Legion: The Many of Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson is one of Den of Geek’s Most Anticipated Science Fiction Reads of September 2018. This edition collects the first two novellas—Legion and Skin Deep, both previously released as individual volumes—and the final, new installment, Lies of the Beholder.
It’s not often that you get called to review a book that is actually three novellas put together. It’s like meeting a stranger who is actually three kids inside a trenchcoat… OK, maybe it’s nothing like that. But what we have here is not just a book; it’s a collection of three interconnected novellas, all about the interesting life of Stephen Leeds.
Legion, a novella collection from The Stormlight Archive‘s Brandon Sanderson, is centered around Stephen Leeds, a man who has the amazing ability to learn and become an expert on subjects almost instantly. The catch? His brain can’t retain all that massive amount of information without driving him insane. Stephen’s solution? He creates imaginary people he can interact with in real time who hold on to various subjects for him. These imaginary people, called “aspects,” have their own personalities and quirks, and they guide him along on whatever impossible task has been set before him.
Stephen’s subconscious is a vibrant and diverse cast of characters. Common players are Ivy, the psychologist; J.C. the gun-toting mercenary-type; and Tobias, the calming presence who is an expert on architecture, gardening and random histories. Any time Stephen needs to learn a new skill or, say, a language, he reads a few books on the subject and a new “aspect” comes into being to harness that information for him. See kids? Reading is fundamental.
Stephen is a likeable character who understandably comes off as a bit kooky to those around him. He is a relatable everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances because of an inherent talent for learning. The book presents a fascinating study of the human mind, or “psychology-as-superpower,” which Brandon Sanderson notes is a recurring theme in his writing in the book’s preface.
Stephen is aware of his imaginary world, and actively engages in it to achieve whatever task has been set before him. But these “aspects” are far from perfect. Each one comes packaged with their own neurological disorders. Ivy is trypophobic (that thing you’ve seen on the internet with tiny holes creeping people out), Ngozi is a germaphobic forensic scientist, and Tobias has his own imaginary friend.
Stephen’s own mind surprises him often, as “aspects” start doing things previously thought impossible, such as video chatting on a cell phone. It’s scary because we wonder if Stephen might go over the deep end if the rules are broken too much. This is an important through line that we follow in the three novellas. The “aspects” and their behaviors change as time goes on, and Stephen is threatened with losing control over his abilities and his mind. It’s a subject that gains intensity as we progress through the three novellas.
Having Stephen interact in a real world while constantly occupied by his entourage of imaginary experts is fun. People like Wilson, his servant, understand how to interact with them, pantomiming handing imaginary drinks or holding the door for people he doesn’t see. There are times when the illusion breaks down, and Stephen is at risk of losing his marbles. For example, someone throws a real thing to an imaginary person, and Stephen has to imagine the “aspect” catching one and dropping another.
Sanderson is careful to follow the rules of his world. It’s part of what makes the deviations (like the camera phone thing) so surprising. Stephen’s “aspects” don’t just appear when he needs them. He needs to plan ahead, choose who he wants with him, and leave room for them in a vehicle when they travel. He has to act like they are real people in order to use their talents. The limitations are part of what make Stephen more relatable, more human. It’s also a challenge, because he can be forcibly separated from his “aspects” and left helpless, unable to access the hordes of valuable information his brain has tucked away.
Sanderson makes a good move by continuing his story in several novellas. Not only do we get to revisit a great cast of characters and add new ones to the mix, we also get through lines that suggest a bigger story. Hints about an “aspect” that went rogue and died, which was how Stephen lost his knowledge of chemistry, are particularly intriguing.
There’s also a constant yearning for a lady love who disappeared long ago but who taught Stephen to harness his abilities before she left. The character is brought up a few times, enforcing the idea that Stephen’s affections went unrequited. If Stephen’s story ended at the first novella, it would have felt unresolved. We are teased with hints of who Sandra was to him until part three. No spoilers for you. Just know that if something is mentioned more than once, you best file it away in your brain somewhere because it will be significant later, much like how Stephen files away everything he reads.
For a book that could be heavy on the psycho-babble, Legion is a truly accessible read. Part of that is due to the novella format—there’s less room for extraneous information than in a traditional novel. The novella formula works for Stephen Leed’s story. We check into his life when interesting cases come up, and are therefore not burdened down by superfluous scenes or filler. There’s also the nature of Stephen’s character: He’s a really casual guy, so having his story inundated with lofty prose wouldn’t fit.
This is an easy read, with lots of witty dialogue and really likeable imaginary characters. It won’t leave you hanging because resolutions are right around the corner. Each novella builds upon the last, making the stakes more dire and morphing Stephen’s worldview along the way. We might even have some revelations about the human psyche in the process.
Legion includes the novellas “Legion,” “Skin Deep” and “Lies of the Beholder.” It is now available to purchase via Amazon or your local independent bookstore.