Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Mistborn

Mistborn : Final Empire Series (Book #1) (Mistborn, Book 1)

Metal-chewing magical girl!

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. Tor Fantasy, New York (2006). 657 pages. $4.99.  ISBN-13:  978-0-7653-6096-0.

An acquaintance pushed this into my hands a few weeks back and I agreed to read it.  I must say, I'm pleased with this acquaintance's taste, for it is a fine fantasy novel--the one, in fact, that gained Brandon Sanderson the privilege of completing the Wheel of Time series.

See the author's website and blog.

The story is set in a place called the Final Empire, where a thousand years previously the Evil Overlord™ won in his bid for world domination.  Now volcanoes produce a constant fall of ash, mysterious mists cover the land at night, all the plants are brown and shriveled, and for most people, life basically sucks; the world is divided between the privileged noblemen, whose ancestors helped the Lord Ruler come to power, and the skaa, the great mass of slaves and laborers crushed under the noblemen's boots.

Some of the nobles are possessed of a magic power called Allomancy, which enables them to enhance their physical abilities or perform other feats by ingesting certain metals and burning them in their stomachs.  Most Allomancers can burn only one metal, but some, called Mistborn, can burn all of them and thereby use a wide variety of superhuman powers.  Occasionally, Allomantic powers show up among skaa with nobleman ancestors.

The story follows Kelsier, a skaa thief who years previously had tried to rob the Lord Ruler's palace and had subsequently, along with his wife, been sent to the Pits of Hathsin to be worked to death.  There, after his wife died, he discovered he had the powers of a Mistborn and managed to escape.  Now he's organizing a crew of rogues and cutthroats to pull a special caper with the intention of destabilizing the government and possibly toppling the Lord Ruler.  The latest member of his crew is Vin, a teenage street urchin who turns out to be an especially powerful Mistborn herself, and the story's main protagonist.

Making the task more difficult is the pesky fact that the Lord Ruler is immortal, has an army, and is protected by some especially nasty Allomancers called Steel Inquisitors, who have steel spikes driven through their eyes and enjoy slicing people up with obsidian axes.  They also happen to be immortal.  Fortunately for Kelsier and Vin, the Lord Ruler is one of those Evil Overlords who leaves his One Weakness™ lying around for anyone to pick up, though it's an unusual and inventive One Weakness, and the development of what it is and how it works takes some unexpected twists and turns.

Sanderson has made a name for himself partly by making the old look new, and his ability to do so is on display here.  The formula is obvious--evil villain, plucky heroes, MacGuffins, protagonist who goes from downtrodden urchin to powerful magician--but Sanderson makes it all fresh with skilled writing and an unusual amount of insight into the characters' interactions with each other.  The book focuses heavily on Vin's rehabilitation from a hard life on the streets to a life in a group where the members care about and trust each other.  Without getting too lurid, Sanderson maps out Vin's past in which her mother went insane and killed Vin's sister, Vin's brother beat her on a regular basis, and she moved from city to city joining thieving crews and dodging the unwanted attentions of fellow thugs.  When Vin joins Kelsier's group, she not only learns how to use her new-found Allomantic powers, but also learns other things previously foreign to her, such as trusting others and making friends.  Sanderson handles all of this believably without allowing the novel to become either sappy or squalid.  It's a book about a very ugly world, but it avoids nihilism, maintaining a focus on themes of hope and trust:  Vin discovers these virtues for the first time, and Kelsier holds fast to them even when the odds are vastly against him and he has every reason to suspect betrayal from those close to him.  Yet for all that, Mistborn avoids sentimentality and preachiness.

The Allomantic magic system is inventive and clever.  Powers include the ability to manipulate others' emotions, the ability to strengthen the body and heighten the senses, and the ability to push and pull metal objects with the mind, among others.  This allows the Mistborn characters to engage in high-flying wire-fu fights, but unlike the wire-fu in the typical chop-socky film, the wire-fu in Mistborn follows defined rules.  The result is some of the best action sequences I've read in recent memory.  The action is well-spaced throughout the story while much of the rest of the plot is carried along by scenes of Vin's Allomantic training, her work as a spy on the nobility, and the conversations that gradually develop Kelsier's plans and the most important characters' backstories.

Though it's never fleshed out in great detail, religion plays a role in the novel.  The Lord Ruler has declared himself the "Sliver of Infinity," a fragment of God, and forbids worship of any deity besides himself.  All other religions have been suppressed and apparently wiped out.  Most of the characters swear by the Lord Ruler, a practice Kelsier frowns upon because even blasphemy acknowledges the Lord Ruler's claim to divinity.  The Lord Ruler's self-aggrandizement makes him reminiscent of the fictionalized Nebuchadnezzar depicted in the biblical book of Judith, who conquers most of the world and declares "that all nations should worship Nebuchadnezzar alone, and that all their dialects and tribes should call upon him as a god" (3.8, NRSV).  The Lord Ruler therefore stands in an ancient tradition of archetypal hubristic overlords.  Since Sanderson is taking well-worn ideas and giving them new twists, it is disappointing that the Lord Ruler is never fleshed out much as a character; there are hints that we are going to learn more about his background and motivations, but these prove to be red herrings.

One of the characters in the book in a proselytizer who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's dead religions, and he spends much of his time trying to get the other characters to convert to a religion--any religion.  At first, this appears merely comical, but over time it becomes apparent that this man comes from a culture that, though it has stored the memories of countless religions, has irrevocably lost all memory of its own religion, but seeks to preserve those it can in case they are wanted again if the Final Empire is ever overthrown.

At least recently, most books I've read that are this grim are both less positive in their themes and more disgusting.  Sanderson demonstrates that a skilled writer can build a believably grisly world without getting mired in its decadence.  He creates characters who have suffered a great deal yet managed to maintain some level of integrity even though most of them are thieves, the only occupation that allows them to rebel against the Empire.  The story is one of heroes and survivors who continue to put their faith in goodness even when confronted with great wickedness.

But it is not quite that simple:  Adding an extra twist is the ending (I'll be as vague as I can, but I'll still give a spoiler warning), in which Kelsier does something similar to what the Lord Ruler himself did.  Over the course of the novel, Kelsier uses his great skill with Allomancy and his legendary escape from Hathsin to build himself a reputation of mythic proportions among the lower classes, and by the book's final pages he has succeeded in setting himself up as something of a messiah, his messiahship propped up by some cleverly engineered falsehoods.  This gives the novel a dash of irony; Kelsier has to establish his own false religion in order to overthrow the false religion of the Lord Ruler.  Looking at some information on the second book in the series, The Well of Ascension, I see hints that this will have repercussions later on.

I much enjoyed Mistborn and readily recommend it for the quality writing, the exciting action sequences, the likable characters, and the thoughtful re-imagining of familiar themes and tropes.

Content Advisory:  Contains action violence, some gore, and general allusions to criminal activity.  Also contains awesomeness.
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