Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the bestselling Mistborn series.
“One of the most fascinating and deeply character-driven novels I’ve read to date, with a fantastically detailed magic system and a wonderful setting.” ~The Founding Fields
Its not easy to pick up a book these days when said book enjoys the kind of fan popularity that Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn does. Or rather, Mistborn: The Final Empire as it is called now. I’ve had a mediocre experience with A Game of Thrones, such that I gave up on the book around the 40% mark. This was also after seeing the first season of the show, so my experience was coloured, but the fact doesn’t change. Books with fanatical fan-bases, there’s such a massive pressure to read them. This was one of the reasons why I put a number of such books on my “25 Series To Read In 2013” reading challenge for the year. I had avoided them for a good while, but I finally wanted to take the plunge. I wanted to see what all the hub-hub was about. Sanderson, Rothfuss, Brett, Salvatore, and others. These are all the big names of fantasy, and pretty much all the bloggers I know have read them, and most of them speak quite highly of all of them.
Going into Mistborn, my expectations were somewhat of a mix. I wanted a novel that was as good as people said it was, and at the same time, I was afraid that it might not be. As had the case been with A Game of Thrones for me. I found the book to be dull and boring, while I enjoy watching the show and have seen the first two seasons at least twice. Really weird. Given the fact that Brandon Sanderson has just concluded Robert Jordan’s phenomenal Wheel of Time series, and all the popularity he has enjoyed in the last several years, Brandon Sanderson might well be THE biggest thing in SFF right now, outside of George R. R. Martin (might there be a Thronecon sometime in the future?).
How do you even begin to read a book by an author like that? How do you even review something like that?
The answers to those questions are not easy. Which is kind of what this review is about.
Mistborn is a novel that surpassed all my expectations because of how fascinating I found each and every character to be. The magic system that Sanderson employs here is one of the most detailed and complex I’ve read about as well. The correlation between characters and the magic systems is also remarkable since they both reinforce each other.
Take Vin, one of the main characters for instance. Vin, who initially appears to be a Misting (a “magical user” who is only able to perform one ability) but turns out to be a Mistborn (a “magical user” who can perform multiple abilities), finds her life is completely changed when she is made to realise her true nature. Betrayed and left to fend for herself in a gang of thieves by her brother, she has had to learn some harsh lessons about life, lessons that her brother did his utmost to drill into her before he abandoned her. When the point of revelation happens, she has to grow up fast, and has to adapt quickly to the changes in her life. For Vin, her magic defines her character, it helps her grow and see past the limitations of the life she has lived up to that point. And after that, she turns into someone who is much more willing to experiment with her feelings and her beliefs, to break past the self-indoctrination of her past life.
The same applies to Kelsier, the other main character in the novel. Formerly a lowborn skaa with no magical ability, an extremely traumatic experience unlocks his hidden potential and he becomes an almost completely different person. Where the novel has Vin find her purpose in life over the course of the narrative, Kelsier is presented as someone who already knows what path his life is going to take and what he needs to do to get there. For Vin, Mistborn: The Final Empire is all about the journey, whereas for Kelsier its all about the end. For him, his magic and his character are inseparable. He has already grown into who his magic needs him to be. Take that magic away and Kelsier is not the same person.
Together, Vin and Kelsier are two of the most fascinating characters I’ve read in fantasy. While their roles with respect to the novel might be cliched, the characters themselves are not. Sanderson exposes their flaws as often as he does their strengths. They are both complex characters that the reader can connect to. Placed in a situation where one is the master and the other an… apprentice, the two end up complementing each other really well. They balance each other out and help their counterpart learn more about the things that matter in the world. Sanderson is able to find the right beats in their complementary relationship, and he manages to keep both characters grounded to their own nature and to the people around them.
Which, in turn, exposes what the novel is really about: it is about growing up to accept the harsh challenges of life and becoming a part of something greater than the individual. Being Mistborn means that both Vin and Kelsier lead somewhat solitary lives because, at least among the skaa, there are none like them. At least as far as the events of Mistborn: The Final Empire are concerned, there are no Mistborn among the skaa, just lots and lots of Mistings who are much more common. Vin and Kelsier are unique individuals and by dint of their station in the material realm, their ultimate fate at the hands of authority is death.
There’s also the fact that the setting itself is one of the grimmest I’ve seen in terms of the vibe: where ash falls from the sky each day and coats everything. Those who live in desert areas know full well that sand eventually gets everywhere. This is a concept that Frank Herbert exploited towards an extreme in his Dune Chronicles to show how ever-present spice is on Dune. Sanderson doesn’t quite go to the same extremes, but he does make a point often that ash is everywhere and that you cannot escape it.
Tying into the concept of the ever-present ash is that it all started when the Lord Ruler came to power, almost a thousand years ago, following a great event that redefined the entire world. Sanderson’s setting is a place where, essentially, the bad guy won and has maintained his hold on the world down the ages. There are no great heroes in this world, no rebellions of note. The people are divided and fractured, unable to mount any kind of resistance against the Lord Ruler. And within this setting, the characters and the magic define themselves. The three are related to each other. These entire concept, of the bad guy winning, is something I found to be incredibly refreshing.
One other thing I liked was that each chapter is preceded by a short diary entry from an unnamed individual. The identity of said individual is revealed around the half-way mark and it is great to get a confirmation of the suspicions about said identity, but the value of these passages is that they expose the inner workings of a character, who is one of the most interesting characters in the entire novel. It also serves to expose a side of the setting that would have otherwise stayed in the realm of mystery. So I’m quite happy with the “extra”.
The one thing that I did not like, and this isn’t meant as a criticism per se, is that Mistborn: The Final Empire is a very simple novel to read. The characters and the setting and everything else add a ton of complexity to the novel, but at its heart, it still reads like the Dragonlance novels, to use one example. And that’s because the writing itself has no bells and whistles, no complex metaphors and allegories and the like. Weirdly, that is what I expected to find here, given how much praise I’ve heard about Sanderson’s work in general. And to be honest, I’m not sure if the “state” of the final product is something of a benefit or not. There is value in both sides of that argument and while I’m leaning towards the simplicity of the writing (in general that is) to be a bit of a detriment, it all ends up being negated by the other aspects of the novel.
In the end, Mistborn: The Final Empire is a novel that has great characters, a great setting, some excellent plot twists and pretty damn good pacing. It is not a bloated novel by any measure and reading the novel, it is quite apparent that the author has gone to great lengths to make sure that everything is relevant and of interest to the main story. There is no wasted space here.