The Metallic Revolution: A Non-Spoiler Review of Brandon Sanderson’s Shadows of Self

Following the 2011 release of The Alloy of Law, the Twinborn lawman Waxillium Ladrian, his time-bending buddy Wayne, and eager, public servant Marasi are back, bounding through the streets of the metropolis that Elendel has become. Taking place several centuries after the original Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson has taken his world of metallic magic and thrown it into the midst of Scadrial’s industrial revolution, complete with electricity, automobiles, and skyscrapers. Though there may not be as many people flinging themselves off of every curve of steel they see, there’s plenty of mischief and mayhem for our heroes to take care of.

Picking up one year after Alloy, Sanderson’s Shadows of Self begins with Wax, Wayne, and Marasi carving out lives for themselves in the city proper.

Wax is learning the ropes of truly acting as a noble, while “helping,” the local constabulary on the side, (which generally means doing and shooting whatever the hell he wants and leaving them to clean it up). Wayne is tagging along for the ride, earning money however he can, and being a pain in the neck. And Marasi is working as a constable with the Elendel police department, and doing her best to smooth out the relationship between Wax, Wayne, and the cops. Meanwhile, Wax is struggling to find his sinister Uncle Edwarn and decipher the true mission of the secret Allomantic group known as The Set. On top of this, he has to truly bond with his betrothed, Marasi’s older half-sister, the rather benign-yet-proper Steris.

And yet these problems pale in comparison to the mystery that kicks off Shadows of Self. On the heels of an allomantic crook, Wax glimpses a dead man. And he should know: he’s the one who shot him. Bloody Tan, the man responsible for the death of Wax’s wife, Lessie, is seen walking the streets of Elendel, and no sooner than that a string of dead allomancers puts the trio, as well as the entire city, on edge. With a killer running around utilizing the Metallic Arts, enflaming tensions in the city on both social and religious grounds, an old enemy backing them, and glimpses of a divine struggle, Wax, Wayne, and Marasi are going to have their hands full.

The strengths of this novel are pure Sanderson. If you’ve come along the ride so far and enjoyed it, chances are you’re going to love the latest in this series. There’s a boatload of magical action, divine and Cosmere-related lore, some fun and interesting character developments, and a secondary world to die for. The benefit of this second book is that Sanderson has more room to breath now, and has a chance to stretch his limbs. If Alloy answered the immediate and burning questions of what would an Industrial Revolution world look like with the Metallic Arts in play, then Shadows of Self sets itself up to answer all the questions you forgot to ask the first time around. What happened to the Kandra? What is the Terris community like? What happened to Hemalurgy? What’s Harmony up to? Sanderson is so confident in his initial worldbuilding that when we do take side-trips to answer these and other questions, we can focus on them and not keep wondering about Elendel or our characters’ place in the city. We don’t get to wander much outside the city (I believe that will come up a bit more in the next novel, Bands of Mourning), but there are some visits to old locations that have seen better days, and even a few recognizable faces if you burn Tin and keep a sharp eye out…

The writing is solid, as always, with Sanderson’s economical prose and snappy dialogue helping to keep the pages spinning, even if that same dialogue does tend to go on a bit longer is strictly palatable. Humor is hard for writers to pull off, as Sanderson has acknowledged in the past, and while he has had success with characters such as Lightsong from Warbreaker, sometimes the banter in this book, especially between Wax and Wayne, seems a little forced and contrived. It never made me want to put the book down, but occasionally became too whimsical and winking-at-the-reader to fully enjoy. Luckily, Wax, Wayne, and Marasi are served well in this story when they’re separated; Sanderson gives each of them a compelling journey in this book that deepens these characters and their world by a large margin.

Wayne, I think, benefits the most from this. While he was the sidekick personified in Alloy, here we find out more about his past, what led him to Wax’s side, where it is he goes so often, and why he chooses to assume different identities through his impersonations. I was reminded a lot of Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil, in which Matt Murdock came from a past mired in terrible tragedy—but not only looked it in the eyes, but forced himself to look at the world in a happy, joyful way, because otherwise, he’d just collapse. Wayne gains some much needed complexity in Shadows of Self while staying true to his irreverence and jocularity, and firmly steps out of the sidekick shadow.

Likewise, Marasi levels up in a very substantial way; character-wise, she doesn’t go through much of a chance—that was all introduced very solidly in Alloy. But in terms of overall confidence and competence, she rises to the challenge. Working for the police allows her to utilize both her knowledge of law and her moral center to step up to some bad choices and combat them. Whether it’s convincing Wax to ease up on torture as a means to gain information, or seizing an opportunity for leadership in the middle of a crisis, Marasi gains a new strength of character through her actions, though she remains the same moral, level-headed, somewhat-hero-worshipping (where Wax is concerned) young woman that we’ve come to know and love.

There’s not much I can say about the arc of Wax’s character in this novel without running the risk of spoiling too much, but I’d say it comes down to two things: patience and faith. While Alloy showed he was quick with a bullet, Wax was also quick with his judgments. He’d fly off half-cocked at the first feeling, and likewise, he’d write off people in a moment’s notice, trusting his guts to determine his decisions. In Shadows of Self, he’s forced to take a look at his life and his choices and his morals, and interrogate them. He’s forced to trust those he doesn’t think he can trust, and give new opportunities to people he once dismissed. His scenes with Steris were some of my favorites, as he learns to give her the space to be herself around him, and she rises to meet the occasion of their engagement, and deal with what it means to be betrothed to the biggest vigilante in the city. All I can say about the issue of faith is that Harmony tests Wax in some truly brutal ways, and I wonder how he’s going to recover come Bands of Mourning…but I’ve said too much!

Shadows of Self is another success for Brandon Sanderson, who continues to not only remain a reliable writer of the fantastic, but continuously surprises his readers with new styles, new voices, and new mysteries, building sturdily upon the foundations he laid in The Alloy of Law and the Mistborn series. With new Cosmere lore to comb through, wonderful characterizations with new hidden depths, and a world that continues to blossom open and reveal its metallic wonders, Shadows of Self is a thoroughly satisfying read for Sanderson fans old and new.

Shadows of Self is available October 6th in the US from Tor Books, and October 9th in the UK from Gollancz.
Read the first seven chapters here on Tor.com, starting with the prologue!

Martin Cahill is a publicist by day, a bartender by night, and a writer in between. When he’s not slinging words at Tor.com, he’s contributing to Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and blogging at his own website when the mood strikes him. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, you can find him on Twitter @McflyCahill90; tweet him about how barrel-aging beers are kick-ass, tips on how to properly mourn Parks and Rec, and if you have any idea on what he should read next, and you’ll be sure to become fast friends.

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