Jul 9, 2010

Mistborn: The Final Empire - Brandon Sanderson

I heard about Brandon Sanderson a few years ago. The reviews were always praising, especially in terms of world-building and magic systems, and being the nerd that I am, those are pretty attractive to me in fantasy. However, when I started reading Elantris, I just couldn't get into it and gave up a hundred pages through. Then I bought Mistborn (or The Fnal Empire, depending on which edition you read) at JFK airport, and immediately loved it.

Reading Brandon Sanderson right now is a little like listening to Muse after the Twilight movies. Sure, he wasn't a nobody before, but he wasn't nearly as famous as he has become in the last two years either. And if you tell anyone you are reading his books now, they'll smirk and say you only do it because of his work on The Wheel of Time. But to me, it was the other way around. I was happy he was the one to finish Robert Jordan's magnum opus because I knew how good he is.

If I have to find a niche in the genre to put Brandon Sanderson in, that would be the same place occupied by David Gemmell (may he rest in peace), the one Raimond Feist vacated when he went the way of Salvatore and Brooks - the road of endless tired sequels, one every three months or so... It is the niche of high fantasy, of adventures and magic, and of characters that would be cardboard in the hands of a lesser author, but who in Sanderson's writing have just enough of that little spark that makes us care for them.

Mistborn is set in a setting that is rarely explored in fantasy. A long time ago, a great threat loomed over the lands, and a hero rose to defeat it. Many united under his banner, and he was the last hope of the world.

He failed.

It is now a thousand years later, and the land is covered by ash, spewed endlessly by active volcanoes. When darkness falls, unnatural mists envelop everything, and strange creatures lurk inside them. This is the time of the Final Empire, held in the iron fist of the Lord Ruler - an immortal god-like being that has controlled humanity for a whole millenium. Under his rule there are only two castes - the nobles, descendants of those that once helped the Lord Ruler ascend to power; and the skaa, slaves belonging to nobility, to do with as they please. Rebellions have been few and far between, and all of them end in total bloody suppression.

But now a new kind of rebel appears. One with the means and will to end the Final Empire once and for all, by striking at its heart - the Lord Ruler himself.

The story centers around the skaa rebellion in Luthadel, capital of the Empire. Even though it is a part of a trilogy, Mistborn is actually self-contained; the next installments in the series broaden the concept, revealing new layers to the world, previously hidden by the Lord Ruler's reign. And as a stand-alone book, it shines. It has everything a high fantasy needs: intrigues, lurking in the dark, amazingly cinematic fighting sequences... and magic.

Magic in this world is called Allomancy. An Allomancer is a person who ingests little slivers of metal and then "burns" them in his body, producing a specific effect. There are a number of metals, each working in opposing pairs: one gives you the ability to pull metals, another - to push them; one detects Allomancy, another hides it. This power is extremely rare, and only flows through the blood of some members of nobility, which is the reason for a law that states that any nobleman who takes a skaa lover has to kill her after, to avoid the power being given to the slaves. Of course, this doesn't always happen the way it should, and thus the unlikely cast of characters that shape the events of Mistborn. There are two kinds of Allomancers - those who could burn only one metal are called Mistings. There is, however, an extremely rare number of people, able to burn all metals - the Mistborn.

The magic system is so ordered and used with such precision throughout the book, it resembles more a Science Fiction concept than a Fantasy one. Sanderson obsesses over the interactions between different Allomantic talents, and the result is something that you could imagine so vividly, you almost begin to believe it possible. The action scenes involving Allomancy (that is, nearly all of them) are breathtaking, with people flying, Pulling and Pushing objects to amazing effects.

The story itself is a classic tale of insurrection from within, as the main character Vin - an orphan girl from the street with the powers of a Mistborn - is turned by the rebellion leader Kelsier - also a Mistborn - into a lady from the minor nobility, who he uses to infiltrate the world of the nobles for the purpose of sowing dissent and mistrust. The characters are more or less black and white, although enough nuances exist to make them come to life.

In the end, Mistborn is a greatly satisfying read. It lacks the grand scope of "Hard Fantasy" authors like Martin, Erikson or Bakker, but it does't need them either. Sanderson has written a thrilling adventure filled to the brim with action, intrigue and one of the most wonderfully developed magic systems I've encountered in the genre. I'd recommend it without reservations.


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