Monday, January 19, 2009

Review: The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The completed epic fantasy series is a wonderful thing – and all too often lost in the internet world where the focus so quickly jumps to the next big thing. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy is one such gem – a completed fantasy series and a series that I very much enjoyed. The series begins with Mistborn: The Final Empire (US, UK, Canada, my review), continues with The Well of Ascension (US, UK, Canada, my review), and concludes with The Hero of Ages (US, UK, Canada, my review).

Mistborn begins by both challenging and embracing fantasy conventions. In Sanderson’s world, the Dark Lord (referred to as the Lord Ruler) triumphed 1000 years ago and ushered in tyrannical rule with an oppressive society dependent upon slave (skaa) labor and setting himself up as a living god. A group of specialized criminals (think Ocean’s 11) have grand ambitions at the behest of their charismatic leader, Kelsior – they intend to overthrow the Lord Ruler. The key member of this crew is newly recruited Vin – a young skaa thief struggling to survive in the brutal underworld of the Empire’s greatest city. Vin turns out to be mistborn – capable of tapping into the magic of Sanderson’s world – and she is the star of the Mistborn Trilogy.

Now this is a bit of spoiler for the first book, but the crew triumphs and the Lord Ruler is killed. The question quickly becomes ‘now what’ as the Lord Ruler’s death brings about the realization of just how bad things can be. The rest of the trilogy follows these struggles as a greater ‘evil’ emerges to threaten the very survival of the world itself.

Sanderson starts with an interesting premise – a world where the bad guy won. The prophesized hero failed to do the job and the world fell into 1000 years of rule by the Lord Ruler. On top of this backdrop, Sanderson uses a fairly standard caper plot with the charismatic leader as the introduction to his world. These elements make Mistborn both fun and unique while setting up the anticipation of a series that plays the conventions of epic fantasy.

But (there’s always a but), Sanderson also embraces the standard hero rising from obscurity and strife – Vin is an orphan, a slave, and she possesses huge magical prowess as she rises to become the hero of the story. Along the way she falls in love with a noble heir and struggles with her identity as a hero and potentially the world’s prophesized savior. While Mistborn jumps off to something of an unconventional beginning, these conventions of epic fantasy quickly overwhelm the rest of the series.

Of course whether you want to see conventions thwarted or embraced, neither can work in the vacuum of good writing – and Sanderson brings good writing. The prose isn’t really all that remarkable – it simply gets lost in the story. And this is a great thing in my opinion. Both terrible and wonderful prose have the potential to rip the reader right out of a story – but when middle-of-the-road prose allows for the story to dominate and the reader to be completely sucked into the story, it excels. As I was reading Mistborn, I’d often look up at the clock to find that I’d been reading much longer than I intended – that I’d completely lost track of the world around me. This is the sign of a great story.

I’d be remiss to leave out some of the other noteworthy aspects of Mistborn – particularly the magic system – allomancy. Simply put, allomancy is the utilization of metals for magical powers. A misting is a person who can ‘burn’ one of certain metals or a metallic alloys to gain a super-human ability – such as increased strength and endurance, increased senses (seeing, hearing, etc.), increased speed, the ability to push and pull off of metals, and several more. A mistborn is someone who can ‘burn’ all the metals and their alloys – a mistborn is a very powerful (and deadly) person. Other related powers become recognized as the series progresses. Not only is this magic system refreshing, but while retaining its clear magical feel, it does adhere to a set of internal rules that are mostly logical. On a personal level, as a geologist, I find it extra refreshing that the magic system has geologic origins.

Of even greater interest is the thematic use of religion through the series. One of the main characters, Sazed, is part of a secret order of scholars who search out and archive lost information from the time before the Lord Ruler. Sazed’s specialty is collecting lost religions. In the first two books, this thematic element is under-utilized – I really wanted more. However, I was rewarded in the third book when the religion them set-up in the previous two volumes takes center stage. Dead religions are re-visited, new religion questioned as Sazed searches for truth in religion and battles faith. While there are certainly strong Judeo-Christian aspects to the struggles of Sazed and the fate of the world, the real success comes with the universality of the human condition and the internal struggles of us all. What is explored lies at the root of humanity and all its religions, giving the exploration both depth and credibility.

Somewhat tangential to religion themes delved into are the interesting portrayals of good and evil, preservation and ruin, balance, and the (unintended) consequences of one’s actions. While I would hesitate to consider Mistborn a strong thematic work – it does provide a satisfying thematic depth.

With Mistborn, Sanderson shows he belongs in the VIP section of SFF authors. This trilogy offers a range of embracing and subverting fantasy traditions while providing a very entertaining experience. Highly recommended for fans of epic fantasy – 8/10.

Related Posts: Review of Mistborn: The Final Empire, Review of The Well of Ascension, Review of The Hero of Ages.


ediFanoB said...

I really like epic fantasy. So I read your review with interest.
There are not that many stories where the bad guy wins.

You wrote:
"I’d often look up at the clock to find that I’d been reading much longer than I intended – that I’d completely lost track of the world around me. This is the sign of a great story."

And I fully agree with your argument.

Now I know why I put the whole trilogy on my April 2009 to buy list.

I did it before I read your great review.

Nevertheless you gave me a lot more arguments why it is worth to read this trilogy

james m. toburen said...

I just finished this series a few days ago, after reading about it on your site and deciding to give it a shot. A friend recommended it to me a few months back, but I thought at the time that it sounded like your fairly typical fantasy drudge. Glad you convinced me to give it another shot. I loved Elend's inner debates on leadership (being the ideal leader vs. being the brutally practical dictator) and how his leadership compared to that of the Lord Ruler. Also, what a world Sanderson can build! I haven't picked up the latest WoT yet, but knowing now that Sanderson is the one putting in the hours to finish it gives me hope that the final volume of The Wheel of Time is in the right hands.


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