Shadows of Shadows of Self
There’s a reason Brandon Sanderson is one of the biggest names in fantasy (epic and otherwise): clever magic, fast-paced action, startling reveals, and loveable (if sometimes exaggerated) characters. Bands of Mourning boasts all of these, and is a solid sequel in the ongoing series (book seven, now) that got his career off the ground. For all that, it doesn’t quite carry the impact its predecessor did.
This could be second-novel blues. Lacking the surprise of a first novel’s new setting and character, carrying on rather than beginning or ending the main character’s arcs, and trying to have a big finish while still setting things up for the bigger finale to come, second books often lack some oomph (see The Two Towers, or Sanderson’s own Well of Ascension, second in the original Mistborn trilogy).
Perhaps least oomphy are the characters here. While the relationship between hero Wax and his marriage-of-convenience partner Steris develops in interesting ways, for the most part the other characters stay fairly static (or their arc feels tacked on, as with sidekick Wayne’s chapter four). Wax’s troubled relationship to his god, so richly explored in the previous book, lacks the same depth here, despite a big chance to make it otherwise.
Neither are the settings, often what we love in fantasy, as rich or interesting as previous installments. Unlike books set in just one area, Bands of Mourning bounds from one place to the next, and one can’t help feeling an Indiana Jones-like quality to the booby-trapped mountain temple where the final action goes down.
Bands of Mourning does better with the other part of a fantasy’s setting, the magical element. For those of us who swore the three related magic systems of the Mistborn world couldn’t hold any more surprises, we are once again proven wrong, and Sanderson makes a bold (not to give spoilers) move in the book that hints of much more to come (see below and here).
If a criticism can be levelled at Sanderson, it’s that his books occasionally read like video (or D+D) games, with heroes and battles and settings on the border of being too exaggerated even within the genre’s wide bounds. The action sequences in Bands of Mourning can feel more like a (magical) action movie, with well-placed one-liners, and occasionally seem more than the plot calls for.
More surprising are occasional rough spots in Sanderson’s prose (especially the prologue). From a Hugo award-winning novelist whose self-described workmanly prose usually comes with a fair amount of polish, repeated words and clunky constructions, along with an almost mechanical scene-sequel plotting, give the book a rushed feel.
All this not to say the book is bad. It’s good—it’s just not Sanderson’s best, and its predecessor Shadows of Self set the bar quite high. It is still a must-read for Mistborn fans, and a fun read for those not as dedicated to Sanderson’s larger cosmere-ology. But start with the first one.
SPOILERIFIC SIDE NOTE—with Bands of Mourning we can pick out a trend in fantasy, born out in Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass and Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings: the appearance of airships in settings that are more magical than steampunk. While Butcher’s new world does have some engines, and Sanderson creates a magical sort of engine for his (with the arguably deus ex machina addition of a new metal), still the ships seems to have drifted from the mechanical settings that gave them birth into decidedly more magical realms…
Nineteen Jabs to the Gut
It’s hard to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Word Puppets just one extra star. Every story in the book sparkles, but none in the same way—plot, character, concept, pathos, she’s got it all. Plus, some (for lack of a better term) raw weirdness that deserves its own (weird) star. Short story collections often lack the wallop of a good novel, but the best of them (and Word Puppets is) hit you enough times in rapid succession to still leave a good bruise.
Setting. MRK is great at writing good stories into cool contexts—like the saga-era Iceland of “The Bound Man,” weather-controlled Indian wine country in “Waiting for Rain,” or the sodium-starved colony planet of “Salt of the Earth.” Her settings go deeper than just place or concept—in each she sketches a people and culture well-researched and well-imagined for the concept, adding power to already-punchy stories.
The stories themselves. You are never bored by this book. No tale is any longer than it needs to be (we often feel the opposite), and they either take unexpected twists or slam you straight into emotional walls you dread from the start. She knows how to put her characters thru the wringer, and we love coming along for the ride.
Best of all are the stories that explore the human side of emerging technologies. Though not fantasy (forgive us, dear reader, though there are enough fantasy stories in the book to qualify), the nuanced look stories like “For Solo Cello, op. 12,” “For Want of a Nail,” and “The Consciousness Problem” give to the ethics of biotechnology, and the pathos of those most affected, are both moving and thought-provoking. What happens when your husband’s clone loves you too? When you’re a physically handicapped artificial intelligence? When a new arm means giving up the blastocyst that would be your child? It’s hard, in a short story, to bring us up to speed with speculative aspects, tell an interesting story, and get us to care about characters we’ve just met, but MRK does it, jab after cathartic jab.
Well, a few of the punches are off. Though “We Interrupt This Broadcast” does a great job of nailing a big (global) scope onto a simple two-character interaction, “American Changeling” feels too big and fast (queens and faeries and centuries-old spells!) for its length. “Salt of the Earth,” though a sweet setting, doesn’t convince us the villain is evil enough to do what the main character suspects, and the revenge falls a little flat..
And then there are the weird stories. Chief among these is “The White Pheonix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas.” We shall say no more, but some feel as though they were written on a dare (or a joke: read “Chrysalis” thinking about social butterflies). “Evil Robot Monkey” should be one of these, and it was written on a dare, but instead it packs a big punch into a 900 word story about an uplifted primate.
Word Puppets throws a lot of punches, and if some of them are off, you still get a good bruising. Underneath the fun and the gee-whiz and the weird, that’s what the book does best: gives us the cathartic beating we look for in good fiction.