Shadows of Self and the Mistborn Mega-Series
Shadows of Self is out today in hardcover in the UK, and I’m touring the UK this week and next. I talked in a previous post about the book release, and will point you toward that one if you’ve not read much of the Mistborn series. (Or if you’re not interested in the writing side of why I make the decisions I do.)
However, for those who want to dig deeper into what’s going on here, I wanted to talk about the Mistborn series as a whole. As I was developing the Cosmere, I knew I wanted a few threads to span the entire mega-sequence, which was going to cover thousands of years. For this reason, I built into the outline a couple of “core” series.
One of these is the Stormlight Archive, where we have the Heralds who span ages, and which I eventually decided to break into two distinct arcs. Other series touch on the idea of long-standing characters. Dragonsteel, for example, will be kind of a bookend series. We’ll get novels on Hoid’s origins, then jump all the way to the end and get novels from his viewpoint late in the entire Cosmere sequence.
With Mistborn, I wanted to do something different. For aesthetic reasons, I wanted a fantasy world that changed, that grew updated and modernized. One of my personal mandates as a lover of the epic fantasy genre is to try to take what has been done before and push the stories in directions I think the genre hasn’t looked at often enough.
I pitched Mistorn as a series of trilogies, which many of you probably already know. Each series was to cover a different era in the world (Scadrial), and each was to be about different characters—starting with an epic fantasy trilogy, expanding eventually into a space opera science fiction series. The magic would be the common thread here, rather than specific characters.
There was a greater purpose to this, more than just wanting a fantasy world that modernized. The point was to actually show the passage of time in the universe, and to make you, the reader, feel the weight of that passage.
Some of the Cosmere characters, like Hoid, are functionally immortal—in that, at least, they don’t age and are rather difficult to kill. I felt that when readers approached a grand epic where none of the characters changed, the experience would be lacking something. I could tell you things were changing, but if there were always the same characters, it wouldn’t feel like the universe was aging.
I think you get this problem already in some big epic series. (More on that below.) Here, I wanted the Cosmere to evoke a sense of moving through eras. There will be some continuing threads. (A few characters from Mistborn will be weaved through the entire thing.) However, to make this all work, I decided I needed to do something daring—I needed to reboot the Mistborn world periodically with new characters and new settings.
As a warning to writers out there, this is usually considered a publishing faux pas. Readers like continuing characters, and creating breaks as I have done (and will continue to do) often undermines sales. Readers naturally feel a momentum in finishing a series, and if you give them a break point—with everything wrapped up—the push to get out the door and read the next book isn’t there.
However, while that’s the rule of thumb in publishing, I worry it has led to poor artistic decisions in some series. When series get very long, a weird thing seems to happen in reader brains. While they want to read about their familiar characters, they’ve sometimes started to feel annoyed by them—and are really just reading to find out what happens to them in the end.
While we love continuing characters, we also seem to get fatigued with them. (Unless the author does some clever things, like how Jim Butcher has handled Dresden.)
The Mistborn reboots are one method I’m using to combat this. Reader reactions, through both reviews and sales of my first reboot, have so far been positive—but I know my publisher is very concerned about this strategy.
I’m confident nonetheless that it is best for the long-term health of Mistborn.
So how does Shadows of Self fit into this entire framework? Well, The Alloy of Law was (kind of) an accident. It wasn’t planned to be part of the original sequence of Mistborn sub-series, but it’s also an excellent example of why you shouldn’t feel too married to an outline.
As I was working on Stormlight, I realized that it was going to be a long time (perhaps ten years) between The Hero of Ages and my ability to get back to the Mistborn world to do the first of the “second” series. I sat down to write a short story as a means of offering a stop-gap, but was disappointed with it.
That’s when I took a step back and asked myself how I really wanted to approach all of this. What I decided upon was that I wanted a new Mistborn series that acted as a counterpoint to Stormlight. Something for Mistborn fans that pulled out some of the core concepts of the series (Allomantic action, heist stories) and mashed them with another genre—as opposed to epic fantasy—to produce something that would be faster-paced than Stormlight, and also tighter in focus.
That way, I could alternate big epics and tight, action character stories. I could keep Mistborn alive in people’s minds while I labored on Stormlight.
The Alloy of Law was the result, an experiment in a second-era Mistborn series between the first two planned trilogies. The first book wasn’t truly accidental, then, nor did it come from a short story. (I’ve seen both reported, and have tacitly perpetuated the idea, as it’s easier than explaining the entire process.) I chose early 20th century because it’s a time period I find fascinating, and was intrigued by the idea of the little-city lawman pulled into big-city politics.
Alloy wasn’t an accident, but it was an experiment. I wasn’t certain how readers would respond to not only a soft reboot like this, but also one that changed tone (from epic to focused). Was it too much?
The results have been fantastic, I’m happy to report. The Alloy of Law is consistently the bestselling book in my backlists, barring the original trilogy or Stormlight books. Fan reaction in person was enthusiastic.
So I sat down and plotted a proper trilogy with Wax and Wayne. That trilogy starts with Shadows of Self. It connects to The Alloy of Law directly, but is more intentional in where it is taking the characters, pointed toward a three-book arc. (The Bands of Mourning, the second of the arc, comes out in January. The final book of the arc hasn’t been written yet; I’ll dig into that after Stormlight 3 is done.)
You can see why this is sometimes hard to explain. What is Shadows of Self? It’s the start of a trilogy within a series that comes after a one-off with the same characters that was in turn a sequel to an original trilogy with different characters.
But I promise that it is awesome.
Hopefully this digging into my own writing psychology has been useful (or at least interesting) for you readers and writers out there. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy Shadows of Self!