Mistborn Trilogy by Brandson Sanderson

June 15, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

The basic premise of the Mistborn trilogy goes something like this: an evil force stalks the land, causing suffering and death. No one can stop it, causing widespread despair. But the ancient prophecies speak of one man who might journey to a distant place and there discover a power that can vanquish this evil. A sage discovers an unlikely man who fits the portents, and through much adversity he eventually does succeed in his quest.

If that sounds like a generic fantasy plot, it is. The twist here is that this all happened a thousand years ago. The hero, upon vanquishing the evil force, made himself the Lord Ruler of the world he had saved. Under his reign the vast peasantry are oppressed in miserable conditions while the opulant nobility carries on at their expense. Generation after generation has come and gone, but he remains, immortal and invincible.

Apparently when the first book in the trilogy, The Final Empire, came out the marketing leaned heavily on this setup as being mind-blowingly subversive. Well, it’s nothing mind-blowing for even a moderately well-read fantasy reader, but it’s certainly a good beginning. On this foundation, Sanderson builds an entertaining heist plot in the first book, a very detailed and well-thought-out magic system, and the usual mix of action, intrigue, and romance. Unfortunately, while this is a work with multiple viewpoints, it has a main character, Vin, who I personally found to be boring. She had a hard life before her unexpected awakening into magic powers, and now she…eh, whatever. Kelsier, Vin’s mentor, is more interesting, but for me at least the attraction here is not the characters.

It’s not really the world-building, either. Sanderson is not much interested in geography, so there aren’t long Tolkienian landscape descriptions. He’s more interested in the society he’s constructed. That would have been fine by me, since I have similar preferences, except the trilogy wastes much of its time on well-travelled ground. For example, the oppressive nobility gained their status because their ancestors helped the Lord Ruler when he was a young hero. Since then, they’ve become fractious, wasteful, and even occasionally rebellious, but he tolerates them due to the fond memories he has of their long-forgotten (by everyone else) ancestors. Obviously this is not how nobility worked either historically or in most fantasy, but alas this fascinating difference was remarked upon and left alone. When it comes to the nobility most of the trilogy’s energies are spent on whether or not every one of them is complicit in the Lord Ruler’s oppression and if so what punishment they might deserve, if not who is and who isn’t, etc. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

I should mention that Sanderson has built an elegant magic system that is complicated without being confusing. The Mistborn of the title generate magic through the digestion of various types of metal, and much of the power comes from the abilities they gain to magically manipulate metal. Sanderson has rigorously worked out the implications for magical combat, and so the fight scenes are remarkable. Unfortunately these days I have less patience for textual choreography, but if you enjoy fun action there’s no shortage of it here.

What the trilogy does really well, however, has to do with the plot and backstory. Because I’ve already said that I found Mistborn decent but not amazing in the areas we traditionally grade fiction (characters, world-building), this is going to sound like faint praise. But the fact is, there are tons of sprawling fantasy series being written these days and hardly any of them come together in a reasonably satisfying way. Either the author loses control of the story, or the ending makes no sense, or the whole thing is brutally predictable. Sanderson, displaying perhaps the same rigor he used in developing his magic system, has done a superlative job laying out a backstory and plot that never are hard to understand but also steadily dole out surprising revelations. With many series, readers complain afterward that loose ends were left untied. Here, not only are the loose ends tied up, but the whole thing is so well-orchestrated that I never realized the loose ends were there until they were dealt with. Successive revelations forced reexaminations of past events, reexaminations that made me realize things hadn’t been hanging together as well as I (and the characters) had thought, but upon learning this new information everything made sense again.

The result is a story that fits together like a gleaming crystal, each facet carefully polished to achieve the desired effect. This is not my favorite fantasy trilogy since as I discussed before it didn’t cover precisely my personal favorite themes, but it is surely the best constructed that I’ve ever read. In light of this, I recommend that the trilogy be read all at once, for the more you remember from the first two books when finishing the third the more you’ll be able to see everything fit together perfectly.

One last thing I should mention is that Brandon Sanderson has some pretty extensive “behind the scenes” type material on his site about how he wrote the book and the choices he made while writing.  It’s kind of like extras you get on a DVD.  I’m not sure how interesting it would be to most readers, as it may be a sort of inside-baseball for writers, but I found it fascinating and wish more writers did this.

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  1. […] at 11:31 pm | In 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a Comment Tags: Brandon Sanderson Since reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy I’ve paid close attention to his career. The Mistborn books were uneven, but their particular […]

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