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The Hero of Ages

The cover artist's version of Elend is a lot more manly than the image in my head

Rating: B

Length: 724 pages, standard paperback page size/font

Time to wrap up my thoughts on this trilogy. After coming out strong with Mistborn and then losing some steam in The Well of Ascension, Sanderson does bounce back some with The Hero of Ages, though he doesn't quite reach the levels of the first book in the series. As with my review of The Well of Ascension, I'll be trying to avoid spoilers for the previous books, but there are some things that I'll have to come out and say about them in order to explain myself in a practical fashion.

As far as the cast of characters goes, there are some interesting shifts to keep things feeling fresh. While Vin continues to be her disappointing self from The Well of Ascension, whose new obsession with finding the Lord Ruler's old strongholds is really just a lateral shift from her previous obsession with finding the Lord Ruler's stash of atium, most of the rest of the returning cast goes through development arcs based on the koloss assault on Luthadel and its aftermath. This is most obvious with Elend, Sazed (who pretty much upgrades to being a third protagonist in this book), and Spook (who finally comes into his own as a developed character, as opposed to his previous use as some awkward kid with a weird accent and a crush on Vin), but it's even evident with relatively fringe characters like Cett.

In something of cool twist, though, we also get introduced to a lot more characterization among two groups who'd only had hints of such before: the Inquisitors and the kandra.

The former step back into the role of the main boogeymen for this book, which is a rather necessary thing to do since the late parts of The Well of Ascension took much of the menace away from the koloss, and we're finally given a lot more insight into what they're really like. Sanderson had done a good job of providing little more than hints about their nature before, essentially relying on the Nothing Is Scarier trope to make them seem incomprehensible and alien. This time around, we're given (meaningful) time with Marsh as a focal character of the narrative, who fills out a lot of the details of the Inquisitors. I wouldn't say that any of it goes so far as to change the interpretations of what the Inquisitors did in the previous books to any significant degree, but it does a fine job of answering a lot of the lingering questions about these fantastic post-human supermen.

The kandra, on the other hand, were by and large a slop bucket full of disappointment. Sure, TenSoon is still great, but he'd been pretty great already in The Well of Ascension, and I wouldn't say that anything he did in this book topped what he did in the previous one. The rest of the kandra weren't bad from a technical perspective, but they were just about exactly the sort of people that I hate to read about because I just find them boring. I also felt like the sudden significance of their role in the world as a whole really came out of nowhere, and while I don't mind the concept of springing plot twists on the reader with minimal foreshadowing in order to keep things surprising and difficult to predict, in this particular instance, it left a sour taste in my mouth because of my apathetic dislike for the kandra as a whole. It's kind of a shame, really, since you'd think that there'd be a lot of potential to do something interesting with a race of blob people who can manipulate their flesh in ways that would make the Bene Gesserit green with envy, but they just ended up being bland and boring.

The final major addition to the cast, if you can really call it that, was Ruin, the eldritch force released at the end of The Well of Ascension. I'm split on what I thought of it. On the one hand, Ruin had some fairly creative ways of exerting its influence on the world, and its presentation as a developed character was much more enjoyable than what was done with Preservation in The Well of Ascension. On the other hand, I was left with a feeling of Ruin being too human to take seriously as an omnipresent force of nature. I feel like this is a common problem when dealing with inhuman beings, so let me drop some wisdom on you.

Humans are human. I realize this is an incredibly obvious fact, but stick with me for a moment. When something acts like a human, that compromises its ability to be perceived as something other than a human. This isn't such a problem with typical fantasy/sci-fi humanoids (be they elves, dwarves, orcs, vampires, werewolves, cyborgs, whatever), so long as such creatures are presented in such a way that it's believable for their core self to be, essentially, human, since their general experience with existing tends to be very similar to a human's. This doesn't preclude giving them some alien characteristics (for instance, I tend to lean heavily towards beings that prey on humans, such as vampires, having very little capacity for empathy, since most people find it to be a very uncomfortable feeling to empathize with their food and so curtailing that capacity would be a sensible evolutionary step for something that feeds on other beings with similar displays of intelligent sentience), but it becomes impossible to make them truly alien if the audience is able to relate to their way of thinking/being too easily. Thus, if something is meant to be a god, a force of nature, an embodiment of an elementary construct of reality, or something else along those lines, I think it's borderline critical for such a character to be different from humans (not just the ones in the story but also the ones reading the story) on a fundamental level. Such characters can certainly have morals, ethics, emotions, capacity for intelligible conversation, etc., but the more that the motives and logic and thought processes behind all of that are the same as what humans are like, the more difficult it becomes to see that character as anything other than a human in a gimmick role.

Now, I can understand that part of the reason for Ruin being presented as it is is because it isn't actually a godly, omniscient, unassailable force of nature. However, its perceptions, its capacities, its very form of existence, even, are so utterly alien to the human state of being that I think it's an incredibly bad oversight for the character to act so, well, human. Ruin is a credible and overall enjoyable antagonist, but it falls so far short of what it's meant to be that its very presentation in the story breaks suspension of disbelief.

As for the story itself, sadly, there's little that I can say about it in detail without getting into further into spoiler territory than I'd like to, so I'll just make a few high level statements. It was a more interesting story than The Well of Ascension, but the whole concept of overthrowing a god-type figure was done (and done better) in Mistborn already, so there was some sense of it being a retread. I don't mind creators reusing general themes or arcs in principle (the whole idea of the antagonist forces exploiting the frailty of independent human memories by altering written history comes up in Elantris, too, and I've got no problems with it being both there and in The Hero of Ages), but using almost the same core conflict in two books of a trilogy is a bit overboard, I feel. The pacing was certainly improved from The Well of Ascension, too, striking a balance between building tension and progressing that was probably best of the three books. While the twist of the ending was somewhat predictable (at the very least, I was able to see signs of it, and as mentioned in my Mistborn review, I'm usually pretty bad at picking up on foreshadowing ahead of time), it was still done quite well, and it felt like a satisfying way of concluding both this book and the trilogy in its entirety.

Speaking of endings, there's really not much more that I can say about The Hero of Ages which couldn't be expected, based on what I'd said about the previous two books. Sanderson remains a very solid writer overall, and even the failures of Ruin's character are more of a personal peeve rather than something that should sour me on the book. At the same time, there's nothing that really sticks out and makes me think that this was a great book, either. Nonetheless, it's certainly good, and if you've enjoyed the first two books of the series, there's no good reason not to finish it off with this one, too.

Rating: B

Length: 724 pages, standard paperback page size/font

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