The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson
The Bands of Mourning (2016) is the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s second MISTBORN series, following closely (well under a year) on the heels of the last installment, Shadows of Self. Set several centuries after the original trilogy, this second one shows us a world still dealing with the ramifications of those events, but one that also, unlike a lot of fantasy worlds, has continued to progress technologically as guns, trains, electricity, and a host of other inventions/discoveries continue to shape the culture. While The Bands of Mourning has a few issues, fans of the series (I’m one) will find themselves mostly nicely rewarded as they reenter the world of Lawman and Lord Waxillium Ladrian.
There’s a lot to the plot, but basically this is an episodic quest tale, as Wax and his compatriots are recruited by a kandra (and I’d tell you what a kandra is here, but really, if you don’t know, you shouldn’t be reading this book. Pick up the first MISTBORN book instead and check back here in a few months once you’ve happily digested them all up to this point) to track down a long-thought mythical artifact, the titular Bands that would give their bearer unimaginable power. Wax being Wax, he of course is not going after the Bands for that power himself, but to keep it out of the hands of his Uncle Edwarn, a high figure in the sinister organization known as The Set.
The story begins with a flashback to Wax’s youth, giving us a glimpse into how/why he became the Lawman he did, as well as introducing his sister. Her absence in his current life has long festered in Wax, and she plays an important role in the book. After the flashback we present time arrives with a bang (literally — it’s a gunfight), with the timeline picking up not too long after the events of Shadows of Self. Wax is about to formalize his contract marriage to Steris — a marriage of calculation rather than love — but soon knowledge of the Bands’ possible existence, and of his uncle’s attempt to obtain them, has Wax and his group heading south from the capital city of Elendel toward New Sera, one of the outer cities.
The plot of The Bands of Mourning, as mentioned, is episodic in nature, with Wax and his band having a series of adventures in different settings as they track down the Bands’ hiding place. Being Wax, most of these adventures involve getting shot at. In fact, a running joke throughout the novel is the predilection for such mayhem anywhere Wax is, with his partner Wayne having a pet phrase — “Things explode around Wax” — and Steris (more than a little OCD) even providing a multi-page list of potential catastrophes to the manager of a hotel they stop at, including “Shoot-outs. Robbery. Hostage situation. Explosions… Koloss attack. [and] Cattle stampede through the lobby.” Steris does tell her the last is “highly unlikely,” though adding, “it never hurts to be prepared.”
Sanderson is having a lot of fun here, as he has throughout the entire series. And if some of the humor falls a bit flat or feels a little forced at times, or occasionally jars when conjoined with some epic violence, for the most part The Bands of Mourning is a rollicking good time, albeit with moments of sadness and seriousness. This being a western setting, Sanderson even gives us a classic train robbery with horseback thieves and a tussle on top of a moving train. Tell me he’s not having a good time here.
As fun and often quick-moving as the plot is, there were a few times, especially in the latter third, where the pace lagged a bit for me, more so than I can recall in any of the other MISTBORN books. And while I’ve said before that at times Sanderson can be too much of a “tell versus show” author for me, that trait seemed to be even more noticeable here, with my noting several times some heavily expository writing passages/scenes. And, as I’ve pretty much always said in my reviews, stylistically Sanderson is highly efficient and effective, but that’s about it; you’ll not stop to linger over any of the prose just for the language itself.
Character-wise, one of my favorite aspects of this installment is the greater presence and development of Steris, a character who has mostly been on the sidelines. She fully comes into her own here and it’s a pleasure to see. Sometimes, thanks to her hyper-awareness, the transformation is a bit too on the nose, as per that tell versus show mentioned above, but generally it’s heartwarming to see her development. Based on prior events with those close to Wax, it’s also more than a little suspenseful, as one worries she’s being built up only to be taken away from us (I say neither yea nor nay to that). Other characters, such as Wayne and Marasi, are also given their due, each of them in some fashion having to discover ways to either right themselves in this world or find themselves in it. In fact, that sense of being a fish out of water is a running theme throughout, both with major and minor characters.
The major arc of the novel dealing with the Bands is resolved by the end, but other continuing narrative arcs continue onward. And in fact, Sanderson does a nice job of expanding his world greatly in the last part of this novel, and giving us too a vividly strong ending that opens things up as well. It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. The first book, The Alloy of Law, remains my favorite in this newest trilogy, and The Bands of Mourning may in fact be the weakest thanks to those pacing/expository issues, but really, those don’t diminish much at all the simple fun of this series. That isn’t to say Sanderson doesn’t raise serious issues; he does, the obligation of a nearly-omniscient god being one. But if you’re looking for a light, Indiana Jones-like romp through a 19th Century Western fantasy, Sanderson has you covered. In spades. Fans of the series, as I said earlier, will be pleased with this one. And if you started the first MISTBORN series and didn’t care for it, I’d suggest trying this one anyway as it has a different tone and style. Read the glossary/appendix at the back to get a sense of the magical system, and then sit back and enjoy the train ride…
All things considered, Brandon Sanderson’s The Bands of Mourning must be one of the best sequel novels that’s not the conclusion of a series. As the second sequel of The Alloy of Law and the sixth installment in Sanderson’s MISTBORN world, Bands of Mourning hails from a long tradition of great storytelling, and it doesn’t disappoint. Just as Wax is entering his marriage ceremony, a kandra appears with momentous news — the Bands of Mourning, mysterious artifacts of the Lord Ruler that imbued him with unimaginable power, have been found. Still hurt by the treatment of the kandra, Wax refuses to chase after the Bands… until it turns out that his nefarious, plotting uncle might be involved.
One of the most important subplots of The Bands of Mourning is the past: Wax’s heritage as a Terrisman and a Feruchemist is catching up to him after years of his trying to escape from it. In contrast, Wayne finally comes to terms with his past and abandons the decades-long crush he’s had on the gunsmith Ranette. Certain events in the introduction that bring Wax and Wayne to these points in their lives reveal an interesting dynamic between the two characters, one I’m not quite sure what to make of yet. Moreover, The Bands of Mourning really relates the MISTBORN follow-up series with the original trilogy through historical references and a revival of past characters. The Bands of Mourning has a higher-than-usual dose of the fantastic as Sanderson reminds us just how unique a magical system this world has, what with Feruchemy, Allomacancy, Hemalurgy, and the Kandra all thoroughly discussed and used throughout the novel. We also see players such as the kandra re-enter human politics, and Sazed has a larger role in this book, though he felt a bit too deus ex machina for my taste. Likewise, the tone and setup of The Bands of Mourning has somewhat changed as well; instead of the Western/steampunk feel of Shadows of Self, The Bands of Mourning has a more Indiana Jones, Questing Beast, adventure-style finish.
Perhaps because of this shift, we see less of the action-focused plot and the politics of the previous two instalments. Don’t get me wrong — The Bands of Mourning has plenty of action, but Sanderson does an amazing job of slowly building up to a climax; you can feel the tension increasing from chapter to chapter even if there isn’t always gun-fighting and infiltration happening. Bill says in his review that there were some pacing issues, but personally I found the slower pace a refreshing break from Sanderson’s typical breakneck speed. There’s a scene when all the characters have finally tracked down the location of the Bands of Mourning, and it becomes a race against time as Wax’s enemies are also attempting to recover the artifacts. While the telling of the journey to the location is a bit slow (and I applaud Sanderson for making the journey short), Wayne accidentally knocks a knapsack out the window of their vehicle for it to drop on one of the enemy. It’s these little scenes in which Sanderson can add a touch of humor, spice up the plot a little, and showcase his characters’ quirks.
Bill and I discussed the complexity of Brandon Sanderson’s characters in our review of Shadows of Self, and the characters in The Bands of Mourning are, if anything, more realistic and relatable than ever. At this point, I’m finding some of the characters a little predictable simply because Sanderson has explained their psychologies so well to us. Each and every action someone takes and each word spoken can be meaningful, whether it’s as foreshadowing, as character development, or as something else. In particular, I found Sanderson’s introduction of Wax’s sister Telsin absolutely masterful, and the impressions I developed of her throughout The Bands of Mourning turned out to be very accurate at the climax of the novel. Also, as a side note, I’m wondering if the new sides of Wax and Wayne that Sanderson reveals portends a split in their partnership. But this is pure speculation on my part.
In addition to this, I enjoyed the expanding scope and world-building of The Bands of Mourning because it’s creative, exciting, and very consistent with past MISTBORN events. Not only are Sanderson’s expanding horizons exciting, they also set up a sequel very well. All in all, The Bands of Mourning is a must-read for all Sanderson fans, and I can’t wait until the next episode!