Review: Mistborn: the Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

the Final Empire Mistborn: the Final Empire

Brandon Sanderson

Tor, 2006

While I read and enjoyed Brandon Sanderson’s first novel Elantris I had not been in a huge hurry to pick up and read his Mistborn books.  Then it was announced last year that Mr. Robert Jordan picked Sanderson as his successor; the man left to finish up what the late great Jordan did not have time to finish himself.  So have followed Sanderson’s blog for bit as he reread the Wheel of Time series I decided it was about time I gave the Mistborn books a try.  While Sanderson’s position finishing Wheel of Time brought me to this book/series that will be the last time I mention that aspect of his writing.  This book deserves to stand on its own.

I’m going to start with pacing since, as co-workers pointed out to me, I took more time reading this book than I have recent others.  The pacing isn’t slow but it isn’t fast either.  One might best describe it as deliberate.  The book builds momentum at a steady pace and, while this serves a definite purpose, never feels contrived.  My most recent foray’s into fantasy this last year have been the likes of Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie and I admit that the kinetic focus of those earlier reads made falling back into the more measured pace of other fantasy a major adjustment on my part.  Do parts of the novel seem to drag?  Occasionally, yes but I was always drawn forward by the blurbs.

Using bits of fictional non-fiction to enhance a fantasy world is no new trick, but Sanderson manages to take that to the next level.  The pre-chapter blurbs here are essential to the story here and at the same time serve as a look into the pre-history of the world as the reader sees it.  Now I hesitate when discussing these blurbs a bit because as I was reading there were times when I felt that the story being told there was more interesting than the story being told in the main narrative.  In hindsight, the book finished, I can see that there is a greater parallel between these two stories than is readily seen when first starting the book.  In truth this deeper relationship between both narratives is rather masterful but that fact only becomes apparent towards the end of the novel.

In truth perhaps deliberate is a good word for the novel as a whole.  Sanderson’s use of pacing and character serve a very specific purpose especially as they pertain to Kelsier.  In the opening chapter Sanderson pulls a bit of a magic trick calling out Kelsier as the main character, then introducing the true main character a bit later.  In truth, while he is central to the novel, he is more a foil (though a fleshed out, three dimensional foil) for the true main character: Vin.  Kelsier’s characterization goes further as well as Sanderson goes out of his way to make him an uncomfortable figure.  Kelsier is like Han Solo, except where Han only shot first once Kelsier continues to shoot first for the majority of the novel.  Throw in his deliberate manipulation of people and events around him and he isn’t a very likable character.  Which, if he were the hero of our story, would likely cause a lot of people to throw in the towel and put the book aside. However, the discomfiture the reader feels as a result of Kelsier’s character is echoed by the characters that surround him.  Kelsier isn’t a character you really “get” until towards the end of the novel.  His motives are seemingly clear yet, through that lense of discomfort and distrust, Sanderson manages to make the reader (and the other characters in the novel) question Kelsier and what exactly he is all about.

That raw edge the Kelsier has, despite his apparent joviality, serves as interesting juxtaposition to the paranoia and distrust of street-urchin Vin.  As I sad earlier Kelsier serves as a kind of foil for Vin who, despite her hard upbringing on the streets, manages to come off as the more innocent of the two regardless.  Despite her initial distrust and constant paranoia she lacks that level of cold hatred and violence that practically oozes of Kelsier in his darkest moments.

If fascinating characters weren’t enough Sanderson went ahead and crafted a fascinating magic system to enhance his world.  Based off the properties of certain metals it is perhaps the most unique magic system I’ve seen in a fantasy.  It is simple in a sense but the means through which Sanderson has his characters use it displays a level of depth that belies those first impressions.  I won’t ruin it for you; to quote a certain other author: RAFO.

In the end Mistborn: The Final Empire is a great read that I recommend to all fans of fantasy.  Like some of the more recent author’s in the genre Sanderson plays with the accepted fantasy tropes in an interesting way; creating not only a brilliant story but causing the reader to think about values, power, and responsibility.  It was so good in fact that rather than read the copy of Neuromancer that’s sitting on my desk I opted to go for the second Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension, instead.  Book two is something like half again as long as the first which I have to read in a week since Amazon.co.uk  informed that Toll the Hounds is on its way.

Also, if you’re really enjoying the book I recommend visiting the author’s blog where he has annotated every chapter of books 1 and 2!

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