Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

First, I should point out that I read this book as part of a very enjoyable Read Along hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. I was surprised by how many of those involved had read the book before, which I always think is a good recommendation. 

The Final Empire received its name because the Lord Ruler intended it to be the last government that the world would ever know. He created it one thousand years ago, after he saved the world from the Deepness at the Well of Ascension. He now rules his Empire as a god, the Sliver of Infinity. He is immortal and invincible, ruling with an iron fist.

The Empire is a grim place, with volcanic ash constantly falling from the sky and covering everything in a choking layer. At night, thick mist swirls across the land hiding terrible Mistwraiths that can take over a person’s mind. The enslaved Skaa work in the fields and the factories, producing everything for their Noble overlords, while they are kept in constant terror of their god and his terrible wrath. Disobedience will be met by pain and injury or death. For the very worst criminals the Lord Ruler has a special punishment, to be condemned to the Pits of Hathsin. All who have been sent to the Pits have died, all except one man: Kelsier. The tortures of the Pits caused Kelsier to ‘snap’, awakening the powers of the Mistborn within him. He can now use the powers of allomancy to fight to free the people from the Lord Ruler’s reign of terror.

Before being thrown into the Pits, Kelsier was a master thief, and so he assembles a group of equally talented, but morally questionable, persons to help his rebellion. Each of them is half-Skaa, half-Noble: the illegal product of Noble men impregnating Skaa women. Although these women are supposed to be killed after they have been ‘used’, many Nobles prefer to keep them alive, even though the offspring have the potential to carry their fathers’ allomantic abilities. Most of these Mistings have only one of the allomantic powers, however, Kelsier discovers a ragged orphan girl who is another Mistborn, able to use all of the powers, just as he can. With Vin at his side he may just have all the power he needs to finally remove the Lord Ruler from his throne.

I had never read of Brandon Sanderson’s books before this one, but I had heard that he had been chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This led me to expect a fantasy of book with great depth and detail. I was not disappointed at all.

The world that we encounter has a lot in common with ours, but the differences are startling and profound. For example, the slavery depicted is so much more entrenched and  ruthlessly enforced than many examples in our history. The Skaa are non-people, with no possibility of truly rising above their position. This has similarities with the fate of African slaves in the US, who were easily identified because of their skin color. Although the Skaa look exactly like the Nobles, there is the same prejudice about the production of hybrids, with religious dictates that call for Skaa women to be killed immediately after they have served their purpose. The fact that this does not stop some Nobles from having children by Skaa mistresses is another point of similarity to the hypocrisy shown by many American slave owners. However, the biggest difference I can see between the Skaa and any slaves on Earth is that they are totally lacking in hope. After one thousand years of total and absolute subjugation they are almost totally incapable of showing rebellion.

At first glance, the Final Empire would seem to be pretty similar to Medieval Europe. However, this is a world where no living person has seen a green leaf or a colorful flower. The ever-present ash drains the color from everything and the plants have changed to cope with the lack of direct sunlight. This, and the impossibility of keeping things clean, creates a constantly depressing sense of hopelessness. The daylight hours are spent in the endless battle to move the ash out of the way whilst the night is a time of fear for the mist that covers everything. The whole world feels so claustrophobic that I am amazed that the Skaa have not chosen to commit mass suicide in an effort to escape their drudgery. However, we find that other races have been forced to submit to castration and breeding programs, so perhaps the Skaa are luckier than some.

Of course, the main difference is the presence of magic in this world. I do not want to say too much about how the system works, because it was a true joy to see it revealed slowly as Kelsier taught Vin how to use her powers. It is perhaps the most original magic system that I have ever read (see the note below), and involves the use of a variety of metals to power certain abilities. It is visually stunning and creates very exciting and enthralling fight sequences. One thing that I really liked about it is that it has weaknesses. If you run out of a metal you need during a fight then you are stuffed and things can go horribly wrong very quickly. It also has interesting implications for armor and what weapons you should carry, or not, as the case may be.

I found the Prologue and the first few chapters difficult to get through, possibly due to an overload of new information and concepts. However, after that, Mr Sanderson paints a wonderful picture of his world, with just the right amount of detail. We are given enough knowledge about most things, so that we feel informed without being overburdened. This is a delicate balancing act and sometimes he does fall slightly on the side of not answering all my questions. However, as there are two more books in the series, I hope that most of my questions will be answered in time. Indeed, the book does not read like the first part of a series. It does not seem to be setting the scene for action that will only arrive in later volumes and reaches a relatively tidy resolution. The plot does accelerate towards the end and I was fearful that we would be left with a cliffhanger ending, but this book could be read as a stand-alone without too much feeling left dangling. Of course, once you have read this volume you will want to read the other two, but I still appreciated the way it ended.

The plot itself nips along at a fair pace, with lots of action and movement. There is always something new to discover and detail to enjoy. We have a wide cast of characters doing interesting and surprising things to keep us turning those pages. The dialogue is witty and poignant as necessary while the visuals are stunning. The action sequences will leave you breathless and amazed by their originality. However, this is not a flippant or fluffy read. As I said above, this is a terribly cruel world and there are moments of real danger and deep sadness. The plot does not go where you expect it to, but twists around to produce something so much more interesting than your typical fantasy. Lisa, at Starmetal Oak Reviews, notes that we begin with what seems to be a simple heist plot, but that soon changes into something much more complex and, ultimately, more satisfying.

So, we have a wonderful world and an exciting plot that keep you up late at night. These are matched by a set of memorable characters that are wonderfully imperfect and, therefore, totally sympathetic. Nobody is a mere tool of the plot: everyone feels real and has understandable motivations for their actions, even the Lord Ruler. We have Kelsier, who tries to present himself as a Robin Hood / Captain Jack Sparrow type of charismatic leader. However, as we slowly learn, he has more depth than that and is a very interesting character all by himself. Then there is Vin, the wary orphan who cannot understand Kelsier’s ability to trust his friends. Following her progress is wonderful, and at the end of the book she is almost unrecognizable as the person we met at the beginning.

The rest of the gang is rounded out by equally fascinating people. Ham is the philosophizing heavy, constantly bickering with Breeze, who is a pompous manipulator. Dockson is the ever put-upon bookkeeper and organizer, who makes Kelsier’s plans become reality, while Clubs is the obligatory Grumpy Old Man who is always happy to look on the downside of every situation. Outside the gang there is Elend Venture, a privileged young Noble who pointedly reads books at social events because it annoys his father. However, my favorite character is Sazed a Terris Keeper who specializes in remembering the details of most of the religions that existed before the Lord Ruler outlawed them all. He has many of the characteristics of a good English butler, but is much, much more interesting. As Grace says at Books Without Any Pictures, all the characters are complex, even the minor ones.

As I said above, I struggled a little with the opening, but this was a very enjoyable read and a great introduction to an interesting author.

I can also recommend these reviews:

Since finishing this book I have begun to read Mr Sanderson’s Warbreaker, which has an even more amazing and unique magic system: you should check it out! I am currently involved in the Read Along hosted by Once Upon A Time.


  1. I enjoyed this book so much, unfortunately I haven't read the sequel yet but I can't wait :)

  2. The second and third books in the trilogy expand the Mistborn world very well and also develop the characters in unexpected ways. They are excellent books and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did! :)


Please let me know what you think, because comments make me happy!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Link Within

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...