Book Review: The Bands of Mourning
The Bands of Mourning
by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson’s original “Mistborn” trilogy, The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages, appeared from 2006 to 2008 and immediately won Sanderson a core readership more fanatical than Wagnerian opera buffs. Those fans have followed Sanderson from work to work, from series to series over the years, and their unwavering support has done exactly the kind of damage you might expect when dealing with an author who knows that anything he writes – anything at all – will earn back its advance and keep selling. Two things will certainly happen in such circumstances: the author’s work will fall apart like a tepid bouillabaisse, and the author will simultaneously start talking like Charles de Gaulle in front of his morning mirror.
The “Mistborn” books elaborated a hysterically complicated backstory and what fantasy fans refer to as a “magic-system.” Sanderson has conceived of a sprawling imaginative contextual landscape called the Cosmere, strung out over many worlds, each with many stories, each story set to be captured in a long series of novels over the next several hundred years, each novel bristling like a sea urchin with spine after spine of in-jokes and call-backs and winking allusions to fifty-four earlier works and some offhand comments Sanderson made at a WorldCon panel in 2003.
It’s a free country, of course, and it would require a sturdy soul indeed to blithely turn down guaranteed money. So the Cosmere, like the cosmos, is both rapidly-expanding and mostly composed of superheated gas.
The small twist of Sanderson’s new “Mistborn” books – The Alloy of Law in 2011, Shadows of Self in 2015, and now The Bands of Mourning – is that they take place 300 years after the events of the original “Mistborn” trilogy. The setting has shifted from quasi-Renaissance to quasi-Industrial Revolution, and the Elendil – oops, your pardon, Elendel – basin’s landscape is filling up with new factories and power plants. But the wielders of the world’s magic still work for good and evil, and one of the good guys, Waxillium Ladrian (think Gary Cooper with superpowers) is on a quest to the southern city of New Seran to investigate the book’s MacGuffin, the titular Bands of Mourning, allegedly mythical artifacts which, if real and discovered, could give somebody gawd-awful amounts of magical power.
The new book draws together many familiar characters from the previous two volumes and many underlying concepts from the three novels previous to those, so Sanderson’s claim that each of these books can also function as a stand-alone novel is nothing short of delusional; unless he’d read at least The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self, even Nicolai Tesla wouldn’t have a prayer of figuring out most of what happens in The Bands of Mourning. We get many moments in which Waxillium – he goes by “Wax” – revels in the mystical metal-based abilities granted to him by his “allomancy”:
He flicked a little vial from his belt and downed the contents, steel flakes suspended in whiskey. The metal burned a familiar warmth inside him, radiating from his stomach, and blue lines sprang into existence around him. They moved with him as he crept forward, as if he were tied with a thousand tiny threads.
… but we get virtually no explanation of what allomancy is, or how it works, or why it works – that’s all built into the momentum of the thing. Granted, pretty much any reader question can be answered by consulting the, shall we say extensive online Cosmere commentariat, but what’s actually on the printed page between two hardcovers for $30 is no more stand-alone than a single table leg. Sanderson is clearly writing here exclusively for “Mistborn” fans, as his de Gaullic opening remarks make clear when he reflects on the heady days of crapping out that first series:
I can still remember the early months, writing the trilogy furiously, trying to craft something that would really show off what I can do as a writer. Mistborn has become one of my hallmark series, and I hope that you find this volume a worthy entry in the canon.
The works in that canon are all enlivened by Sanderson’s marvelous, unfailing ability to propel a narrative along (an ability that stood him in good stead during the thankless task of finishing up Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” bloat-fest, although it raises the awkward question of who will finish up Cosmere) – he has a knack for engagingly one-dimensional characters, and his skill at crafting action-sequences is matched only by his fellow genre-hacks Brent Weeks and Joe Abercrombie. If you’ve got your invitation, your qualification rating, and your magnetic door-swipe card, you’ll enjoy The Bands of Mourning to pieces. And if not – well, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.