The OF Blog: A little bit of that old-time magic

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A little bit of that old-time magic

With the release of the second novel of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, The Well of Ascension, just a few weeks away, I thought it was time that I finally made a few comments about it here on the blog. (I know what you're thinking. Who is this guy, and why is he posting here?) Anyway...

Over the course of the past decade, or so, epic fantasy has been facing the addition of a handful of new descriptors, at least those for those stories termed "cool" by the masses. Those adjectives: Gritty, Grim, Realistic, hard-hitting, etc. It seems that in many circles that the "grim and realistic" style equate to some sort of better fantasy style. I think this might have more to do with just who is writing that type of style (Martin, Bakker, Erikson... each to some and different extents), more than anything else. But, that is a digression that I think Larry and I might just tackle in our upcoming conversation about Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth (stay tuned for that). Then, of course, Scott Lynch's debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora, hits and everyone gushes over that fun and 'light' story. I'd like to argue that there is some appeal yet for that more traditional fantasy tone... the one of adventure and high story. Lynch wasn't writing anything terribly new afterall, but he did manage to capture the attentions of many a folk. (To some extent Gene Wolfe did the same with his Wizard Knight books, though in typical stylistic Wolfe fashion).

So, what does any of this have to do with Sanderson and Mistborn? Well, for one, I think that Sanderson is quite well skilled in writing a fantasy story in that more traditional style. The two Mistborn novels are far less gritty and realistic than many of the other contemporary novels. Book 1, The Final Empire, has much in common in the setup as Lynch's novel. We have a group of extremely talented criminals setting up to pull of a big and awfully risky job. The stakes keep getting higher. The leaders of these thieving crews are geniuses, but yet are enigmatic and somewhat haunted by their pasts. Both novels have that sense of high adventure, entertainment, that is sometimes more nebulous in some of the "realistic" offerings.

Here's another bit, for my money, I think that I preferred The Final Empire, a bit more than Lynch's novel. Why? Well, for one, I much preferred Sanderson's Kelsior to Lynch's Locke. Kelsior is the sort of character that just worked for me. He seemed more dynamic, more realized, and let's just say it, more bad ass. Secondly, I like the base premise that Sanderson was working from in his created world. Here is a world that was threatened by a great evil. The prophesied hero arouse. The great evil was thwarted. The great hero was seduced by his power, broke the world, enslaved the people, made himself a god, and set up a truly tyrannical empire. 1,000 years past, and everything is still pretty much terrible. The book reads and feels like a traditional high fantasy, but one that went terribly wrong a long time ago. Sanderson brilliantly plays with this concept, building in the readers mind a recognizable history for his world. Nearly any fantasy reader who reads this novel will be commenting to themselves... "I've read that story before, but how did this all happen?" So, the ideas themselves aren't completely original, but Sanderson is crafting this story in a different way.

Finally, I have to yet again comment on Sanderson's "magic" system. Allomancy. A very limited set of the population can augment their own physical or mental abilities by consuming and then burning specific metallic elements. For most of those, they can only augment a single attribute. For a very small group, they can burn all the allomantic metals, these are the Mistborn. Think Jedi powers meets David Farland's Runelords, but Sanderson's creation is unique and quite captivating. One of the true strengths of these novels is how Sanderson uses Allomancy to enhance the story, the delve his characters, to create both benefits and negatives.

The first novel in the series is very much a caper novel. It is fast paced, clever, and captivating. Sanderson's world building isn't heavy handed but actually quite well achieved. The action is often intense. There are a handful of truly interesting characters. There is humor. There is tragedy. There are lines of gray, and there is black and white. While I felt that the ending was a bit of a cop out, it was still a fitting and satisfying ending.

The second novel is not a caper novel. We have the remnants of the first novel having to figure just what to do, how to survive, after the events in the first book. Brandon Sanderson has, a few times now, claimed that he was most worried about how he could pull of this second installment of the series. It is, of course, the transition book. He needn't have worried so much... or maybe it's good that he did. He pulled it off. The Well of Ascension delves much more deeply into the nature of that old history. Sanderson is exploring not only his characters, their motivations, weaknesses, but he's also looking at the nature of knowledge and power in the context of a fantasy story. Oh, don't worry, it's well done. Also, there is a fair share of great action scenes, and a further expansion of allomancy. It's important to note that while this novel seems to be following a little more closely the fantasy tropes known by nearly all readers, Sanderson is still playing with our expectations and concepts. There is always something deeper going on here.

While I didn't enjoy The Well of Ascension quite as much as I did the first novel in the series, I still think it's a good book, and a very good second book in a trilogy. Mistborn is not a gritty, realistic style fantasy novel. It's got much more in common with that high adventure, but it is a dark and well realized world. Sanderson has created a world and story that has a unique feel to it, one that at least lets it stand apart a little. For me, those are good things. Gritty for gritty sake doesn't sit well with me. Good storytelling, realistic or 'romanticized', is what gets the job done for me.

Basically, for those of you eagerly awaiting the next Martin, Erikson, or Lynch's third novel... why haven't you read Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn?

Question: Do you find that you have a style preference? Do you prefer the more realistic, gritty epic? Would you prefer the slightly more romanticized high fantasy style? Or, just give you a good story, you don't care either way?


Larry said...

I'll be reading this in the next week or so. It'll be interesting to see where I'll agree with you and where I'll part ways (I'm sure it'll be a bit of both, knowing us and our individual preferences!).

Jacob said...

I'm sure that we'll have our differences. I make no pretense that either of the novels are perfect. In my review for both books, I think that I rather implied that I think both fall a bit short of what they were aiming for, or were in fact capable of attaining. But, based on the books that have general appeal, I think these stand up pretty well. People will enjoy them.

Remy said...

I generally look for a good story regardless of whether it is a highly imaginative story with large amounts of magic/fantasy elements or a realistic story of human conflict and betrayal.

I really enjoyed reading this article and your description of realistic and gritty fantasy brought to mind The Lions of Al-Rassan which contains almost no "traditional" fantasy elements except that it is set in a fictional world.

Myth said...

I actually just finished the Mistborn novel and am looking forward to the next one. It is by far the best novel I have read in some time.

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