Book Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Shadows of Self
This probably wasn’t very fair to Brandon Sanderson.
So yeah. I read Steelheart, Sanderson’s YA superhero riff, awhile back, and absolutely hated it. Buuuuut, Shadows of Self was set in a different continuity that I’ve enjoyed before, and it’s ostensibly a ‘grown up’ novel, so I figured I’d give it a go.
Shadows of Self has a lot in common with Jim Butcher’s The Areonaut’s Windlass. They were both released around the same time, they’re both from ‘Big Name’ fantasy authors, and they both are set in a vaguely steampunky milieu.
Shadows of Self is the fifth novel in Sanderson’s Mistborn series, and the second novel in its particular trilogy. Basically, Sanderson wrote a trilogy of medevial-ish action fantasy, and then skipped ahead a few hundred years for the fourth book, The Alloy of Law. Centuries later, the various characters of the first trilogy have become legends and religious figures in an interesting little conceit. And, y’know, by fast forwarding all that time, Sanderson can put guns in the hands of his characters so they can have western-ish gunfights and such.
Sanderson is known and prides himself on his complex magic systems. In Mistborn, magic is based on various metals, spread out over three different style’s of magic. Each metal does something very specific: for example, someone who uses Steel magic of the Allomantic style can telekinetically push (or Push, as Sanderson writes it) metal away from them. It’s the sort of thing that sounds boring at first … until you zing a handful of coins at someone like bullets, or push off a girder in a building in order to fling yourself around in crazy rocket jumps, or so on. It’s even got a wikipedia article, so that way you know it’s important.
With the specificity of these magic powers, Sanderson basically has a bunch of fantasy X-men (just without the yellow tights and knife-hands) at his disposal. It’s pretty standardized in the first three Mistborn books, but Sanderson mixes it up in the steampunky ones, allowing characters to have TWO powers. Wax, the protagonist of Shadows of Self, has the steel-pushing ability I mentioned before, as well as the power to alter his weight, making himself either heavier or lighter through Feruchemy, the other main style of magic.
The problem is, Sanderson gets a little too eager about his magic system. While there were eight main metals used in the first Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson bumps that up to sixteen for the later ones. In an appendix at the back of Shadows of Self, Sanderson lays out exactly which each metal does … only the problem is, some of the abilities sound really, really dumb. Storing ‘weight’ through Feruchemy is kind of silly (technically, shouldn’t it be mass?), but at least it’s properly superheroish. Whereas, other Feruchemical powers give you the ability to store or concentrate … Identity. Or Connection. Or Investiture.
And here you thought Aquaman had a useless power.
Sanderson overcomplicates the plot of Shadows of Self as well. Wax (short for Waxillium) is a gun-slinging, super-jumping vigilante who winds up chasing around a shapeshifting anarchist assassin while the city begins to devolve into chaos. It seems simple enough, until Sanderson starts calling back to the original Mistborn trilogy, and literally has God (more on him, later) occasionally speak to Wax for the sake of plot exposition.
Still, despite the theological bits, Shadows of Self is a perfectly serviceable adventure novel, as Wax tends to get into a gunfight every couple of chapters whether the plot needs it or not. And to be honest, one of Sanderson’s strengths of a writer is his ability to write engaging action sequences.
This said, Sanderson’s got his weaknesses too. For one, there are a lot of bits where Sanderson gets a little too clever for his own good. For example, the book’s main character goes by Wax … and naturally he has a sidekick named Wayne. It’s a subtle pun, but kind of wasted on guys who don’t have moon-based superpowers, if you ask me. Or, there’s the fact that aluminum apparently blocks mind-control powers, so the characters wear aluminum-lined hats at various points in the book.
Yes, they are wearing TINFOIL HATS.
But hey. I can forgive a guy a cheap gag or pun. What gets more grating is the character of Wayne (not played by Mike Meyers, unfortunately), who gets a couple of viewpoint chapters to showcase how ‘whacky’ he is. I get the feeling Sanderson really, really likes the Wayne character. Far more than I did, in any case, as the Wayne chapters soon became a chore whenever they popped up.
There are a couple of other eyebrow-quirkworthy bits throughout Shadows of Self that offer little peeks into Sanderson’s worldview, whether he wants them there or not. Basically, the dude’s from Utah, and it shows.
For example, there’s a whole chapter where Wayne goes into a bar, describing it as a temple, with the bartender its priest, and so on. It’s the sort of metaphor that’s good for a paragraph or two, but not a whole chapter. Plus, the chapter reads a bit like someone who’s never been in an actual dingy dive bar. It feels false– but then again, maybe I’m just really picky when it comes to my drinking establishments.
Sanderson’s notorious for being terrible at writing romance, and Shadows of Self is no exception. See, in Alloy of Law, Wax, a minor noble, was set up in an arranged marriage with some banker’s daughter named Steris. Fair enough. Arranged marriages were good enough of a plot device for Shakespeare, after all. However, as the books go on (I read spoilers for the the sequel book), there’s no twist. It’s just “oh the families of these two characters told them they had to get married but it’s totally okay because they really do fall in love!” Which is enough to make me look at it slightly askance, but on top of that I’m pretty sure Steris is considerably younger than Wax (I haven’t gone back to re-read Alloy of Law to check, though, so I could be wrong). Thankfully, she’s of-age, but still. Weeeeeird. What makes it even more eyebrow-quirk-worthy is the fact that Sanderson’s comfortable with crazy levels of violence (hardly splatterpunk, but there are more than a few messy bits), but it almost seems his writing’ stuck with a teenager’s awkwardness when it comes to women and relationships.
Finally, there’s the matter of God. Or, well a god, because this is a fantasy novel. At the end of the first Mistborn trilogy, one of the characters ascended to godhood and did his best to fix everything so people weren’t stuck in a horrible ash-choked dystopian wasteland. Fair enough. It’s just that this character was a eunuch. And in the conversations he has with Wax, he goes on about how he made things too easy for mankind, about how they should have progressed more than they have. It’s an interesting idea (even if Sanderson soon goes back to more straightforward ‘good vs. evil’ philosophy), but an intentionally, explicitly sexless creator god has some weird implications. I’ll at least be nice and not make comparisons to Sanderson himself. (Dude’s got three kids, after all).
Shadows of Self is a fun bit of fluff … and nothing more. I think the book would be a lot stronger if it focused on the mundane side of things (what, with a fermenting workers’ revolution and all) rather than linking it into more “epic” stuff about gods and destinies and what have you. It’s still more enjoyable and better written than Steelheart, but that’s not a very high bar to set.