REVIEW SUMMARY: An engaging contemporary fantasy that’s both accessible and fun.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man whose peculiar mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of imaginary personae solves crimes.
PROS: Tightly plotted; fast-paced; distinct characters who seem real, despite them being imaginary; employs sf-nal tropes to thought-provoking effect.
CONS: I’m hard-pressed to name a single gripe. Maybe: leaves you wanting more?
BOTTOM LINE: A very fun contemporary fantasy that even fantasy-averse readers can enjoy.
As a speculative fiction reader, I tend to lean heavier towards science fiction rather than fantasy, because fantasy often seems so…arbitrary. All of fiction is arbitrary, of course, but the science in sf — even the hand-wavy kind — just seems more believable. I’m more likely to warm up to a story about interstellar space travel using spaceships than epic quests with elves and goblins. That’s not to say I dislike fantasy, I just tend to read much less of it than sf. This is why when I do read a fantasy story I like, it’s a big deal. Brandon Sanderson’s Legion novellas are contemporary fantasy stories I could sink my teeth into.
The premise of Legion is solid fantasy. Stephen Leeds, also known as “Legion”, is a man with an ability (through a “unique mental condition”) to generate a multitude of personae, called “aspects”. Aspects are essentially hallucinations seen only by the well-to-do Leeds, who lives in a large mansion where he can (mostly) avoid those who do not understand his talents (i.e. everyone). Each aspect possesses a certain set of skills that assist Leeds with helping people in need. In Legion, Leeds is tasked with finding Balubal Razon, a man who created a very powerful piece of technology but who has now gone missing.
It’s hard to go into any more specifics into the plot; being novella sized, to speak any further would give away the surprises the story has in store. While the plot is interesting, what’s really impressive about Legion is how it made this fantasy-averse reader turn pages like mad to see what happened next. Sanderson achieves this in two ways.
First, his characterizations of the aspects is superb. Every single aspect — there are about half a dozen of them — is well-drawn and has their own distinct personality and quirks. There’s J.C., a Navy seal with a fondness for weaponry; the levelheaded psychologist Ivy, who is very good at reading people; Tobias, an older “Morgan Freeman” type (if that’s not an archetype, it should be) who often espouses trivia nobody asked about; among others. These characters were so distinct that it was never confusing as to who was doing the talking. The interplay between them was also well done. Never mind that when Leeds was interacting with them, it looked to others like he was talking to himself. Wilson, his trustworthy (and real!) servant humors the unique peculiarities of his wealthy boss. The aspects essentially enable Leeds to be a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes. Whenever Leeds needs a particular skill, he summons the corresponding aspect that embodies that part of his knowledge…within reason; he mentions that they don’t always get along.
Secondly, the premise of Legion involves a device that could have a huge societal impact. That’s usually a hallmark of science fiction, not fantasy. Legion thus succeeded in being a fantasy story that pushed my sf buttons. It was deliciously odd reading something that felt a little like a contemporary urban fantasy, but had me thinking about all the cool uses of Razon’s invention.
It helped that Sanderson’s whip-smart dialogue and fast-moving story never let up. That’s not an easy thing to do when it’s also delivering some fascinating world building and offering up some thought-provoking ideas. That’s one of the reasons I like short fiction – there’s no time to dawdle. Every word has to count. Legion doesn’t mince words.
In Sanderson’s Skin Deep novella, Leeds takes on a most curious case. He is hired by a biotech company to recover the corpse of one its employees which was stolen from the morgue. The dead man was a scientist working on turning the human body into a mass storage device, with data encrypted in cellular DNA. The company not only believes he was successful, but also thinks that his body was stolen because his cells contain information about a devastating weapon of mass destruction.
Skin Deep reads like a straightforward police procedural, albeit one that amps up the standard investigative scenario by heavily leveraging the aspects, which adds an appealing layer to an otherwise humdrum all-too-common framework. Sanderson bravely pushes the idea of the imaginary aspects beyond its preliminary setup, though, showing readers how certain scenarios play out. For example, showing us what would happen if Leeds couldn’t rely on his imaginary help. By doing so, the story expands the world in which takes place, making it even more enticing.
Again, it helps that Sanderson proves he is the master of the craft, whether it’s the casual (and not overdone) self-aware humor, the drama created by the deadly corporate-hired assassin tracking Leeds (and how she is ultimately dealt with), or the way the narrative plays out and shows us new ways of looking at a situation. The method employed by Leeds to social engineer some information was particularly inspired. All of it combines to create a story that is thoroughly entertaining and practically screams “write more stories about me!” I would even go as far to suggest that this premise is perfect for a weekly TV series — it’s that fertile for interesting ideas.