Books: The Alloy of Law

I checked this book out of the library for the simple reason that it was written by Brandon Sanderson. In our family, that’s more than enough reason to read it.

The Alloy of Law takes place on the same world as his Mistborn trilogy, three hundred years later. Unlike the worlds of most fantasy novels, this one has changed considerably over the centuries.

The heroes of the previous trilogy fought with swords; now the weapon of choice is a firearm. Electric lights and skyscrapers have been introduced. The news – spread through the city by broadsheets – is all about the recent spate of train robberies.

The heroes are lawmen from the Roughs – Sanderson’s version of the “Wild West.” The whole setting seems so clearly based on American society at the end of the nineteenth century that I found myself wondering what basis there was for development in that direction.

I don’t mind that Sanderson doesn’t bother to tell how the social and technological changes came about. It does make sense that a fantasy world would change, just as our world has. In most fantasy novels, it seems to be assumed that magic takes the place of science, but Sanderson ably demonstrates that the two can co-exist quite nicely (in fiction, at any rate).

It feels a bit strange to read it, though. We simply don’t expect gunslingers to use magic. I’m not sure whether allomancy and feruchemy are properly considered magic within the scope of the Mistborn universe; they are abilities that certain people are born with and which require them to ingest certain metals in order to use them. But in The Alloy of Law, at least, these are the primary elements that make it fantasy rather than simply an unusual Western.

Even after I got used this juxtaposition of technology and fantasy, I kept wondering whether the combination of technologies made sense. Our own world’s history shows that metalworking becomes increasingly sophisticated and gives rise to more and more complex technologies. In any world it would make sense for that to be so.

But is it in any sense inevitable that, at a particular point in history, the new technologies should be handguns, electric lights, trains, and skyscrapers? What do those inventions have in common that would make their development coincide? Does Sanderson use those particular elements simply to help the reader imagine this society, based on prior knowledge of American history? Or is it really most likely that another society would develop along the same lines?

Most fantasy is set in something like our Middle Ages, with a feudal society, very little technology, and usually an abundance of fighting men sporting armor and swords. I started asking myself why that is, and as I had few answers I asked google instead.

At a writers’ forum, I found many possible answers in this discussion of why so much of fantasy writing has a medieval-type setting. Answers range from the desire to imitate Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to an avoidance of having to explain where the technology came from. (The latter answer makes sense, considering my own thoughts as I read Sanderson’s novel.)

Some of it is put down to laziness on the part of writers: writing a novel that includes technology requires research into how the technology works, while writers of medieval fantasy seem to get away with just making up all the details. Readers also seem reluctant to accept the mixture of otherworldly fantasy with this-worldly science.

One explanation was that superstition was rampant in the Middle Ages; it simply seems appropriate to populate a fantasy book with such a setting with the sort of creatures and abilities that people of the Middle Ages would have thought thoroughly believable.

There are books that do mix fantasy and technology – I learned the word steampunk from reading reviews of this novel. I haven’t read any of the works mentioned in discussions of the term, but I might try one or two.

Discussion of the setting aside, The Alloy of Law is an enjoyable book once you get far enough into it. It starts slowly, and it took me quite a while to really get interested, but once I did, I thought Sanderson did a good job. The main characters are interesting, the allomancy and feruchemy are used in different ways than in the Mistborn trilogy (not entirely different, but there is enough that is new to be interesting), and the ending is satisfying. (It was to me, anyway, though I read reviews that found it disappointing.)

I look forward to Sanderson’s future novels, in the Mistborn setting or anywhere else.

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