Monday, September 14, 2015

Shadows Of Self - Brandon Sanderson

Shadows Of Self is the second in Brandon Sanderson’s “Wax and Wayne” series; the series is set several hundred years after Sanderson’s “Mistborn” series, but nominally in the same world. That means that there’s a lot of things fans loved about Mistborn – individuals using the power inherent in metals to perform seemingly supernatural feats, noble houses politicking, rooftop chases, and so on – but looked at from a slightly different perspective. The focus of this second volume remains on the protagonists from the first – the noble Allomancer, Wax, who acts as a sort of independent investigative consultant for his city’s police force (partly because they can’t convince him to stop, and partly because he’s good at catching dangerous criminals) and the slightly less-than- noble Wayne, who matches an ability to blend in almost anywhere with an occasionally odd demeanour and an interest in haberdashery.

This second book in the series is focused, geographically, on the city of Elendel. As with the first book, the reader catches the city in the throes of change. The motor-car is making its first appearance on the streets. Industrialisation appears to be on the rise. There’s mention of the opening of factories, a suggestion of an increase in living with shift patterns, and mention of the potential of electricity. The city is adapting to this, technology working in symbiosis with existing magic. But Sanderson evokes the sceptical anger created by urbanisation as well. Workers are upset to find they are working long hours for low pay. There’s an increasing feeling, laced through the subtext of the narrative, that the old noble houses are no longer paying their way, but exploiting those beneath them. It’s delicately, sympathetically done, and a pleasure to see this sort of social conflict represented in the narrative. The potential for these changes to turn to social unrest is explored, and the potential effects, particularly for law-keeping, are examined closely. Alongside these changes, we see some beacons of notional stability – the noble houses, now Captains of Industry, maintain their position as leaders of the people. The constabulary holds the law in its hands. The various religions act as centres of civic virtue. But this Elendel is a city in flux, one where these traditional roles are being passively eroded and actively challenged.

Wax and Wayne, our main viewpoints into this world, started in the preceding novel as fast-talking, fast-acting agents of justice. They’re still portrayed that way, but there’s a more reflective tenor to them. Wayne, a man given to acts of quirky comic relief, spends some time considering the unfortunate crime that led him to the life he now leads. It’s a quiet moment in a journey which is full of wry, oddball humour, and it gives his character a sense of depth and humanity which is much appreciated. Wax is also driven by his inner demons; we’re treated to some views into the slough of despond that Wax fills his sessions of self-recrimination with, and it’s not pretty. It is, however, emotionally authentic and compelling.  Both men feel like they’re given more room to breathe in this narrative, to fill out a little, and let the reader get a firmer grasp of their characters.

In this, they’re ably assisted by a sterling supporting cast. Of particular note are Wax’s wife, Selis, and Marasi, once an accidental part of Wax and Wayne’s team, and now a member of the Constabulary. Selis gives us a view into the nobility, the somewhat ossified stratum at the top of Elendel society. But she’s more than that – the Selis of this narrative is cool, collected, seems to have a plan for every contingency – matched with an iron will, and a terrifying ability to pretend, mostly successfully, that she’s perfectly normal. She’s an absolute pleasure to read, and her relationship with Wax is given new life here. It’s still odd, but the extra time on the page lets some of the complexity out into the air, and makes their scenes together a fascinating read.

Marasi gives us a perspective on the law and order of Elendel;  her travails as a newly promoted Lieutenant are a fraught read. The casual petty spite she encounters is both shocking, and entirely believable. Her efforts to become worthy of the position that she holds, to prove herself an effective and valuable member of the team, are always interesting. She also starts to re-evaluate her relationship with Wax and Wayne, a development which has a great deal of promise. It’s a shame that she doesn’t feel like she has enough to do – the investigative work is still here, and Sanderson manages to make the central mystery intense and intriguing, but Marasi feels like she’s still out on the periphery. Still, when present, her scenes are still thoroughly enjoyable.

From a plot standpoint, we’re in a mix of familiar and unfamiliar territory. There’s fast-paced chases. There’s Wax leaping all over the place, trying to bring down bad guys. As already alluded to, there’s a wonderful strand of investigation, which starts with a slow burn, and has what I’d describe as a game-changing payoff. There’s several larger issues, wrapped up in the chase scenes and gunfights, and those absolutely explode across the page, alongside a couple of really excellent twists, which certainly kept me guessing. Sanderson’s always been great at writing a plot that means you can’t put the book down once you start reading, and he’s done the same again here.  I’d love to get into the detail here, but am anxious to avoid spoilers.

In any event – is this worth reading? Well, if you’re already a Sanderson fan, absolutely. That said, you’ll need to read Alloy of Law first. I think you could read this as a stand-alone, just about, but it’s part of a cohesive set of character and narrative arcs set up in the first volume of the series, and the payoff is far greater if you’re across those fully. But if you’ve finished the Alloy of Law, and want to see more of the world that Sanderson’s crafted so skilfully, then this book will reward your attention – with fire, blood, excitement, and adventure. Pick it up, and start reading!

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