Brandon Sanderson will be known to many as the man who was put in the difficult position of filling the gargantuan boots of Robert Jordan, author of the hugely popular Wheel of Time series of novels before his tragic death in 2007. With a final novel to write in the 12 volume epic, loyal fans who’d stuck with Jordan through the its dizzy highs and utterly crushing lows were understandably cautious at the announcement that the well liked, but minor, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson would be writing the last book from Jordan’s notes. This cynicism was furthered at the initially worrying announcement that the final volume, A Memory of Light, would be split into three separate novels to allow Sanderson to do justice to the vastness of Jordan’s vision. With two of these three now published, 2009’s The Gathering Storm and 2010’s Towers of Midnight, I firmly believe that Sanderson not only captured the essence of Jordan’s opus, but in parts almost surpassed it. Many Jordan purists would be baying for my blood at this point, but it is difficult to deny that Jordan’s later Wheel of Time novels suffered devastating pacing issues, particularly compared to the fast paced and compelling early works in the series. The 10th novel, Crossroads of Twilight was close to unreadable. I, along with legions of other patient fans, am eagerly anticipating the final book, A Memory of Light in 2013. Sanderson was chosen to finish the Wheel of Time epic by Jordan’s widow, who had read Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and identified him as the ideal author to bring the series to its conclusion.
I decided to read Sanderson after learning that the vast majority of his works take place in a vast shared universe known as the Cosmere, with the different fantasy settings of his seemingly separate series and novels existing as planets in the same galaxy, linked at this point through cameos and references to a shared and overarching cosmology. Sanderson has stated in interviews that he plans for each sequential novel to delve deeper and deeper into this shared setting, culminating in a lodestone series of novels bringing all of these disparate epics together in a similar fashion to Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. Although only seven novels are so far published in this setting, Sanderson estimates that there will ultimately be around 35 books set within the Cosmere. Whilst I’m well aware that to many a 35 book series may seem daunting, it certainly piqued my interest as a geek who revels in shared universe settings and continuity; I loved Isaac Asimov’s vast Foundation universe as a teenager. However, pioneers of the shared universe such as King and Asimov have always been somewhat held back by the fact that the concept of these shared universes were implemented relatively late in their careers, requiring the odd awkward ret con or plot hole. Sanderson on the other hand has stated that he planned for this shared setting right out of the door with his first novel, 2005’s Elantris. I therefore decided to read all of Sanderson’s work in order of publication, something which I cannot recall doing for any other author, so that I may be able to pick up on every nugget of gooey delicious continuity. There’s no need to read Elantris before the Mistborn books however, and the trilogy stands entirely on its own.
The Mistborn books take place in an utterly bleak setting, a world coated in ash from several vast volcanoes, where the nights are filled with opaque mist and an ancient dictator, The Lord Ruler, dominates his empire with an iron fist. The society is split into two castes, the wealthy land owning nobles and the slave caste of the skaa. One thousand years before, The Lord Ruler had once been a prophesised great Hero, who defeated a mysterious malevolent force known as The Deepness. Sanderson has gained a reputation for his unique and well thought out magic systems in his novels, from the symbol based magic of Elantris to the colour based magery in Warbreaker. The Mistborn trilogy are no different, with the magic coming through the art of Allomancy, the ingesting of metals which can be ‘burnt’ by a lucky few to provide different powers. For example, to burn pewter gives one extreme strength and hardiness, with tin heightening the senses and allowing spies to hear covert conversations from far away. Most with powers have access to only one Allomantic metal, of which there are ten known, and are known as ‘Mistings.’ Much more rare are those who are born with the ability to access all ten metals, creating unparalleled warriors and spies, known as the titular ‘Mistborn.’ Although this may sound somewhat silly, Sanderson approaches this system with an almost scientific rigour. The best magic systems in fantasy are those which exist within a set of clear boundaries and rules, and prevent the temptation to simply hit a huge magical reset button to resolve any crisis which becomes to huge to manage.
The novels follow a young skaa thief named Vin, a Mistborn for most of her life without realising it, who is drawn into a rebellion against the oppressive Lord Ruler by the charismatic crew leader Kelsier. Kelsier is also a Mistborn, and trains Vin in the arts of Allomancy so that she may join him in his attempts to assassinate The Lord Ruler and liberate the skaa. To say much more would be to spoil half the fun of the series. Sanderson does a great job of drip feeding the reader new revelations which recast all that has come before. Rather than cheapening the earlier events of the novels, as can often be the case with twists such as these, Sanderson instead deepens them. To use an overworked comparison, the Mistborn books are like an onion, stripping layer and layer away from what we first perceive about this world until by the end we realise that almost everything that we had taken for true was wrong. The story is meticulously plotted, with an admirable lack of plot holes. It is clear that Sanderson had the entire complexity of his world fully planned before embarking with the first novel, with almost every minor mystery earning a satisfying answer.
The writing is relatively simple and unflashy, with Sanderson letting his clear competence shine through, rather than attempting to show off in the vein of China Mieville. Of particular note are the action scenes; I enjoy my share of grand battles in fantasy, such as the Battle of Blackwater in George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings or the incredibly intense battles in every single one of Steven Erikson’s Malazan books. What I tend not to enjoy as much are prolonged descriptions of sword fights or gun battles, violence on a smaller scale. Sanderson however has delivered what I consider to be the greatest fight scenes I have ever read in fantasy. The complex magic of Allomancy allows for fight scenes which are, for lack of a better phrasing, incredibly goddamn badass. The series has been optioned by a small film studio, and if this film gets made and turns out half decent, these fight scenes should be breathtaking.
The characters are by and large vivid and interesting, with the central protagonist Vin existing within the Katniss Everdeen mould of quiet, socially awkward badass warrior lady. Her love interest, the compassionate noble Elend Venture is a somewhat idealised figure, who’s only flaw is that he just cares too much. Although he’s not a notably complex character, his sheer charm and likeability wins through and it’s difficult to care to much about his lack of emotional depth. The backing cast is large without being unwieldy, and whilst most can be simply summed up in a few words (philosophical warrior or kind-hearted fop) they are all distinct and interesting to read about. A few stand out characters include Ten-Soon, a seven hundred year old shape shifter and Cett, a paraplegic warlord, demand focus in every scene they appear.
By far the most intriguing character is the eunuch Sazed, a man with an ability to store everything he learns within metal bracelets on his wrists, a scholar who specialises in keeping the religions of the world before the ascension of the Lord Ruler alive, despite the dictator’s attempts to stamp them out and replace them with a cult surrounding himself. Despite the fact that he teaches over five hundred religions, Sazed truly believes in none, and his struggles with faith and reconciling the brutality of what he has witnessed with his desire to believe creates one of the most psychologically complex fantasy characters I’ve encountered in years. Sanderson himself is a Mormon, and although I generally find that a Christian message can utterly undermine fantasy and science fiction, I believe that the Mistborn books excel in part because of his Mormonism. The Christianity of C.S Lewis gave the Narnia books one of the most unpleasant conclusions I have ever read, and the faith of Ronald Moore, show runner for the rebooted Battlestar Galactica created an ending which makes that of Lost look positively wonderful. ‘God did it’ is not an adequate way to explain away a mystery. Sanderson’s faith gives him a sense of optimism which is utterly refreshing to a reader whose standard fare is the gritty dark fantasy or dystopian sci-fi. Belief is not an easy answer, faith is not a given. Best of all, unlike in the works of C.S Lewis, atheism is far from demonised, with the vast majority of the characters holding no belief in a higher, omnipotent power. There’s no moment where the characters are ‘redeemed’ through faith, but the beauty of faith does shine through. If more theists were as generous and open minded as Brandon Sanderson I wouldn’t be as aggressive a secularist as I am.
It really is appropriate that Sanderson was chosen to finish the Wheel of Time books, because his writing shares a lot with Robert Jordan’s, both its strengths but unfortunately also some of its weaknesses. Like the Wheel of Time books, the middle act is the least interesting part, with a large amount of the second novel, The Well of Ascension,given over to the bickering of nobles the reader is given little reason to care about. Although it never reaches the unutterable tedium of the political games of Jordan’s Cairhenin nobles or Aes Sedai, these scenes unfortunately break the flow of the novels somewhat. Sanderson simply doesn’t have the knack for making politicking and scheming interesting that writers like George R. R. Martin have. The first and third novels, The Final Empire and The Hero of Ages thankfully contain far less of this, and instead focus upon the grander conflicts threatening the world of Scadrial rather than the petty scheming of selfish nobles.
So, should you read the Mistborn trilogy? I think this is a rare novel which I can recommend to almost any breed of fantasy fan. The novels are dark and gritty enough to entertain George R. R. Martin junkies, with a wonderfully grim setting and some brilliantly malevolent villains. Partially due to the wild success of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, savage and brutal worlds have become the norm. Heroism is a lie and to the only path to prosperity and power is through backstabbing, cheating and lying. This is not to criticise Martin, he’s my favourite author and cannot be blamed for the imitators who seek to cash in upon the success of the TV show. Mistborn is a pleasant breath a fresh air, a novel where heroes are more than idealistic idiots with a death wish. The heroes of these novels suffer for their bravery, they sacrifice and commit grave errors, but they leave the world a better place than they found it.