Eldest Child has long been a fan of sci fi and fantasy – so much so that he’s always scribbling short stories! – and so when he was given the chance to review the new Brandon Sanderson novel, thanks to the kindness of NetGalley, he jumped at the chance. So, to make a hat-trick of guest appearances by the offspring, here is Eldest Child’s review of “Shadows of Self”, Sanderson’s new book, due out in the UK tomorrow!
When I settle down to read fantasy fiction in all its escapist, wish-fulfilling glory, I am always struck by an uneasy hesitancy than can best be summed up in one word: accessibility. Will I be able to read this novel without having to read a dozen prequels, sequels and everything in between? Do I need to cross reference any and every mention of continuity and lore with all the other stories by its author? Will any of this even make any kind of sense? Should I just settle for reading about garden parties and infidelity instead? These are just some of the thoughts that plague the Fantasy Journeyman donning adventurer’s gear and preparing for the latest excursion into the wilderness of an unread story. And with the growing trend in popular culture to link stories across mediums in order to create a kind of vast meta-story — from the cat’s-cradle of interlinked movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the upcoming resurrection of the Star Wars galaxy — it seems like we’re all becoming just a little obsessed with ‘making it all fit together’. But how easy is it then to pick up a book and, you know, just read it?Enter Brandon Sanderson, one of fantasy’s main players and bestselling wordsmiths. Sanderson is the single-handed creator of what he and fans have come to refer to as ‘the Cosmere’, a make-believe playground where the majority of Sanderson’s stories take place. A universe made up of different worlds where magic is drawn from rare minerals and heroism comes dressed in bespoke tailored suits. From his stand-alone debut novel Elantris, to the gothic-swashbuckler-meets-ancient-mystery of the Mistborn trilogy, to the unfurling epic of the Stormlight Archives, Sanderson continues to populate his Cosmere with a mixture of cultures, genres and writing styles that makes it a living, breathing organism. And in a time where George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire still remains two verses short, Sanderson’s Cosmere novels meanwhile drop onto the fantasy scene with a regularity that matches a Hobbit’s mealtimes.
With each novel set in the Cosmere forming a ‘hidden epic’ that resembles a mosaic of storytelling, I wondered how easy it would be to pick up Sanderson’s latest yarn Shadows of Self without having first read the myriad Cosmere novels taking place before it. Would I be buried under a slew of continuity references and mythological avalanches? Would the story be able to stand alone on its own merits, or is the allure of a Brandon Sanderson tale less a sum of its parts and more its connection to the greater scheme being put into motion?
Shadows of Self is the second in what has come to be known as the ‘Wax and Wayne’ trilogy, which in itself is a sequel to Sanderson’s bestselling Mistborn series. It is a time of change as industrialisation takes over the city of Elendel. Motorcars, pistols and rudimentary technology are replacing the sword and sorceries that the original trilogy focused on. The age of heroes is all but a memory, although fan-favorite characters such as Vin, Kelsier and Sazed are mentioned in almost religious tones, and the age of capitalism and industry is creeping in. It is a time of conflict between the tenuous optimism of the rising economy and the cultural clash of religion, which remains as dominant as it was in earlier novels. Civil unrest is brewing behind the scenes and forces that remain unseen for the majority of the novel seem intent on stultifying the cultural progress of Mistborn’s setting.
Enter Wax and Wayne, two self-appointed gun-slinging ‘lawkeepers’ who both owe a heritage to the lofty Houses of the city. Both wield a powerful magical ability known as Allomancy, a technique Sanderson first introduced us to in The Final Empire. By ingesting small fragments of certain rare metals, the user is granted specific powers for a short amount of time. For instance, ingesting pewter will grant the Allomancer increased physical strength for a short spell of time, whilst steel allows a user to ‘Push’ metals away in an almost Jedi fashion. Sanderson’s magical system makes for a far more plausible kind of sorcery than we often see in mainstream fantasy. Characters are made to seek out or conserve their allomantic metals, or to combine the use of metals to achieve a specific goal. I’ve always felt drawn in by this sense of ‘resource management’ that Sanderson subjects his characters to; often I would find myself unconsciously thinking about which allomantic metals a character would need to use to, say, reach a high ledge or catch up with a fleeing target.
Shadow of Self explores these allomantic users whilst focusing on a unfurling conspiracy brewing underneath Elendel’s surface. Somebody is murdering officials and politicians, and it is down to Wax and Wayne to track down the suspect. But all is not what it seems, and as the layers begin to peel away we find a larger mystery with links that reach all the way back to the very first Mistborn story. But Shadow of Self is so much more than a bridge between previous novels; it is a fully realised adventure with a clear identity of its own. I was actually taken aback by the stark contrast in tone and voice with the first Mistborn stories. The language is short and clipped, spoken in an almost East End London dialect. The narration is formed of brief sentences that often contain only two or three words, and the ‘wordiness’ of Sanderson’s world-building in some of his other works is completely stripped back here to create a gritty, harsh setting. Likewise, the scenery is painted in stark, sparse language; gothic streets and rough tenements dot the landscape, whilst an almost Steampunk vibe creeps in at times.
Then there is the humour. The original Mistborn trilogy was a brooding tale of desolation and oppression, often creeping towards being melodramatic at times. In contrast, the time spent with Wax and Wayne is a far more lighthearted affair. Banter and sarcasm is flung between the two characters in a constant barrage. Short one-liners and witty remarks become a cultural currency between the duo and the supporting cast. Even Wax’s love interest Sterris (who seems much more realised and developed than when readers were introduced to her in the previous novel) and Marasi, a young woman who works for Elendel’s corrupt law enforcement whilst taking part in the investigation with Wax and Wayne, are prone to sharp and hostile comedy. And while Shadows of Self had me laughing out loud at the friendly confrontations, the comic element never once reduces the drama of the novel’s action.
But, fun as it was to return to the setting of Mistborn and its dreary gothic setting, in the end just how readable is a novel that is the fifth in a series that in itself links to the rest of the authors back catalogue? Having only read the first two books in the original Mistborn trilogy, I was greeted with my usual ‘pre-fantasy’ hesitancy as I decided whether or not to give Shadows of Self a go. Would I be able to make any kind of sense from the intricate setting and complicated mythology of Mistborn, let alone pick up on the wider ramifications of the entire Cosmere? Surprisingly, Shadows of Self was a remarkably easy read, and stands alone firmly with its own identity and personality. While there are plenty of ties to the wider story being told, from the minutiae of references to the original trilogy to the story’s tense conclusion, Shadows of Self still manages to provide a gripping, compelling mystery that remains self-contained and entirely singular. If anything, its ramifications towards the greater Cosmere narrative remain so light it may even seem a little undercooked to Sanderson diehards; I noticed a few mentions of some familiar concepts, including one particularly infamous character showing up for a brief cameo. But ultimately the novel remained focused on its tight plot and developing its characters.
Is Shadows of Self a reasonable place to start with Sanderson’s work? It certainly doesn’t hurt to have at least read The Alloy of Law beforehand, if for no other reason than to be introduced to Wax and Wayne’s debut. But in terms of dense continuity and established lore, Shadows of Self provides a wonderfully accessible fantasy adventure that was as gripping and as exciting as I’ve come to expect from Sanderson. If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted storytelling and a unique approach to wizardry and spellcasting, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Shadows of Self.
Thanks for visiting and reviewing, Eldest Child – and thanks to NetGalley and the book’s publishers for providing the ARC!