Shadows of Self is a book that was not supposed to be but perhaps instead was meant to be. Brandon Sanderson has long voiced his plan to revisit the Mistborn universe with an urban fantasy featuring essentially contemporary technology. But the famously hardworking and productive Sanderson needed a “break” between long books and decided to pound out a short book. That short book turned into The Alloy of Law, and Sanderson liked what he had so much he decided to turn it into a trilogy. And it shows in that Shadows of Self is much more concerned with the broader Mistborn world (and the broader Cosmere) and in telling a big story than The Allow of Law. It is sometimes disjointed, but also combines fascinating temporal worldbuilding and kickass characters.
Shadows of Self finds former Roughs (think Wild West) still back in the city and acting as a semi-official constable (think Batman without a secret identity).
Wax is one of the most powerful lords in Elendel, can use his metal-based abilities to traverse the city in great leaps and turn coins into projectiles as deadly as the bullets from his gun, and wields his powers fighting crime as a semi-legal constable. So basically he’s Batman without a secret identity. He’s joined in crime fighting by Wayne—an irreverent conman who can slow down time and heal himself—and Marasi—a solicitor-turned-constable who wields the power of empirical research.
Marasi’s new role in the constabulary as aide to constable-general Aradel (the Gordon to Wax’s Batman) breaks her free of her sometimes third-wheel status in The Allow of Law. She works as an effective adjunct to Wax’s story and plays an important, independent role of her own. She remains adorable in her earnestness and data-geekery.
Wayne can be super annoying, and too many of his jokes I don’t find enjoyable (there were some pretty funny, implicitly dirty jokes in there—I don’t remember so many from the first book). We learn a bit more about his past though, and the parts dwelling on his mastery of disguise are a highlight.
Wax’s fiancée Steris has a very small role but steal every scene she is in because Sanderson imbues all of her scenes with a tremendous dry humor (and I greatly prefer that to his more usual witticisims). Aradel, the head of the constabulary in Wax’s octant, is another highlight.
This is indisputably Wax’s book (and series), though. All of the other characters are moving in his orbit, to their frequent chagrin. He does have a very particular set of skills. Skills he acquired as a lawman in the Roughs. Skills that make him a nightmare for criminals. But he is ill-prepared for what he is to face in Shadows of Self when he sees the face of Bloody Tan in a crowd while chasing down a robber. The same Bloody Tan Wax’s lover Lessie died bringing to justice. Meanwhile, the governor’s brother and half the criminal bosses in the city are killed at his mansion. Fiction is kind of all about heaping pain and conflict on your characters and Wax suffers more than any man should bear here.
Sanderson does something in Shadows of Self similar to what Larry Correia does in the second book of his Grimnoir Chronicles by introducing major new elements in the second book of the trilogy instead of really building off of the events of the first, with the idea presumably being to tie the two together and build off both in the final volume. (Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is an example that does this to an extreme, with the first two books entirely independent of each other.) He does tie back to the events of the first book (albeit really only to the events at one end).
Sanderson is known for his action scenes and his elaborate, rule-based magic systems. Shadows of Self features that, but to a lesser degree than The Alloy of Law. Instead we get characterization and lots and lots of worldbuilding. There are lots of callbacks and tie-ins with the original series. Sanderson does something really cool in exploring the ramifications of the monumental events of the original series three hundred years later. But he also keeps a light enough touch not to turn off readers (like me) who haven’t read the original series or readers not into that sort of thing. It also appears to have an important tie to the larger Cosmere.
Sanderson as always is adept at pacing, plot structure, and packing one hell of an emotional wallop.