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Apparitions of Imagination

Book Review: Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

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

Pages:  376

Reading Time:  about 6 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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January 22, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The-Alloy-of-Law-by-brandon-sanderson-colourFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2011

Pages:  325

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

The Alloy of Law is not quite a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy, although it does take place several years after those events, in the same world. Some of the characters in Mistborn are referenced, but none of them are around for this book – except, perhaps, a few (sorry, no spoilers here!). Much of the innovative magic system has been retained, with some new wrinkles. There are other elements from the previous books still floating around too – like the Mists, Koloss, and canals.  Sanderson has hinted that there may be sequels to this book, but that’s not a sure thing. On to the review…

It’s been 300 years since the events of the first trilogy took place. Not content to leave his world mired in medieval times, Sanderson has moved technology forward to an industrialized setting, featuring rifles and revolvers, skyscrapers, trains, and electricity. In between some of the chapters you will find artwork simulating the pages of a newspaper; I found myself looking forward to these inserts and read them with great interest. It gives the story a very Sherlock Holmes/Jules Verne/Victorian/(almost) Steampunk feel, which is awesome. Many other authors have medieval-type cultures that make no technological process for thousands of years, so it’s great to see Sanderson do something different. Add to the fact that magic is still around, and you can get a feel for the chaos of how bullets can be made to fly around, people leaping off trains, etc. Into this setting comes Waxillium Landrian, a twin born who possesses both Allomancy (the burning of metals) and Feruchemy (storing up abilities to use later). Wax can push on metals with his Allomancy, as well as make himself heavier or lighter with Ferochemy. This is the closest you can get to being a Mistborn in the current age, as more abilities have been discovered but powers have been somewhat diluted. Wax was born a noble in the city of Elandel, but spent time in the Roughs, which is a sort of desert wilderness similar to America’s Old West. In the Roughs he was a lawman who tracked down criminals, but eventually he is called back to the city to run his family’s estate when his uncle dies.

Accompanying Wax is Wayne, a former criminal turned deputy who worked with Wax in the Roughs. Wayne is a master of disguise and accents, and is also a twin born, who can create speed bubbles with his Allomancy and store health with his Feruchemy. The speed bubble allows Wayne to speed up time inside the bubble, giving him time to plan his maneuvers and move faster than his surroundings. We are also introduced to a myriad of other characters including Steris (the potential fiance of Wax), Marasi (cousin to Steris who becomes a major character), Tarson (an evil, part-Koloss thug), and Miles (another lawman from the Roughs). There are several other minor characters but they are not really fleshed out and remain for the most in the background.

The dynamic between Wax and Wayne feels very much like the Sherlock Holmes and Watson dynamic of recent movies and TV. The pace is brisk and the action at times is fast and furious, reminiscent of scenes in the previous trilogy…except now add bullets, moving trains, and dynamite. This lends an exciting air to the book, and the main characters are fairly well developed, but it seems to be over far too quickly – this is not an epic on the scale of previous Mistborn novels. I’m okay with that, though, because it means that there isn’t too much unnecessary filler. Both Wax and Wayne are likable enough – Wax has a nobility and ethos similar to Eland, while Wayne is somewhat of a scoundrel – he’d fit right in on Kelsier’s crew. Marasi is more than just a third wheel – her insightful thinnking, knowledge of law and university studies, and ability to fire a rifle go a long way towards helping solve the case.  Humor is abundant – sometimes it feels a little forced, but most of the time it’s appropriate, and though I never did laugh out loud, it had me chuckling a few times.

Wax and Wayne are pitted against Miles, who is robbing trains and kidnapping women. Miles has the ability to regenerate, making him near-immortal, and is somewhat reminiscent of an Inquisitor. But there is another figure behind the crimes, a benefactor known only as Mr. Suit. I have to say that the revealing of Mr. Suit’s identity at the end of the book was not a surprise, as the clues left by Sanderson are fairly obvious. Another element that is fairly obvious is Marasi’s Allomancy – not only is it not a surprise when revealed, but the fact that we are told it is useless several times just screams that it is not. I have to say I didn’t see its use coming, and when it was used, I just shook my head at how sly (and clever) Sanderson can be.

Overall I have a very favorable impression of the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. When compared against George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, which is similar in setting, I greatly preferred The Alloy of Law. The ending is not a cliffhanger, but there are some loose ends deliberately left untied to set up a sequel, and a visit from a surprise character at the end has me wondering if the generally light-hearted tone of The Alloy of Law might give way to a more serious change if a sequel is written. Although reading the original series would help a new reader understand Allomancy and Feruchemy better, I think they could probably figure out what’s going on, especially with the help of the indexes in the back of the book. Highly recommended to fans of the Mistborn series, borderline steampunk/westerns, and Sherlock Holmes/sleuth action novels.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The_Hero_of_Ages_-_Book_Three_of_Mistborn

Format:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2008

Pages:  556

Reading Time:  about 14 hours

As the third book in the Mistborn Trilogy, The Hero of Ages both delights and frustrates at the same time. Is the payoff worth it? Continue reading to find out…

We’ve reached the conclusion of the Mistborn trilogy only to find that the world is coming to end. The pace of the story starts off rather slow, despite a few combat scenes, as the world starts to collapse. Ash is piling up waist-high, and no one can figure out how to fix things. Much of the early story focuses on Vin and Eland as they follow the clues left behind by the former Lord Ruler. The march armies around the land, looking for the Lord Ruler’s secret caches and fighting off the brutal Koloss.

My favorite new plot thread, however, had to do with the emergence of Spook. As a boy in the former books, he played an inconsequential role, but here he begins to gain powers and becomes a leader. His story is compelling and enjoyable, a welcome relief to not only Vin and Eland spinning their wheels, but also to Sazed continuing his monotonous quest to question the purpose of life, as he sifts through the last of the religious beliefs contained within his metalminds while  looking for answers.

As the story progresses, Sanderson begins to drop pieces of the puzzle in place. As reveal after reveal occurs, increasing in frequency right up to the amazing end, I had to sit back in amazement as the story ended. Only then can you truly appreciate the intricacy and detail of the story, how much everything was planned out in advance, and the scope of  imagination that  Sanderson possesses. Sazed’s quest to find the perfect religion, the use of metalminds (immune to Ruin’s influence), the origins of the Koloss and Kandra, the Lord Ruler’s creations and his preparations, the  atium cache, the force known as Preservation – the puzzle pieces all fit together and leave you with a completed image that is astounding. Never before have I read something like this, and it took some time to absorb it all and truly appreciate it.

Another aspect I appreciate is how the major plot point, the end of the world, is resolved. From the start of the book you can see that the world is going to end. I was apprehensive about how Sanderson would handle it: would he allow the world to end, killing all his characters and leaving a bad taste in my mouth; or would he save the world using a Deus Ex Machina? Happily, neither is the case, which is why I was so satisfied with ending, despite the deaths of some of my favorite characters.

The story is not without a few flaws, the main one being that the evil entity from the previous book, now known as Ruin, is supposed to be able to change the writing of text, and even words that people speak. However, it rarely does so, allowing people to plan and plot against it. It seems to me that it would be far easier to influence words, rather than trying to get metal spikes into people so that they could be manipulated. However, this is a minor quibble and doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

In conclusion, Mistborn has to be one of the most imaginative, innovative series I’ve read in a long time. In a world of Tolkien derivatives, Sanderson takes a risk and reaches for something different, and in my opinion succeeds. Despite chapters that mire the pace of the story, I highly recommend this book and the series as a whole…it is well worth following to the epic conclusion.

July 25, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment

News

I was prepared to read & review White Wolf’s Son by Michael Moorcock as my next book, until I learned that there is a book that precedes it called The Skrayling Tree. Since Powell’s Books is supposed to have it in stock, I’ll be heading down there soon to pick it up. In the meantime I have finished reading Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan and will have a review up soon.

I’ve ordered the following books from Amazon:

The Alloy of Law from Brandon Sanderson…I’m almost done with the original Mistborn trilogy, so it seems like a good time to add this.

Ghouls of the Miskatonic by Graham McNeill. I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft & the Arkham Horror board game from Fantasy Flight Games, so when I saw this release of the first book in a planned trilogy (Book One in The Dark Waters trilogy), I knew I had to have it.

Dance of the Damned by Alan Bligh. A new release in a separate trilogy (Book One of The Lord of Nightmares trilogy), I also had to have this one for the reasons described above…

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

wellofascensionFormat:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2007

Pages:  592

Reading Time:  about 15 hours

As the second book in the Mistborn trilogy, I was afraid The Well of Ascension would suffer from a sophomore slump. I needn’t have worried – The Well of Ascension is an enjoyable read, and in some ways is superior to Mistborn. Spoilers ahead…

Here are some other reviews:

A Fantasy Reader:  http://afantasyreader.blogspot.com/2011/08/well-of-ascension-review.html

Fantasy Book Critic:  http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2007/08/well-of-ascension-by-brandon-sanderson.html

(Sorry, my ability to insert links is still broken)

The Well of Ascension picks up where Mistborn leaves off. The story focuses mainly on two characters from the first story: Eland is King, Vin is his bodyguard/mistress. The thieving crew have been promoted to high-level positions in order to run the new government. Trouble starts right away as not one, but two armies camp outside the city, looking for the stash of the power metal Atium, which Mistborn can burn to become very powerful.

Eland begins to have trouble with his new government, while trying to deal with the armies camped outside and repeated assassination attempts. Vin continues to struggle with her own self-worth and the death of her mentor. An early indication that someone in the King’s circle is a traitor is also a cause for concern.

As the story progresses, another Mistborn arrives in town, a mysterious creature appears in the mist, a third army full of creatures called Koloss arrive, the mist starts to kill people, and something’s going on with the Inquisitors. Sanderson has a lot of material to juggle here; despite this, story moves very slowly through the first 200 pages, and struggled through that part of it.

I’ve never been fond of politics, especially in fantasy, and it was my least-favorite aspect of Mistborn. That continues here, and in my opinion it drags on the pace of the narrative; however, when action began to replace politics, I started getting more and more caught up in the story. Though the story has some predictability to it, Sanderson still throws in enough twists and turns to keep the story fresh, and it kept me turning the pages.

Another area where the story bogs down at times is when the Terrisman Sazed is trying to solve the problems with the writings of Kwaan, the discoverer of the Hero of Ages. Far too much time is devoted to Kwaan’s writings, causing the pace to drag. In addition, you could play a drinking game based on the number of times that Sazed knows that there is something wrong with Kwaan’s statements, but was unable to put a finger on it. Although this works out nicely at the end of the story (see the major spoiler below), the journey to get there crawls at a snail’s pace.

There’s a basic premise in creative writing that characters should change over the course of a story. Sanderson has embraced this concept enthusiastically, with Eland and Vin undergoing multiple, remarkable changes. Elend evolves from naive scholar, to commanding king, to bringer of justice; Vin overcomes her lack of self-worth, feelings of betrayal, being used as an assassin, and inability to trust; she fully embraces her power and develops a philosophy on how it should be used. These characters are deep, compelling, have integrity, and are easy to root for. Other characters, however, especially among the thieving crew, are not compelling enough to care whether they live or die.

As in the first story, Sanderson also introduces more strange creatures. The Terris and Kandra are expanded on in many ways, and the Koloss make a great, horrific villian, although Sanderson adds a twist and things are not always what they seem. One of the great relationships in the story is between Vin and the Kandra OreSeur, where Vin’s vulnerability and frustration have the Kandra not only revealing secrets about his people, but also violating his Contract to defend her. I hope this story thread is continued in the last book.

The magic system of Allomancy still plays a major part of the story. While it is still one of the most inventive magic systems ever created, in this book it suffers from both trying to figure out what the limits of its users are (as they push themselves to superhuman efforts), and make it sometimes difficult to follow the action (as it did in the first story). These are minor quibbles that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

The greatest strength of the story is what happens after the “bad guy” gets whacked. Things should be rosy now, right? Well, maybe not so much…the bad guy was able to control the bickering factions that are now trying to take over the city. He also kept people fed and warm, and protected everyone from the Deepness, a terrible danger. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as everyone thought, but now he’s gone and the people wonder if they weren’t better off being oppressed. You can draw parallels to the war in Iraq – an evil dictator was toppled, but suddenly a host of other problems appeared afterwards. It certainly makes the story more believable.

*MAJOR SPOILER ALERT*  highlight this next part if you don’t care if I reveal one of the plot points at the end of the story…

Most stories use prophecy as a means to predict the rise of a hero or event to combat evil. In The Well of Ascension, however, the prophecy is established and manipulated by a possibly evil entity to make sure its goals are met. At one point of the story, the Inquisitor Marsh, Kelsier’s brother, leads the Terrisman Sazed to a place to ensure he finds this manipulated prophecy and supports it. The end result is a crumbling of Sazed’s entire belief system and purpose that he has dedicated his life to. It’s a crushing blow, and an impressive twist. This leads to another aspect of Sanderson’s writing: he’s not afraid to kill off major characters or have everything in their life become meaningless. While it’s not on the scale of Steven Erikson, is does create tension because you have no idea who will make it to the end. 

The Well of Ascension is, after a slow start, a compelling middle book that sets things up nicely for the finale, The Hero of Ages. Sanderson’s Wheel of Time and Way of Kings entries will have to wait a bit longer to be read by me, because I can’t wait to see how Sanderson wraps things up in The Hero of Ages. And with the new release of The Alloy of Law, it sounds like there’s more goodness to come.

November 22, 2011 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Format:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2006

Pages:  537

Reading Time:  about 13 hours

 

Mistborn is the first book in the Mistborn Trilogy, and Sanderson’s second book, which followed the critically-acclaimed Elantris. I’ve been itching to read some of Sanderson’s work ever since he was tabbed to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Before I hit Sanderson’s Wheel of Time entries, however, I wanted to sample some of his own works and see what had impressed everyone else.

Mistborn is described as a question designed to turn a fantasy trope on its head: “what if the hero lost and the dark lord won?” It’s about a world covered in ash due to volcanic eruptions, strange mists that come out at night, and the Lord Ruler, a dark overlord who suppresses the peasant race called Skaa.

Into this setting steps Vin, a teenage girl who lives on the streets as a thief. As I began reading I was immediately struck by the similarities between Vin and Kiska, from Ian C. Esslemont’s Night of Knives. Not only was Vin written three years earlier, she is also a more believable character. Vin possesses some of the same annoying traits found in Kiska: stubbornness, inability to follow instructions, and reckless actions. What makes Vin believable is her vulnerability. Abandoned by everyone in her life, growing up in a thieving crew, she believes herself unworthy when good things happen to her. Her transformation during the course of the story gives her character depth, which Kiska did not have.

The supporting characters are well done, especially Kelsier, who becomes Vin’s mentor, and Sazed, Vin’s teacher/watchdog/servant. The adversaries are truly evil…the Lord Ruler is cruel and uncaring, and Inquisitors are horrifying creatures, with spikes for eyes and near-immortality.

The genius of the story, and what moves it along, is the much-raved-about magic system called Allomancy. It’s the ability to burn certain metals, each type giving the user a different power…Copper keeps one from being detected by other allomancers, while pewter allows one greater strength, speed, and stamina. It’s a brilliantly-realized system, although combat sequences can be a little hard to follow with things being pushed and pulled around.

I was captivated at the beginning of the story, as the characters are introduced and the magic system is explained. However, the book tends to bog down in the middle as it becomes a series of training exercises for Vin, mixed in with the subtleties of pulling off a major con. However, the last 100 pages really gather momentum, and events move at a breathless pace. I was disappointed whenever I had to put the book down to do other things. What makes Mistborn truly great, however, is the pay-offs. After struggling through that middle section of the book, when things start moving in those last 100 pages and information is revealed, everything ties together nicely, and their are some shocking reveals that I totally didn’t see coming, including the death of a main character. None of it really feels like Deus Ex Machina – Sanderson has set everything up well beforehand. A few loose ends exist, and some questions go unanswered, but this is a series after all, and some things need to wait for the next book.

In conclusion, I was absolutely blown away by Mistborn. I now understand the praise bestowed upon Sanderson and the choice for him to finish the Wheel of Time series. Although Sanderson’s Wheel of Time contributions are in my queue, as is his new 1000 page novel The Way of Kings, I’m going to have to read the next book in the Mistborn Trilogy first, because I have got to see what happens next!

May 2, 2011 Posted by | Book Review | , , | Leave a comment