“I’d like to write a western.” That’s what I imagine going through Brandon Sanderson’s mind. “With a nod to superheroes. And what the hell, let’s make it Hollywood-friendly. A superhero Hollywood western, that’s what we need.” If that was his plan, he succeeded. Unfortunately, the pyrotechnic chase leaves credibility and story gasping by the way.
I first encountered Sanderson via Mistborn, and I looked forward to returning to that world. Unfortunately, the years I’ve been gone seem to have blurred the crucial last pages of The Hero of Ages, the prequel to Alloy. Even going back to check them, I didn’t find the language Sanderson relies on so heavily here. References to Harmony and the Words of Founding left me floundering, rather than grounded, since it seemed I should know them. References to various Allomantic powers tended to be awkward little information dumps – more mechanical than interesting.
Background is a minor issue, however. Sanderson notes that he wanted to work with a world that evolved. What bothered me is what this evolved into. From the interesting, original world of the Final Empire, emerges a world that could largely be drawn from a generic Hollywood western. The marshal who tries to retire, but returns to fight one last bad guy, the trusty sidekick who makes jokes but is steadfastly subordinate to his hallowed boss. Plus one plucky damsel and one distressed. Bad guys just need to shoot things up from time to time. Good guys take responsibility for everything, even when it’s not conceivably their fault. It’s fine as a western, but it’s so determined to be a western that it forgets its SFF side. (Though it does throw in a nod to New York policing.)
Even more troubling is how much this seems to be pre-scripted for a movie option. There are all sorts of sequences that sound like they’d make great visual special effects. As prose, though, they fall flat. Worse, they take precedence over the story. It’s not a huge obstacle, but when I want Hollywood, I go to the movies. I read books for narrative, not flash. I don’t know whether Sanderson was consciously aiming at producers, or has simply seen too many films. Either way, it didn’t work for me.
Some of the characters’ quirks seem similarly contrived. Wayne works to hard to be interesting that he’s just not believable. Rushing to catch the bad guys and save the good ones, Wax takes time for apparently talented sketches. Initially, I assumed the references would be the foundation of internal illustrations, but those never turned up, which left the sketches hanging as a weird distraction. They’d look great on screen, I’m sure.
Sanderson’s built his reputation on logical magic systems pursued to their logical extremes. Here, however, he throws in some loopholes of the comic book variety. Some Allomancers can slow time. But a gun fired from a slow-time bubble deflects unpredictably. There’s a good narrative reason for this – otherwise those folks could just shoot everybody and be done with it – but there’s no good in-story reason for it, and it breaks from the relative logic of the magic system. A portion of the finale is similarly based on an ex machina solution.
Because this is so strongly a comic book western, there’s relatively little surprise in it. You can predict from early on what the broad strokes of the story will be, and you’ll be right, even down to some of the comic flourishes.
People like to say that space opera is descended from westerns. There’s a way to bring them together while keeping the spirit of each (e.g., some of Bob Shaw’s stories). Unfortunately, this is largely a standard western inhabited by comic book superheroes and begging to be adapted to the screen. Maybe it’s all in support of what appears to be a Mistborn game.
This is not to say that Alloy is a bad book; it’s quite readable. However, it’s a pretty substantial disappointment from Sanderson – enough of one that while I’ll read his other work, I’ll think twice about dipping back into this era of the projected-to-be-long Mistborn sequence.