Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brandon Sanderson - The Alloy of Law

"Oh, I do want to change the city," she said, growing eager. "Though I feel that tracking down every criminal and punching holes in them with pieces of metal moving at high speeds is a terribly inefficient way to do it."

"Sure can be fun though." (p. 157)

Brandon Sanderson is, without a doubt, one of the most important names in fantasy today, and a large part of why that is can be seen in the story of The Alloy of Law's writing. In the midst of completing the gargantuan Wheel of Time series, Sanderson somehow managed to rewrite and release The Way of Kings, the first volume of his own ten part epic. Then, taking a break from both projects just before leaping into the Wheel's final volume, Sanderson managed to create this 325 page return to the Mistborn world, a book set between the already released (and thoroughly enjoyable) first trilogy and the projected second, one that rather stretches the meaning of the term side project to the breaking point. Simply put, Sanderson is a writing machine, pumping out words and works at a pace far beyond almost any of the genre's other authors. The actual material on offer here, however, is rather disappointing when compared to both the man's ascendant (perhaps by now ascended) reputation and the strength of the Mistborn setting's prior books.

Sanderson has always been a master of setting, a creator of unique and in-depth magic systems and adept at showing that magic's effect on his worlds. Here, of course, he's not starting from scratch but rather returning to the world of the Mistborn series, now 300 years after the literally world-shattering and –shaping finale of The Hero of Ages, where we witnessed one character's genuine apotheosis. In the time since, society's managed to rebuild itself, and the already inventive fantasy landscape's been forever altered by the introduction of gunpowder, a, needless to say, interesting mix with Sanderson's metal-based magic system of alomancy. To say that I was interested to see the results of all this, particularly how the world would be altered by an objectively extant God of only a few centuries remove, would be an understatement.

The first part, the interplay between gunplay and alomancy, lives up to expectations. The combinations between alomancy, feruchemy (a variant magic system, one of three along with alomancy, from the first trilogy), and weaponry are fascinating, cinematic, and often extremely clever. The idea of twinborn – that is to say, those with both alomantic and feruchemical powers – multiples the various powers a Misting could have well beyond easy comprehension, but that's never an issue in the story, where, after a few early expositions, Sanderson keeps a good balance between understanding and surprises.

It all does, however, raise a question. Our protagonist, lawkeeper turned lord Waxillium or Wax, and his friend Wayne at one point awe the city's numerous but useless constabulary by decimating an entire criminal gang, thirty strong, by themselves. The reader can certainly understand their awe, and can maybe even feel it themselves after the action scene they've just witnessed, but it still raises the question why the constabulary doesn't have such warriors on its own staff, why they aren't well used to this thing and ready to take advantage of it for their own ends and stop it when it's used against them. We do, of course, hear various token protests that Mistings are rare and Twinborn rarer, but such things have little effect when almost the entirety of the cast is the former or (more commonly) the latter and when the only people overawed by such things are the faceless, and sometimes nameless, criminals that get in the way and the constables powerless to stop them.

Then there's the other issue that I was so keen to see, the handling of religion and divinity in a world with such an interesting and immediate history. The results are rather more than lackluster. In the whole of the novel, our newly minted God directly acts but once, and even then it's done in the vaguest and least useful possible way, muttering all along the so-familiar excuses for irrelevancy like: I must be careful playing favorites. […] It upsets the balance (p. 286) and The point is Harmony, creating a way for as many as possible to make their own choices. (ibid) You could, of course, argue that I and this God simply have different ideas of what's appropriate, but the idea of God not taking sides and being a force of just balance meets a bad logical stumbling block when one considers that the small help it does offer Wax is just as disruptive to all this, just as destroying of man's ability to makes its "own choices" (ibid), as a genuinely useful bit of intervention, and, besides, why does a god concerned more for balance than man's definitions of right or wrong care at all about these criminals?

The effects of religion on society prove no more interesting. Here we don't even have the original trilogy's Sazed and his surprisingly deep and well-done questioning of faith. Instead, things seem to have settled into a kind of polite religious toleration that is, to me, rather hard to swallow in dual light of the facts that this is debatably three hundred years into the (recorded) history of the civilization and that, more importantly, that history's beginning was started by an objectively present God who laid out many of the specifics of his will.

But enough about my personal thematic interests; I can't smash Sanderson too badly for not sharing them. The novel's main conflict is between Waxillium, a nobleman who left to go out to the Roughs and enforce the laws there who's now returned to rule his ancestral house, and Miles, a former lawkeeper who's become convinced that he wasn't doing good but was, as he says to Wax, a hound, kept in line with false promises and stern orders. […] You worked every day to fix the world, Wax. You tried to end the pain, the violence, the robberies. It never worked. The more men you put down, the more troubles arose. (p. 212) Miles is done fighting the symptoms. He's turned his sites on those who've oppressed the Roughs for so long, on the rich men of the city. He's doing, as he says, what nobody else will. You stand up for the downtrodden, make things better, stop the criminals. Well, I've just decided to set my sights on a more powerful brand of criminal. (p. 213) All of this could be an interesting conflict. Wax admits that he sees some truth in Miles' view and even goes so far as to admit that, in the more tumultuous (and now legendary) time of the first trilogy, Miles would have been a hero. But Wax insists that things have changed, and he stands up to the destruction and upheaval that Miles causes and represents.

Their ideological struggle is crippled by the fact that, much as it pains me to say it of a Sanderson book, the world is a shady, shadowy thing that's never properly understood. Not only do we never truly see the supposedly so-oppressed Roughs with our own eyes outside of a prologue rather preoccupied with the gunfight at its heart, we never come to see the city. Wax says that its nobility is no longer as oppressive, but is that true? We never see either way, never know more of the noble life than a few half-glimpsed parties and balls, and we see nothing at all of the lower classes. The few halfhearted attempts to show the problems with its bureaucracy – like Wayne's statement that the constables spend their time walking about the city, picking on respectable folk (p. 142) – go unsupported and unexplored.

Nowhere is this lack of depth and substance more evident than in the novel's opening, during the brief period where Waxillium thinks maybe he'd best just be a nobleman and leave off all that dashing about in the night. I think most genre fans are used to these never carried out surrenders of profession by now, but it's rare that I see one quite so skimpy as this. We're told how important his duties as a lord are, but we never see what those duties might be. There is, of course, the obligatory mention that these months of "reports, ledges, dinner parties, and business deals" place "among the hardest he'd ever lived," (p. 74) but, without ever really seeing the difficulty, there's not much feeling behind or evoked by the statement. And when we hear the old standby that "Shooting people would be too charitable for you city folks," (p. 78) it's hard to not be perplexed when, so far, the most dastardly thing a city dweller's done is a snub with wedding invitations. Forgive me if I'm not reaching for my handgun, Wax.

The novel's mystery element, one of the main things differentiating it from Sanderson's other work, feels similarly shallow. Wax has a reputation for this kind of thing, and the scene with him furiously delving into the allomantic makeup of the enemy's aluminum is quite well done. But what we see of his actual deductions falls well short of that standard. Upon discovering a cigar box in their enemy's lair, Wayne says: This is just the sort of thing [Wax] likes. It'll probably lead him to some grand theory about how our boss smokes cigars, and that'll somehow let him pick the guy out of a crowd. (p. 181) From the cigar box to his smoking habits? Incredible detective work! It's only at the end that his probing reaches deeper, and we cut out right as the case pops open to reveal something far larger behind it and everything finally grows interesting.

Underscoring all of this is Sanderson's prose. It's not bad, but it's almost never good, the very essence of workman like throughout, each sentence conveying what information it needs to before departing without leaving much of an impression. That is, slightly, relieved by Sanderson's use of in-world slang like "true as titanium" (p. 175) or dismissing someone as a "bad alloy," (p. 79) something many fantasy authors try but few succeed at (though, of course, there is the occasional misstep here, like the curse Harmony's forearms! (p. 77)). An always controversial aspect of Sanderson's writing's been his humor and wit, which is thankfully both toned down and more effective here than it was in The Way of Kings. At one point, Waxillium remarks on another character's speed in reaching conclusions that took him all night to grasp. When she responds: "I had some modest help from you," he says that: "It might be said that I had modest help from myself, technically." (p. 137)

The Alloy of Law is a fast paced, fun book with some cool ideas and some well done fight scenes. But it's also a light book that falls far short of exemplary. Sanderson had some very cool ideas going in, but almost none of them reach their potential, or even fall anywhere near it. The world building's far sketchier than it is in any of the author's other works, and even the pure action/adventure elements are more ho hum than particularly great. This isn't a bad way to spend a weekend, but it's hardly the genre-defining event its profile would suggest, and one can only hope that Sanderson delivers better in the second trilogy proper or in the later volumes of The Stormlight Archive.

2 comments:

  1. I realise I need to read more, but to date my only experience of Sanderson's writing has been his Infinity Blade novella, which did not impress.

    There's a maxim, that writer's write, suggesting quantity somehow provides quality. I do wonder if there's ever been the case of a prolific writer whose best work was in his later years.

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  2. That's a really interesting question, Anton, and I've been trying to think of a pile of examples for some days now without much success. I can, looking at my bookshelf, think of some that've improved over time (KJ Parker's middle and late novels are regarded far better than her early work, for instance), but those that have are rarer than I'd hoped to find.

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