The OF Blog: Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Final Empire

Monday, July 09, 2007

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

    Mistborn is the second full-length novel by Brandon Sanderson, [Elantris]. The novel serves as the opening book in a Mistborn trilogy. One of the primary things that is similar between Sanderson's first and second novels, is his interest in exploring new or at least rather different aspects of epic fantasy.

    The setting of the novel is that of a Deistic/Theocratic Empire, ruled by God, or an aspect of God, and his priesthood, in a desolate, destroyed world. 1,000 years prior, a prophesized hero rose up to battle a chaotic evil, known only as the Deepness, to save the world. In a mysterious and cataclysmic encounter, the hero unlocked extreme power, defeated the Deepness, saved the world, seized all power for himself, broke the world, and enslaved all but a small fraction of the population, his companions and their descendants which became plantation-style nobility. In those 1,000 years, insurrection, rebellion, war, pograms, purges, have resulted in a total and comfortable existence for the Lord Ruler, a true a terrible God, and his chosen nobility... life for everyone else, called simply "skaa", is misery, pain, loss, and abject, hopeless slavery.

    Those few skaa that rebel against the Lord Ruler and his Final Empire live a life nearly as terrible as that of the plantation or factory workers. They live as thieves, and the life is not good. However, there are some skaa who have special talents, legacies of a mixture of noble and skaa blood... these skaa can tap certain specific powers through a mysto-chemical (my own description of the process) process known as Allomancy. Special thieving crews made up of these skaas, known as "mistings", tend to be more daring, and live lives of somewhat more comfort. One such crew, lead by the charismatic crewleader, Kelsior, is extremely daring, and have set on a job, the job of jobs, with the Lord Ruler as the target. The goal isn't to save the world, it isn't to fulfill prophesy, the goal is to be defiant, to have a flash of hope... to maybe get a little revenge.

    The setting and buildup of the novel is different than you typically see in an epic fantasy story. That's not to say that Mistborn is a completely new set of ideas and plot elements. It isn't. However, the story has a different feel, and a different perspective than the more typcial idea of Hero, and exactly what is heroic action. The main characters, Kelsior, and a young street thief, Vin, are both interesting characters, that provide entertaining PoVs, throughout the novel. Neither are all knowing, and neither over explain aspects of their lives that they fully know.

    For me, one of the true highlights of the novel is Sanderson's "magic" system, Allomancy. Allomancy is something like a mixture between Jedi powers and a more traditional magic system that requires physical elements to perform "magical" activities. The practioners have limited powers, in duration and possibility, they're often bound by laws of the physical world, even while they're finding ways around those laws. Sanderson's use of Allomancy throughout the novel, especially in the action sequences is quite thrilling and it certainly captured my imagination. While, Sanderson needs his characters to explain Allomancy so that the readers call follow what's happening, he does this in a way that makes sense to the story... that's to say that while we get some details, the reader certainly doesn't know all there probably is to know. That's a good thing.

    Another aspect of the novel that I enjoyed, is the thieving crew concept, and the big, impossible job. Think of the recent Ocean's 11 movie. A crew of highly specialized individuals, working with bravado, style, and attitude, to pull off an impossible score. There are secrets, there are personality conflicts, there is history, and there is a very interesting mixture of characters and ideas. I found this to be a very captivating hook into the plot... I cared for what was going on. That buy-in, made reading the novel more rewarding because it added more weight the the characterizations and to the intensity of the last third of the novel.

    There are some parts of the novel that aren't perfect, of course. The writing overall is okay, certainly up to standard for the genre, however it is a little uneven... great, and even deep, at points during the story, and then in others is a bit sloppier and abrupt. Still, like I said, overall it is a decently-written novel. A part of the somtimes unevenness of the writing, is the fact that I think a few of the ideas, themes, and conflicts of the novel stay a little undeveloped, even while playing very important roles in the setup of the climax. Sanderson has created a very rich environment, peopled with interesting and complex characters and institutions. There was certainly opportunity for more dynamic intereaction between all these aspects of the novel. Still, there is a great deal of interest that Sanderson does integrate into the novel, and there is conflict, tension, and depth behind a lot of the story. I'll just leave it that there was the potential in this story to be even better than it ended up being.

    Now, while this novel is the first book of a trilogy, it works as a complete story, with a solid beginning, middle, and conclusion. At the end of this story, not everything is completed, but for the characters a lot seems finished. I like that in a trilogy. The issue that I have with Mistborn's ending is that it just wasn't as good as it should have been. The final climatic scene, and the underlying truths of one of the "enemies", seemed just a bit simplistic in relation to the rest of the novel. It left me thinking... "that's it? That's all they needed to do? That's the secret?" Don't get me wrong, the ending of the novel, the final climax and the ending scenes, are rewarding and fit the story. I certainly had a content feel when I flipped the last page and shut the book. Ultimately, that's what counts. It's just that there was a bit more fizzle at the end than sizzle.

    I am looking forward to the next installment of the series, and I think most readers will enjoy the book, and certainly feel entertained by the experience of reading it. Mistborn is not a Gene Wolfe novel or a George R.R. Martin novel, but it's not trying to be either. Mistborn is a fun, entertaining read, that has some great thrills, new ideas and new takes on old ideas, and good characters. If any of this review sounded interesting to you, then I have no problems recommending the book. I think many of you will truly enjoy the read.

    Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
    Book 1: The Final Empire
    Published by TOR: 2006

For anyone who is interested, Brandon has sample chapters from Mistborn up at his website. They include the full prologue and the complete chapters 1-3. Click this Mistborn Sample Link.

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