Title: Mistborn: The Final Empire
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Published: July 17, 2006
What happens when a lovable criminal crew like the one in Ocean’s Eleven is tasked with taking down the evil Empire from Star Wars? You get the plot of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire and it is every bit as absorbing as it sounds. The book follows Vin, a street orphan with untold potential as she is pulled away from the harsh street life to a world of revolutions, intrigue and criminal activity. However, Mistborn isn’t just about mixing two very different genres together; in fact, that’s just the simplest way I have of introducing the otherwise layered and complex world that Sanderson has created. The book challenges some of fantasy’s oldest conventions, and when combined with Sanderson’s unique yet accessible world makes for an amazing opening to what promises to be an excellent trilogy.
Truth be told, I’m not completely new to Sanderson’s work; Sanderson was chosen by late, great Robert Jordan to continue the latter’s Wheel of Time series, which I read from time to time in days long past. While I had some issues with the way Sanderson’s contribution to the series turned out, there was no denying that the man had a gift for pacing his stories that few fantasy authors had. Fantasy authors, as a rule, tend to spend far too much time exploring the worlds they create and not without reason – they spend so much of their time and effort creating and fleshing those worlds out that it would seem a waste to not expose as much of it to their readers as possible. The drawback to this should be obvious – it slows the plot down tremendously. Sanderson has the discipline to resist this temptation and Mistborn profits from it greatly. The world Sanderson has made here is not as expansive as those of other authors or indeed even those from his other works. In fact, Mistborn takes place almost exclusively in a single city – but that doesn’t mean that the book’s setting lacks complexity. On the contrary, Sanderson has meticulously crafted a very detailed precise backstory for the world from ample explanations for world’s current state to detailed descriptions of the characters pasts and motives. The book’s setting is an interesting departure from the traditional medieval/dark age settings that fantasy books typically feature. Instead, while the military technology level in Sanderson’s world is indeed roughly analogous to medieval Europe, the high society itself seems (to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge) to be from the Victorian era though there are agricultural advances (like canning and irrigational canals) on the level that would suggest a pre-Industrial Revolution level of technology while the presence of an enslaved labor force reminds me largely of a pre-Civil War United States. This mixing and matching of different places and ages makes for an interesting backdrop to the book’s plot and indeed offers unique obstacles for the characters will need to navigate around.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mistborn’s setting is how intrinsically it is tied to every aspect of the book. The characters, for instance, are all conspicuous products of the setting that birthed them. Now, this might seem like a redundant statement, but I’ve read (and written) stories where the characters are almost embarrassingly divorced from the environment that they allegedly emerged from. The characters in Mistborn are generally an amiable lot (if in a roguish way), taking on impossible odds with a smile on their face and little more than the scarcest hint of a plan in their heads. I would like for Sanderson to challenge himself a little in this department though – thus far, his point of view characters have all been sympathetic; I want him to write a less likable character, perhaps an anti-character or even a villain. While giving the characters sufficiently disparate personalities was an important milestone to reach, I feel confident that Sanderson can do more. To his credit, he does give his characters some very realistic flaws and nuances – without giving too much away, our protagonist Vin’s deeply ingrained street instincts are hard to overcome and haunt her over the course of the book, making her doubt even those that the readers would identify as having the best of intentions. The other protagonist, Kelsier, is a slightly darker character harboring a deep-seated, violent prejudice against the world’s nobility though his cold-blooded murders are often portrayed as necessary evils more than the atrocities they are. Sanderson’s characters are not static, stationary creations – Vin changes drastically over the course of the book and even some of the older, hardened characters learn that they must adapt to accommodate the changes they themselves are trying to bring as they attempt the most outrageous job they have ever been hired to perform – the death of a God and the toppling of a millennium old empire.
The book wastes little time setting up this grand, outlandish plot but spends a great number of pages highlighting the meticulous planning that goes into executing the operation. In the process we are exposed to the various strata of society within Mistborn’s society – the untouchable elite, the religious bureaucrats, the enslaved laborers, known as skaa. One of the most popular tropes in fantasy literature is that of the ‘farm boy’, a naïve, hapless character who knows as little about the world outside his ‘farm’ or more generally, his little slice of the fantasy world, as the readers themselves. He then usually meets a considerably better travelled veteran who introduces him and, by extension, the reader to some of the world’s core fundamentals – things like popular cities, the magic system (if any exists), the society and often, the antagonist. Luke Skywalker is perhaps the most famous ‘farm boy’ in popular fiction, insofar that he is literally a farm boy with no idea of what was going on in the galaxy at large. Here, Vin serves this role but with some slight adjustments – while she is as familiar with the basics as the rest of the main crew, her world view is extremely limited, having grown up amongst abusive family and hardened criminals. Kelsier’s role is much more in line with that of the traditional teacher-mentor character, guiding Vin both emotionally and through her training as a thief. Given the characters ages and the book’s timeframe it is only natural that Vin, a character who gradually moves further and further away from the circumstances that she grew up in, grows the most, but there is sufficient evidence of change in some of the supporting cast as well. Best of all, these developments are very firmly tied to plot advancements – characters learning to deal with increased expectations as their plans succeed or learning to rebounded from failure when those same plans come crashing down around their heads. Sanderson is careful to maintain the balance between providing the reader with too many details (and risking them losing interest) and leaving them entirely in the dark (and risking them losing interest). Early in the book, the crew assembles a skeleton plan to overthrow the oppressive regime but there are a great many unanswered questions – the most intriguing one relating to how they intend to kill a divine entity. As the other questions answer themselves slowly over the course of the book, this one question keeps the reader riveted as Sanderson gently teases us with small fragments of the answer. There are excerpts from a long forgotten text as the beginning of each chapter which at first seem to be telling a tale in parallel to the main plot but in fact related directly to the events in the chapter. These excerpts make for passably interesting reading on a first read, but are tremendously more meaningful the second time.
I’ve extolled several of Sanderson’s virtues as a writer but Mistborn does have some rather glaring deficiencies as well. The most severe of these is how Sanderson handles the book’s climax – things come to a head altogether too fast given the pace of the rest of the book, but even that can be forgiven if not for just how very confusing the book’s resolution turns out to be. One is left with the feeling that something portentous has occurred but without a real understanding on what exactly happened, how it happened and most critically, how the characters knew to make it happen. After spending almost an entire book slowly building dramatic tension, the resolution of the book’s key conflict is not as satisfying as one might believe. There is also a romantic subplot that feels clumsily shoved into the book – it’s not entirely ridiculous but it is rather bland and trite. It feels as though Sanderson expended all his thought and creativity on the main plot and lifted this romantic subplot from any number of cheap, B flicks. His writing of action sequences leaves something to be desired as well – given the nature of the world’s magic system, there is some element of chaos inherent to describing these scenes but Sanderson’s style does little to clarify what exactly is going on. Often, I find myself not quite understanding what is happening during a fight but rather just skimming through it and searching for its end. These deficiencies do not, however, outweigh the book’s strengths. Sanderson is destined to become not only a stalwart of the genre, but also someone intent on challenging what some would call the genre’s dated conventions.
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