BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the teeming industrial city of Elendel, where a some people have superpowers thanks to their control of metals, someone is trying to ignite a revolution. Former frontier lawman and steel-pushing metahuman Waxillium Ladrian steps in with his sidekicks to investigate a series of murders that seem tied to the approaching chaos, only to find that all of it may have a deeply personal connection to his past.
PROS: Rip-roaring action in a Victorian-esque urban setting with nods to the Old West — and superheroes!
CONS: The story’s transitions frequently feel choppy while the plot is somewhat predictable.
BOTTOM LINE: A fast-reading rainy-day-at-the-cottage novel that fans of mystery, superhero, and steampunk fiction might enjoy.
Somebody is going to love this novel.
Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson’s newest Mistborn novel, explodes out of the gate with an Old West-style firefight that’s reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In short order, it settles into chases through a steampunky Victorian London-esque metropolis. And then things really pick up, with a murder mystery, political thriller, and race to prevent total societal collapse. If that wasn’t enough, there are also superheroes powered by metal-based magic.
The cast of characters includes troubled hero Waxillium Ladrian, a legendary lawman of the frontier, now leading the genteel life of a rich urban lord in the city of Elendel. Possessing superpowers rooted in a control of steel, Wax still gets involved in crimefighting when he’s not overseeing his business interests or preparing for his upcoming wedding. From time to time, he also talks to the god who’s currently ruling over the world of Scadrial, and that god, Harmony, occasionally talks back — or worse, sends him on a mission. There’s Wax’s sidekick, Wayne, who’s come with him to the big city, and whose abilities to blend in anywhere and gather intelligence are matched only by his talent for banter, a deft hand at mixing cocktails, and skill at rationalizing petty theft. And there’s Marasi Colms, an up-and-coming cop who’s smarter than most of her colleagues, and who uncovers crucial details of the plot while Wax is soaring over the rooftops in frequently fruitless pursuits of bad guys. The trio is also joined by MeLaan (one of the kandra: a race of angelic servants of Harmony — if angels were shapeshifters whose ability to transmogrify involved eating the bones of the dead), and sometimes by Wax’s quietly observant bride-to-be, Steris.
Shadows of Self is a book that grabs elements from different types of stories and throws them into a blender to produce something weird and new (a sort of broad, novel-wide magnification of a scene where Wayne saunters into a bar and decides everyone needs a change). There’s the above-mentioned Western homage, murder investigations that are straight out of a police procedural, and aspects of steampunk and fantasy. There’s also a flashback to Wax’s childhood that’s reminiscent of the Banks children’s visit to the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in Disney’s Mary Poppins, with all of the looming cruelty and menace, but none of the singing. Its presentation of super-powered individuals as somewhat commonplace in this society — and specifically its depiction of most of these metahumans having to do everyday jobs to get by, rather than live the ideal as superheroes or super villains — owes a lot to the Wildcards shared world novels. In general, the book does a very good job of paying tribute to these disparate influences.
Sanderson also effectively ratchets up the tension in the story, with the ugly mood in the streets reflecting the increasing chaos in the halls of power as more of the elite are murdered. As the secretive killer taunts Wax, the characters become more on edge, feeling themselves accelerated towards the destruction of their city.
Yes, someone is going to love this book.
But not me.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate Shadows of Self. I just didn’t particularly care about it.
Maybe it’s not fair to be introduced to a writer’s world through a book that’s the middle instalment of its series. Shadows of Self is not only the sequel to The Alloy of Law, it’s also part of a sequel series to the original Mistborn trilogy. That comes with a lot of plot- and character-related baggage. Sanderson doesn’t always assume that the reader knows everything — there are some brief explanations of various aspects of Scadrial and its history. But there are, nonetheless, plenty of points where those explanations are thin, or where the story takes it as a given that the reader will know what certain things are, such as ethnicities or bloodlines that are casually mentioned, or creatures like the koloss, or the relevance of the nightly mists. And even if one takes it for granted that a little extra work is required to make sense of it all when coming fresh into the middle of a series, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a novel should be able to hold its own as a self-contained story. Shadows of Self was a little too short on detail in too many places to accomplish that, in my estimation.
Additionally, in its quest to be fast-paced, the novel often felt choppy as it transitioned from scene to scene. There were times when it seemed as though the story was laid out more as a screenplay for a movie or TV show than as a novel, which has the luxury of more room to get into details of culture, explain the world a little better, or let an interaction between characters play out or a protagonist have a more full experience of a situation.
I also didn’t find the primary characters engaging. Sanderson includes plenty of scenes and internal monologues that show us different aspects of their personalities, but for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, there was nothing about any of these people that really grabbed me at an emotional level. In many respects, they seem like the types of characters you’d find in standard network TV cop shows, and since that’s well-covered ground, and because I don’t find that genre entertaining, I was indifferent to them.
I wasn’t even terribly interested in just watching the protagonists go through the motions to see how the story played out because I found the plot to be predictable. There isn’t much of a surprise to the end of the story, or to the emotional burden that Wax has to deal with, or to the fates of the other characters.
And so I find myself on the fence. While I didn’t particularly enjoy Shadows of Self, I can appreciate that it has enough of the right elements that others will enjoy it. Maybe this book deserves a steel medal, rather than gold.