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Alloy of Law - Brandon Sanderson

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Alloy of Law - Brandon Sanderson

I love Brandon Sanderson.  I've read everything he's written for the adult market, from his first novel Elantris to his printing press busting The Way of Kings.  His finest work to date is the Mistborn trilogy which contains one of the best beginnings and endings ever done in fantasy. So, it is with great remorse that I must say his most recent Mistborn universe release, The Alloy of Law, isn't very good, or rather it's not nearly as good as everything else Sanderson has written.

Set some 300 years (about?) after the events of The Hero of Ages, Waxillum is a lawkeeper from the Roughs who happens to be a member of one of the richest families in Elendel.  When his Uncle dies in an accident, Wax is called home to administer the family fortune (or what's left of it).  Of course some trouble has followed him from the Roughs and he'll have to stop it with the help of his snarky partner, Wayne.  Yes, you read that right - Wax and Wayne.  If this paragraph sounds a bit lighthearted, then I nailed it.  Much like in Warbreaker, Sanderson is testing his limits in humor and levity to varying degrees of success

The novel starts with a prologue featuring Wax in the Roughs, six-shooter in hand.  The tone in these opening scenes conjures up rolling tumbleweeds and Danny Glover saying, "I'm too old for this shit," Assuming Sanderson would allow Danny Glover to say shit (he wouldn't).  While most of the rest of the novel feels more Victorian than Wild West, the plot items are recognizably Western.  Train robberies, good guys and bad guys, a protagonist with a personal code of honor, all conjure up the whistling theme of Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

That said, thematically Alloy of Law isn't a Western. The Western, as a genre, is about 'civilizing' the wilds, whether that's the natural element or the people that live there is inconsequential.  None of that is present.  Additionally, the Western world is organized around codes of honor and personal justice - not abstract law.  Some of that is there, but only through Wax, and to a lesser degree Wayne, whom represent the ideals of the Roughs.  For those in Elendel, where the entire narrative is housed, the social order is not only rigorous, it's set down and fundamentally abstract.

That sounds a bit like I'm being negative because Sanderson didn't deliver a Western.  Not the case.  I'm being negative because he didn't deliver substance.  Alloy of Law is shallow.  It has moments of entertainment - action packed sequences and witty back and forth.  Of course, Sanderson excels with his world building and magic system concepts and applications.  He shows how Scadrial has evolved since Vin and company triumphed over Ruin.  Sazed (now Harmony) is not only mentioned, but present.  All of that adds up to a fun little story designed to be a pallette cleanser as much for the author himself as for his readers.

Sample of Alloy of Law Audio Book, courtesy of 
Macmillan Audio

Given the beginning of the novel, and the flexibility to use the koloss and/or kandra (who are both functionally absent) to represent the 'indigent people', I saw many ways Sanderson could have engaged a deeper level with the novel as he does in nearly everything else he writes.  Am I being unfair?  Am I demanding a novel that Sanderson didn't want to write?  Is this reader entitlement?  Maybe.  Probably.  But expectations are a part of the game, and given Sanderson's past work I have an expectation of what I'm getting when I pick up a book with his name on the cover.  For me, Alloy of Law under delivered, offering what was essentially an adventure short that lacked any of the thematic support necessary to sustain a novel.

Now, the real question... was I entertained?  Yes!  I enjoyed Alloy of Law.  It interrupted my read of Never Knew Another (McDermott) and The Winds of Khalakovo (Beaulieu), two novels from Night Shade Books that are dense and full of nuance. Distracting me from these two titles was a surety as Sanderson's new novel is both bite sized and breakneck in its presentation.  I would read it again, although not a second time and therein lies the rub.  Visceral enjoyment is not enough, for the same reason that Independence Day is not a good film.  Alloy of Law fails at a basic level to engage me as a reader beyond the words on the page.

In an interview with Nethspace, Sanderson was asked where Hoid was in the novel.  His response was to say:
Hoid is in the book, though his name doesn’t appear. But the things happening here during this interim are not of deep interest to Hoid like the things happening in the original trilogy, so he is playing a much smaller role here than he was in the original trilogy.
Well, that's because they aren't that interesting.  There's nothing epic here, in plot or in intent.  It's just a guy named Wax and his buddy Wayne, fighting off a criminal who may or may not be part of something larger (admittedly the end of the novel hints strongly at the former).  If Hoid isn't all that interested, why should I be?  Alloy of Law is an aside for Brandon Sanderson, a break from his tireless schedule of his Stormlight Archive and Wheel of Time commitments.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what it felt like when I read it.

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At November 28, 2011 at 5:54 PM , Anonymous Stefan said...

Don't forget, this was meant to be a novella/short story to begin with. That might account for the issues you found with it. Doesn't necessarily 'excuse' them, but may that helps explain things?

I now have all of Sanderson's books (except for his Wheel of Time novels) on my Kindle, and have yet to read a single one... Maybe I should make it a New Year's Resolution to do so?

Good review. Honest, detailed, interesting.

At November 28, 2011 at 6:15 PM , Blogger Justin said...

I can't recommend WARBREAKER, MISTBORN, and WAY OF KINGS highly enough. ELANTRIS Is a bit weaker. I'd hop to it sir!

At November 28, 2011 at 6:20 PM , Blogger Justin said...

As to the larger issue of the novel's impetus, I think thats likely. And maybe I'm way off to expect a novel to have some meat to it. Or at least a novel I can call really good and not merely ok.

At November 28, 2011 at 6:44 PM , Blogger Civilian Reader said...

Hopping forthwith, sah!

At December 1, 2011 at 5:09 AM , Anonymous the_hound said...

I'm so disappointed as I usually agree with you. if you say it is weak, I suspect it probably is. And I was hoping for The Good, the Bad and The Alloy.

At December 21, 2011 at 7:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually it is very much the good the bad and the alloy.. Love the book. Sure it's not the same epic level many of his other books are but the characters are very lovable.. and quite good enough to do a whole series around. Didn't think I'd like it as much as I do but I can say this.. Sanderson yet again doesn't disapoint.


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