Stephen Leeds, the main character in Brandon Sanderson’s new novella Legion, has a unique mental condition. It resembles multiple personality disorder but is much stranger and infinitely more useful: he has a group of imaginary personae who “live” with him and who each have a distinct personality and skill set. The one called J.C., for example, seems to be a former Navy SEAL and often takes the lead in violent situations. This group of “personae” makes Stephen come across like a one man “A Team” in which all but one of the members are imaginary.
Stephen can also generate new personae at will when he needs to learn a new skill. For example, when he has to speak Hebrew for a trip to Israel, he browses through a language guide and a short while later, a new persona pops up who can translate Hebrew for him. It never becomes entirely clear whether there’s something supernatural going on here or whether Stephen is just a very strange genius who can learn an entire language in a few hours but then needs an invisible, imaginary person to translate it for him rather than just speak it himself.
As the novella gets started, Stephen (who also goes by the nickname Legion) gets drawn into the search for Balubal Razon, the inventor of a camera that may be the most amazing device ever invented (I’m keeping it vague here to avoid spoilers). It’s the search for this camera that will lead Stephen and his imaginary team from the US to Israel and to a wide-ranging conspiracy involving politics, religion and terrorism.
Legion is a bit of an odd duck when compared to Brandon Sanderson’s body of work. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, I’ve read almost everything he’s released so far, the main exceptions being his Wheel of Time books and his YA novels. His works are entertaining and very smoothly written, but I often find them a bit long-winded and too thinly spread in terms of substance. For example, the Mistborn trilogy is a wonderful read, but I feel that it could have lost a few hundred pages here and there, especially in the middle volume, without losing much in the way of plot. So, like his many fans, I agree that Sanderson has a wonderful imagination and often writes interesting characters. He obviously has a way with intricate magic systems—and, more importantly, he uses them as more than gimmicks. I just wish that his editor(s) would be a bit more proactive when it comes to trimming extraneous prose and repetitive scenes. (Please note: I realize I’m in the minority here, because obviously this doesn’t appear to be an issue for the millions of people who devour anything he writes. And since I seem to keep reading whatever he releases, it’s obviously not a dealbreaker for me either!)
In either case, Legion is unique in Sanderson’s bibliography because it seems to have the exact opposite problem from many of his other works: it’s almost too short. Sanderson teases us with two interesting ideas (the character Stephen Leeds and the nature of the camera) and offers an intriguing plot, but then squashes all of it together into less than 90 pages. Given the epic scale Sanderson usually works on, Legion almost feels like a teaser for a longer work, or like a pilot episode for a TV series: there’s a bunch of exciting material with lots of possibilities, but it just doesn’t get much time to expand and breathe.
In other words: this is the first time I wish a Brandon Sanderson story was longer than it ended up being. Maybe we’ll get to read more about Stephen “Legion” Leeds in future stories or novels, if Sanderson finds the time between all his other projects. Leeds is definitely a character with enough depth to lead an entire novel, or even a series. Based on this short teaser novella and Sanderson’s writing talent, Legion could be the starting point for a great contemporary fantasy/crime hybrid.