The Alloy of Law (2011) is a stand-alone novel set in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn universe. Taking place centuries after the events of the original trilogy, The Alloy of Law depicts a semi-industrialised fantasy world, with a culture grown up around both rudimentary technology and refined magic. As with Mr. Sanderson's previous books, The Alloy of Law is excellently composed and great entertainment, but, sadly, nothing more.
Aesthetically, the story resembles a Western - with train robberies, blazing handguns and dusters flapping dramatically in the wind. There are some familiar Western themes as well. The hero, Wax Ladrian, is an aging (well, forties) gunman from a good family. After years of bringing law and order to the Roughs, Wax returns to the capital of Elendel to put his own house in order.
Wax's frontier justice clashes with the niceties of civilisation, prompting all sorts of wacky hijinks and mid-city gunplay. Wax's quest to restore his family honor and solve a series of train robberies brings out all the old chestnuts: he's too old for this, he's exactly the right man for the job, city folk don't understand how to get things done, the city is more dangerous than the wilderness, people speak plainer n' act straighter out in the Roughs, etc. etc. Time-honoured stuff, and The Alloy of Law does a solid job recycling these hoary old tropes into an offbeat new setting. If it feels familiar, it is because it is - but that's not to say that it isn't a lot of fun.
Similarly, Wax's sidekicks are straight out of central casting. If Wax is the stoic sheriff, a troubled man with faith in the law and a tendency to take problems onto his own back, his friend Wayne is the easy-going, wise-cracking, genial troublemaker. Wayne is the Dean Martin to Wax's John Wayne, an Ullenspiegellian chaos-gnome flitting about in the wake of Wax's ponderous heroism.
Marasi, the love interest, makes an awkward third. She's the city girl with a slightly star-struck appreciation for Wax's heroics (she's studied him in school). Marasi's almost right, as a character, but she's defensive enough about her own slightly-regressive position to draw unnecessary attention to her Hermione-like role on the sidelines. Marasi knows what the the "self-actualised woman" is, but she resists the social pressure to follow it. She'd be happy to get sucked into the action, she explains, but really, she prefers "lacy dresses and smelling like flowers" (156).
Brandon Sanderson's settings are always wonderfully detailed, and The Alloy of Law is no exception. The towering city of Elendel and the dusty streets of the Roughs spring from the page fully formed, with Wax, Wayne and Marasi all guiding the reader through the clothes, mannerisms, food, homes and all the other bits and pieces that make the world so believable.
And, rather than rely on magic as a mysterious plot-moving go-juice, The Alloy of Law is an exploration of precisely how a magical world operates. Mr. Sanderson excels at the systemisation of magic, and, as a result, The Alloy of Law could pass as a paranormal steampunk Baedeker's, with science and "allomancy" powering an industrial revolution. But, although its aesthetic may be based on the Western, the book is ultimately science fiction. Mr. Sanderson defines magic as an internally consistent process and uses this book to explore its nuances and cultural impact.
As audiences have come to expect from Mr. Sanderson, readers can bask in the intricate connections The Alloy of Law shares with his other novels. The author's recent declaration that all of his work (including The Alloy of Law) fits into an enormous (proposed) 36-volume mega-series comes as no surprise. His Cosmere is a self-contained universe with its own narrative physics and pixel-perfect continuity. Everything is perfectly, rationally, consistently rendered. It is a stunning example of totally immersive fantasy, and taken as such, it is hard to find anyone that's doing it better. As the winner of last year's David Gemmell Legend Award, it is clear that many readers agree.
Detail, however is no substitute for depth. Building a secondary world for its own sake, no matter how magnificent it may be, is a limiting process. Ultimately, this is what separates very good fantasies from great fantasies. Authors like Tolkien and Lewis built worlds that attempted to represent something bigger than themselves - they used the freedom of a secondary world setting to encapsulate complex ideas in a way that conventional fiction could not. With the many options granted by its genre-crossing composition (fantasy setting, Western aesthetics and science fiction construction), The Alloy of Law could have tackled any one of a thousand greater themes - from the advent of industrialisation to the relationship of humanity with technology. Instead, The Alloy of Law seems perfectly content to be taken at face value. Each addition to the Cosmere makes it broader, but no deeper.
The Alloy of Law is yet another example of a good - a very good - fantasy novel from Mr. Sanderson, but not a great one. The building blocks of a good story are characters, plot and setting, and Mr. Sanderson yet again shows that he can work deftly with all three. But a great story needs something more, and it is disappointing that The Alloy of Law doesn't even try to reach for it.