My first encounter with Brandon Sanderson was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast where he and two other authors (with frequent guests) discuss the craft of writing stories and novels with frequent attention to science fiction and fantasy genres. Sanderson was tapped by Robert Jordan’s widow to finish out Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (of which started years ago and put down after I realized what a commitment it was). I picked up Mistborn while picking over the bones of a Borders during it’s closing sale, not really sure when I was going to read it, but after reading The Warded Man I was in the mood for more fantasy. First, I picked up Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows…and I put it down when it read too much like an overzealous teenager’s unabashed use of stock characters and situations, and I was reminded of why I’m so cautious about reading fantasy. Then I noticed I had Mistborn on hand in my bookshelf and decided to give it a go, not sure what to expect. My reaction was at first negative in a very selfish sense in that it captured (better than I could) the essence of several ideas I had scribbled down for a fantasy story, and then once I got over my own egoism I really, really enjoyed the book.
Long ago in in this book’s world, a man believed to be the prophesied Hero of Ages journeyed to the Well of Ascension to find the power necessary to defeat a mysterious evil known only as The Deepness, which threatened to destroy the world. Afterwards, said man decided that saving the world made it his, and so he kept the power he was entrusted with to establish himself as god-emperor. The now-immortal Lord Ruler created The Final Empire, a brutal totalitarian regime that conquered all other nations in the known world and has brutally and systematically oppressed the lower classes for over a thousand years. The Lord Ruler’s control is total, extending even into culture, philosophy, and religion; he has systematically eliminated all other religions except for the government-sanctioned worship of him as god-emperor. Every attempt at insurrection or rebellion has failed, and time and again the Lord Ruler has proven that he cannot be killed. For the thousand years since the Lord Ruler’s fight with The Deepness, the sun has only glowed a dark red, ash falls from the skies constantly, and eerie mists–feared to carry man-eating monsters–appear every night without fail. This is a ruined world, but its inhabitants have known nothing else in The Final Empire, and hope of change is as ephemeral as the mists that disappear with the dawn.
Enter into this scene a young female thief named Vin. Abandoned and betrayed by her brother, Vin is left to pay back his debts by working with a thieving gang in the sprawling, ash-strewn city of Luthadel, capital of The Final Empire and seat of The Lord ruler. She is a skaa, the lowest class in the empire, and like most of her kind is used to beatings, starvation, and squalor. The only thing keeping her from ending up dead in a gutter is her innate magical talents, which she doesn’t even remotely understand. Her path crosses with Kelsior, a powerful Allomancer once imprisoned by the Lord Ruler himself. Kelsior is running his own thieving gang and plotting the ultimate heist that could bring down the Final Empire, and he has taken a special interest in young Vin’s gifts. Can she strust Kelsior and his crew of skaa thieves and revolutionaries? Can anyone stand up to the Lord Ruler?
What Mistborn: The Final Empire Does Well
On its surface, this book does sound somewhat Lies-of- Locke-Lamora-esque given the thieving crew and the whole caper aspect, but it’s really a book about revolution employing the covert tactics of a thieving crew to foment it, and the whole profit-vs-doing what’s right angle does become an important theme. Actually, I was surprised by how this book complicated several of its themes so that it (thankfully) didn’t devolve into simple cliches and stock fantasy plotlines. For example, the opening of the book shows a typical noble being cruel to his skaa workers, which made me think at first that Sanderson was going for the easy and (possibly) overused plot device of an oppressed people rising up and overthrowing their oppressors, but later on in the book Sanderson does show that the nobility are not all uncaring, cruel plot devices whose only job is to be obviously callous and evil so that we can have someone to root against. Overall the book was well paced and introduced new facets and complications at the right moments. If, say, I found myself wondering about one character’s real intentions or approaching the point that I desperately needed to know an answer to a certain question (or to at least see addressed in some way) to keep invested in what the book is trying to do, Sanderson obliged nicely. It’s a big book, but it doesn’t get bogged down, neither did I feel like later plot events were telegraphed too early nor that Sanderson was playing keep-away with important plot elements in an artificial measure to heighten the excitement or mystery. Overall, it was a well-structured read throughout and I came to trust Sanderson’s plan for unfolding the plot and the ideas.
Maybe it’s all my reading in genre theory as of late, but one aspect of the book that really endeared it to me is the way it played with the notion of the hero’s quest, which in fantasy is a core ingredient next to swords and magic. Most bad or mediocre fantasy employs the usual cliched hero’s quest: a young and initially naive protagonist, usually from a rural community and lowly upbringing, finds that he or she is The One that some prophecy has gabbed about and that he must do this or that, find this or that McGuffin, or learn this or that in order to destroy the evil force and make everything peachy again (see John Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for more detail on the exact elements and stages of this archetype). Sanderson throws a spanner in this usual formula by 1) showing us what happened over a millenia after the hero’s quest, which given the ruined state of the world didn’t seem to go quite as planned, 2) engaging his characters in the mystery of figuring out what happened during that time, and 3) making the prophesied hero the enemy. Every chapter is preceded by an epigraph from the personal journal of the Hero of Ages as he proceeds on his quest to acquire the power to defeat The Deepness, and this journal becomes important to the plot in a very interesting way. We’ve got Lord Ruler knows how many texts with Johnny Whitebread as the expected hero-savior going on a quest that will take him to place A, teach him skill B, and gain him item C that will let him defeat villain D that the entire thing just feels rote and uninteresting as brushing your teeth, but Sanderson does some interesting things with this cliche by making the hero the villain and making his quest–which was supposed to go off without a hitch–into a mystery in which something went horribly wrong.
Thankfully, character is a big focus in this book in addition to plot and mythos. The characters feel distinctive and believable for the most part, and the core group has interesting characters who are scoundrels, but the good-hearted scoundrels (despite how hard they try to hide it) that you can’t help but love. Kelsior is trying to balance his desire for revenge against the Lord Ruler with his friends’ concern that he is too full of himself and that his hubris will get them killed, Vin is learning that there is more to life than fear and abuse, Ham (an allomancer who can increase his strength) is a philosophical thug who frequently annoys Breeze (the party’s emotional magician), Sazed the terrisman (a northern people subjugated to be servants by The Lord Ruler) is an Alfred-Pennyworth-type character who nevertheless finds ways to be brazen within his training as a servant (and who is more than he appears), etc. Vin and Kelsior, the primary viewpoint characters, are given satisfying arcs that show them dealing with pain, loss, and the idea that there is still hope beyond the crushing deperssion created by The Final Empire. A great deal of character development is done through personal conversations instead of exposition, which I always like to see in SF/F. Indeed, it’s the personal interactions between characters that helped me care for them, the small moments of fellowship and occasional levity that provided a nice counterweight against the grim world and seemingly-impossible task they are confronted with; such moments kept the bleakness of the situation from overwhelming the narrative (in a similar way to how fellowship kept hope alive in The Lord of the Rings).
The magic system deserves special notice here, and it’s going to take me 3 paragraphs to flesh out my thoughts on it (fair warning). In the Writing Excused Podcast, Sanderson and his colleagues have discussed “Sanderson’s First Law of Magics”, which holds that ” An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” To put it plainly, if you want to have a magic system with rules, then your reader needs to understand those rules if the way in which magic is used to further the plot is going to be acceptable to the reader. You can’t suddenly pull a deus ex machina out of your ass and expect your readers to keep respecting you if, up until that point, everything has been plotted out with a rule-based system. The Harry Potter books have a very nebulous magic system in which just about anything can happen, which means that Rowling can introduce a new magical ability or spell that you’ve never heard of before and it won’t be inconsistent with how she has used magic elsewhere in the series. This makes for a very mysterious magical system that can keep its sense of wonder because you never know what will happen next, which is part of the charm. Sanderson, on the other hand, is trying to establish a rule-based magic system that readers can understand, so that when he uses it to resolve plot components the reader can see how his resolution fits in with the established rules. It’s the difference between Agatha Christie’s detective characters and Sherlock Holmes: Christie liked to establish all elements of the crime so that the reader is capable of solving the mystery for himself/herself, but in Doyle’s detective stories you can’t solve the mystery because you are not Sherlock Holmes and you have no idea what detail he will glom onto or what bit of knowledge or lore he will apply to solve the thing. The former allows the reader to play along, and the latter requires the reader to wait until the author or main character reveals his/her brilliant and unexpected twist.
Sanderson’s central magic system in Mistborn is called Allomancy and it’s centered around swallowing bits of metal and using the properties of those metals to fuel one’s special abilities. I know that sounds weird, and it is strange at first, but after a while I could see how clever it was. In the real world, metals are often burned or used for their special chemical properties to produce certain effects or products. In Sanderson’s world, magic users can “burn” metals that they have ingested and draw upon their special properties to produce certain effects: pewter produces a vast increase in strength, tin enhances the senses, brass allows one to soothe others’ emotions, etc. These properties are all set against one another in a system in which a pure metal allows for an internal “pulling” ability whereas its alloy can produce an external “pushing ability”: iron can enable you to pull metal towards you, and its alloy steel allows you to push metals away. The chart that explains all of these reminds me of a Chinese horoscope with one sign’s qualities contrasting to its opposite. Now, this doesn’t mean there are a ton of Magneto’s walking around The Final Empire. Allomancers only come from noble bloodlines (and our heroes are the children of nobles who dallied with skaa), but these magic users are rare and most of them can only burn one metal and use one ability. Rarest of all are the Mistborn who can use all of the metals and their corresponding abilities. This makes for a nice dynamic since “Mistings” have only one power, but are often more deeply experienced with that one gift than a Mistborn might be, who can use all of the powers.
By establishing these basic rules, Sanderson is able to impress us with the ingenuity with which characters employ them. Allomancers who employ steel, for instance, are often called “coin shots” since coins are a seemingly innocuous thing for someone to have, but a steel-pusher can turn them into powerful weapons by rocketing them towards a target or by pushing them into a person or structure and then using their ability to push against their target. Given these rules, we understand not only the capabilities of each character, but their limitations as well, which enables Sanderson to show how clever his characters are by showing how they overcome their weaknesses while remaining within the rules of the system. Sanderson also uses the magic system to flex his world-building muscles by showing how fashion and popular culture in general reacts to these abilities: metal is rarely worn as decoration or on clothing since a coinshot or lurcher (someone who uses iron to pull on metals) can use one’s own belt buckle or ring as a weapons, and wooden dueling canes are carried in place of swords or daggers by most people. I’m deliberately being coy about some of the other talents so I don’t spoil anything, but I will say that a concern I had was that if the magic system is so well regulated it would seem to limit Sanderson’s ability to surprise us, but this was another place where I was thankfully proven wrong. There are several metals that Allomancers can use that are either very rare or deliberately kept secret by The Lord Ruler and his Steel Ministry, which enables Sanderson to clearly map out his system but leave some room for mystery and wonder as characters search for these metals.
To return to characterization for a moment, Sanderson does a great job of setting up The Lord Ruler as a villain by showing and not just telling. You can’t just say a bad guy is bad, you have to show it, and like with any good monster you have to tease out some telling details and let the audience’s minds fill in the rest. There are some interesting similarities between how The Lord Ruler is characterized and how Paul Atreidies is canonized as god-emperor in the Dune series in that he is not only the government and the economic chief of the land, but the focal point of the religion as well. “Lord Ruler!” is the typical all-purpose exclamatory remark in the same way we might use “Dear God!” From birth, his subjects are acculturated to see him as the god-king, and, love him or hate him, they can’t help but see him as an fact of life that cannot be changed let alone killed and replaced. He has won not only the military war, but the propaganda war as well. This characterization is done through dialogue and not just exposition, so we learn about the villain by the way characters talk about him and react to him, not just through Sanderson telling us “this is a bad, bad, bad dude.” The impact of The Lord Ruler’s power, mystique, and savagery is also well presented through his lieutenants, the Steel Inquisitors. These are high-ranking officials and powerful Allomancers who are distinguished by the steel spikes driven through their eyes and poking out thought he back of their skulls. How they survive that process is a mystery, and their monstrous nature and ominous presence builds up their master, The Lord Ruler, even more.
Foggy: Where Mistborn Could Have Been Better
What nagged me the most about the story was how Vin’s trust issues were fleshed out. Vin has a very appropriate amount of distrust for people around her given her life of abuse with outlaws and cutthroats. She has had very little power before the events of this book, and her principle survival strategy has been a very large scoop of paranoia. She doesn’t let anyone pour a drink for her (in case it’s been poisoned), she looks at every kind act with suspicion, and she can’t even conceive of a thing like true friendship, which she interprets as yet another mask that conceals betrayal on down the road. This is fine and understandable given her background, but the way it was presented felt too heavy handed. Granted, her character arc involves her journey towards learning to trust and to love in earnest, but early on she sounds like a crazy person in how she mistrusts absolutely everything, and the way it was carried out felt too artificial at times.
I also wanted more from the character of Dockson, Kelsior’s closest friend and the only non-allomancer member of the central thieving crew. We learn that he is a skaa who escaped a plantation some tragedy, that he is a great organizer, and that he is supposedly a great warrior, but by and large he feels mostly like a foil for Kelsior: the straightman who points out all of the problems with Kelsior’s wildly ambitious plots and plans. I found myself wanting to understand him better than just the guy who is inevitably going to say “That’s crazy, Kelsior.”
In preparing for this review, I read a few other blogs that posted on this book, and one in particular described Sanderson’s writing as “workmanlike,” meaning well-executed but not outstanding. I don’t know if this reviewer was expecting poetry or something more elevated and Tolkien-like, but he didn’t write it in a necessarily disparaging way. Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire is a well-crafted, thoughtful piece of fantasy that plays with certain genre conventions in interesting ways. It played with genre conventions in the hero’s quest, complicated its themes about oppression and revolution, kept me guessing without keeping me in the dark, employed an innovative and systematically-constructed magic system, and built the plot on the actions of believable characters instead of just action scene after action scene. It does so much right and it was so engaging its faults were negligible. Sanderson also leaves enough threads out there to keep you interested in what happens in the rest of the series without resorting to cliffhangers or similar plot devices. I’m eager to learn more about the mystery of The Lord Ruler and about what happens to the characters in the following volumes.
I can be very stingy when it comes to spending money on books and I usually buy used, so when I tell you that after reading Mistborn I made a special trip to buy a new copy of the second book, The Well of Ascension, you should have a pretty good idea about how much I regard this book.