I finished all three books in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy; Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages. I think I should get a lollipop, or a ribbon that says, “I Did It!”
I did a quick and dirty page-count calculation, and the trilogy checks in at slightly more than 2200 pages. For people who devour George RR Martin’s books, that’s a sprint, a snack, barely a brochure. For me, though, it’s still a commitment, and the books seemed longer because of Sanderson’s prose.
I wasn’t satisfied but I was intrigued. The story’s ideas almost balanced its deficits. When I reviewed the books for Fantasy Literature, I leaned more toward the positive overall. I think dedicated Role-Playing Gamers and Sanderson fanboys must have loved these.
Here’s my personal breakdown.
What I liked:
The Idea. Sanderson’s premise — a blighted world with a vague prophecy and no real promise of redemption; a rebellion, treachery and magic, is good. I admired the scope of these books. Severals of Sanderson’s characters wrestle with issues of faith, spirituality and ethics. The idea here is pretty original, a different take on a creation myth.
Vin, the main character. Whatever else I thought about this story, I really liked the street urchin Vin and her evolution into a magical superhero. Vin has access to magic and grows steadily more powerful throughout the books, but she remains engaging through the first two, at least, because of her flaws and self-doubts. In reality, all she ever really is to the story is a tool — a realization she has in the middle of Book Two — but she’s a darned good tool, kind of like an intricately machined watch. And here is a dandy plot twist with her that I appreciated.
The magical system. This will end up on both my lists. The magicians in the books use metals to activate magical abilities. They fall into two categories; allomancers and ferruchemists. Allomancers metabolize tiny bits of metal to create powers; tin enhances the senses; pewter increases strength; iron allows the magician to create a wall of energy by pushing; steel by “pulling” (imagine the poles of a magnet). Ferruchemists use metal, mostly in the form of jewelry, like a magical savings account; storing energy, speed, memories in metal and then drawing it out when they need it.
This was a truly different system, and as an added bonus, it inadvertently reflects 1960s drug culture, with allomancers taking little “hits” of metal throughout the books. That provided comic relief.
Secondary characters. A few were standouts, particularly Sazed, the thoughtful scholar and ferruchemist; Spook, an overlooked member of the rebellion and TenSoon, a shape-shifting kandra with strong opinions about humans.
What I didn’t like:
The magical system. Here was a clever idea that led to the worst thing in a fantasy novel, magic with no consequences. The magicians rely on an endless supply of an external substance for their power. They risk little or nothing to use it. More seriously, they never run out. You would think that their adversary, the near-immortal Lord Ruler, would try to control the supply of various metals, but he never does except for one, the mystical McGuffin metal atium. People can OD on metals and hurt themselves, and they have metal hangovers (1960s drug culture again) but there are no real consequences. It’s not epic fantasy, it’s fantasy wish fulfillment, especially when the laws of physics become elastic.
The world-building. As far as I’m concerned there are two parts to world-building; the writer’s behind-the-scenes work, and the telling detail that makes it onto the page. The first one is important, but it doesn’t matter at all if the second one isn’t there. And it isn’t here until Book Three when Sanderson suddenly shovels in a lot of info with a “oh, didn’t I mention…?” tone. He has clearly done most of the background work, as the voluminous appendices in each book attest, but on the page, there is too much hand-waving and making-it-up-as-you-go. Combined with his stilted prose this created an impression of an arrogant writer telling me, “Because I said so, that’s why.” This attitude does not lead me to the willing suspension of disbelief.
Sanderson gives us a thousand-year reign of a near-immortal tyrant, in a metal-rich land; he postulates a late-middle-ages style society, colorful balls and parties, stained glass windows, highly refined metals and a large slave population, with little foundation. The feudal world has 19th century flourishes when they are needed for the story, like canned goods. Highly refined metals and alloys with no discussion of whether alloys occur naturally or are created; no foundries, refineries, or forges seen until the third book; a weapon system that doesn’t go beyond arrow, staves and swords. The air is filled with ash from the constantly rumbling volcanoes (that never seem to erupt), but not a single person has any respiratory problems. There are no explanations for how metal, food, water or textiles are moved or traded (yes, there are canals; it’s a start). Near the end of the trilogy there is a reference to coal; before that there’s been talk of oil lamps but no source of the oil. Petrochemical? Plant based? Not explained.
In The Hero of Ages, Sanderson uses the device of quoting passages from a written document gathered by a scholar to back-fill a lot of these questions — clumsily.
Elend, the Emperor. Elend is Vin’s love interest and the designated hero. Apparently he has to be the hero because in this universe a woman, no matter how super-powered, can’t lead. It isn’t explained or discussed — it just seems to work that way. Elend, however, never grows into characterhood in his own right. He is a type, and an all too common one. He is the Scholarly, Rebellious Young Noble. Everything, even his wardrobe, is given to him, and Vin gets him out of every pickle, all the while telling him that he is a “good man.” There is no indication that there’s anything particularly “good” about Elend.
The prose. Stilted paragraph after paragraph, telling-not-showing, (and telling us again, and again, and yet again…) enough use of the past perfect tense to win some kind of a prize.
“Sazed had had to load the memories onto his copperminds, from when the other Keepers had defied the Lord Ruler, who had had a plan to stop them. His plan had failed, and the Keepeers had recorded the information that other people had discovered… ” (Okay, I made that one up, but it is not exaggerated.)
The books cry out for a drinking game. Take a shot every time Vin is described as wearing trousers and a buttoned shirt. Sip a beer each time we see Elend in his white ash-resistant outfit; chug each time Breeze lifts a wine goblet. Here’s one; do a shot each time Sanderson stops the action, in mid-fight, to tell us, again, something about what the Lord Ruler did a thousand years ago, or how Vin feels about her magical powers, or how she wishes she could wear pretty dresses again… or how the Lord Ruler managed to control X, Y or Z.
The problem is not merely that the prose is bad, it’s that there are 2200 pages of it.
Good news though! After or during the writing of Mistborn, Sanderson wrote an award winning novella, The Emperor’s Soul, and a shorter book set in the Mistborn world, a few hundred years in the future (The Alloy of Law). While still a bit pedantic and stilted, the prose in each of those is much better; trusting the characters to reveal their traits through action, not lecture; using a more immediate style and concentrating the action. The Alloy of Law still suffers a bit too much from sitting-and-talking, but nowhere near as badly as the trilogy. Sanderson has clearly grown as a writer and a storyteller.
There is no questioning the man’s work ethic. He completed Mistborn and took on the significant task of completing Wheel of Time, and did so very well. He has started yet another series of his own. Unlike certain other fantasy writers, Sanderson completes a series when he starts it.
I still deserve a lollipop.