I love Brandon Sanderson. I've read everything he's written for the adult market, from his first novel Elantris to his printing press busting The Way of Kings. His finest work to date is the Mistborn trilogy which contains one of the best beginnings and endings ever done in fantasy. So, it is with great remorse that I must say his most recent Mistborn universe release, The Alloy of Law, isn't very good, or rather it's not nearly as good as everything else Sanderson has written.
Set some 300 years (about?) after the events of The Hero of Ages, Waxillum is a lawkeeper from the Roughs who happens to be a member of one of the richest families in Elendel. When his Uncle dies in an accident, Wax is called home to administer the family fortune (or what's left of it). Of course some trouble has followed him from the Roughs and he'll have to stop it with the help of his snarky partner, Wayne. Yes, you read that right - Wax and Wayne. If this paragraph sounds a bit lighthearted, then I nailed it. Much like in Warbreaker, Sanderson is testing his limits in humor and levity to varying degrees of success.
The novel starts with a prologue featuring Wax in the Roughs, six-shooter in hand. The tone in these opening scenes conjures up rolling tumbleweeds and Danny Glover saying, "I'm too old for this shit," Assuming Sanderson would allow Danny Glover to say shit (he wouldn't). While most of the rest of the novel feels more Victorian than Wild West, the plot items are recognizably Western. Train robberies, good guys and bad guys, a protagonist with a personal code of honor, all conjure up the whistling theme of Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
That said, thematically Alloy of Law isn't a Western. The Western, as a genre, is about 'civilizing' the wilds, whether that's the natural element or the people that live there is inconsequential. None of that is present. Additionally, the Western world is organized around codes of honor and personal justice - not abstract law. Some of that is there, but only through Wax, and to a lesser degree Wayne, whom represent the ideals of the Roughs. For those in Elendel, where the entire narrative is housed, the social order is not only rigorous, it's set down and fundamentally abstract.
That sounds a bit like I'm being negative because Sanderson didn't deliver a Western. Not the case. I'm being negative because he didn't deliver substance. Alloy of Law is shallow. It has moments of entertainment - action packed sequences and witty back and forth. Of course, Sanderson excels with his world building and magic system concepts and applications. He shows how Scadrial has evolved since Vin and company triumphed over Ruin. Sazed (now Harmony) is not only mentioned, but present. All of that adds up to a rather accomplish piece of Mistborn fan fiction or a fun little story designed to be a pallette cleanser as much for the author himself as for his readers.
Given the beginning of the novel, and the flexibility to use the koloss and/or kandra (who are both functionally absent) to represent the 'indigent people', I saw many ways Sanderson could have engaged a deeper level with the novel as he does in nearly everything else he writes. Am I being unfair? Am I demanding a novel that Sanderson didn't want to write? Is this reader entitlement? Maybe. Probably. But expectations are a part of the game, and given Sanderson's past work I have an expectation of what I'm getting when I pick up a book with his name on the cover. For me, Alloy of Law under delivered, offering what was essentially an adventure short that lacked any of the thematic support necessary to sustain a novel.
Now, the real question... was I entertained? Yes! I enjoyed Alloy of Law. It interrupted my read of Never Knew Another (McDermott) and The Winds of Khalakovo (Beaulieu), two novels from Night Shade Books that are dense and full of nuance. Distracting me from these two titles was a surety as Sanderson's new novel is both bite sized and breakneck in its presentation. I would read it again, although not a second time and therein lies the rub. Visceral enjoyment is not enough, for the same reason that Independence Day is not a good film. Alloy of Law fails at a basic level to engage me as a reader beyond the words on the page.
In an interview with Nethspace, Sanderson was asked where Hoid was in the novel. His response was to say:
Hoid is in the book, though his name doesn’t appear. But the things happening here during this interim are not of deep interest to Hoid like the things happening in the original trilogy, so he is playing a much smaller role here than he was in the original trilogy.
Well, that's because they aren't that interesting. There's nothing epic here, in plot or in intent. It's just a guy named Wax and his buddy Wayne, fighting off a criminal who may or may not be part of something larger (admittedly the end of the novel hints strongly at the former). If Hoid isn't all that interested, why should I be? Alloy of Law is an aside for Brandon Sanderson, a break from his tireless schedule of his Stormlight Archive and Wheel of Time commitments. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it felt like when I read it.(less)
I don't read a lot of graphic novels, not so much because I don't like them, but because I have no earthly idea how to pick them. I mean just because I like the art doesn't mean the writing is any good, and I'm really not that much for art. So when I won Tor's New York (Not at) Comic Con Giveaway I was excited to see several graphic novels included. The first one I noticed in the bunch was Dear Creature and boy am I glad I did.
Drawn entirely in black and white, Jonathan Case's graphic novel tells the story of Grue - a sea mutant with a predilection for human flesh. He's awkward, gangly, and carries three crabs around with him who act more like devils-on-his-shoulder than parasitic companions. Surprisingly he also possesses a poet's heart. Through pages of Shakespeare stuffed into soda bottles and cast into the sea, Grue has fallen in love. Dear Creature is a love story of the oddest type between a monster and an agoraphobic woman.
Like every graphic novel I've read and loved (Watchmen being the standard bearer of course), the highlight is the writing. Case is both hilarious, through his crusty crustaceans, and poignant, in Grue's wooing. There is also a brilliance coming from Grue's dialogue which is written entirely in iambic pentameter. For those without previous exposure to ol' Shakespeare's rhythmic writing style, Case went to the trouble of including a primer in the back that's laugh out loud funny and informative.
The art itself has a very pulp quality that conveys some noir sensibilities in its use of light and shadow, but also a certain flair that's identifiable to me as Western. Of course there's a mounted cop that has a thing for the local 'working girl', so I suppose the Western elements aren't all that inconspicuous. My one complaint is in choosing the black and white palette. While striking, some panels become difficult to follow especially in the under water scenes that lack the stark white contrast.
Nested within the larger arc, is a secondary story featuring the aforementioned cop and his 'working girl'. While the response to Grue's love of his human soulmate is (perhaps) warranted given his history of violent crime and outwardly monstrous appearance, this secondary story demonstrates humanity's capacity for closed mindedness. It also highlights an unwillingness to look beyond ourselves as the cop becomes persecutor and persecuted.
All told Dear Creature is wonderfully imagined. The writing is crisp and quirky, complimenting the story, and its art, perfectly. Although I'm a neophyte in the reading (and even more so in the reviewing) or graphic novels, I would strongly recommend this one to all fans of the medium.(less)
I've read some crazy good debuts over the last twelve months, including two of the best novels I read last year. It's not the norm, however, for a debut author to spring forth like Athena, fully grown and ready to kick some ass. And Elspeth Cooper's (can we agree that Elspeth is a cool name?) Songs of the Earth is more the norm, a well conceived and well written novel that suffers from debut hiccups.
Cooper's protagonist is Gair, a holy-knight-in-training who's been exiled and branded by the Church for witchcraft. Starved and battered, he finds help from a mysterious man who can teach him to control the magical song in his mind. The man, Alderan, is a member of an ancient order of Guardians, charged with protecting the barrier between the world and something akin to Hell. What follows is the 'magical school' plot device that's so widely applied across the genre, and for the most part it's well done, although the focus remains more on Gair's romance with an older woman than education.
While Gair's journey is the primary story line, other plots are afoot, including Church politicking as Preceptor Ansel prepares for a coming conflict. Coming conflict I say? Can I provide more details? Well, not really, which caused some consternation. Maybe Cooper is being too subtle, or maybe I'm dense, but Ansel spends a great deal of time researching, plotting, and executing (maybe?) something. 460 pages later, it's not clear at all what that is. I might have a guess about the ultimate goal, but the methods he's laying out to accomplish them? I've got nothing.
For me, Ansel's sequences were far more compelling than Gair's. Populated by interesting characters with blurred morality, it's unfortunate they function more like an extended epilogue, as none of it felt relevant to the main arc. Of course, it whet my appetite for the next book, the obvious intent, but interspersing it throughout the novel slows the narrative, leading to a novel with inconsistent pace.
There is one other niggle that bears mentioning. A moment occurs about halfway through the novel where Gair demonstrates a capability with no groundwork to support it. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and somewhat impeaches what is in my mind a tremendous first half of a novel. In fact, had I written this review based solely on the preceding pages, I would be stringing together a series of superlatives. All of which goes to say, Cooper absolutely has the talent to succeed.
Despite some bumps in the road, I found Songs an enjoyable read. The characters are well drawn, some exceptionally so (Alden), and Cooper demonstrates a knack for believable dialogue. Her descriptive prose flows well especially in action sequences where her familiarity with swordplay is apparent. Also, some of the novel's most impressive moments come in the aforementioned romance. What could have come off awkward and stilted, always felt sweet and natural.
Given what I know about Cooper, and what she's shown in Songs of the Earth, I have a strong feeling the Wild Hunt series will be more well regarded as a whole, than the first installment on its own. Numerous fantasy series have started slow before catching fire. With a little more polish and experience, I can see Elspeth Cooper doing just that.(less)