Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mistborn: The Final Empire Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Mistborn Book One
Pages: 657

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Brandon Sanderson is probably known to most people as the man who completed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  Thus it’s no big surprise to see how big of an influence Jordan had on Sanderson’s craft.

Sanderson incorporates Jordan’s themes, like duality into his magic system, Jordan’s character developing devices, such as madness and hearing voices inside your head, and to a much lesser extent he explores Jordan’s idea of the hero destroying the world, while simultaneously saving it.

Mistborn: The Final Empire is the first part of a trilogy that explores what happens after the prophesied hero fails.  The setting is dark, hope is scarce, and the nights are covered in mysterious mists. It is a story about an oppressed people fighting for their freedom from a man who claims to be their God, hero, and savior.

Accompanying the central plot about fighting for freedom are some excellent subplots and strong primary characters; the only real weaknesses from the story come from simple secondary characters and some issues with dialogue. A lot of these issues are minor though, and they are overcome by this book’s greatest aspect: its magic system.

Complex, with lots of clear rules, Sanderson’s magic system, called Allomancy,  is one of the greatest and most original ever created for the genre.  It’s this system of magic that makes this book one of the fantasy genre’s best that utilizes a lot of magic in telling a story.

For 1,000 years The Final Empire has been ruled by the Lord Ruler, a powerful deity with great power.  The Lord Ruler is worshiped as a God by the skaa, the lowest and most oppressed class of people, and is feared by the nobility.  He controls all aspects of life for both the upper and lower classes, and he has brutally squashed any attempts at wrestling power away from him.  The worst offenders of the Lord Ruler’s laws are sent to the Pits of Hathslin where people are forced to labor themselves to a horrible death.

In the present, a young skaa named Vin discovers she has the abilities of a Mistborn: the most powerful and rarest type of allomancer, a person that can magically control the ten known types of metal.  Her discovery of these abilities leads to her being trained by a Mistborn and a thief leader named Kelsier, who is the only person who escaped the Pits of Hatslin over the past 1,000 years.
As Vin begins to develop her allomantic abilities, she gets brought into Kelsier’s most ambitious plan to date: to start a rebellion that will bring down the Lord Ruler’s Empire.

The greatest aspect of Sanderson’s story is the concept of allomancy, which is quite complicated for a fantasy magic system.  The basic gist is this: people with allomantic powers swallow vials of the ten different metal types.  Once the vial is swallowed, the person with allomantic abilities can burn at the ingested metal reserve in their system to enhance the magical abilities that are assigned to each metal.

Most allomancers can only burn one type of metal, which grants them one magically empowered ability. These people are called Mistings.  The much more powerful, and more rare, Mistborn can burn all of the different types of allomantic metals, which makes them some of the most profoundly powerful people in the Final Empire.

The metals used in the magic system come in pairs, and each pair has opposing functions. For example steel is paired with iron.  Iron pulls someone towards metal, and steel pushes someone away from metal.  Items containing these metals iron and steel can be affected by allomancers in only those ways.

Mistborn is a convoluted good vs evil type of fantasy.  At points, the good vs evil morality that is associated with particular characters becomes blurred, which makes the story a lot more engaging.  One of the strongest devices used by Sanderson is the way he begins each chapter, which is by quoting passages written by the Hero of Ages; a great hero from the past who was supposed to have been looking for a great power, which would have saved the world from the darkness.

The Hero of Ages’ growing insanity and his clinging to hope and doing the right thing directly clash with the present oppressed state that the world is in.  This device creates some of the deeper philosophical discussions that can be provided by Sanderson’s story, and it provides openings for some the book’s more emotional ideas to come through.

The setting of Mistborn is bleak, and this really helps to create the true sense of desperation that afflicts the story’s major characters. Ash storms from the sky, plant life is brown, and thick dark mists cover every single night.  Perhaps the most depressing thing about this world, is how the characters laugh at the thought of trees being green.  It’s not just beauty that’s missing from this world that’s really depressing, rather it’s the missing memory of what beauty is.

Kelsier is a great mentor and a fantastic leader.  He has a great back-story, which is largely used as the motivation that justifies his actions.  He has excellent flaws, which lead to the most interesting conflict afflicting  his character, which is best presented in a question: If Kelsier succeeds in defeating the Lord Ruler, will he be able to let go of the power that will presumably be granted to him for toppling the Final Empire or will he become just another Lord Ruler?

Vin narrates most of the story.  Her arc is great, as she rises from being a terrified youth to a more confident wielder of magic.  Vin is the definition of perseverance.  She must overcome the stigma of being a skaa; she must learn to deal with the horror of her brutal and violent childhood; and she must learn how to become a Mistborn.  Vin may be paranoid and traumatized, but she offsets this with great instincts and intelligence.  Her greatest flaw is her lack of trust, but it’s what makes her so sympathetic to readers.

The Lord Ruler is a great all powerful villain.  He bares a conceptual resemblance to 1984’s Big Brother with his complete and utter domination of the world he rules.  Although it can be debated whether or not Big Brother is even real, the Lord Ruler is most certainly a real person, and yes, he is a monstrously powerful force of ass-kicking destruction.  Lord Ruler is another character with a great back-story, and it makes him a much more complicated character than the typical fantasy construction of an all-powerful force of evil.

Kelsier, Vin, and the Lord Ruler are the strongest characters in this book, but they aren’t masterpieces of characters either.  They are good enough to get readers through the story, but I wouldn’t say my attachment to Sanderson’s characters is as strong as my attachment to certain characters from A Song of Ice and Fire or Lord of the Rings.

Dialogue between a lot the characters has a tendency to be stale and explanatory.  A lot of the secondary characters like Breeze, Ham, and Spook are very similar in personality. There are differences between them, but they feel like they are forced upon the reader.  As characters they don’t feel organic and natural, rather they appear to function more as characters that are simply there to move the plot along.

The true strength of Mistborn is the magic battles and the system that governs the rules of those battles.  This is a book with a lot of magic, and readers who are inclined towards books with lots of magic will certainly get their money’s worth.  Unfortunately plot and characters aren’t equal to the extraordinary magic system, but that still doesn’t stop Mistborn from being a great introduction to another fantasy trilogy.

Score: 9.2

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