There’s always another secret. Not only is this the refraining line from one of the book’s protagonists about tricks up his sleeves, but it’s also an apt theme for the book itself. Though it took a little while at first, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy pulled me in to its mysterious, if desolate, world of sorrow, pain, and ultimately hope.
Join me now for my final review. The Final Empire is a dire world where plants grow brown rather than green, and ash falls constantly from the red sky. It is a world of haves and have nots, with the noblemen controlling the skaa slaves, while the evil Lord Ruler controls them all.
Vin, a small unassuming girl, is a street urchin of the skaa class, bitter and hateful because all she has known is a life of poverty and abuse. However, unlike the vast majority of people in the Final Empire, whether skaa or noblemen, she is what’s called a mistborn — a rare breed of humans who possess a gift known as Allomancy.
This gift allows her and other mistborns to internally “burn” various metals to wield power over the world around them. Not only can they use metals to “fly” (it’s actually just really, really big jumping), but they can also use them to fling metallic objects around as weapons in battle, or even tug on people’s emotions to calm or enrage them.
Powerful stuff, indeed.
As in any good fantasy novel, Vin our mistrusting ragamuffin gets plucked from obscurity and is recruited by a band of Allomantic misfits, led by a man named Kelsier, to help topple the Final Empire and overthrow the sinister Lord Ruler.
Of course, I am summarizing the premise in a much more Disney-fied way than the book is written. There are disastrous setbacks to make you question if anyone even survives the chapter or not, vile atrocities against humanity to make you retch, and hypocritical hatred of entire groups of people to incense you. It’s a dark book, to be sure, with graphic descriptions of murder and mildly subtler hints at rape. There were certainly parts that I personally had trouble getting through. But the overwhelming majority of it was so magical — pun intended — that I simply couldn’t put this book down.
Kelsier’s character shone from his very introduction. He is headstrong, foolhardy, trusting, noble, yet ultimately misguided in his blanket hatred of the ruling class. Vin’s character, on the other hand, took a while to feel fully fleshed out. For the first half of the book, I found myself thinking her to be rather two dimensional. However, when she started to shine as a real person, boy did she shine. Seeing her character unfold was like patiently watching a budding sunflower, then suddenly seeing it arch towards the sun.
Although the book began a bit slow and grim, before long I was hooked in each of the characters, in their intertwined story lines. I actually found myself dreaming about them, with me walking about the imposing city of Luthadel trying to help the book’s characters overcome their squabbles and overthrow the Lord Ruler.
The characterization, the plot arcs, they were all brilliant. The pacing, eh, could have used a bit of tweaking. But, as Kelsier himself kept saying throughout the book, there’s always another secret. And I, for one, really enjoy a story where I don’t see the next secret coming.
My biggest critique was the inconsistency in point of view. Aside from the prologue, which was distant third person, so much of the beginning of the book was in Vin’s close third person perspective, that I just assumed this to be her book. (Not to mention the fact that she and she alone appears on the cover art.) After a number of chapters though, I suddenly realized the bit I was reading was close third person to Kelsier’s perspective. It seemed to come out of nowhere so drastically that I honestly thought it was a publisher’s oversight.
However, as the chapters progressed, they regularly began switching close third POV back and forth between Vin and Kelsier. Then, out of nowhere, three quarters of the way through the novel, the story would occasionally — briefly — switch to be close third person POV of yet another, minor character. As much as I enjoyed hearing these other perspectives on a personal level, the inconsistent and lopsided POV shifts did at times disengage me as a reader, forcing me to flip back a page or so and remind myself whose side I was reading. It wasn’t an event, “every chapter belongs to a different character” type shift. It was more, “first half belongs to Vin, then it switches evenly between her and Kelsier, then randomly it may belong to others within even a single chapter.”
Nevertheless, despite begrudging Mr Sanderson’s pacing choices with the POV switches, I must admit that the various close third person perspectives allowed for some very juicy dramatic irony. In fact, reading this book has made me realize that I rarely encounter genre fiction that leverages dramatic irony to tug on readers’ emotions and keep them turning the pages. As Mistborn progressed, I regularly found myself cringing with concern over burgeoning misunderstandings between various characters. There I’d be, reading in bed, biting my lip with anxiety over the fictional relationships and politics, wanting to scream at the characters, “So-and-so is not a bad guy! If only you knew the truth! Don’t betray him!”
Equally refreshing for genre fiction was how very nuanced the battle between good and evil was. Generally in genre fiction, particularly fantasy, I find that the protagonist, if flawed, is still consistently a “good guy,” and while some of the lesser baddies may have redeeming characteristics, there is usually a solidly sinister “bad guy.”
If a book can make me squirm with dilemma over who to root for, then I’d say that’s a book well worth reading. So often, real life is far from black and white, so I really appreciate a fantasy book that handles the classic good versus evil battle with realistic nuances. I found myself frequently looking at Kelsier, thinking to myself, “Sure, perhaps you are the battle-weary hero fighting against tyranny, but you’ve got some warped, hypocritical beliefs, and if you’re not careful, you’ll be just as bad as those you fight.”
I don’t want to spoil the story by discussing the good versus evil debate too much, but throughout the book I really couldn’t help but marvel at how multi-dimensional Sanderson made his characters’ ethics. Again, I’m just not used to characters in genre fiction who are so fleshed out that tears well up in my eyes on their behalf. I’m just not that kind of reader. I keep my distance from characters, but this book … this had me going through the classic DABDA stages on behalf of many a character.
In short, if you like fantasy books, read this. If you don’t like fantasy books, still read it, though I can’t guarantee you’ll entirely appreciate all of the esoteric magic in this universe. Read it because it has multi-dimensional, painfully real characters and moral nuances that we can surely all relate to.
It should go without saying, but I’ve just ordered the second and third books in the trilogy to pick up from the bookstore down the road from me tomorrow. The question is, can they live up to this one?
Book: Mistborn: The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: TOR Fantasy, 2006
GirlyGeekGirl review: 4.5 out of 5 hearts