Hardcover, 447 pages
Published January 26th 2016 by Tor Books
When asked to recommend a book series for people entering the fantasy genre for the first time, I often will recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. It’s action packed, has an amazing magical system that is used to the fullest, is complex while being easy to read, has ample depth and plot twists to satisfy just about everyone. With 2011’s Alloy of Law, Sanderson began the new chapter of the Mistborn series; he moves seamlessly forwards a couple hundred years, along with the technology, history, and references to the original trilogy you would expect. Despite that, Alloy was a bit on the anemic side for a lot of readers – it was witty, entertaining, and explored some of the possibilities of the allomancy magic system (and the other systems in the series) in a future setting. However, it lacked some of the ‘oomph’ and background story that the original three Mistborn books contained.
That said, Alloy of Law was not technically part of the Mistborn trilogy-of-trilogies (or quadralogy of trilogies, I’m not even sure anymore), but rather a standalone that happened to be in the same time period as the second Mistborn trilogy. An introduction to this new series, which are generally referred to as the ‘Wax and Wayne‘ set, after the two title characters.
With 2015’s Shadows of Self, Brandon returned to a similar format to the original Mistborn trilogy, with ample amounts of historical references, some returning characters, and plenty of action and plot twists. In my review for it, I referenced the fact that I’d heard some grumblings that Sanderson had plateau’d a bit – a fact I did not agree with, but was a relevant enough feeling amongst fantasy forums and reviews. However, with the release of the staggering Words of Radiance in his Stormlight Archive series (my #1 book of 2014), and shortly followed by Shadows of Self, Brandon showed his growth as a writer; his action was still spectacular, his magic systems still on point.
The major criticism I see of Sanderson’s past works are that he lacks in characterization and character growth. I could see some of their points, though I felt that this was a bit of an overblown point. His focus always seemed to rest in worldbuilding, magic systems, action, storytelling. Luckily, his character growth and character arcs in Words of Radiance and Shadows of Self were so much more refined, attitudes and speech patterns and mannerisms significantly more ironed out than in the past.
Brandon has a natural sense of humor that I’ve always enjoyed in my times around him, and it’s translating into his work much more these days; he has a deft hand, the ability to sneak a joke in that makes the reader laugh out loud, without interrupting the story with it, or making the book feel like a comedy. Everything about his writing has developed, worked-on, been honed; Brandon often states that writing is a craft, one that needs training, practice, hard work – and no one in the industry works harder than Brandon effing Sanderson.
Along with this has come an adaptation into a slightly more edgy and ‘adult’ style, for lack of a better term. The original Mistborn series had a decidedly lighter feel to the writing style, despite some dark subject matter. It was a bit more of a wholesome, ‘family-friendly’ style of writing. However, that leaf has been turned for Brandon – I’m not sure if he’s lightened up on his religious beliefs, if he’s just decided that his “line” is a bit farther than it used to be, or whether he just deduced that including a bit more lax attitude towards sex, alcohol, and minor profanity was more comfortable for him to write.
Those elements all combine in a perfect storm in The Bands of Mourning. I had high hopes for the book, especially coming off multiple brilliant releases from Brandon in the last couple years (Words of Radiance, Shadows of Self, Firefight, and some of his novellas). Shadows of Self was a breath of fresh air, and the Mistborn series felt fully revitalized. Bands of Mourning proved that the series is here to stay, that the forthcoming novels won’t lack for entertainment, depth and humor. Whatever expectations you have coming into the book, expect them to be exceeded.
We’re reintroduced to our duo of charismatic heroes, back home in the capitol city of Elendel, where Waxillium Ladrian prepares for his arranged noble marriage to Steris, whom he is still learning new things about on a daily basis. Meanwhile, all around them, tensions arise from the outer cities in the area due to over-taxation, and a monopoly on trade routes by the elite of Elendel. Wax gets a lead that his elusive uncle, Suit, is working behind the scenes to try and acquire the Bands of Mourning; the powerful, magic-imbued jewelry armor pieces, which contain the ancient Lord Ruler’s potent magical powers. Additionally, Wax’s sister, believed kidnapped and held hostage by their uncle, is in the vicinity. Our crew sets out to locate these bands, and keep them from the Set, the power-hungry group that Suit is associated with.
Naturally, things aren’t as they seem, and the crew find themselves victims of a near train-jacking, chasing leads towards the elusive Bands of Mourning, and fighting for survival far more often than they intend. They’re met with traps and twists, and more and more of the technology of this era is introduced – motorcars, trains, and in the end even airships are introduced to the area. The rapid technological advances lead to a lot of complications, and Wax and co. are forced to use their wits as much as anything to survive in the end.
Sanderson cultivates a feeling of excitement at every turn, yet the book never feels rushed. The action is cut with ample character development, especially in Steris, and her relationship with Wax. Steris quickly became one of my favorite of Sanderson’s characters; she’s presented as boring, bland, predictable. A spinster for many reasons, and only getting married due to her political positioning as a noble. However, her growth through the novel is exponential, bringing her character traits and quirks to the forefront, and she finds her niche amongst the group. No longer just a helpless, quirky noblewoman, she proves her over-preparedness and attention to detail is essential to their survival and success. She reminds me of a slightly less charismatic version of Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. That is a good thing.
On the topic of characters – Wax and Wayne are back en force, and have quickly placed themselves amongst my favorite fantasy duos (hard to top Locke Lamora/Jean Tannin, Royce Melbourne/Hadrian Blackwater, or Egil/Nix, mind you). Wax’s straightforward lawman nature, a bit of the Paladin archetype, but mixed with a creativity and level of skill unmatched by many in his world. Wayne is, frankly, hilarious – I laughed more from his comments and antics than I have in a long time. Marasi, Steris’ sister and fellow lawman with Wax and Wayne, grows as well, proving a propensity for learning and adapting, as well as survival instinct and altruism, putting her team before herself on multiple occasions. The final member of the group. the shapeshifting kandra MeLaan, is the most entertaining of the kandra race I can think of in the Mistborn series, and one scene early on in the story (will not spoil) had me dying with laughter thanks to her/it.
I keep touching on the humor, and with good reason – this book is hilarious. However, it has such an effortless and fluid feel; none of the humor is forced, nothing feels wedged in for no reason. At the same time, it’s not a Terry Pratchett novel – humor isn’t the focus, but it’s inserted in many situations, and used to lighten situations. I quite legitimately laughed out loud on at least ten different occasions during the book, and had a big smile on my face throughout much of it. One liners, hilarious predicaments, and ridiculous character traits meant that there was never a shortage of yuks. However, it was all natural, it all fit in the story – it did not distract from the serious parts, rather, it augmented them. It kept the reader from getting locked into one emotion, cut through some of the very dark and stressful portions. In that way, it kept some of the ‘light’ feel of the original Mistborn trilogy, but without the ‘PG’ feel.
It’s difficult to discuss some of the more “OH DAMN” moments without getting spoilery, but I’ll just say that there were several of them, and they were glorious. Some characters acting out of their comfort zone in the most badass ways, some snappy remarks that made me want to recommend a local burn center to the recipient, and some action scenes that came straight out of a videogame. Sanderson’s penchant for the fantastic, for high flying battles, for off-the-walls (literally) action scenes is not reduced by his newfound character growth or humor in the slightest. The book is still loaded with edge-of-your-seat scenes that induce hyperbole by overzealous reviewers, such as myself.
The creativity in the book is, again, off the charts. So much of the Mistborn history is wedged into the book, much like what was handled in Shadows of Self. A lot of references to the previous trilogy and it’s lore, and not all of them are blatant; there’s a lot of subtlety to it, small references that avid readers will pick up on, bits of lore about the Cosmere, your standard Hoid appearance, and more. The entire book is based around a powerful piece of equipment from the Lord Ruler, and carefully placed comments and plot pieces play into the deep worldbuilding that Brandon excels at.
The details are where this book really stands out, though. Brandon doesn’t rest on his laurels – he continues to introduce new ways to use his magic system, new pieces of equipment, new abilities, new metals. The world is rapidly developing, just as ours did, and the population is adapting with the magic as well, finding new ways to use it, new ways to abuse it, and new ways to counteract it. While it sometimes feel as though there’s a convenient counter-measure to every new development, that is a minor enough gripe to not take away from the overall presentation. Sanderson is careful to explain, or at least imply, the complications or negative effects of new technology, of the new uses, of the expanding availability of allomancy and feruchemy to the masses. He’s taking an already wildly creative and incredibly deep magic system (or set of systems), and expanding upon it with each book, crafting new methods and new abilities to ensure that nothing is ever stale, and is always evolving.
I could wax poetic (get it? Wax? Nevermind) for a few thousand more words as to why this book is brilliant. It takes a relatively lighthearted series and elevates it to spectacular heights; it is far more deep and complex than expected, yet maintains an incredible level of readability and entertainment in the process. I found myself consistently shocked at just how damned good it was – I must have sent twenty texts while reading, exclaiming to friends at it’s brilliance. I’m an avid Sanderson fan and reader, but am still consistently surprised when he puts out another piece of work that knocks my socks off. I’m far from the type of fanboy to proclaim anything an author puts out as infallible, but the flaws in this book were extremely minor, to the point that I often forgot about them if I didn’t write them down immediately.
Brandon is an absolute juggernaut of fantasy writing, and continues to show a growth and dedication to the craft, despite being one of the top authors in the genre for several years. He’s personable with fans, the friendliest guy you’ll meet, and his work is exceptional on top of that. I spent some time reflecting on this book, and reviewing my notes, and trying to find some faults in it so I wouldn’t sound like I was doing nothing but gushing – I found very little of substance. The book is well paced, entertaining, deep, exciting, and very well-rounded. Simply put, it’s one of Sanderson’s best (I personally put it only behind the brilliance that was Words of Radiance).
It’s a gem, and you owe it to yourself to read it.