Brandon Sanderson is no stranger to post-apocalyptic fantasy. Global cataclysms form the backdrop for his Mistborn novels, The Stormlight Archive, and Elantris. Even The Wheel of Time series, which he helped complete, takes place in a world defined by having already been broken. So to say that “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Sanderson’s new short story in the upcoming Dangerous Women anthology, is a post-apocalyptic fantasy may not surprise you. That being said, Sanderson is doing something new with what we might call his favorite sub-genre. “Shadows for Silence” displays a kind of desperation and hopelessness; it gave me a sense of a world that had been truly abandoned, without the customary promise of salvation that I’ve come to expect from Sanderson. And the reason for that, I think, is the way this world is at risk of being depleted.
The world in which “Shadows for Silence in the Forest of Hell” is set has been invaded by something the inhabitants call “the Evil,” a force that manifests in the Shades. These ghostly presences haunt the forest that seems to cover much of the world, and they enforce a series of Simple Rules. “Don’t kindle flame, don’t shed the blood of another, don’t run at night.” If you do any of these things, the Shades will come, and they will ruin you. The touch of a shade withers flesh, and if they catch you they will turn you into dust, allowing your spirit to rise as another Shade. Ghosts with a strong zombie theme.
So what can humans do? How do people live in this world? Well, there’s one thing that can hold Shades back: silver. Shades and silver are mutually destructive, so when a shade comes in contact with silver it is wounded, while the silver rots away into useless dust. Of course, silver is expensive, difficult to come by, and ultimately finite. Silence Malone, our grim protagonist, has more trouble procuring enough silver to maintain her safe inn in the middle of the forest every year.
Silver is an interesting material for Sanderson to make essential here. Mistborn fans are well acquainted with magically essential metals; allomancers ingest metals and burn them to perform a variety of magics. But not all metals are important in Mistborn. Silver, in particular, has no allomantic properties whatsoever. An allomancer who tried to burn it would sicken and potentially die. Sanderson originally intended silver to be an allomantic metal, and planned for it to dramatically improve a “Silvereyes’” senses. However, during research he discovered that pewter wasn’t actually an alloy of silver, despite the claims made to him by hobby store salesmen in his youth, so he replaced silver with tin.
As nice as it is to see silver get its moment in the shade, “Shadows for Silence” still made me feel deeply anxious about the sustainability of humanity on this world. Silver isn’t just some currency, it’s an essential lifeline, and it gets used up while keeping people alive. Sanderson has commoditized safety, monetized the ability to sleep well at night without fear of turning into a horrific ghost, and in doing so created a sense of long-term hopelessness that’s rather chilling.
In this way “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” reminded me most of the beginning of the third Mistborn novel, The Hero of Ages. The first two hundred pages of that book are grim. Things are bad, humanity is being slowly choked to death by forces beyond their power to fight against, and it’s hard to see how things are ever going to get better. But there’s a crucial difference: the Mistborn trilogy had heroes, brave, powerful people who I believed were going to succeed in the end. People who wanted to make a difference and were empowered to do so. I don’t see any such heroes here. Silence has no one to rely on but herself and her family. She struggles constantly to scrape out an existence, and every victory comes with significant sacrifice. She doesn’t have global ambitions, nor would she be able to bring them about if she did. It makes sense to me now why Sanderson said this story was set in “an unimportant shardworld.” This isn’t a place with heroes waiting to save the day. It isn’t gearing up for a titanic battle against evil that will set the world right. The titanic events are in this world’s past, and there’s nowhere for anyone to go but down.
Brandon Sanderson takes that gloomy mood and makes of it a fantastic spin on his established oeuvre. He’s created a melancholic, desperate adventure that is recognizably his own but still very different, tonally, from what has come before. Sanderson excels at populating his world with powerful optimists. Kelsier and Elend are planners, doers, people who will strive with everything they have to save what they care about, and who have the greatness of heart to care about everything and everyone. Although Kaladin has his dark moments, he has the capacity to throw everything he has into protecting his soldiers, and the fire to bounce back from a history that should have broken him. When faced with impossible odds, most of Sanderson’s protagonists get stronger, work harder, and achieve more. As powerful a message as those characters send, it’s great to see Sanderson breaking out of his mold, showing that he can write characters who only succeed at a nearly insufferable price. Eschewing his standard models will only make his writing richer.
Carl Engle-Laird is the editorial assistant for Tor.com. He is one of the Way of Kings rereaders and Tor.com’s resident Stormlight Archive correspondent. He would prefer it if the zombie ghosts would leave this place. You can follow him on Twitter.