Book Review: Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadows of selfFormat:  hard cover, 1st edition, 2015

Pages:  376

Reading Time:  about 9.5 hours

 

Shadows of Self is the first Brandon Sanderson book I have read that was somewhat of a disappointment to me. A common misconception is that this is a sequel to The Alloy of Law, but actually Shadows of Self is the first in a planned trilogy of industrial age Mistborn books, with The Alloy of Law being a prequel. That prequel, now a stand-alone novel, either must have been very enjoyable for Sanderson to write, been more successful than predicted, or perhaps was a generous helping of both, convincing him that it needed a followup trilogy. Shadows of Self comes in with about an extra 50 pages more than its prequel. Unfortunately for me, I struggled at times to maintain interest and complete this book. Read on for my thoughts and as always, spoilers may crop up from time to time.

For the most helpful reviews of Shadows of Self, check these out:

Tor.com (Martin Cahill)

Fantasy Literature (Marion Deeds)

SF Signal (Robin Shantz)

As I struggled to articulate exactly what was wrong with this novel, I found that the above reviews each provided a piece of the puzzle. Martin talks about the humor and banter being a little forced and contrived; Marion is flustered by references to Earth inventions such as radios and aviation, doesn’t appreciate a lack of depth in the Roughs setting, and says the story at times feels like a stage set; Robin, on the other hand, felt it was more like a TV show, and that the story was choppy, lacked detail, and the characters lacked emotional appeal. Even Sanderson admits in the front of his book that he wrote a third of it while waiting for the editing of another book, was forced to set it aside, and that by the time he got back to it, his ideas had changed.

These insights were a great help to me in coalescing my thoughts. Shadows of Self is obviously meant to be a light, quick read, with more flash than substance. This is by design. I understand that context, as The Alloy of Law was written in the same style. But something is wrong with Shadows of Self…to me it feels hollow, like it has no soul. It feels exactly like the byproduct of a successful stand-alone novel, an afterthought, a half-developed idea rushed to market. Oftentimes as I read I would have a hard time maintaining my interest level as I followed Wax (the same protagonist from The Alloy of Law) and his attempts to solve the mystery of who wants to kill the corrupt governor. Which could be any one in the entire city, since everyone seems to be unhappy. Sanderson’s aversion to substance didn’t leave me with enough to care about the plot. His prose is fine, and there’s lots of action in the story, but it is the characters that really impede the novel.

I’m still struggling to explain what I’m feeling, and the closest analogy I can find to illustrate my thoughts can be found in television. Procedural crime dramas like CSI and NCIS enjoy a lot of success not just because of their content, or their mysteries to solve, but primarily due to the dynamics of the ensemble cast. When watching spin off shows like CSI Miami, CSI Cyber, NCIS Los Angeles or NCIS New Orleans, I always lose interest in these other shows quickly. Some of that has to do with saturation, of course, but the biggest part of the equation is the cast – how they work well together, play off of each other, and possess an intangible dynamic. The spin off shows, which try to copy the originals by sticking to a formula, certainly present fine mysteries to solve. The problem is, using a formula can’t necessarily emulate the intangible dynamics of that original cast.

Wax is a well-developed character, but using the analogy I have provided above, he and his allies and antagonists don’t have that intangible dynamic that the characters in the original Mistborn series had, heck, they don’t even capture the magic of The Alloy of Law. Wayne gets more time to shine here, and Sanderson’s efforts are applauded, but as stated above by other reviewers, it’s often a case of trying too hard. We get to see more of his eccentricities and even a little tragic backstory (which could have been expanded upon), but his character contains too many contrasts rolled into one person. His unusual brand of humor doesn’t work very well, although a large part of his role is comic relief, and he’s supposed to come off as an everyday Joe, yet he’s a twinborn (he can use Allomancy and Ferochemy). There’s also a scene where he enters a bar and tries to change everyone’s mood, and it’s so utterly strange that I really struggled with it. Moving on to Wax’s fiance, Steris, she has been so underdeveloped that when she and Wax spend time together and she makes smart observations, I thought that she might have been killed and replaced by the chief antagonist (who in this story is certainly capable of such a feat). Marasi continues to be the most interesting character, as a woman who accomplishes much in a “man’s world”,  but even she doesn’t have a lot of depth to her story.

The moments of the book I did enjoy all referenced the original Mistborn series: what has happened to the Kandra (including Tensoon), what Harmony (Sazed) is up to, statues of Eland and Min, an underground Mistborn museum, and even an appearance by the Lord Ruler’s palace (could the Well of Ascension still be around?!!!). It’s all the stuff in between that I struggled with. Sanderson pulls his usual shocking twists and reveals at the end, with wild chases and battles, and I’ll admit I was entertained by the ending, but in this story it was a bit predictable, lessening the impact more so here than it does in his other books.

Shadows of Self feels very much like a successful writer’s side project, a passable sci-fi western/action movie in the vein of Wild Wild West or Sherlock Holmes, and that’s okay. I guess it’s my fault that I want Mistborn-level depth, which in this setting I think would be spectacular. Shadows of Self definitely feels disjointed, and clearly the author’s initial writings that were shelved and then picked up later and taken in a different direction are evident, and caused more than a few problems. However, with that said I will read Bands of Mourning, the second book in the series, since I bought it at the same time as Shadows of Self. I’d like to see if Sanderson can salvage this series after an uneven opening that has lost its momentum.

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