The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
I loved Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN series, so I was excited to learn that he was publishing another novel set in the MISTBORN world. The Alloy of Law (2012) takes place a few hundred years after the events in the original trilogy. By this time, society is in the midst of an industrial revolution and is expanding into uncivilized frontier lands, making The Alloy of Law, I suppose, a Western Steampunk or Weird West tale.
A minority of citizens still inherit Allomancy or Feruchemy or, in the case of Twinborn Waxillium Ladrian, both. Even though Wax is heir to a rich noble house, he uses his powers to fight outlaws in the frontier lands… until he’s called back to run his family estates after his uncle’s death. Wax isn’t interested in being a stuffy nobleman, but hundreds of people rely on his family for their livelihood and he can’t let them down. It’s not long before Wax realizes, for better or worse, that life in the civilized city is even more dangerous than life on the wild frontier.
I’ve read all of Brandon Sanderson’s novels for adults and what I like best about his work are his imaginative magic systems (he’s the best!), charming characters, and pleasant sense of humor. I am happy to report that all of this is present in The Alloy of Law. Those of us who’ve read MISTBORN are already familiar with the magic system, so no surprises there, but the Western industrial setting adds a new twist — steam power and firearms let allomancers and feruchemists do really cool things with bullet casings and railroad tracks. Sanderson gives a nod and a wink to his influences by freshening up some Western clichés. In one scene, a group of armed outlaws bursts in on a high society dinner and demands that the ladies hand over their jewelry. There are pistol fights, train robberies, and even a shoot-out on top of a moving train! But The Alloy of Law is not just a Western with magic — it feels like a beginning to further fascinating explorations in the MISTBORN world. At its heart, it’s still epic fantasy.
Even though I don’t like his name, Wax is a great character — tough but sensitive, gentle but forceful when necessary, duty-bound with a touch of restrained idealism. I was disappointed with one of his actions at the end of the book, but I think that Sanderson wanted me to be disappointed and, for this reason, I think we’ll be seeing more of Wax in the future — there’s still time for him to make things right.
During his adventures in The Alloy of Law, Wax is accompanied by a funny sidekick named Wayne and a young female student who studies criminal behavior and thinks of Wax and Wayne as heroes. [Ouch. I just re-read that sentence and noticed the pun in “Wax and Wayne.” Oh my, that’s a groaner!] The three of them make a great team and I certainly hope there will be more adventures for the trio.
I listened to MacMillan Audio’s version of The Alloy of Law which was narrated by Michael Kramer. He is a terrific reader, though I find his pace a little slow. I got in the habit of speeding him up a bit when I was listening to him read the WHEEL OF TIME novels, and I did the same for The Alloy of Law. With this little adjustment (about 1.2x normal speed), I greatly enjoyed the audio version and will read any sequels, if there are any, in audio format, too. I recommend this version.
Must you read the previous MISTBORN books before reading The Alloy of Law? No. But it would be good to familiarize yourself with allomancy and feruchemy, which you can do well enough by reading our reviews above. But, why would you not want to read MISTBORN first? This is one of the best fantasy series in recent years — great characters and one of the best magic systems ever. So, while you don’t need to read the original trilogy first, you should!
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.
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.