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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
- The Final Empire (Published 2006)
- The Well of Ascension (Published 2007)
- The Hero of Ages (Published 2008)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic Fantasy
Completed: April 10 2010

Brandon Sanderson wrote and released Mistborn at a similar time as Joe Abercrombie produced The First Law (review) – and the results are very different indeed. It is possible to enjoy these two thematically and stylistically divergent stories equally, but after reading them within weeks of each other I can’t help but compare them.

The world of Mistborn is a dark place. Sanderson’s intention, in his own words, was to turn fantasy convention on its head by depicting a world in which the bad guy won. Hence The Final Empire begins with the world in the grip of the evil overlord known as the Lord Ruler. Oppression of certain classes, suppression of new ideas (and very old religious ideas) and executions to maintain order are intrinsic to the Lord Ruler’s system.

Thus Sanderson gave himself license to portray an intensely dark and gritty fantasy… but didn’t. The darkness and some of the heinous deeds of the Lord Ruler and his followers are usually simply referred to, and ultimately condemned. Sexual habits and desires are discussed but not depicted. When the heroes kill, sometimes even on a large scale, they feel remorse or their friends question their motives and sanity. What really sets Mistborn apart from The First Law is that at the heart of Sanderson’s tale are good people who are attempting to preserve life because it is the right thing to do, not for an ego trip of global proportions.

Mistborn sits more comfortably in traditional heroic fantasy tradition where there is a degree of black and white morality, not just myriad shades of grey. Though it sits entrenched in tradition Sanderson avoids some of the awful fantasy clichés that ruin many stories. There are no orcs or elves and nobody wields inexplicably omnipotent magic. In fact, the magic is one of the most imaginative yet rational systems I have ever read (as ridiculous as that sounds), which is just as well given how central it is to the plot. I don’t want to suggest that detailed explanation and development of this system overpowers the story, rather when Sanderson describes the use of Allomancy the writing is at its most beautiful and engaging. You will want to be an Allomancer.

Sanderson was equally rigorous in creating his world, which flows from the premise outlined above. The premise isn’t a gimmick - there’s an incredibly vivid world that has developed in the grasp of the Lord Ruler (where ash regularly falls from the sky like rain) - but it is primarily about the setting. I felt a little let down that the whole ‘bad guy wins’ idea didn’t go where I expected because I had heard interviews with Sanderson where he talked it up quite a lot. It does resonate and impact on events throughout, but the genre hasn’t been revolutionized.

What Sanderson has done, which is interesting, is combine several genres and sub-genres to great effect. The story is an Epic, with powerful nods to Heroic Fantasy in the development of the past and person of the Lord Ruler. Elements of Urban Fantasy pervade The Final Empire, which also draws in tropes of the Hollywood heist movie. It’s not surprising that I found The Final Empire to be the most tightly written and inventive of the three books in the series.

The Final Empire also focuses on my favourite character from the series, Kelsier. The moment in that book when all of Kelsier’s plans take ultimate effect, and the purpose of all of his actions and dialogue snap into focus is one of the more brilliant moments in any genre novel I have read.

Generally the character development is strong, but it would have been nice if some of the characters could have grown without pages of introspection and self-doubt. Even this wouldn’t have bothered me too much if a few viewpoint characters weren’t all going through this phase at the same time. I have also read some criticism of Mistborn which suggests that the dialogue and the philosophies of his characters are too modern for the setting. I don’t disagree, though I didn’t feel pulled out of the story by any particular conversations or ideas. Sanderson has himself acknowledged this problem but, without dismissing it, he argues that he isn’t writing historical fiction and isn’t interested in portraying anachronistic thought.

I enjoyed the entire Mistborn series as much as I enjoyed The First Law so it gets 4.5 stars, however individually I felt that The Final Empire was a stronger book than the sequels (because it’s that good, and was a lot more focused).

Read it – if you enjoy more traditional fantasy with genuinely heroic (if slightly flawed) heroes and surprising plot developments
Don’t read it – if you are only intrigued by the promise of a tale where the bad guy won (that’s an element of setting, not necessarily plot – notice the past tense)

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorites, and definitely a keeper. I'd recommend it to anyone, but especially to fans of Robert Jordan, George R R Martin, Robin Hobb, and Terry Pratchett.

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