The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
One of the most common drawbacks of fantasy settings is how static they can feel. Surely the presence of great magic and power would lead to a more developed culture and assist in scientific and technological development rather than sticking around in the Medieval cultures which we have come to accept as the norm in the genre. The ultimate example of this is in the Harry Potter novels, in which the magical folk seem to live less convenient and connected lives than us mere Muggles. Brandon Sanderson return to Scadrial, the setting of his phenomenal Mistborn trilogy, 300 years later, with the twin magics of Allomancy and Feruchemy working in harmony with the development of skyscrapers, steam trains and electricity. It’s something that I have never encountered before, and it works so well I’m honestly shocked no one else has ever tried it.
Following the conclusion of The Hero of Ages, a vast metropolis known as Elendel has arisen, and it is here that most of the novel takes place, excluding an extremely fun prologue in the ‘wild west’ esque ‘Roughs’ outside the city. Although we don’t get a real feel for Elendel, this novel being relatively short by Sanderson’s standards, I got an impression of a cross between Luthadel of the earlier Mistborn novels and China Miéville’s New Crobuzon. Sanderson manages to combine the slightly steampunk-y setting of a magical world on the brink of a technological renaissance with the wonderful sense of mystery which made Luthadel such a cool location to read about. The protagonists of the original trilogy have faded into mythology by the time this book is set, and it’s a lot of fun picking over the novel for references to the original trilogy. This novel, having not been initially a part of Sanderson’s master plan, has probably the loosest connection to the wider ‘Cosmere’, which links many of Sanderson’s works, seen so far. Allomancy and Feruchemy remain entertaining magic systems, and made even more interesting with the discovery of new metals which allow certain Allomancers to manipulate the flow of time.
The protagonist of The Alloy of Law is an errant Elendel nobleman known as Waxillium Ladrian, who had left the metropolis for the all together more interesting and violent ‘Roughs’, where he and a few companions gained a fearsome reputation as lawmen, attempting to make the area safe for the innocent residents. Wax is a ‘twinborn’, meaning that he both an Allomantic and Feruchemical power. He is both a ‘coinshot’, able to burn steel and push metal objects, and a ‘skimmer’, able to use his Feruchemical metalminds to make himself heavier and lighter. Called back to Elendel by family tragedy, Wax struggles to adjust to his life as a violent keeper of the law and his duty as a courtly nobleman. A series of robberies and kidnappings throughout the city from a group known by as ‘The Vanishers’ and the arrival of his former sidekick Wayne (geddit?) prompt Wax to come out of retirement and try to get to the bottom of a mystery underpinning the city.
Probably the biggest difference between The Alloy of Law and Sanderson’s other works of fantasy is that of scale. All of his previous novels have dealt with the massive conflicts between nations, struggles against ancient gods and other similarly lofty themes. The central narrative of The Alloy of Law, whilst hinting at a larger conflict likely to be explored in sequels, is very focused and tight, taking place over a relatively short time and disposing with unnecessary subplots. Sanderson had previously announced plans for another pair of Mistborn trilogies, one taking place in a setting technologically equivalent to the present day (and following an Allomancer SWAT team), and another going full science fiction in which Allomancy has fused with science to allow the people of Scadrial to reach the stars. The Alloy of Law exists outside these plans, with it and any eventual sequels existing as a bridge between the first and second Mistborn trilogies. The novel therefore very much feels like a spin-off rather than a full sequel, but that’s fine, and it’s nice to see that Sanderson can work just as well on a small scale as a large one.
Sanderson’s knack for dialogue is probably displayed at its best so far, and The Alloy of Law is the most overtly comic novel that he has ever written (although it still didn’t make me laugh as much as Warbreaker). There’s a natural crackle to his dialogue which makes it difficult to go back to the solemn pronouncements which accompany much of fantasy literature. One of the most impressive things about the original Mistborn trilogy were the truly exhilarating action scenes. Allomancer battles are relived from feeling too same-y from the original trilogy with the addition of firearms, which only serves to heighten the steampunk-esque vibe which underpins the novel. These action scenes are incredibly cinematic; if any of Sanderson’s novels were to make a great movie it is this one. However, Sanderson does not quite succeed in conjuring a coherent sense of place in Elendel. This has never particularly been his strong point, most notably in Elantris and Warbreaker, with significant improvement in The Way of Kings. It’s rare to criticise a fantasy novel of being too short, but a couple more chapters to help us gain a feel for what Elendel is really like wouldn’t have been amiss.
Sanderson doesn’t really have enough time to develop characters as well as he does in his other novels, but where he excels is in creating incredibly strong characters who stick in the mind. Wax and Wayne have an excellent chemistry, with Wayne acting as genuinely entertaining comic relief throughout the novel. If there is any weakness in the characterisation of this novel it has to be that of the villain, whose motivation is cliché and doesn’t seem to have much of a personality. Compared to such delicious complex villains as the Lord Ruler of the original trilogy, this villain is rather dull. Where the original trilogy were fleshed out with a cadre of interesting side characters away from the central duo of Vin and Elend, The Alloy of Law is very much Wax and Wayne’s book. This isn’t really a problem, considering the novels length, but I certainly hope that future novels bolster the cast or, better yet, develop the characters already introduced such as the demure Marasi and the amusingly socially awkward Steris.
Sanderson has done something rather special with The Alloy of Law in returning to Scadrial. The novel itself is a good read, but I didn’t feel that it necessarily eclipsed the original trilogy or The Way of Kings. I feel that The Alloy of Law is sort of the ‘Batman Begins’ of a new series, independently great, but with a superior sequel on the way. It is a great book though, and I’m glad that Sanderson took a little diversion from his master Cosmere plan to give us the adventures of Wax and Wayne.