Friday, 28 September 2012

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People kept telling me to read Mistborn, and I kept resisting. I'm glad I finally gave in to the chorus of voices.

I resisted for two main reasons. First, I'm not a huge fan of epic fantasy any more. It's so often done badly, and ends up as what I call "elf opera" or a "fantasy phonebook" (thick, boring and full of names). And most epic fantasy seems to have one of only three plots, all of which I'm sick of.

One of those three plots is "low-status person in a cruel empire discovers hidden magical talents and becomes a Person of Importance in great events", and that's the basic plot of Mistborn. And the second reason I resisted picking it up is that word "cruel". I don't enjoy books about cruelty.

Here's the thing, though. If we think about urban fantasy for a minute, there are different ways of dealing with sex. The urban fantasy books I enjoy most acknowledge that sex exists, that it drives human behaviour sometimes, that to some people it's extremely important, it can make you laugh, it can make you cry and so forth. They mention that it happens when it's important to the plot, but the metaphorical camera doesn't linger lovingly on every moment of a, you should excuse the expression, blow-by-blow description. Rather, it does a discreet fade and picks up again the following morning. Other urban fantasy books do the loving lingering and make it all about the sex all the time - and I don't read those ones.

Now, for urban fantasy read epic fantasy, and for sex read cruelty.

Mistborn is an epic fantasy that doesn't linger lovingly on the cruelty. The cruelty is there, it's important to the plot, but it's not what the book is about, and it's always clear that the people who indulge in it are in the wrong and the people who oppose it are in the right. It's not a world of cruelty, it's a world that includes cruelty, and the distinction is important (to me, at least). I don't read Terry Goodkind (who is joint holder of my personal award for most misleading author name, along with Mary Gentle) because of the pornographic way he handles cruelty. I couldn't get beyond the prologue of George R.R. Martin's first Game of Thrones novel for the same reason. But Brandon Sanderson writes about cruelty in a way I'm OK with. Part of the main character's arc in this book, in fact, is learning that not everybody is a cruel betrayer.

Nor is he rewriting the same epic fantasy yet again. He does something different here. In fact, he plays with the epic fantasy cliches in his backstory, very cleverly. It's fresh, it's well-done, it's well-handled. As usual in an epic fantasy, The Final Empire has a large cast of characters, but I never forgot who anyone was, partly because he's good at slipping in little reminders if a character has been off-stage for a while.

The magic system is fresh, too (though a fresh magic system by itself isn't enough to make an epic fantasy interesting on its own, it's certainly enjoyable), and again, I always knew what was going on, even though it's a relatively complex system. Again, this is because he slips in little reminders in how he writes the events: "She burned tin and could see through the mists that surrounded her" (not an actual quote, but that's one of the ways he does it). He even explains the magic system twice, once when the more experienced user of it is patrolling the city using it, and once when that character explains it to the inexperienced protagonist. I was never left confused, which when you have a complex plot, multiple characters and a lot of worldbuilding is quite an achievement.

I will definitely be reading more Brandon Sanderson. He writes fast, which is great, because not only does he already have a lot of books out, but by the time I've read those he will probably have written several more. Hooray!

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