Brandon Sanderson – “Mistborn: The Final Empire”

9 Nov

sanderson-brandon-mistborn
GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: Tor, 2007 (2006)

WHY THIS NOVEL: I liked Sanderson’s Elantris and was impressed by its magic system so it was a question of when I’ll read another book by him not if.


The back blurb:
“The Mists rule the night.
The Lord Ruler owns the world.

Once, a hero arose to save the world. A young man with a mysterious heritage courageously challenged the darkness that strangled the land.
He failed.
For a thousand years since, the world has been a wasteland of ash and mist ruled by the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler. Every revolt has failed miserably.
Yet somehow, hope survives. Hope that dares to dream of ending the empire and even the Lord Ruler himself. A new kind of uprising is being planned, one built around the ultimate caper, one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and the determination of an unlikely heroine, a street urchin who must learn to master Allomancy, the power of a Mistborn.”


Mistborn is a deceptive novel, IMO, because, as Kelsier, the “brilliant criminal mastermind” (back blurb) likes to say, “there is always another secret.” Things are not always as easy as they look; there is more going on than you expect from the “bare bones” of the story. It’s this that made this story so interesting and enjoyable to read (and it’s this that makes it difficult to write this).

Although the start is somewhat slow, I thought the writing is good. There is no head-hopping and for most of the time, the number of POV characters is just two. The novel itself is divided into five parts (corresponding to the dramatic structure) and each chapter opens with a transcript of an unknown man’s journal. The very first sentence of this journal reads: “Sometimes, I worry that I’m not the hero everyone thinks I am” (page 1; I quoted the whole paragraph here) and right there is what I see as one of the main themes of this novel, the question what is or what makes a hero.

Mistborn seems to have the traditional fantasy plot of free-the-world-from-an-evil-power, called the Lord Ruler this time around (the back blurb is fairly accurate with that, but some other things are questionable). But in Mistborn, it’s a group of thieves that tries to fight evil and because of that, it’s not just a heroic good vs evil story, it’s also a heist story. The characters are as easily motivated by the expected material gain as they are motivated by their wish to help the oppressed people. And of course, there are also a few surprises and setbacks on the way – remember: there is always another secret – and the ending is the most stunning of them all.

The world in Mistborn is harsh and brutal, with many deaths, dense mists at night, nearly constant ash rains, and with a society roughly divided into a noblemen class and the slave-like skaa with the Lord Ruler as the immortal god (figure) of all and who controls all – army, aristocracy, wealth. So it’s no wonder a few rebels plan a rebellion to overthrow the Lord Ruler and hire a thieving gang for help. Part of the plan is the infiltration of the aristocracy with the “street urchin” posing as a noblewoman to spy. This provides a detailed look on both classes of the society and points to questions of (rightful) leadership and identity and character. Thrown into the mix are some rather original creatures like mistwraiths and Inquisitors, and an intriguing magic system. Especially the Inquisitors (some of the Lord Ruler’s priests) are important because they are mostly used to hunt skaas with allomantic powers (always half-breeds) and kill them.

Most members of the thieving group have such allomantic powers and most of the characters (main and secondary) have character traits of certain character types but most of them are also more than that. Especially of course the main characters, Vin the street urchin and Kelsier the criminal mastermind, along with some of the secondary characters. I mostly think of Sazed here, a scholarly type of character from another oppressed people who has a great interest in religion (main theme in Elantris).

Vin, the “unlikely heroine,” grew up on the streets in the slums together with her brother. He beat some hard lessons into her, the most important one being: anyone will betray you, even he himself. At the start of the novel, Vin is a scrawny young woman (16) in a thieving group that functions on the principle her brother warned her about. She has no believes and she dreams of being free, but she needs all her wits to even survive where she is. Her life changes drastically after she becomes part of Kelsier’s thieving group and thanks to the development of her allomantic powers (she’s a Mistborn). Her main struggle is to let go of her mindset which urges her to hide and trust no one, and to find her identity in all that’s going on (coming-of-age character arc). It’s only at the end of the novel that she understands friendship and that she begins to trust in others (and herself). She’s also the character I thought the most interesting to read about, I especially liked the parts where she posed as a noblewoman.

Kelsier is also a Mistborn and he becomes Vin’s teacher in Allomancy. He’s the charismatic and daring leader of the thieves who plans to overthrow the Lord Ruler. So Kelsier (also) has the trappings of a hero but his optimism and daring are sometimes too much with rather negative consequences, putting a twist on the hero type character. He has to face setbacks and even though his dashing and daring character might be tempered in the course of the story, in true hero fashion he gets his great scene at the end.

The main “magic” in Mistborn is called Allomancy. It means the use of metals to gain special skills/powers, each metal giving one specific ability. There’s no “she concentrated hard and a fireball appeared in the palm of her hand.” Instead, the magic in this story is one of the most elaborate, thought-out and original systems I saw in fantasy novels so far and despite that, it’s easy to understand. It’s also where the title of the novel comes from: someone who can use all metals is called a Mistborn (like Vin and Kelsier) and someone who can only use one of the metals is called a Mistling. Here’s one of the first mentions of how magic works in Mistborn:

Kelsier gave his friend a count of ten before reaching within himself and burning his metals. His body came awash with strenth, clarity, and power.
Kelsier smiled; then–burning zinc–he reached out and yanked firmly on the Inquisitor’s emotions. The creature froze in place, then spun, looking back toward the Canton building.
Let’s have a chase now, you and I, Kelsier thought. (43)

The only part that’s a bit woo-woo (= no real explanation) about this system is how you reach inside yourself to burn the metals you swallow. Everything else, what each metal does, it’s strength and weakness, and so on is clearly defined (there’s even a small chart at the end of the book). I liked that there are only a few short explanations of how Allomancy works before Kelsier teaches Vin. The characters using it know how it works so lengthy explanations of it would be odd there. Also, the action scenes reminded me of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – fast and elegant with some incredible feats from the characters.

Overall, the focus in this novel seems to be more on philosophical questions than on character (development) and action, although I didn’t think these parts lacking. It also seems to be a rather easy story to summarize: standard plot, standard characters. But when you look closer, things get more difficult, transcend their easy-ness and hint at something more (giving the impression of a more philosophical focus). Everything in this novel is connected – characters, plot, themes. It uses traditional fantasy elements to write a story that questions the notion of heroism, leadership, justice, religion, maybe even evil and good, transforming the often used elements into something more in the process and making reading this novel a real pleasure.

And because of all that, Mistborn is one of my best and most favorite reads this year.

Final words/thoughts:

  • The dialog might not always be believable in that some characters speak probably to well for their background but I take that any day over a character that talks in a dialect I can’t understand (like one of the characters in this novel does sometimes).
  • There’s a romance in this novel although it is told only in the most rudimentary sentences. But for that, it has some quite effective scenes. It’s between Vin and an nobleman called Elend, heir to the most powerful House.
  • “Elend” is a word that in German can mean: 1. “wretched, miserable; awful; ill; dreadful” 2. “misery; distress; squalor; poverty; penury.” I thought it funny because he’s the love interest.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes.

Would I read this novel again? Yes.

Grade: 5 / 5


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2 Responses to “Brandon Sanderson – “Mistborn: The Final Empire””

  1. Christine Saturday, November 15, 2008 at 5:28 am #

    Fantastic review, Taja. I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on this one… I’m adding it to my ‘To-Be-Read’ list. I’m thinking my public library might have this series, so I’ll save myself a few bucks and borrow it instead of buy it. But after your review, I’m definitely interested in reading it.

    Also, the action scenes reminded me of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – fast and elegant with some incredible feats from the characters.

    This totally got my attention. I love those modern Chinese epic films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon/. The cinematography is amazing.

  2. Taja Saturday, November 15, 2008 at 10:29 am #

    I hope you will like it, Christine!

    I needed to picture the fight scenes to keep up with what was going on and these kind of films came to mind.

    I love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Beautiful film.

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