’s cousin, who is a student at the university and helps Wax in his attempt to rescue Steris.
I had a few problems with the world-building in this story. These books are set on another planet, but the technological background is exactly 1800s Earth. There are trains, railroads and even newfangled vehicles called horseless carriages. The copy-and-paste approach makes the book read like alternate-Earth steampunk and not like another world. I wish Sanderson had bothered to make one thing look different, or taken an elliptical approach to technological advances. The closest he comes is by introducing electricity and skipping gaslight. Also, since I haven’t read earlier books, I was surprised that the planet of Scadrial, where these stories are set, is apparently dripping with minerals and metals (of all kinds) and yet there is no mining or smelting structure anywhere. I guess the stuff smelts itself. I thought the magic was a little inconsistent, too. Wayne has to “recharge” his magical abilities, and not just by ingesting metal, which is what every allomancer does, yet Wax bounds about, alternately increasing or decreasing his weight, and never has to recharge in any way. Why are they different?
These issues did not jar me out of the story, though. The action is non-stop with good momentum and Wax is a character with plausible ghosts in his past. Marasi delivers sociological observations that sound like they came from last week’s Economist, and at times she reminded me of one of the women characters from the “Night Watch” series of Terry Pratchett’s DISCWORLD stories (the woman journalist or the girl who runs the halfway house for golems), but she is a well-defined character. The clashing goals of Wax and Marasi make for interesting chemistry. All of the women characters stand out as strong and capable, even the one who has been kidnapped.
While one plot is thoroughly wrapped up by the end of The Alloy of Law, there is an overarching story that isn’t done yet. I look forward to reading more about Wax, Wayne, Steris and Marasi, their strange addiction to metals, and their wonderfully hands-on gods.