Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
Although I enjoyed The Alloy of Law, it didn’t bowl me over and I wasn’t necessarily particularly fussed about reading further adventures for Wax and Wayne. I was more into The Stormlight Archive and went into Shadows of Self as a Cosmere completionist, but I was more than pleasantly surprised. Shadows of Self is one of my favourite Sanderson novels and the best Mistborn book since the original The Final Empire.
Shadows of Self takes place not long after the end of The Alloy of Law, with Waxillium Ladrian now firmly entrenched as a semi-official lawman policing the city of Elendel. It is a time of great change; the first motorcars are appearing and technology is leaping forward, but the traditional structures of the city remain unchanged. The nobles still wield disproportionate power and the working class remains essentially trapped in their lower position. When the corrupt brother of the Governor of Elendel is murdered in bizarre circumstances, Wax and Wayne, as well as newly installed police officer Masari Colms, are put on the case. Events from the mythic past of Scadrial re-appear and assert themselves on the modern city, threatening to tear it apart.
The greatest achievement of Shadows of Self is that it manages to perfectly balance the intimate and the epic. This isn’t a grand end of the world story like the original trilogy, taking place entirely in one city and mostly over the course of a single night. There’s a relentless pace and build of rising tension throughout as events spin further and further out of control. The tighter focus makes everything much more exciting with this novel lacking any of the standard fantasy bloat. On the other hand, we have our fair share of the epic, with Shadows of Self tying itself much more firmly than The Alloy of Law into the wider history and future of Scadrial and perhaps even the Cosmere itself. Harmony, the God of this world who we knew as Sazed, now holder of the shards of Ruin and Preservation, hovers significantly over the events of this book and there are hints of something vaster lurking in the background ready to show up in later books. This combination of focus and hints of a wider epic narrative is handled pretty much flawlessly; this may be one of the most purely entertaining books that Sanderson has ever written.
I flicked back into my copy of Elantris as I was reading Shadows of Self and was surprised to see how far Sanderson has come. The biggest criticism that could ever be labeled at Sanderson is that his prose may be a little bland, competent and readable but lacking anything too distinctive. Shadows of Self feels like it possesses a more distinct voice than some of Sanderson’s other works, with his underrated ability as a rock solid all rounder still underpinning the whole thing. There’s also an element of social commentary in this one, which I hadn’t ever quite seen to this extent in other Sanderson books. It’s well handled and I hope we get more of it.
The characterisation is generally strong, with Wax being a compelling and enigmatic protagonist. We know enough about him to care, but enough mystery is preserved to make him interesting. The supporting cast really come alive in this one; to mention the best character would be something of a spoiler, but there’s a very well written female character who pops up about half way through and frankly steals the book. I’m not quite so sure about our secondary protagonists, Wayne and Marasi. Wayne is likable and entertaining, but he doesn’t quite gel with the darker backstory nodded towards. Marasi is similarly difficult to dislike, but a bit too perfect to be that compelling; her half-sister and Wax’s fiance Steris is less seen but probably more interesting.
Shadows of Self is a genuinely excellent book and Sanderson has outdone even his own usual pace with another book less than three months away, which is actually slightly ridiculous. I’m now was hyped for The Bands of Mourning as I am for the third Stormlight Archive book, which is the highest compliment I can give.