Brandon Sanderson is one of the best and most prolific fantasy writers of our day, and—for my money—his Mistborn series is the best of his many (often interconnected) worlds. The first trilogy had some very high highs and some very low lows. The relationship between the romantic leads, in particular, could be bad to the point of tortuous at points, with more angst and cliché than anyone should have to experience. But Sanderson succeeded where so many writers who tread into epic scope trip and fall: he managed an ending that lived up to the stakes he had raised up to that point. I don’t think anyone has ever done it better and, despite the foibles, that ending is what made the original Mistborn trilogy a success.
Since then, his books in this setting have only gotten stronger. In Alloy of Law, Sanderson skipped forward a couple of centuries and thus changed the setting from typical fantasy (swords and spears) to early industrial (steam trains and revolvers). The new setting is a much better fit for Sanderson’s writing, for one, since he’s never been interested in the historical particulars of his settings and there are a lot fewer opportunities for jarring anachronisms in a setting that is essentially modern. The setting also allows for Sanderson to keep pushing the envelope on his theological and philosophical speculations, a line of inquiry that never overshadows the story or becomes preachy but does add enough heft to the books that they transcend escapism and actually have interesting things to say.
It doesn’t hurt that his two new main characters—Wax and Wayne—are great. But what stands out most of all is the romantic plotline he has given his readers in Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, and The Bands of Mourning (which is already out and which I’ve already read) that takes basically everything that went horribly, horribly awry in the original Mistborn trilogy and inverts it, making a story that is unique, compelling, and touching.
This romantic story—which is still unfolding in The Bands of Mourning—does not dominate the trilogy. We have all the usual Sanderson greats: robberies, assassinations, murders, investigations, and lots and lots of wisecrack-laden fights. And of course, very, very convoluted and ever-unfolding systems of magic which vary between endearing and kind of boring, although—here, again—this is handled better than in the first trilogy.
All in all, Shadows of Self is a solid entrant in a great series, but it is not a singular work in anyway. This is why my original Goodreads review was barely two paragraphs.1 I very highly recommend that everyone who likes fantasy at all read it, but it wouldn’t be high on my list as an award-contender. If anything, it’s just another example of why the Hugos could use some kind of series award (although I realize the logistics are complicated on that one).