Here’s an interesting variation on an epic fantasy series: a world that transitions from primitive to steampunk as it progresses. Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” novels take place on Scadrial, a world settled by humans with strange powers. Centuries after some cataclysm, people are rediscovering steam power and electricity. This is the setting of The Alloy of Law (Tor Books 2011) a Victorian-like culture with the corresponding technologies. The great city of Elendel replaces London and a wilderness called “The Roughs” stands in for the Wild West. Thus the novel gives us trappings of both British and American-style steampunk.
The Alloy of Law stars an aristocrat, Lord Waxilium Ladrian, who has given up his privileged life to serve as a lawman in the Roughs. After the death of his uncle, he returns to Elendel to take charge of the family’s enterprises. Waxilium (or “Wax” as his friends call him) is a daring and heroic fellow, haunted by the violent death of Lessie, his girlfriend and fellow Lawkeeper. He is also an allomancer, which means he has magic powers relating to metal.
Like the magic in Harry Potter, allomancy is hereditary but it comes in many different forms. The powers include not just magnetic attraction or repulsion of metals but also self-healing and the ability to manipulate time and gravity. Allomancers are rare, but Wax is even more so: a Twinborn having two unrelated abilities. He can repel metallic objects and also alter his body weight. Thus he can bend the trajectory of bullets or leap high into the air to attack or evade enemies. Sanderson’s magic system is strongly rules-based and thus avoids the plot holes that so many fantasy writers (including J. K. Rowling) encounter when they invent new tricks as they go along. As in alchemy, there’s a principle of equivalent exchange: if Wax makes himself lighter, he must spend an equivalent time being extra-heavy.
Wax finds it difficult to adjust to life in Elendel. He disappears from social functions to patrol the streets like a masked superhero. After a threat of prosecution by the police, he accepts his role as head of the financially strapped House Ladrian. He reluctantly makes plans for a political marriage to Lady Steris, an unattached heiress whose money can save his house. Not even Wayne, his former deputy from the Roughs, can convince him to return to his old ways.
As Wax and Steris attend a high-class social function (and Wayne crashes the party in disguise), a gang of bandits appears to rob the guests. Wax and Wayne swing into action, using their powers to kill many of the bandits, yet they’re unable to prevent them from kidnapping several women, including Steris. Thus begins a frantic struggle to rescue Wax’s fiance, with the help of Steris’ brainy and beautiful cousin Marasi.
With the exception of some slow parts after Waxilium decides to be a proper lord, The Alloy of Law is an action-filled page-turner. It has gun battles, harrowing escapes, dark conspiracies, sinister villains, and eccentric allies. I especially enjoyed Wax’s humor-filled friendship with Wayne and the sexual tension he shares with Marasi. The technologies are inventive, particularly the tricks used by the bandits to rob trains while baffling the police. There’s also an arms race to create weapons that can defeat allomancers, such as aluminum ammunition, which is unaffected by their quasi-magnetic powers. On the downside, the descriptions of allomantic actions can become repetitive. I can’t count the number of times Wax makes himself lighter, throws a piece of metal to the ground, then does a magnetic “push” to propel himself into the air. The story’s most glaring flaw is to resort to a deus ex machina at one point when Wax seems about to be killed. Still, the book is good enough that I can forgive these problems.
The narrator of the audiobook version is Michael Kramer, who gives an entertaining albeit unexceptional performance. I had encountered him before on Chris Voss’ FBI memoir Never Split the Difference so it was interesting to hear him read fantasy.
The Alloy of Law is a fast-paced fantasy steampunk adventure with interesting characters both good and evil. I enjoyed it thoroughly and will probably have a look at other books in this series. I give it a rating of 4.5 out of 5 gears.