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…