It’s been a few weeks, so I figured I’d write another review for your readening enjoyment. It’s a book again and quite an interesting study in executing a really awesome idea kinda poorly. Grab your horses and hold onto ‘em tight, ‘cause today we’re examining:
Mistborn 1: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (2006)
It’s a big book, so expect a big review. However, I want to focus on Two Things. Thing 1) Mistborn is a super cool idea with an interesting world, plot, genre combination, and protagonist/antagonist. Thing 2) The sentence-level writing style and side characters are subpar at best and annoying at worst.
Before you fling a glass dagger at me for my heresy, allow me to explain.
As a wee stripling, I was enamored with epic fantasy. I wouldn’t do my homework or pay attention in class because I was devouring some 700+ page paperback tome that weighed as much as my huge-ass algebra textbook. I burned through several series such as C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy which was introduced to me by my friend Wes in high school (thanks man!). I stomached nearly 8 entries in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series before giving up on his trite, poorly written, conservative/objectivist BS. Plus, big classics like The Hobbit, LOTR, The Dark Tower series (still my favorite), The Earthsea Trilogy, and a whole mess of others are on my resume.
I took several years away from fantasy in college and grad school, but I have returned! The Name of the Wind reignited my love for epic fantasy, so it was only a matter of time before I got to the Sanderson Cosmere.
I was also a bonafide Sandersonian even before reading this book. As an aspiring writer, I watched almost every lecture he has on Youtube because the man gives fantastic writing advice that anyone can use to make their writing better in every way (plot, characters, setting, magic systems, theme, even his sentence-level advice is solid and it's all broadly applicable). Sanderson is a genius in terms of storytelling theory and as an educator. I strive to write and teach as well, so he earned my admiration before reading word one.
With my fantasy credentials arguably established, I must admit I almost gave up on The Final Empire about halfway through, but I am so glad I kept on truckin’.
If I had given up, my review would probably be two words: Vin frowned.
I understand that Vin is the pessimistic foil to Kelsier’s stubborn optimism, but that phrase appears far too much. Sometimes it occurred 4-5 times in two pages. It’s pretty egregious, and it kept knocking me out of the story as I made another mental tally mark each time I saw it.
Vin stands as a great character otherwise. To be fair, she has a lot to frown about. She is a great example of a complex, well-rounded, three-dimensional character. Vin is insecure at the right times for the right reasons when she’s insecure. She is strong and proactive at equally right times for equally right reasons when she's eliminating threats. She is Oliver Twist with badass magical powers.
Kelsier is also a great character. I’m probably preaching to the choir right now, so I’ll try to keep the praise short as praise for Sanderson’s strengths can be found anywhere. His plan is brilliant, and he plays his cards close to his chest for most of the story. I’m not sure if I would categorize him as an anti-hero, and that uncertainty speaks volumes for the character’s complexity. He is a good man who does terrible things in the hopes that it might bring about a greater good.
Sazed is a great character, possibly one of the best-written I’ve encountered in the Mistborn series so far. I would say a lot more about him, but like Sonic I'm trying to go fast. I might do a post just about him in the future. The Lord Ruler is a fantastic representation of an imposing, mythical force of oppression. The scene where he appears is beautiful in a painful way. The way his mysteries set the sequel up is compelling as well. Good stuff.
Ham, Breeze, Dockson, Clubs, Marsh, and the rest of the crew are a tad weak. They’re each a little flat, but they are distinct personalities who serve their roles well enough. It’s fine because there wasn’t enough space to flesh them out more fully without severe editing.
Spook is grating and I don’t know why he made the final draft. Every time he speaks, I want to skip to the next section and not bother deciphering his laborious dialect. Luckily, in the second book Spook’s dialect is scrapped and he rarely appears.
Elend Venture is a bit goofy, but he does a great job contrasting the general brutal aristocracy against his well-intentioned but ultimately ignorant idealism against Kelsier's brutal but well-intentioned pragmatism. He gets better in the second book, but it takes time for him to come into his own. A long character arc, this one, but eventually a good one.
Again, I’ll try to keep this section short as Sanderson’s worldbuilding is just as large of a draw for readers as his magic systems. Universal acclaim, and for good reason!
Luthadel and the Dominances appear to be traditional downtrodden fantasy locales at first glance, but several aspects of this world dodge the usual tropes. Ashfalls, red skies, the mists, the Steel Ministry, the Pits of Hathsin (where those who hath sinned are sent to work to death), and the inclusion of Victorian/Regency scenes make this world unique.
Class divisions between the Skaa and the Aristocracy is explored in great depth through characters' interactions with each other and the setting. Starting Vin in abject poverty, then pulling a My Fair Lady and sending her to lavish ballroom parties undercover worked wonderfully. Lord Renoux (a kandra in disguise) helped make this transition feel smooth and mysterious at the same time.
The combination of locations and styles lends the story an interesting bouquet of flavors. Sanderson definitely knows his stuff regarding heists, class conflicts, coming-of-age stories, and Victorian/Regency senses and sensibilities (har-har, I'm hilarious).
Brandon Sanderson has popularized a new way of thinking about magic systems. Hard systems where the rules of magic are well-defined and the rules are never broken without explanation, and soft systems where magic goes POOF and magic happens. He leans toward the former, and if you take Allomancy with a grain of salt it lends the story fascinating tools and limitations. I find Ferruchemy much more interesting, but not quite as bombastically cool as Allomancy. They counterbalance each other well.
Burning metal in your tum-tum to make magic happen is kinda arbitrary on its own, but the way these abilities are employed helps me suspend my disbelief. Slowly expanding the metals Allomancers and Mistborn can burn makes this well-defined system more mysterious. There is always the hint that something more exists in the magic that is yet unknown. Sanderson capitalizes on this in the second book to great effect.
Sanderson seems to lean into a golden rule of writing: write what you know/love and make it your own. His passions for epic fantasy magic combined with his scientific interests means that he can write authoritatively as though Allomancy actually exists. This also lets him empower his characters to do incredible feats of acrobatics and strength backed by an easily understood magical framework.
Again, take it with a grain of salt and it becomes incredibly satisfying.
Vin frowned. Keslier smiled or laughed. Breeze needed more wine. Something happened maladroitly more than once. The writing is generally wordy, which is a feature of epic fantasy novels rather than a bug oftentimes, but I still found myself wishing the writing was tighter. This would quicken the pacing, which I often found too slow in the first ¾ or so. This is a double-edged sword, though, because the pacing delightfully takes off toward the end, resulting in what has affectionately become known as the Sanderlanche. The ending might not have had such a profound effect had the pacing been faster up to that point, so while the beginning and middle can drag some, the contrast with the ending makes it more satisfying perhaps.
The writing style of The Final Empire is also very simple, but I think this is a strength. Simplicity means clarity, especially when dealing with complex ideas, so this helps the reader which is always good. It also makes this incredible story accessible to a wider range of reader ability, which is always good. Sandersons’ descriptions are detailed but never overwrought, and they are mostly delivered through a POV character rather than a disembodied narrator. All good stuff.
Another editing pass to cut unnecessary repetition and general wordiness would have elevated this to a whole ‘nother level for me. As it stands, it is competently written for the most part, and the stellar other aspects helped me ignore the clunky writing long enough to let the story get its glass daggers into me.
If any of my gripes put you off trying this series, don’t let them. The first book has some issues but is otherwise an amazing story set in an interesting world with cool magic and solid (main) characters. The best part? The second book contains nearly none of my gripes about the first one and presents a fresh batch of cool ideas. None of this “the same but bigger” that happens sometimes. It’s a new take on the continuation of the same story. New threats, new conflicts, new mysteries, and all the things that make a great sequel great. The secondary characters get fleshed out more, the main characters gain new depths as they grow over their arcs, and new characters are introduced who complicate previously established relationships.
I’m almost finished reading The Well of Ascension, and I’m happy to say I’m a huge fan of Sanderson’s work already. I’m excited to get to his other series (plural) and continue my second delve into the world of epic fantasy, this time as an adult!