I’m struggling with world building right now. I’m writing a set of linked novellas, all set in a world with magic, but it’s a world that used to be like ours is. A catastrophic change happened, ushering in magic and eliminating certain other things (like Starbucks).
Just at a time that I was feeling discouraged at my ability to create a coherent world and add the right details, I read Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson is famous. He was tapped to finished the endless Wheel of Time saga; he is adored by writers and fans alike, and reviews of Mistborn trumpeted the wonderful world-building. To be fair, several reviews quickly followed those laudatory statements us with things like, “Well, it’s not exactly world-building, but his descriptions are atmospheric!”
Since Sanderson is seen as an expert of world-building, and especially the creation of magical systems, I found I was reading the book in a questioning mode. First of all, I enjoyed the book. This is not a review. I have written a review and it will post at Fantasy Literature. This post here is in the nature of a study.
I’m also aware that Mistborn is the first book of three, and it’s likely that many of these questions will be answered in the subsequent books.
Mines? Refineries? Foundries?
Sanderson’s magical system revolves around metals. Sanderson’s use of magical metals is innovative (if unintentionally funny sometimes). In Mistborn, one mine, of one metal that seems unique to Sanderson’s world, is mentioned and is quite important to the plot. Still, the magical people use other metals for power; copper, gold, and tin for instance. They also use alloys. There must be mines, smelting plants, refineries, and foundries, but we see and hear nothing of this. One noble house is responsible for running the magical mine; I would guess that lesser houses would be given charge of the copper, tin, etc… it’s never discussed. It wouldn’t matter, except that a large part of the plot involves bringing down the noble houses.
- Where do they get their metal from?
- How do they transport it?
- How/where do they refine it?
- The underground magicians, the allomancers, use metals all the time. Why doesn’t the Lord Ruler get a better grip on it? Make it harder to get?
Is there an economy?
Of course there is an economy, but we don’t see how it works. Mention is made of certain denominations of coins, but the currency is never demonstrated, because no one ever buys food, or a horse, or a pair of shoes, onstage. Basically, the coins exist only as magical props for the allomancers. Noble houses have to worry about “contracts;” and becoming impoverished; how do they make their money?
The coins are made of metal; the allomancers use metal as a source of their power. Why doesn’t the Lord Ruler go to a paper money system so he can control the metals?
The real economy seems to be a slave-based one, where 90% of the population, called skaa, are either serfs on plantations in the country, or factory workers in the city. (And what is made in those factories? And who runs them? The nobles, clearly, but which houses, and why? Does the capital city have trade partners? We never know.)
Just who are the nobles, anyway?
Out in the countryside, nobles run plantations that grow “crops.” I don’t know what the crops* are, except we do know that people eat lots of barley, and some vegetables. What are the crops? How are they harvested and shipped? Where are they shipped? The nobles out in the countryside are not the same families as the “great houses” who have keeps in the capital. That baffles me completely. Wouldn’t it be more likely that you’d have your “city house” to stay close to the political action, but you’d send your second son or unlucky brother/cousin, out to the sticks to maintain the plantations?
What do the nobles do?
In the story, they have parties. We know this because the main character is sent in disguised as a young noblewoman, in order to get the latest gossip. They party, they scheme against one another. That isn’t enough. It’s troubling, when toward the end of the book, the main character, who is the impostor noblewoman, makes a comment about “going to balls on the weekend.” The weekend? The nobles have a workweek? Why?
Does it matter, really? After all, if the book is engrossing and fun, why do I care? Well, part of it is the length. If this were a romp at 345 pages I’d probably let it go. Mistborn weighs in at 643 — more than enough space to answer some of these questions.
Anyway, I finished the book having enjoyed the story, but feeling no more inspired or encouraged to address all my world-building headaches. I suppose, though, that it did give me a list of questions I have to answer. A long list. And that’s just… great.
*I know you’re thinking, “Geez, Marion, don’t be so picky. They’re crops, okay?” But it’s not okay. The sky is covered with a constant layer of ash, and the plants have changed color from green to shades of yellow and red, so what are they growing?