Brandon Sanderson is well known for his high fantasy work, but he’s also known to stretch his wings and explore other worlds beyond the universe of the Cosmere. He’s got a science fiction epic in Skyward, and a trilogy about rampaging dystopian superheroes in The Reckoners Trilogy. And here, in the brand new novella collection, Legion: the Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, he has the sci-fi-infused noir adventures of Stephen Leeds, also known as Legion, an expert in just about everything. Well, sorry, not him, but the people in his head.
See, Stephen Leeds has a condition, but it’s unlike anything anyone has ever seen. His mind manifests what he calls aspects, complete personalities and people conjured from his brain, each an expert in something he is trying to learn about. Stephen has churned out dozens of these aspects in the last ten years or so—Ivy, his psychiatrist that walks with him and aids him in understanding human behavior; Tobias, the historian who helps him make sense of his surroundings and their impact—thanks to the tutelage of a mysterious woman named Sandra, since fled from his life. And when you have a person who can suddenly be an expert in photography, forensic science, engineering, quantum physics, Hebrew, and more, people want to either study him, or hire him.
Sanderson doesn’t spend so much time worrying about where these aspects come from; they’re important to the story, and to Stephen of course, but narratively it’s more about who they are and what they can do rather than where they’re from. Other characters wonder about their origins, and Stephen himself has to be careful to stick to the “rules” of his aspects, in order to keep their fiction straight. Stephen knows he’s not well, but creating these fictional people in his mind are enough to help him focus his psychosis. His common refrain is that he’s sane, but in constantly working to negotiate what reality is around him, Sanderson gets to interrogate and dig up just what that concept may mean to someone whose reality is in constant flux, and develops rules to keep that reality from crumbling.
Due to the length of the novellas, there are moments of short-hand that could have used more time to treat a character with an unspecified mental illness as more than a plot device, or entertainment, but what Sanderson lacks in delicacy, he makes up for in empathy. He may not always nail the complexities and realities of a character with a mental illness, but he never demeans, degrades, or elevates Stephen because of his abilities, nor is he relegated to the status of the “special person” because of his disability. Sanderson does his best to grapple with reality and truth, and while there are some stumbles, it always handled with empathy.
Overall, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds works because it’s Sanderson’s signature fast-paced plot, quick and quirky writing, and abundance of ideas that take place in our own world, and work to interrogate the mysteries in our own universe that we take for granted: religion, genetic tampering, and more. If you enjoy Sanderson’s work—or simply don’t want to get too invested in a major fantasy epic—this is a perfect short series, and definitely showcases one strong aspect of his writing.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.