Revolutions are Built On Blood, Death, and Above All, Hope – A Review of Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

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I can still remember, more or less, what I felt when I first began reading Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. What began as yet another regular old fantasy novel quickly spiraled out into something far, far more than that, and within the day I began reading it I was caught up in its spell, in love with Lynch’s creation in ways I could not describe except in the language of keysmash, incoherent burbling noises, and metaphorical screaming at the Internet via Twitter. These were things I had not felt in a long time – not since I was twelve and had first discovered The Lord of the Rings, and not since I was sixteen and reading The Silmarillion. But I tumbled headlong into Lynch’s world and left it only reluctantly, and only when I ran out of books to read (the third book, Republic of Thieves is coming out – for certain, this time – in October this year).

In the meantime, there were other books, and some have consumed me in the same manner that Lynch’s books consumed me: Kameron Hurley’s The Bel Dame Apocrypha; Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy, Lev Grossman’s Magicians series. The most recent one to enter that hallowed (in my opinion) company is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, beginning with Mistborn: The Final Empire.

How I was urged to pick his work up is typical of how I pick up the books I do: it was because of friends. As usual, Hope was behind me choosing to read The Final Empire after I’d recovered somewhat from the emotional devastation of The Inheritance Trilogy, since she and Matthew (the dungeon master of our fledgling, almost-exclusively-newbie-players-except-for-the-DM-and-a-few-others D&D campaign) had begun reading the series are more or less the same time. Matthew, for his part, was the one who’d urged Hope to read Sanderson’s work in the first place, and by the time the two of them had started on the Mistborn books they’d already gotten through Sanderson’s other works. This cycle of reading a book and then getting someone else to read it so they may enjoy the book (or torture them with the pain one felt while reading the book – it tends to go both ways) is something that has gone on between me and Hope and our other friends for a while now, so the fact that Matthew fits in well into this cycle bodes very well for our friendship with him.

That being said, I must say Matthew has excellent taste in his reading – as well as very familiar with how to hook Hope and myself. When recommending The Final Empire to Hope he described Kelsier, one of the protagonists, as being “like Locke [Lamora], but if he was always the Thorn of Camorr” – a description that Hope used to get me to read The Final Empire, and which worked. The description proved entirely apt – though to be sure, the comparison is not as straightforward as that, either.

Mistborn: The Final Empire is set a thousand years or so after an important event: the defeat of an entity called the Deepness by a Hero who rose to become the Lord Ruler, said to be nothing less than a god made flesh. Ash falls from the sky on a regular basis due to continuous volcanic activity elsewhere in the world, and as a result there is a constant cloud cover that has all but killed plant life. A very deep class divide has also created two groups of people: the skaa, who are essentially slaves serving the other group, the aristocracy. Within the aristocracy there are people who are capable of wielding a power called Allomancy, which allows them to “burn” specific metals that grant them specific abilities. And amongst the Allomancers there are people who are even more special in that they can burn not just one, but all of the allomantic metals. These people are called Mistborn, and they are the stuff of legend.

But the lines are beginning to grow as gray as the ash that falls from the sky. There are Allomancers walking amongst the skaa, and though they are hunted by the Ministry of Inquisition (one of the most feared arms of the religion that has grown around the Lord Ruler), there are others who manage to escape that attention. One of them is Kelsier, a former thief who survived a confrontation with the Lord Ruler himself, and who has come back from obscurity determined to accomplish the one thing no one has dared dream: to topple the Lord Ruler from his seat, and to raise the skaa from their downtrodden place in the world to stand equal with the nobility, as they had done before the Lord Ruler began to rule the world.

Aiding Kelsier is his crew: a band of Mistings (another word for Allomancers, though it appears to apply specifically to those who are not born in the nobility) who join up with Kelsier for their own reasons, though most of them do agree that ending the Lord Ruler’s reign is something that must be done if things are to get better. Along with them is a young skaa girl named Vin, who finds out that she isn’t quite as ordinary as she thinks she is – and this discovery about herself will prove pivotal in the events to come.

I suppose much of my initial enthusiasm for this book came from the similarities between The Final Empire and Lies of Locke Lamora, but it quickly became clear that though the two books have quite a few parallels (and yes, the comparison of Kelsier to Locke Lamora in permanent Thorn of Camorr mode is included in those parallels), they are two entirely different beasts. While there is plenty that is dark and dangerous in Locke Lamora and in the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies, most of that danger is of a personal nature, directed primarily at Locke and Jean. There is even a certain jauntiness to the whole affair, more akin to an amusing heist movie like the recently-released Now You See Me than anything else, and much of the heartache comes from what happens to the characters, not so much to the world they inhabit.

The Final Empire is different. Sure, there are thieving crews very much like the Gentlemen Bastards in Lynch’s series, and the characters are interesting enough that one comes to care for them enough to worry about what will happen to them (especially true in the case of Kelsier and Vin), but there was always an emphasis on the larger picture. Kelsier’s entire scheme is, after all, built around the potential of a skaa rebellion, and taking down the Lord Ruler since he is believed to be the source of all that oppression in the first place. The reader comes to care more for the outcome of this rebellion, and what the actions of the characters are doing to contribute to that outcome. This means that, from time to time, the reader may find herself or himself irritated at Kelsier, who doesn’t really seem to be doing much of anything except what furthers his own goals, but Sanderson is clever enough in weaving Kelsier’s backstory into the rest of the plot that the reader doesn’t entirely lose sympathy for him.

It is the focus on the concept of rebellion, on the mechanics of revolution, that makes this book a standout for me. I am well acquainted with the idea of revolutions and why they happen (Philippine history is riddled with them), and Sanderson handles the idea quite well, managing to strike a relatively good balance between the pros and cons of revolution. Kelsier, in particular, appears to know precisely what is necessary to jumpstart a revolution, and he works to do just that – even if the other crew members don’t quite get what he’s doing all the time. There are hints and suggestions about what might come after, but those are obviously meant to be tackled in the later novels, not in this first one.

Another key difference between Lynch and Sanderson’s series is how they use magic. In the Gentlemen Bastards books, magic is barely ever discussed, and though it does appear to exist, neither Locke nor Jean uses it. In The Final Empire, however, magic, in the form of Allomancy, forms the second core of the novel, and develops its own storyline as the novel progresses – a storyline that is likely to be explored and expanded upon further down the line in the next novels. This is something I can readily appreciate about Sanderson: he can create a magic system and plug it into a world, and make it form a vital part of the storyline, not just something that exists because magic is a trope of fantasy. The use of magic in The Final Empire – not just how it’s used, but who gets to use it – raises some interesting socio-political questions that play very well into the grander scheme of revolt and revolution and the aftermath of revolution that Sanderson appears to be building, and it’s not that often that writers manage to do this sort of thing.

Overall, Mistborn: The Final Empire is one of those reads that is capable of sucking a reader in and never letting them go – or at least, not until it has delivered all the emotional damage it potentially can to the reader before spitting him or her out again. It is also, perhaps, one of the best opening novels of an epic fantasy tale that I have read in a long while, because it has set up so many questions and potential plot lines while still being able to stand on its own as a coherent storyline. The fight to defeat the Lord Emperor may have ended, but the revolution has only just begun – and I’m very much look forward to finding out what happens in the next books.

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