Monday, March 28, 2016

Down the Stacks #26: The Alloy of Law

It’s Brandon Sanderson time once more here on Down the Stacks.  I just can’t stay away from the man’s genius for worldbuilding and characters.  This week’s sample from the Cosmere is The Alloy of Law, first entry in Sanderson’s second series set on the world of Scadriel, home of the Mistborn trilogy that put Sanderson on the map.  Alloy is set three centuries after Mistborn, so what spoilers the book contains for the original trilogy are hidden under the veneer of legend and quasi-religious titles for Mistborn’s major players.  For the sake of those who haven’t read Mistborn yet, I’ll avoid mentioning the original trilogy as much as possible while setting the stage.
If you’re still willing, read on ahead.

To put it as simply as possible, Mistborn ended with a major change to Scadriel and the rise of a new Shard to oversee it: Harmony.  In the ensuing three centuries leading up to Alloy of Law, technology has advanced from medieval man- and horsepower to the dawn an industrial revolution complete with electricity, steam trains, guns, and the introduction of the automobile.  The little corner of the world that we get to see in the book is divided between the massive but organized metropolis of Elendel and the Wild West-esque frontier lands known as the Roughs.  Elendel is ruled by powerful merchant houses who generally aren’t that bad of taking care of the people under their employ, while out in the Roughs order is mostly maintained by anyone with the ability and the guts to punish lawbreakers.
Underneath all off this is Scadriel’s systems of magic: Allomancy and Feruchemistry, both of which are based around metals.  Both abilities are fairly rare and limited in scope on an individual basis.  An allomancer can ingest a certain metal and then willingly “burn” it to use the power associated with that metal, while feruchemists can store attributes such as weight, health, wakefulness, and even social connection in certain metals and then draw upon those store later.  In the days of Mistborn, Feruchemistry was limited to a specific race of people who could use every known “magical”-type metal, and Mistborns themselves were the rare allomancers who could burn every type.  Nowadays, allomancers and feruchemists are limited to a single metal per magic system, one allomantic metal and one feruchemist metal if they have both gifts.  A lucky few of these “Twinborn” have the same metal for their allomantic and feruchemical gift and they can get some extra benefits from burning a feruchemically charged metal.  There are sixteen metals known for allomantic and feruchemical powers: eight pure metals and eight alloys that grant an opposing power to their base metal.

Our hero in The Alloy of Law is Waxillium Ladriel, scion of House Ladriel who has spent twenty years as a lawman in the Roughs because he could not stand living under his uncle’s thumb.  Wax is a Twinborn who can burn steel to push against distant sources of metal - either to move the metal or move himself around, depending on his weight relative to the metal he’s pushing against - and use feruchemical iron to adjust his weight.  This power combination makes him an incredibly agile and deadly gunman who can push his bullets to fly faster.  At the start of the story, Wax has just received a letter asking him to return to Elendel and take responsibility for House Ladriel in the wake of his uncle’s demise, but Wax is disinclined to do so until a criminal he’s hunting that day takes his girlfriend hostage and manages to pull her into the path of one of his bullets.  Suitably shaken by this tragedy, Wax returns to the city and sets about the task of getting his house’s finances back into solvency by any legal means possible, including arranging to marry the daughter of a lesser but richer House.  He can’t quite shake off the spirit of the lawman he used to be, and when his old partner Wayne shows up in town and Wax’s fiance is kidnapped by a mysterious gang of train-thieves called the Vanishers, Wax slips into his old role to unravel the mystery.
Wax is a dyed-in-the-wool Western hero, combining a strong sense of justice with incredible gunplay skills and a dry, grumpy approach to humor.  Wayne is a foil to Wax, and that makes him an ideal sidekick.  Wayne is a former thief who still has strong kleptomaniac tendencies, cannot hold a gun without his hands shaking terribly, and is a master of disguise of unparalleled skill.  At one point, he successfully pass himself off as three different people to a single city guard within the span of a few minutes.  In battle, Wayne wields dueling canes and uses his bendalloy allomancy to create bubbles of accelerated time around himself and his opponent and gold feruchemistry to heal from otherwise serious wounds.  Wayne has a devil-may-care attitude toward life that leads him to make many a teasing comment to Wax, woh returns them in kind, and his humor factor is raised by how he “trades” random objects to justify his taking things he likes or needs for the investigation.
Tagging along with Wax and Wayne on their adventure is Marasi, the cousin of Wax’s fiance, a student of criminal justice, and unabashed fangirl of Roughs lawmen and Wax in particular.  Marasi is the audience's lens for learning about industrial-era Scadriel and some of how Wax and Wayne operate, but she’s just capable enough to be more than a hanger-on for our heroes.  Her allomantic metal is cadmium, the opposite of Wayne’s bendalloy, so she can create bubbles of dramatically slower time.
Nobody ever claimed that every allomantic/feruchemic power was actually useful.

Although it takes place after the Mistborn trilogy, The Alloy of Law stands on its own well enough that you could read, understand, and enjoy it without reading the original trilogy.  The characters are all very well-built and interesting to read, the magic fits quite well into the world without disrupting anything, and the plot moves along at an energetic pace with lots of action and humor.  That said, there are elements of the meta-narrative that will pass right over your head if you haven’t read Mistborn beforehand.  Whether you do or not is up to you; you’ll enjoy The Alloy of Law either way, just to different degrees.

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