Review of Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn: The Final Empire
by Brandon Sanderson
My first fantasy novel was The Lord of the Rings, but it was an isolated incident. The book that motivated me to continue reading fantasy was The Belgariad (more of a series, really), by David Eddings. These books vary in terms of quality, but both adhere to what one might call the standard fantasy plot involving an unassuming, young protagonist prophesied to overthrow the Dark Lord. It might be what hooked me (and a lot of other readers) but it’s been done to death.
There are a lot of ways to subvert this trope. Brandon Sanderson chooses a clever one in Mistborn: The Final Empire. He starts the story a millennium after the coming of the Chosen One … because the Chosen One failed. (Well, it’s more complicated than that, but spoilers!) Vin is a street urchin and smalltime thief who gets discovered by Kelsier, the Survivor of the Pits of Hathsin and a powerful Mistborn. Vin’s a Mistborn too, able to use all of the allomantic metals instead of just one, and Kelsier recruits her for a caper. They and a small crew will steal the Lord Ruler’s cache of atium, a super-rare allomantic metal. Oh, and while they do this, an army will attack the city so they can overthrow the empire. No pressure.
Sanderson doesn’t really date his empire with much. It’s feudal in scope and feel, but one must remember that it has been this way for a thousand years through artificially-imposed stagnation. The Lord Ruler has no interest in developing new technologies, particularly ones like the steam engine that would make skaa labour redundant. So parts of the setting feel generic, but others, such as the mists and vegetation (or dearth thereof), are very well described. Though I really think they should be “dominions” and not “dominances”…. But the setting is far from Mistborn’s main attraction; no, that would be its characters and the plan they have concocted to save the world (again).
I can see why so many of my friends here on Goodreads have enjoyed this book. It’s really, really good. Almost every facet of it, when examined, is well-planned and put together. Sanderson evidently knows what he’s doing when plotting—not to mention when designing magic systems. I started Mistborn while reading outside one morning, and I just kept reading. At some point I had planned to go inside and play some more Assassin’s Creed: Revelations or maybe, you know, do something productive … but all I wanted to do was read. It was nice out, and I was enjoying this book.
Sanderson kept me hooked. He knows when it’s time for an action scene and when to throw in some higher drama. He can do subterfuge and spy games or all-out havoc. What I found most interesting about his choices was probably how he portrayed so much off the page. Whether it’s through a voice writing in the distant past or Kelsier simply recounting something to the rest of the crew, a significant number of things happen outside the direct attention of the narrative. With ample foreshadowing and exposition crafted to look like casual, almost throwaway dialogue, Sanderson dangles a lot in front of the reader to be filed away or ignored at will.
Mistborn made me want to keep reading, made me excited to read it, because I wanted to know what happened next. More importantly, I wanted to guess what would happen next. This is huge, because although I tend to do this a lot, I’m really bad at it. You have to be pretty blatant about foreshadowing to catch my attention. In this case, Sanderson’s decision to embrace but also subvert various fantasy tropes means that Mistborn walks an interesting line that makes guessing fun. I was right about quite a few things that I thought were predictable, including the identity of the author of the chapter epigraphs and the nature of faux-Renoux. I was wrong about a lot of things too—for example, I thought a certain member of Kelsier’s crew would end up betraying him, but it didn’t happen. Still, I was right enough of the time that I didn’t mind when I was wrong—and I was wrong enough of the time, or didn’t see enough coming, that I didn’t find the book too predictable.
I love Vin, and in particular I love how she develops throughout the book. When we first meet her she’s beaten (literally) and prone to making herself as unobtrusive as possible. She’s so categorically mistrustful of Kelsier’s crew and their motives for helping her; it’s fascinating watching the internal monologue happen as she decides how far to trust them and plans contingencies for her escape. And at first, there’s no question in her mind that she will one day break from them—as her brother beat into her, betrayal is inevitable. Yet Kelsier and the others wear her down, and as the story continues, Vin begins to change. I know this because Sanderson has her observe it quite a lot—unlike some of his foreshadowing, his character development is sometimes loud and obnoxious.
I’m willing to forgive it, though, because Vin is a good protagonist. She suffers a bit from the superpowered birthright syndrome common to fantasy protagonists—not exactly the Chosen One per se, she still has access to powers that other Mistborn don’t. However, this power is not the primary reason she triumphs. She’s intelligent and observant and puts these attributes to fantastic use. Always asking questions (because knowledge gives her power), Vin—and by extension, the reader—deduces quite a few interesting quirks of allomancy, some of them in the heat of battle. Sometimes she’s wrong—fallible protagonists are great—and pays for it dearly, much to my amusement. (I’m a terrible person.) But when she’s right, and she wins a fight as a consequence, it comes with that feeling she won because she was smarter, not just because she hit harder or had superior magic powers. I appreciate that type of nuance in my fantasy.
And then there’s allomancy. (Also feruchemy and, though not named directly in this book, hemalurgy—but I think talking about one magic system is enough for this review.) As far as magic goes, I’m not a huge fan of allomancy. I guess I just prefer my magic when it has a little more metaphysical oomph to it. This is not a technical term. Allomancy, at least as it is commonly practised, is more of a physical magic. That being said, there is no question that it is a well-constructed system of magic. Sanderson explains it succinctly and gradually, introducing us to each of the metals at an appropriate time. And it does make for some good fight scenes, if that’s your cup of tea. If you are one of those curmudgeonly readers sitting out there saying, “Damn fantasy these days doesn’t have any good, consistent systems of magic! And get off my lawn!” then Mistborn will stand you in good stead.
If you haven’t yet joined the ranks of the curmudgeons, Mistborn will probably work for you anyway. It’s a little bit heist, a little bit epic fantasy with kind of an urban feel to it. I loved the ending, particularly the part where the Lord Ruler delivers an ominous line of foreshadowing that his role in this little dystopia might not be as clearcut as it would seem. It makes me want to go read the next book right now. And that’s always a good sign.