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Mistborn

September 14, 2017

 

Rating: B+

Length: 643 pages, standard paperback page size/font

 

Apparently, Brandon Sanderson is a pretty big deal in the fantasy/sci-fi genre these days.  Personally, I'd never heard of him until I saw that he was selected to finish the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan's death.  He did a pretty good job with that, in my opinion, especially with A Memory of Light.  Of course, it's not entirely clear which parts of those books were Jordan's work and which were Sanderson's, but the mere fact that he was able to blend his writing in with such an amazing author's without having clear discrepancies in the quality of the end result was a definite vote in Sanderson's favor in my eyes.  When I decided to seek out his own work, I saw a lot of praise being thrown towards this trilogy, so I decided it ought to be as good a place as any to start from.

 

I want to start with talking about the setting.  This is going to be a constant element through the trilogy (and I do intend on posting reviews of the rest of it, too), so I might as well get it out of the way now.  Apparently, Sanderson has some overarching universe that a lot of his works are set in called the Cosmere.  I'm sure that's meaningful to people who've read a lot of his books, but to date, I've only read these three, so it doesn't mean much to me.  What did mean something to me, though, was that Mistborn is set in a pretty cool world.  It's a bit of a twist on a post-apocalyptic setting where shit's gone all kinds of fucked (as shit is wont to do in post-apocalyptic settings), but some dude who calls himself the Lord Ruler fought back the Deepness (the exact nature of which is left a mystery) and thus managed to preserve some fragment of civilization in the ashen landscape that remains of the planet.  Thence for a thousand years, the Lord Ruler has basically been the God Emperor of the world.  Those who were favored by him form the nobility, who in turn rule over the working class slaves known as skaa, with both groups behind held accountable by the Lord Ruler's obligators (sort of a combination of an accountant, a lawyer, and a priest) and Inquisitors (super-priests with giant nails hammered through their heads who're considered borderline immortal and who do exactly what you'd think of from inquisitors).

 

Now, this is all well and good by itself, if nothing particularly groundbreaking, but what set it apart from similar settings was the admirable depth of detail in the world.  For instance, there's a constant haze of ash in the atmosphere, which blocks much of the world's sunlight, so plant life has been reduced to crappy brown scrubs, and it's been like that for so long that almost nobody knows what a flower is anymore and the thought of a green field is an unimaginably alien concept to them.  Despite this, the people in the world are just as keen on displaying their prosperity through impractical and frivolous shows as people in the real world are, so the more rich and noble someone is supposed to be, the more they wear white and throw lavish parties with spotlights in their mansions to show off their giant windows.  While there are certainly some elements that stretch disbelief, there wasn't anything that stuck out as being obviously senseless.  Perhaps that's not a high bar to clear, but it seems like most of the books I've read lately have struggled with it, so I'll recognize that this one didn't.

 

Now, part of what makes the nobles so great (and the Lord Ruler so much greater) is that some of them can do magic, called Allomancy, by consuming metals that they've ingested.  The thing here, though, is that what they can actually do with their magic is finely defined and limited, split up into ten metals that each have a specific effect when used.  The majority of these Allomancers are Mistlings, who can only do one particular type of magic with one particular type of metal.  The minority are Mistborn, who can use all ten metals.

 

However, since the people in this book are as capable of being lecherous scumbags as people in the real world are, there are incidents of nobles having sex with skaa.  This isn't explicitly forbidden, but they're supposed to kill any skaa women they have sex with in order to prevent passing on any Allomancy genes to their slaves.  Needless to say, this doesn't always get done, which segues nicely into talking about the characters.

 

The book has two protagonists.  One is Kelsier, a skaa Mistborn vagabond who'd escaped from a supposedly inescapable death camp called the Pits of Hathsin.  The other is Vin, a skaa girl who (as you ought to expect) turns out to be Mistborn as well.  The two develop a cool mentor/student relationship, with Kelsier being a visionary (or a madman, depending on your perspective) aiming to kill the Lord Ruler while Vin is swept up in his wake after accidentally drawing the attention of an Inquisitor.  Honestly, if it wasn't for Vin having had a pretty shitty life up until Kelsier recruited her to his cause, she'd come off as something of a Mary Sue, but her badassery is balanced out pretty nicely by her background and its lingering issues.  I've got some issues with how her character arc ended up going in the later books of the trilogy, but at least within the bounds of Mistborn, I think she works well without being too overwhelming.

 

Surrounding our protagonists are a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who just so happen to also be a bunch of skaa Mistlings.  They've all got distinct and memorable personalities, and the interplay between them (especially whenever Breeze is involved) is pretty great.  Going into further details about them would probably be a bit much, since this review has rambled on for a while already, so I'll just leave it at saying that they're quite enjoyable, and none of them ever left me reluctant to read further just because they entered a scene.

 

I'm not going to talk about the plot's details any more than I have already, but I will say something about it from a higher level.  As I'd mentioned earlier, the rules of magic in this book are quite strict and clear.  Honestly, magic in Mistborn is probably defined more clearly than most of the laboratory magic that happens in shows like CSI.  I've heard a lot of negative backlash about this approach, but I enjoyed it.  I wouldn't have been opposed to keeping a little more mystery to it, but the fact that it followed a set of rules and boundaries meant that it couldn't just be used as an excuse to get characters out of tense situations whenever the author felt like it (as with something like Harry Potter).  Not only does this allow suspenseful situations to actually feel suspenseful instead of feeling like they'll be resolved at the author's whims, but it also led to a logical explanation for why the Lord Ruler is as strong with magic as he is and why he's been able to live for a thousand years.  Perhaps it was a bit too logical of an explanation, given that I was able to figure it out despite usually being pretty bad about noticing foreshadowing or other plot hints on my first time through a book, but regardless, it made the story satisfying in a way that's often troublesome to do with fantasy/sci-fi works.

 

So, I've been fairly glowing in much of what I'd said, and yet I only gave it a B+ rating.  The fact of the matter is that, while Mistborn does a lot of things well, it's hard to really say that it did anything at an excellent level.  The characters are all pretty cool (aside from Elend, a foppish noble idiot of a boy who develops a crush on Vin), but none of them stood out and really grasped my interest in a remarkable way.  The plot worked well, had a satisfying progression, and didn't have any obvious holes, but it also didn't have anything about it that left me wanting more.  The setting is well-developed and detailed, but being something of a barren distopia gets in the way of developing any passionate interest in it.  It walks a fine line of combining elements of both Low Fantasy and High Fantasy, but aside from perhaps the intrinsic artistic merit of doing so, it's hard to say if that really makes the book better than sticking more closer to one or the other would've.

 

Really, I don't want to be too critical about this book, because it was definitely enjoyable and worth the time spent on reading it, but I think it's an example of the saying that "good" is the enemy of "great".  In pretty much any aspect that I could choose to analyze, Mistborn is good.  I can't say that there's any single aspect in which it's great, though.  It manages to do everything that it needs to do well enough to feel satisfying, but aside from the overall impression of being a good book, there's just nothing about it that stands out as being particularly memorable other than that it didn't do anything poorly.  I think the fact that I spent about half of this review just describing the setting is somewhat damning evidence of just how little of the book stood out as being truly remarkable, even though it was all good.

 

All in all, it just ends up in this weird place where I'd recommend it without hesitation, yet I'd never expect it to end up being someone's favorite book.

 

Rating: B+

Length: 643 pages, standard paperback page size/font

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