Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read and would get around to doing eventually. However, as I refreshed the Dragon*Con homepage for the umpteenth time, I saw that Sanderson was coming this year. As I don’t know if this is a common occurrence or not, I thought I’d better read at least one of his books, just in case I adored it and wanted him to sign a copy. Luckily, my local library has a copy of Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first book in his first trilogy. While the title does make it sound like a video game (it’s the colon), it looked promising.

Mistborn: The Final Empire takes place in a desiccated wasteland known as, of course, the Final Empire. The Lord Ruler, a theological tyrant, has ruled the empire for a thousand years, oppressing the working class skaa and keeping a close eye on the nobility, who occasionally manifest powers related to metal known as Allomancy–a person with one power is a Misting, and a person with more is the much more feared Mistborn. Half-skaa Kelsier has discovered that he is Mistborn while imprisoned, and has broken out to wreck terrible vengeance against the Lord Ruler himself. In order to do so, he recruits a crew of Mistings and other skaa to help him–including Vin, a sixteen year old street thief with horrific trust issues, but who is also a gifted Mistborn. As the crew takes on the insane task of taking down the Lord Ruler, Vin must master Allomancy, as well as learn to trust.

Sanderson’s great strength is his worldbuilding. It’s deep, although it doesn’t compete with the greats of genre, and it’s wildly creative. Allomancy, in particular, is very well thought out–it relies on ten different types of ingested metals, which all have a relationship to each other à la the elements of the periodic table. Each metal bestows the user with a particular power. But instead of solely bestowing powers, it also allows for very imaginative fight sequences. None of the metals can make you fly, but by pushing and pulling on metal around you with two of the ingested metals, you can effectively do so. The Mistborn universe takes a lot of cues from the early Industrial Revolution, especially in the city, although it plays it safe and stays more towards generic fantasy than trying to make any allegorical points. I felt the theocratic angle was well done, especially with the role of obligators and Inquisitors, the religious officials, in daily life. Through the Lord Ruler’s ruthless unification programs, we only really meet one character of color–Sazed, a philosopher servant. The skaa did throw me for a loop at first, as we first encounter them at a plantation, but they’re more serfs than slaves. Mistborn looks like it’s gearing up to mildly deconstruct a white hero being “the chosen one” of people of color, although I don’t think it’ll go too far into the issues surrounding it, as it’s part of the Lord Ruler’s backstory. Still, it’s an interesting and well thought out world.

I started really enjoying the story in Mistborn: The Final Empire as it picked up speed–not that I didn’t enjoy the first half, but the characterization and inorganic banter kept me from getting into the swing of things. Vin is young and paranoid, and has to deal with the fact that both of her identities (she has to play a noblewoman during the novel) are constructs–I look forward to the rest of her arc, although she does find a modicum of peace towards the end of this book. Kelsier is supposed to be slick and witty, but the problem is that Sanderson doesn’t have a good ear for banter. Kelsier’s humor (as well as everyone else’s) often feels inorganic or forced, although characters find him witty and funny. Given his backstory, I would have liked a darker turn where Kelsier’s humor, one of the few things keeping him afloat, almost always fell flat, but that’s not dashing enough, is it? I vastly preferred him as a man haunted by his past and trying to overcome it over a witty gent. While Vin, Kelsier, and Vin’s love interest, Elend, are depicted very well, the rest of the cast can be hastily sketched, although I quite liked Kelsier’s calmer brother, Marsh. Shan Elandriel, Elend’s ex-fiancée, is especially thin; while Vin would never see her in a redeeming light, Shan too often just openly insults her instead of catty, veiled comments more befitting a noblewoman.

But the story is great, especially as things get out of control towards the end. It’s definitely a challenge to incite rebellion in a working class oppressed for a thousand years and kept from any helpful information, and Vin and company definitely earn their victories. Sanderson’s pacing is addictive; I stayed up late to finish the last third of this book, because I simply couldn’t put it down. I was also thoroughly surprised by how satisfying Mistborn: The Final Empire is, as a first novel in a series. It answers enough questions to leave you satisfied and raises enough to make you pick up the sequel, but not so many that you’re gasping for it. You could quite honestly just read this book, although you would always have a question about just what the villain meant when he said… well, I shan’t spoil it. It’s structurally very impressive, and I look forward to reading Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, as well as the rest of this series.

Bottom line: While the supporting characters are hastily sketched and the banter feels forced, Mistborn: The Final Empire boasts a wonderfully solid and creative world and a story that grows on you until you can’t put it down. It’s the rare first installment of a series that can stand utterly on its own. Well worth a read.

I rented this book from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

  1. Ah, I loved Mistborn! And while I’ll agree that some characters are hastily sketched, I think a lot of them in the background have a lot to offer (especially Sazed and a few of the crew). And many get more fleshing out in the The Well of Ascension, though I really got annoyed with Elend and Vin in that book…

  2. I definitely enjoyed this series, and I think if you read the rest of the series you will see him grow as an author, and his characters become tighter, better developed, and less “hastily sketched”… Sanderson is new and was still learning at this point, IMO, but ah! I love his way with words, his descriptions! I especially enjoyed the way he turns the traditional “hero” motif on it’s head, and explores the idea of what it would be like if the savior of the world was really a tyrant, and the tyrant a savior. Good guys don’t always wear white hats! ;o) I hope you pick up the next two and enjoy them. You might also try his debut novel, Elantris, which was also excellent!

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