Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn: The Final Empire is book one of the Mistborn series, and part of Sanderson’s expanding, and increasingly intriguing, Cosmere universe. It follows the adventures and coming-of-age narrative of young street urchin Vin, and her participation in a rebel plot to overthrow the ostensibly immortal god-emperor of the land, the Lord Ruler.
On the face of it Mistborn has all the markings of a walking fantasy cliché.
We have a young hero who it just turns out has incredibly and unbelievably rare super-special magical powers, and not only that, but has an uncanny affinity for them and learns how to use them absurdly quickly and to an extent that puts all others to shame. Not to mention a secret bloodline that has ramifications for the upper echelons of society.
We have a scrappy group of super-talented rebels (or quest group for those that are familiar with RPGs) faced with an impossible task that you know that they are somehow going to pull off. Sort of like a million-to-one shot that works nine times out of ten. Luckily each member of the group has one specific talent that adds to the plan and pretty much defines them as a character. For example, Breeze can soothe people’s emotions, Clubs can hide their allomantic activity, and Ham is incredibly strong.
We have the slightly sinister mentor, Kelsier, who, it turns out, has a few dark secrets in his past. Thankfully he is lucky enough to take a chance on rescuing a young orphan girl, the super-special hero mentioned above, who becomes essential to his plan succeeding.
There is an immortal Dark Lord™ that has been ruthlessly subjugating the masses for a very long time, is obscenely powerful, and appears to be definitively evil for the sake of being evil (ruling with an iron fist, being mean to puppies, and guilty of living alone in a large, foreboding, yet tastefully ostentatious palace which possesses no chamber pots or bathrooms).
The society of the fantasy world has not really evolved or changed in hundreds of years with technology, fashion, literature, and science all remaining relatively static, and made up of two peoples; The Nobles, privileged, spoiled, and decadent, and the Skaa, oppressed slaves.
There is an evil corrupt government bureaucracy and evil military religion that maintain law and order in the land in cruel and vindictive ways.
And lo, there is also an ancient prophecy knocking around that must be fulfilled.
Now if there was an awkward and unnecessary romantic sub-plot and a dragon you would have a full house in fantasy cliché bingo… ok so there is an unnecessary romantic sub-plot but there isn’t a dragon. Maybe even Sanderson thought that dragons at this point would have been overkill.
It is to Sanderson’s credit that he utilises these stereotypes knowingly, and provides enough subversion so that they don’t completely weigh down the narrative in ever increasingly obvious ways. But in terms of story there is little here that will be of any surprise to a fantasy reader, until the end, but to give that away pretty much spoils the story. In this case, the end, at least, partially justifies the means… so to speak.
Mistborn is set on the world Scadrial, a secondary world that is plagued by nigh continual volcanic ash falls, nightly planet-engulfing mists, and orbits a weak red sun. Despite the seemingly alien nature of the planet and the occasional reminders about the ash and the mists, most of the book feels like it is set in a fairly standard and familiar pseudo-medieval fantasy world. The strangeness of the landscape never quite leaves the page to enter the imagination, and there is a certain feudal European feel to the entire planet. Given that worldbuilding is something so important to many modern fantasy narratives, and is also a frequent point praised in Sanderson’s work, perhaps a closer look at the world of Scadrial is necessary here.
The world essentially has two classes of people, the nobles and the Skaa. The Skaa, although they physically resemble the nobles, so much so that they can be easily confused for them, are a slave race. Sanderson didn’t use anything as clichéd as colour or some sort of physical characteristic to differentiate the two races, actually, he doesn’t really use anything to differentiate the two races apart from the name. But choosing a slave race name based on a word for a type of Jamaican music is perhaps a little too on the nose for me. Regardless, despite the fact that the narrative insists on, and then actually explains how, the two races are physically different, the narrative also depends on the fact that there is no real physical difference between them. Yes, it is indeed that contradictory.
Oppressed and subservient to the nobles, the Skaa’s only hope lies in the Skaa rebellion. For centuries a small pocket of rebels has tried to overthrow the Lord Ruler (Dark Lord™) without success. That is, until, Kelsier, the survivor of the prison quarry, the Pits of Hathsin, returns to the capital, Luthadel, to organise an uprising. He rounds up a crew of magically talented individuals, and in the process rescues the protagonist of the novel, Vin, from her time in an evil criminal gang, by recruiting her to his good criminal gang…
But luckily for the reader there is never any doubt about who to support as the Skaa are treated as slaves, apart from those Skaa who own their own independent businesses or are semi-successful merchants, but we never meet any of those apart from two of the main characters who are in Kelsier’s crew. But the vast majority of Skaa are treated as slaves and are horribly abused by the evil nobles and therefore Kelsier and his crew are undoubtedly good freedom fighters, thieves, murderers and conmen. Sanderson makes sure to show the Lord Ruler and his minions killing people in cold blood to prove a point and to cow the public, just like Kelsier does to the nobles. Have I mentioned that there are some issues with the worldbuilding?
The world of Sadrial possesses two major forms of magic, the first, and the focus of the first novel, is allomancy, while the second, feruchemy is more important in the later books. Allomancers, those gifted with this exceptionally rare ability, can ‘burn’ certain metals to create amazing effects. Essentially they ingest small pellets of specific metals that create reservoirs of power that they can tap to create very specific effects, such as the ability to pull metal toward them, or push metal away from them.
Only the rarest of the rare Allomancers (alloy-mancer, like necromancer) can ‘burn’ more than one metal, and those few are called Mistborn, hence the title of the book. As it turns out, almost the whole of Kelsier’s crew are Allomancers, it is what makes them so special and effective, and Kelsier himself is a Mistborn. It just so happens that Vin, our hero, is also a Mistborn. Given the tight focus of the novel on Vin’s adventures with Kelsier’s crew this gives the unfortunate appearance that almost every character has this exceptionally rare magical ability and therefore it is not rare at all in the novel. But we are also led to believe that despite the fact that this is rare, there are enough noble allomancers that a strong enough trade in allomantic metals exists, and that Skaa workers are trusted enough to run these businesses* and there are enough allomancers that noble houses have entire houseguard squads made up of low level allomancers who wield no political power nor hold positions of authority within the houses.
(*While never explicitly stated that the metallurgists who provide the allomantic metals are Skaa no noble would risk buying their metals from another noble house that they may be at war with, and if Sanderson had each noble house produce their own allomantic metals then, no matter how logical this would be for the world, Kelsier and his crew would have difficulty in accessing the necessary supplies)
Sanderson is at pains to lay out and explore the strengths and weaknesses of this fairly original magic system, and if you enjoy reading about how different magic systems are used, then this will be a major strength of the novel for you. A good third of the novel is focused on Vin slowly training, experimenting with, and growing to command her powers. To give Sanderson his due, these sections are much more entertaining and engaging than comparable training sessions found in a multitude of other fantasy works. Indeed the action sequences detailing the use of allomancy, both the aspects of training and later in combat, are extremely well executed with cinematic flair.
So as long as you don’t think too hard about the actual ramifications of the rules of the world, the physical descriptions of the people and the landscape, and the fact that the rules of the magic system become flexible according to necessity, and just go along with the flow, the worldbuilding in this novel is great.
But… and this is an important but…
But while much of what I have said thus far has been a little damning, Sanderson does weave a fairly compelling tale. His prose trips along in an amiable fashion. The character of Vin is engaging and interesting, and it is genuinely nice to have a central female hero who exhibits depth and backstory, and also isn’t raped. Kelsier possesses some elements of moral and character complexity that become more apparent as the plot trundles on. The crew is made up of colourful characters that round out the story and give it some interest as their sense of camaraderie is explored and they grumble and gripe at one another.
More importantly, it is the events and the central mystery of who the Lord Ruler is and why the world seems so strange and yet incomplete, that provide the much needed intrigue and interest. The reveal and twists at the end of the novel are enough, even after all that I have said, to make me like the novel and read more of the series, as it turns out that so many of the clichés, the tropes, the ‘mistakes’ and weaknesses of the worldbuilding are very deliberately constructed on Sanderson’s part. So much of what seems contrived and artificial actually plays a part in the broader context that the novel reveals in its last few chapters.
Granted, I will never rate this as among the best fantasy novels I have ever read, but Sanderson weaves a compelling story by acknowledging and engaging with the flawed nature of his world building, even if some flaws are perhaps unintentional, and focusing the story on explaining how this came to be. And it is this surprising plot thread that convinces you to keep reading. So rather than being an epic quest or a standard story about overthrowing a Dark Lord™, this is actually a mystery, and if you aren’t careful some of the cleverer aspects of the world will sneak by you.