Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson

This will be a long review. The first part is spoiler-free; everything after the second lj-cut will be full of spoilers, as I'll discuss everything about the trilogy, including the ending. I'm really interested in comments from anyone else who has read it.

So, I had never heard of Brandon Sanderson before, but the first book in the trilogy caught my eye on the bookstore shelves for some reason:

Mistborn: The Final Empire

At first glance, it looked like a fairly typical fantasy novel with a bad-ass assassin-looking chick on the cover. So I left it on the shelf; yes, I do judge books by their covers, and while this one was kind of intriguing, anything that makes me think the author is probably novelizing the AD&D games he played as a kid gets a "pass" from me.

Then I happened to see the author's name again online: apparently he'd been tapped to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Which didn't really mean much to me; I've never read any of the WoT books. (Yes, I've heard they're epic and awesome and all that, and someday I probably will read the first book, at least, but it takes a lot to make me want to get invested a series that now comprises over twelve books. I just recently read my first Diskworld novel.)

But it made me a little more curious, since I knew this was a Big Deal in the fantasy world. So I went back to the bookstore and read the first couple of pages, and they were interesting enough that I bought the ebook, and then ended up finishing the trilogy.

They are, in order:

Mistborn: The Final Empire
The Well of Ascension
The Hero of Ages

Mistborn, as Sanderson himself desribes it, started with the intriguing premise: what if ages ago, there was a prophecied Chosen One destined to defeat the Great Evil threatening the land blah blah blah... and he failed? The bad guys won, and the world is now ruled by the Evil Overlord he failed to kill.

The Final Empire is ruled by a noble class who enjoy absolute power over the Skaa, who are the peasants/serf class. The nobles answer only to the Lord Ruler, who is immortal and has been ruling the Final Empire as a living god for a thousand years now.

That's how Mistborn starts. We get introduced to a scruffy cast of characters in the usual way for a fantasy series, but they're mostly pretty interesting and not walking cliches. Our main protagonists are Vin, a teenage girl who lives a precarious existence as part of a Skaa thieving crew, and Kelsier, who was once the greatest thief in the Final Empire before he got caught trying to rob the Lord Ruler's palace, and he and his wife were sent to work the Lord Ruler's mines, which is a death sentence. Except Kelsier escaped. His wife didn't, and now Kelsier wants revenge.

The plot begins as more of a heist/Ocean's 11 scenario than a rebel uprising; Kelsier has a plan to steal from the Lord Ruler's treasury that gradually turns out to be a plan to bring down the Lord Ruler himself.

What makes the world of Mistborn interesting is two things. The first is the world itself, which is blanketed by ash; volcanoes produce it constantly, and it falls like snow, creating a land in which few have ever seen the sky, let alone stars, and plants are brown, not green.

The second is the magic system, called allomancy. Sanderson goes into great detail on how it works. It's quite clever and well-thought out. Allomancers "burn" metals by ingesting them. There are (at least in the first book) ten different metals (including alloys), each of which gives a specific power. Burning pewter gives an allomancer enhanced physical abilities: strength, speed, rapid healing, the ability to ignore pain and fatigue, etc. Burning bronze lets an allomancer sense other allomancers who are burning metals. Tin gives enhanced senses. Brass and zinc allow an allomancer to manipulate people's emotions. Steel and iron are the most spectacular, as they let an allomancer "push" and "pull" on metals; basically, an allomancer with both steel and iron turns into Magneto.

The superhero comparison is apt, because this is what I really liked about allomancy. It's "magic," but the way it's used it's more like a set of super-powers, and allomancers aren't so much mages as superheroes/supervillains, flying over the streets of the city, spraying coins at each other like bullets, and engaging in Matrix-style kung fu battles kicking each other through walls.

Also, like mutant super-powers, allomancy is an inborn ability; you're born with it or you aren't. Furthermore, most allomancers are "mistings"; they have the ability to burn one, and only one, metal. But a rare few are "mistborn"; they can use all the metals. (There is no in-between; you either have the ability to burn one specific metal, or all of them.)

You might notice that this sounds an awful lot like the set-up for a roleplaying game with character classes, and it really is. Fortunately, it doesn't read too much like a gaming novel, but it's pretty obvious that Sanderson has an RPG background. There are a couple of other specialized powers, as well as two non-human races, who fill out all the character types you'd need for a Mistborn RPG.

Sanderson's writing style is good, engaging, and straightforward. His prose does not sizzle and wow me, and his characterization, while decent, felt flat at times, and really became a detriment, in my opinion, in the third book (see spoilery discussion below).

So, I won't talk any more in this section about what happens at the end of book one, or in the next two books, except to say that things take a bit of a left turn at the end of book two, and go right off the tracks in book three. By the end of book one, you could regard the world of Mistborn almost as a science fiction setting; allomancy, as I mentioned before, could just as easily be classified as a mutant power rather than "magic," and nothing definitively supernatural (in a mystical sense) has been introduced. But that changes in a big way in the next two books.

tl;dr version: I liked it, with reservations. 4/5 stars for the series, but I'd rate the individual books as 5, 4, and 3 stars, in order. Unfortunately, I liked each book in the series less than the last. It's not that they got worse, really, but that Sanderson is the sort of writer who draws on a small number of writing devices, and they get a little tiresome eventually, especially when used to bring an epic series with world-shaking events to a close.

Also, there was some really crazy Mormon shit at the end, yo.

Spoilers! Spoilers! Big Fat Spoilers!

Herein I go into detail about my problems with the series, particularly how it ended.

So, at the end of book one, the Lord Ruler dies and the Skaa are freed. Yay!

Also, Vin is quickly becoming the most powerful Mistborn ever (and keeps getting more powerful throughout the next two books, until she's really pushing into Mary Sue territory), and she and Elend are in love. Happy ending all around.

Except with the Lord Ruler's demise, the Final Empire falls apart, all the noble houses who had been kept in line by the Lord Ruler and the Steel Ministry turn into warring factions, and you have a dozen different warlords who all want to capture Luthadel, the capital city, where Elend is turning out to be a pretty shitty ruler despite all of his learning and democratic ideals.

Democracy is for sissies

Okay, this is the first and last thing that bothered me about the Mistborn trilogy. The moral of the story (or one of them, anyway) seems to be: "Self-determination is all well and good in an ideal world that's at peace, but when the shit hits the fan, you find out that democracy sucks, the people are ignorant sheep, and you really need a ruler invested with absolute power to take charge."

Okay... democracy has its problems, and often the people are ignorant sheep. Yes, you need strong leaders in times of crisis. But for all of his angst throughout books two and three (and Elend gets really angsty, though not as angsty as Sazed, whom I'll get to in a bit), constantly questioning himself and asking himself if he's really doing the right thing, his answer is always, "Yes, yes I am." And it's backed up by everyone around him and by events. So Elend becomes Emperor, and if that wasn't enough, at the end of book two he becomes a Mistborn himself (and in book three, we find out he's a really super-powerful Mistborn, even more powerful than Vin, although she's more skilled and pulls new tricks out of her ass on a regular basis that apparently no other Mistborn in a thousand years had ever tried).

Note that in the process, he sends armies out to conquer everyone around him. Arguably this is also for the greater good, since as it turns out, he really is trying to save the world, and Sanderson tries to make him seem less of a conquering tyrant by always trying to negotiate first and avoid bloodshed as much as possible. But still, after debating whether or not he's really doing the right thing by siccing Koloss on a city that's just trying to resist a conquerer, once again his answer is, "Yes, yes I am."

This would not have bothered me quite so much -- because having a good man forced to do terrible things by circumstances, and feeling angsty about it because he knows that it really is for the greater good is actually a pretty good story -- except that Elend is constantly being given a rosy glow of authorial endorsement by the way the more kingly and authoritarianative he becomes, the more everyone respects and admires him.

Sympathy for the Lord Ruler

You know what really, really pissed me off? The way everyone increasingly appreciates and respects the Lord Ruler as they realize that he really did have good intentions.

Yes, the Lord Ruler knew that there was an evil god who was actually bent on destroying the world, and he made long-range plans to save the empire even in the event of his eventual death. So, good for him.

He still instituted a system of tyranny and oppression, and forced the Skaa to live in hopeless, abject despair for a thousand years. In book one, we see him dragging hundreds of innocent people, including children, to be publicly executed for the express purpose of terrorizing the masses. He suppressed technology and learning. He was the very definition of an Evil Overlord. Yes, like most rulers, he didn't consider himself evil and thought he was acting for the greater good. But all the atrocities he's committed over the last thousand years are brushed over in book three; if you hadn't read the first book, you could almost believe he was actually a good man who got carried away (which is almost exactly how Elend describes him at one point). There's the implication that Ruin was influencing him, and I suppose after a thousand years of having a dark god whispering in his ear, it probably was hard to be a benevolent ruler, but he apparently started out as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Book three barely acknowledged the fact that overthrowing him was a good thing. Instead, it was all, "Oh noes! If only we'd known what the Lord Ruler's master plan was, we might not have unleashed this much more terrible evil on the world!"

Add to that the implication at one point that the Lord Ruler had actually "engineered" the Skaa to be docile and subservient (i.e., "Yes, the slave class really was born to be enslaved"), and I got some really skeevy vibes from this story.

J.K. Rowling writes better romance

Vin and Elend fall in love in book one. They get married at the end of book two.

In book three, they are married and occasionally, it is implied, sleeping together, but aside from one scene where Elend makes a quip about watching Vin fight naked, there is hardly any acknowledgement that they have an adult relationship. You know, with sex.

I don't want explicit sex. I have never actually read any book where graphic sex added anything to the story. I don't even need any "fade-to-black" sex scenes. What I do need is some chemistry between these characters who are supposedly so much in love, and Vin and Elend... don't have any.

In book one, Vin is a teenage girl with a crush and Sanderson actually writes this halfway believably. By book two, she's a hardened killing machine who's doing it all for Elend, and it's not quite convincing.

They constantly talk and think about how much they love and respect and trust each other. That's a major theme throughout book three, Elend trusting Vin's instincts even when he has no idea what she's up to, and Vin trusting that she has to let Elend be himself. But I never really felt like this was a romance. It was more like they were best friends. Occasionally we get glimpses of Vin's more tender feelings, and they make quite an impact because usually she's off single-handedly slaughtering armies of Koloss, but the love she and Elend had for each other was much too platonic and chaste for a young married couple. How about some physical attraction? How about the two of them being eager to get their clothes off when they get back together after weeks of being apart?

The ending, I will admit, was touching, but it still felt more like a detached, goddess-like love that Vin had for Elend, rather than the love of a woman for a man. Sanderson seems afraid to dip too deeply into the mushy stuff, but you need a little mushiness if the romance between your two main characters is a major part of the series.

Losing your faith is not as deeply compelling and interesting as you think it is

In book one, Sazed, the Terris Keeper, was a sort of Unitarian Universalist who "respected the truth in all religions" as he tried to talk everyone he met into adopting one of the hundreds of dead religions he kept stored in his metalminds. Personally, I agreed with Tindwyl when she told him he was full of it and that trying to push a religion he didn't really believe in just so it wouldn't be dead and forgotten was essentially selling hypocrisy and lies.

In book two, Tindwyl dies, and Sazed loses his faith. And he spends most of book three angsting about this. Sanderson even has him acknowledge to himself that his depression is irrational and unreasonable since, you know, the whole Final Empire is falling apart so he's not the only one who lost a loved one, but he still spends all of book three reviewing each and every religion he knows, trying to "objectively" find the one that's actually "true" so he can have faith again that there is a higher power and his dead lover isn't just ashes now. And all of his friends, including the atheistic ones, are deeply distressed by this, because of course atheists don't really not believe in a higher power so it makes them sad when someone who has faith loses it. (I wonder if Sanderson knows any atheists.)

So, Sazed whines and angsts and Sanderson spends pages and pages dwelling on Sazed's internal monologues. Boy, did that get boring. I guess the point of this was for the uplifting moral message at the end where Sazed... umm, turns into a god and saves the world. And also tells everyone that Vin and Elend are happy together in heaven.

Deux ex Mormon

Okay, here is where it got weird. I already had a suspicion that Sanderson was a Mormon before I started reading book three. (Admittedly, the fact that he lives in Provo was a big clue.) That's okay -- I'm leery of authors whose beliefs are overt in their writing, but I don't expect them to leave their personal beliefs completely out of what they write, either. As long as Sanderson doesn't go off on an Orson Scott Card-like rant about how homosexuality should be criminalized to keep gays in their place, I don't care what church he goes to.

However, the ending of Age of Heroes was literally a deux ex machina, and it was deux ex machina in weird Mormon way that almost spoiled the entire series for me. Not because I have any particularly hatred for Mormon cosmology in general (though the whole thing about Native Americans being descended from the evil people is pretty rotten), but did you have to write it explicitly into your fantasy universe? I mean, when I read the Chronicles of Narnia, I knew C.S. Lewis was writing a Christian allegory. I was not expecting Sanderson to end the Mistborn trilogy with his heroes becoming gods who remake their own personal worlds and meet their Celestial Spouses in heaven. By the time we got to that point, there had been enough clues that it wasn't quite like reading an X-Men comic book that ends with a sermon from Jack Chick... but it was pretty close.

So, has anyone else read these books? What do you think?
Tags: books, brandon sanderson, fantasy, reviews

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