Shadows of Self — Brandon Sanderson
The thing about Brandon Sanderson is not just that he is prolific, nor is it the fact that the quality of his books improves with every release. Those are spectacular and admirable things that make his (many, many) fans so very happy. But it’s more than that. It’s the scale of his grand universe, and the exciting worlds he’s created that grow in complexity, and the enthralling casts of characters that fill them.
Shadows of Self is the second book of the second Mistborn series. That is to say that it’s the fifth book in the long-form series taking place on Scadrial, one of the planets in Sanderson’s Cosmere. (The Cosmere, if you’ve forgotten, is his universe.) The grand Mistborn series is being split by era, from a sort-of-Victorian, to a post-industrial western, and finally to a spacefaring culture in an 80s-ish setting (if I’m remembering that last one correctly).
The series does something I’ve never seen before in speculative fiction: it looks at how a complex magic system might affect the trajectory of technological and cultural evolution in the long term, especially when that magic is not available to everyone — social and practical issues play a huge role in the adventures that ensue. (Don’t mistake me here: there are plenty of amazing series that take place over millennia [Dune, anyone?] but Mistborn is different in that the magic specifically has an impact on the world’s development.)
Shadows of Self follows Wax and Wayne, the gunslinging Twinborn (meaning they were born able to use two kinds of Scadrial’s metal-using magic) crime-fighting duo as they continue to adjust to life in the big city after returning from the Roughs in The Alloy of Law.
“Polite” society doesn’t sit will with Wax (the Lord of a major house), who operates as a vigilante in Elendel, the city that cropped up around the fateful location of the final moments of the first Mistborn trilogy. His vigilantism, while generally appreciated, puts a burr under the saddle of several different groups: the police, who regularly have to clean up his messes; the gentry, who scoff at the idea that one of the highborn can be such a ruffian; and the crime syndicates, who are thwarted time and again by his heroic efforts. Wax tries to juggle responsibilities he dislikes with his self-imposed duties as a lawman, and between the resulting stress and the pressure of solving a series of murders, he alone makes for an exciting read.
For me, and I’m sure for many others, the treat in Shadows of Self is Wayne. Learning more about Wax’s witty companion and following him through a few emotionally challenging moments constitute some of the more rewarding parts of the read. Wayne’s incredible wit, bizarre personal morality, and impressive grasp of the subtleties of language make him equal-parts charming and hilarious to read. The shenanigans he gets into brought smiles to my lips while I read Shadows of Self.
The twists and turns in Shadows of Self are a pleasure, and most of them completely surprised me. The fact that each in turn could be explained (if not entirely, then at least satisfactorily) by information from the first trilogy is testament to Sanderson’s impressive planning. Granted, he gives himself room to play, but he limits himself by building complex and heavily-governed magic systems. The villain is unexpected, yet totally makes sense. The mechanism for that villain’s defeat equally so. All in all, a book that left me totally satisfied and craving the next release.
One final thought about Mr. Sanderson before we part, dear reader. A thing I like best about his work is the regular issue that his characters face with Gods, most of which are living beings within the story. Shadows of Self is no exception. The fact that Wax can literally commune with God does not change the fact that he experiences doubt, especially when he finds out that his God has betrayed him. This gnostic turmoil is one of the things I look forward to most when picking up a new Sanderson novel, and he executes brilliantly every time.
An absolutely terrific novel. Read his work. There’s a very good reason he’s considered among the best in the biz these days.