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November 9, 2011

Review: The Alloy of Law

Posted by on Nov 9, 2011
The Alloy of Law

Brandon Sanderson had an interesting thought one day: why is it that fantasy worlds stand still chronologically? Sure they often have great and epic histories, but the world itself doesn’t seem to advance over time. As the Wheel of Time so eloquently puts it:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.

What if, instead of this kind of stasis, a fantasy world lived and grew over time just like our world does. How would the growth of technology effect magic? Would they become anathema to each other and cause wars that sundered the world, or would they combine harmoniously and create miracles never before considered?

It’s an interesting question, and it’s exactly what Brandon Sanderson has set out to explore with The Alloy of Law. Set in the same universe as his Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial, a world where certain people are gifted with the ability to transmute metal dusts into various powers, this book tells its tale hundreds of years after the conclusion of The Hero of Ages.

The Alloy of Law opens as a man, dressed in a duster and clutching a revolver, stalks several bandits across a dusty abandoned town. The man, Wax, is a lawman and he’s hunting a ruthless killer. The scene could be right out of the Old West, right up until Wax ‘burns’ steel and uses his powers of Allomancy to hurl himself out of the way of incoming bullets. Just as our world grew past swords and spears and into trains and guns as the centuries passed, so too has Scadrial.

It’s an interesting idea – there’s no reason that a world in which Feruchemy and Allomancy exist couldn’t also develop guns, trains and electricity. In fact, the change in culture and technology over time presents new issues and twists for an author to consider. The Mistborn trilogy was in many ways a story of subsistence, of survival against an evil that threatened to destroy the world. In The Alloy of Law, those who no longer have to struggle to survive can focus their wits on other things; the nobility develop society and its myriad rules of propriety, the merchants create contracts and complex financial schemes, and criminals plot to take it all away from both of them.

It’s a world in which the idea of morality is much more important. The hero standing tall before the encroaching doom doesn’t concern themselves with morality; their cause is good in and of itself. It’s the constable in a crowded city deciding whether to arrest the thief stealing bread to feed their family who lives in a world shaded entirely in gray. Sanderson understands this idea well, and gives us protagonists who make it work: the lawman who doesn’t fit well in the rigors of noble society and his incorrigible sidekick who can’t help but ‘borrow’ half the things he walks past. They’re not exactly heroes, but they’re undeniably the ‘good guys’.

The story of The Alloy of Law is solid, and Mistborn’s magical elements keeps the action fresh and interesting. Sanderson has adapted many of the powers you came to know and love from Mistborn to the world in which guns and dynamite are prevalent. Wax has the allomantic ability to push on metals, which allows him do things like stop bullets in mid air or supercharge his own shots so they can strike through tables and other barriers. It brings a whole new dimension to the gunfight at the OK Corral.

My one issue with The Alloy of Law is something I also noticed in Sanderson’s new book The Way of Kings. I’ve talked previously about the dangers of failing to effectively establish rules for the magic system in fantasy worlds, and I found out recently that Sanderson agrees in many ways. However, I think he’s taken his own advice a little too much to heart. He has the habit of explicitly explaining how the powers work, where he would be much better served working it in through context. Sometimes it feels like he’s hitting you over the head with the rules, which while critical to have, are not the point.

To really understand how The Alloy of Law explores the idea of fantasy worlds that evolve over time, it helps to have read Mistborn, but that is by no means a prerequisite. The Alloy of Law provides a fun, short, adventure through a world whose similarity to our own is striking despite the abundance of magical powers. Fans of fantasy will find Sanderson’s usual craftsmanship combined with an entertaining cast of characters makes for a good way to spend a couple hours.