Brandon Sanderson has been my favourite author for the last three or so years. Reading a new book by him is an interesting experience. On one hand, I go in feeling somewhat biased, wanting the book to be as incredible as his others. On the other hand, my high expectations can make it difficult to enjoy his books when they're not up to his abnormally high usual standard. That's not to make any specific comment about Shadows of Self, per se; that's just a general feeling I have about his books, and something I feel is important to mention before any review I make about his works.
Book One in this new series – The Alloy of Law – was lacking for me. I don't mean that it wasn't a fun read, but it just didn't stick with me and or have the same level of deepness as his other books. I got the sense that he was writing it just to get a cool idea out of his system, and because it was a fun way to mash up an existing world with a new setting. I certainly don't begrudge that. I’d love to see Allomancy in different settings – and indeed that's exactly what his plan is for Mistborn, which he intends to take through several different stages of technological progression: moving from early medieval periods – like his first trilogy – to the 1850s-Western era of series two, then to a modern analogue in the next phase. He’s also said it will end with a series set at a science fiction level, where the magic becomes the means by which characters travel between planets.
Considering my lukewarm reaction to The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self was a pleasant surprise. It had all the fun elements of The Alloy of Law, except this time it felt more like a Sanderson novel, with deeper layers of complexity, a more interesting and nuanced plot, and more compelling characters. Most enjoyably, we start to see more into how the characters of this modern world relate to the characters of the original series.
Sanderson typically writes likable heroes, but he does an interesting thing with this book, by presenting interpretations of his original characters in a way that makes them less glorious than we first assumed. The antagonist of this book – a shape shifting kandra – spends the novel assassinating people and causing chaos within the city, and she’s possibly one of his best antagonists. Why? Well, you really get the sense that there was not much separating her from Kelsier, who was the protagonist of book one in the original Mistborn series. In fact, her actions directly mirror him in some cases. While I loved the complexity of this idea, I wish Sanderson had gone deeper into this analogy. I feel like it was cut short and didn't quite get the justice it deserved.
We also get to see Sanderson explore more of the Cosmere: his shared universe where all his adult fantasy books are set. At this stage, I'll happily buy any Sanderson book that promises to reveal another Cosmere secret – it’s just so fascinating seeing how he intertwines all these different story worlds and characters into a cohesive plot, and I can't wait to find out where this is all heading. While this book provides plenty of big reveals about the Cosmere, it's also a fun read in its own right. For me, it's a big improvement on The Alloy of Law. The ending was surprising, and the twists and consequences feel like they had meaningful ramifications, which I’m sure will be explored in the next book.
One big thing that elevated this book for me was the remarkable prescience of its plot. This was written quite a few years ago, but it deals with a riot, and a sense of resentment amongst the working class which has a lot of parallels to modern events. This has been what I've always found interesting and important about fantasy: its ability to take you to another world, and by dislocating you from the real world, it helps you assess reality from a different perspective. Just like how you can't see the back of your head without a mirror, fantasy allows us to see truths about ourselves that we would not otherwise be able to access. And like any good story, Sanderson doesn’t stand on a soapbox and lecture about the correct way to live. Rather, he presents us with difficult and complex questions that leave readers considering the story’s meaning well after we close the final pages.