I first discovered fantasy author Brandon Sanderson when I read The Gathering Storm, book 12 of the famous The Wheel of Time series, which Sanderson had been asked to finish after the death of Robert Jordan, the series’ creator. I was hugely impressed by Sanderson’s work on that book – so much so that I immediately went out in search of his other novels, and found this, Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first book of his epic fantasy Mistborn trilogy.
Fans of epic fantasy will all be familiar with the over-used trope of a protagonist who begins the story as a young farmer, discovers he/she has hidden magical powers, and then embarks on an epic quest to defeat a “Dark Lord” *cough* Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth; practically 90% of all fantasy books *end cough*. A modern fantasy author has to break away from this overused – and now horribly clichéd – story arch if they want to write something original and interesting. Sanderson succeeds in this brilliantly, basing his trilogy on a creative new premise: imagine the Dark Lord won.
The world of Mistborn is dark and mysterious. The plant-life of the world is almost entirely extinct; the sun now burns red; the world is covered in a choking blanket of ash, which rains down almost continuously; and at night-time mysterious mists rise up to cover the entire land. The Lord Ruler presides over it all, ruthlessly controlling his subjects through violence, fear and oppression. It is the world of the Final Empire, and he has reigned unchallenged for over one thousand years.
The story of this book centres on two main characters, Vin, a young thief, and Kelsier, a charismatic criminal mastermind, as they come up with a daring plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler’s tyranny. They plan to do this by forming an elite covert team to steal the Lord Ruler’s hoard of atium, an incredibly valuable metal which is the foundation of his economic control, while at the same time facilitating a rebellion of the oppressed skaa population. Mistborn is a superb mix of traditional fantasy and Ocean’s 11 style storytelling, and the heist-based plot is a great way of reinvigorating a somewhat staid genre.
Mistborn’s magic system, Allomancy, is very unique and engaging. Allomancy is based on “burning” metals to give the user super-human powers. There are 8 basic metals that an Allomancer can use: pewter, for example, greatly enhances the user’s physical capabilities; brass lets the user manipulate the emotions of others; tin greatly enhances the user’s senses. The most interesting two metals are iron and steel, which let the user “Pull” and “Push” metal respectively. One application of this is pushing and pulling coins, which effectively turns them into reusable bullets. Weight, however, plays a huge role in how this Allomancy works: if you “pushed” a lamppost, for example, you would be thrown through the air instead. Mistborn–allomancers who can burn all the metals–can use this technique to travel at incredible speeds through the city, half-flying half-jumping. Allomancy is a really well thought out magic system which has great depth and intricacy, while at the same time lending itself to fantastic fast-paced action sequences.
There are plenty of interesting themes explored here as well. The theme of class division is very prominent throughout: “skaa” workers comprise the majority of the population and they are horrifically abused and oppressed, being treated as less than human by the wealthy noblemen. Trust is a big theme in Vin’s story, as she moves from a world of petty thievery and gang violence to one of friendship and interdependence.
The plot of the book is excellently written; it’s fast-paced and interesting, and it packs in a lot of really shocking twists and turns. It’s a world you want to learn about and Sanderson does a wonderful carrot-and-stick job, tantalising you with one more revealed secret and ten new questions in every single chapter. Sanderson is an expert in deception, and pulls off some ingeniously dramatic twists several times during the story. Be prepared to be amazed.
Mistborn’s biggest weakness, however, is characterisation. Most of the characters are extremely one dimensional. Kelsier, Vin, Sazed and Elend are the only characters with any real depth to them, and even these are not portrayed as fully as they could be. Sanderson admits that he squeezed a plot that would usually take several books into this single novel, and while this has its benefits it also comes at the cost of putting plot before characters. Conversations are often there just for the sake of plot explanation and inner dialogue and reflection is minimal.
This results in a story that isn’t as emotive as it could have been. The Lord Ruler doesn’t inspire as much fear or hatred as the plot implies he should; Kelsier, not as much awe; the skaa’s plight, not as much righteous outrage. The plot spends too much time telling and not enough showing. It’s not totally skewed – the balance just isn’t 100% right.
Even taking these flaws into account, Mistborn is still one of the most interesting new fantasy trilogies of recent years. The action makes it a fun and accessible read and it’s an original and compelling story. Sanderson weaves a plot with more devilish twists than most murder mysteries. A lot of fantasy books retread the same old themes so it’s refreshing to see an author trying something new. Highly recommended.