Monday, September 29, 2008

Mistborn: The Final Empire

A note from Caren to non-fantasy readers wondering about Mistborn:
Since I'm not a hard-core fantasy fan, I was hesitant about trying a new fantasy author (and the cover art did nothing to reassure me -- yikes!). So I was surprised and delighted to be so engaged by this book. Part of it's appeal was an Ocean's 11 type of plot with some fantastic twists and a great ending, but it was the depth of the characters and the nuances of their relationships that really carried the story. And there was enough nitty-gritty reality to prevent the fantasy from getting carried away, which also gave it broader appeal. If you are willing to give fantasy a chance -- e.g. if you've ever read J.K. Rowling or Orson Scott Card -- by all means take a chance on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. You won't be disappointed!

Jenny: I know we are barely getting this review done for September, but keep your shirt on, it's here! Beware of massive spoilers and the giving away of most of the plot. If you're thinking to yourself, "Whatever, I'm never going to read this book," then re-read Caren's comments above and give it a good hard think before you go on.

What's funny is that we are reviewing the first of a trilogy, yet the third book will be coming out any second now. Why are we so behind? Well, I was totally enthralled by Brandon Sanderson's first novel, Elantris, and then I got to meet him and pick his brain, so it seemed perfect to review the first novel of his Mistborn trilogy and get all of you lovely readers hooked too. And since I love to hear what Caren has to say about books, we decided to do a co-review. So excuse me while I burn some tin to help me see things clearly and burn some copper to keep you non-fantasy readers from reading the spoilers that abound.

There's a whole heapin' load of characters in these books, but we'll just cover a few. The book takes place in a land where ash falls constantly from the sky, coating everything it touches and where the ruler of the land is considered a god, since he, like, doesn't die and stuff. The Lord Ruler has been around for 1,000 years and manipulates the aristocracy while beating down the "skaa", a serf-like people. The aristocracy is identified by money, power and the ability to practice some form of allomancy, the consumption and burning of certain metals to exhibit supernatural abilities. Yep, they drink flakes of metals and get magical powers. It's cool. The ultimate of these people are the Mistborn, who can manipulate all of the allomantic metals, not just one. They are above law and feared by all.

Our two main characters are Kelsier, charismatic leader of the thieves and rebels of the city and survivor of the Lord Ruler's most horrific prison, and Vin, a teenage girl to whom Kelsier teaches how to use her allomantic powers. Both are Mistborn and have great powers. Kelsier has plans to overthrow the government and the Lord Ruler and doesn't mind if all the aristocracy dies in the process. Vin becomes an undercover agent amidst the aristocracy and manages to fall for the one of the enemies, a prince and philosopher. Kelsier has his band of cronies (kind of like the A-Team) who all have allomantic powers in some shape or form, and are all united in the purpose of bringing the Great Houses down a notch.

Jenny: Hands down, my favorite passages are when Vin is amongst the aristocracy, becoming a lady and using her wiles to get information out of them. She starts out so pathetic and miserable, trying to stay out of sight and mixed up with some seriously bad people, then Kelsier turns her whole world upside down and she realizes how much power she possesses and what she could do with that. I love Kelsier too, but his kind of scary non-discriminatory butchering of the aristocracy wasn't my favorite. He can drum up a crowd and git 'er done, but yikes, he's got some anger issues going on. I guess if I was imprisoned, watched my spouse be killed and then beaten cruelly until I snapped, I might have some psychological issues as well.

Another thing I love is a good villain. The Steel Inquisitors with the metal spikes through their eyes? Serious cool factor there. And the few times the Lord Ruler showed up gave me the jeebs. That counts for a lot with me, that the villains are just as much fun to read about as the heroes.

Caren: I loved the ball sequences too! It was fun to have such a girly thing to get excited about in the midst of all the special ops kind of stuff going on! And the special ops stuff was fun, don't get me wrong. But so was the budding romance and watching Vin undergo her rags-to-riches type of transformation.

One of the things I loved about Kelsier's character was that the good/bad line was sometimes blurred. He had so many virtues but almost just as many flaws, and some of them were really serious -- like his vanity and the way that he fed the skaa's admiration of him to the point of reverence. I really liked him, especially how completely he trusted other people. But I was also so nervous about what was going on beneath the surface that I just really wanted to see him succeed and become the hero he was trying to be. So even though I didn't want him to die, I loved that he deliberately sacrificed himself because that act cemented Kelsier firmly on the side of the heroic good!

And speaking of the Steel awesome was the ending with Marsh?! Even though we didn't know him very well, I was so disturbed by his death. So to see him emerge at the very end as a Steel Inquisitor helping in the final defeat of the Lord, that was cool!

Jenny: Ooh, yes! I loved Marsh's transformation into a Steel Inquisitor and killing off the other ones. That was very cool. The Steel Inquisitors are very cool in a very bad way and I can't wait to see more of them show up in the other books. They give me the shivers and I like it.

Blurry. That is a perfect way of putting Kelsier's role in the book. I think he knew that he liked the worshipful attention a little too much, but figured it was the only way to succeed. He stepped into his role as savior to the skaa and bought into it himself. I'm glad he made a real difference in the end, but think of what Vin is even more capable of. I think that's what makes Vin a better hero (heroine?) because she is strong where Kelsier was weak. She can see the aristocracy as real people yet feels more a part of the skaa, so she can cross those lines and be comfortable on either side. She is humble and aware of her weaknesses, not full of herself and her abilities. I loved that she was surprised at herself for enjoying her role as spy and party girl, since she was so used to being tough and staying in the shadows. I think this is what will make her the gal for the job.

Something I thought was interesting is that Elend and his cronies didn't even see the skaa as being thinking people. It reminds me of the way people use blanket statements for ethnicities or cultures. Enough people say the same thing and then it becomes truth, making it nearly impossible for someone to break out of a mold and when they do, it's to general surprise. Is that getting too deep for this book?

How creepy were the mistwraiths and the Kandra?

Caren: Yeah, WAY creepy! And they are another good example of how Kelsier strayed into questionable territory. I loved the dichotomy of Kelsier as savior considering how shifty some of his alliances and motivations seemed to be. Along the same lines, I was really intrigued by the role religion played in this book. At first it seemed pretty negative; the evil Lord Ruler is worshipped as a god, but the people fear and hate him and his horrible Steel Inquisitors. Then you add a Christ-figure who is a vain, proud thief whose methods and motives are sometimes questionable. But all of that was balanced by Sazed whose great respect for religion and faith served as a nice counterpoint to the corruption of the reigning theocracy. The story easily could have worked without the religious threads, but I'm glad he included them.

I'm really curious as to why Vin's potential seems to be so much greater than anyone else's. Why did her abilities come so easily to her? Why did she learn so quickly and sense things that even Kelsier was oblivious to? I'm glad he didn't reveal everything in this first book, because I look forward to seeing how her character develops in the next one.

So, did you suspect the Lord Ruler's true identity? I sure didn't! Sanderson did a nice bit of sleight of hand with that one!

Jenny: No, the secret of the Lord Ruler's identity totally caught me by surprise. I love surprises, so that just tickled me. It totally explained how the Terrismen has been treated over the history of the Lord Ruler's reign. Speaking of Sazed, I loved his addition to the rebel entourage. He was so even-keel, so full of faith and knowledge. He was a very soothing presence in the book.

If you compare Kelsier to Rand from the Wheel of Time series, you can definitely see some parallels, which would make sense since Sanderson was so heavily influenced by Jordan's books. Rand is the Christ-figure of those books and he is anything but perfect. Kind of a womanizer, full of self-doubt, violent and mentally unstable, yet he's the only hope of the world. Kelsier was set up as the savior of the first book, so does that mean Vin is for the other books?

You know, I have the second book at home. I should get off my lazy bum and read it already, quit asking all these questions. Save 'em up for after the I read the second book.

I just read on Sanderson's blog that he has no intention of writing a prequel for the Mistborn books. I thought that was hilarious. What is it about fantasy readers that they want every single iota of detail out of a fictional world? Maybe we want enough information to fully envelop ourselves into it? I say "we" because I love the fantasy genre, but I'm not really one to beg for prequels. I must be a quasi-fantasy reader.

Caren: Ah, thanks for making the parallel with Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I haven't read any of his books, so I wouldn't have noticed his influence on Sanderson's writings. In fact, reading Mistborn has made me examine my feelings towards the genre and I've decided that I'm a casual fantasy reader. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but the novels were a bit overkill. I own all the Harry Potter series, but I have no desire to read any Robert Jordan. See what I'm saying?

One of the things I really enjoyed about Mistborn was that the fantasy wasn't so heavy-handed that you could barely navigate the story. I think part of the problem with the fantasy/sci-fi genre is that many writers think if they just load it up with imaginative settings and weird creatures and made up languages that it's enough to carry the story. They focus so much on their fantasy/sci-fi ideas that the meat of the story is neglected. But if you strip the amulets and elves and cloaks away, you're just left with shallow characters acting out a dead plot. So I loved that the story of Mistborn could have lived and breathed on its own independent of the fantasy elements. Allomancy was cool, but the depth of the characters wouldn't have suffered without it.

Jenny: I agree whole-heartedly about the constant regurgitation of plots and characters in the fantasy genre. It gets sooo old to read about magical swords and a perilous journey, and blah blah blah. Please. I think I'm probably a small step up from your status as casual fantasy reader, but I have no patience for repetition and I hate having to practically learn a new vocabulary to enjoy a book, which is unfortunately one of the defining features of the genre. What makes Sanderson's books so interesting to me is that it's completely different from any other fantasy novel I've read before. It makes you sit up and pay attention. At first I thought it was because he doesn't write like a typical fantasy writer and creates ideas and situations that are unique, but I think, like you said, it's because he writes these amazing characters that you get wrapped up in. Those are the kind of stories that stick.

How fun was this to review a book that we both liked? It made for a shorter review, which I think our readers will like. Thanks for playing, Caren!


  1. So I read your review even though I've only read the first third of the book. There was enough praise that I just might check it out again and plug on to the finish. It was a slow read for me, but I'm probably a step below Caren in my patience for fantasy. Anyway, thanks for the motivation!

  2. OHHH, I'm so happy you posted this today! It's been a couple of months since I read book 2 and I admit my interest in book 3 was beginning to fade just slightly. You have me totally psyched for October 14. I think I'm going to put a count down on my blog. Right now.
    I can't WAIT to see what you think of Well of Ascension. If you can imagine, it is even better than book 1. The ending is breath-taking (in the surprise kind of way). Frankly, Kelsier annoyed me a bit too much. I had a hard time believing that deep down he really was a good guy and worthy of being the savior. Maybe book 2 was more enjoyable (for me) because of his absence.
    Can you tell what kind of fan I am? :)

  3. I started reading your post, and decided not to continue until I read it. But you said enough to get my interest while you "burnt tin and copper", whatever that means. You succeeded.

  4. I'm glad you finally posted your review! I finished the Well of Ascension a few weeks ago. I really liked the first and second books of the series! I'm looking forward to Hero of Ages. One thing I liked, which you both mentioned, is his ability to write a fantasy novel that doesn't get overrun by evil dark monsters (although the mistwraiths and the kandra are both creepy, like you said--they just aren't so ominous as so many other fantasy creatures). It seemed like the focus was on the characters' struggles within themselves, like Vin's insecurities, and Kelsier's pride mixed with a desire to save the world. I love that I opened the first book and there wasn't a glossary of fantasy terms in the back, just a list of metals and what they do. Simple enough. I liked that there weren't 14 pages of maps and character descriptions. And I really liked Sanderson's ability to unfold the setting without feeling a need to overdescribe every detail that may not fit into our world. For example, the first time Kelsier burned metal, he didn't offer any explanation, but let the explanation naturally develop with the story.

    I only read the first few books from Wheel of Time, but I can see how he would be chosen to finish the series. He and Robert Jordan have very similar writing styles, although I prefer Sanderson's.

    By the way, our local library is hosting Brandon Sanderson on Thursday night so he can promote the third book and talk about the Robert Jordan book. I am looking forward to meeting him! Thanks, Jenny, for introducing me to his books! I can't wait until I can get my hands on Elantris, which I'm next in line for at the library!

  5. Great review. I was a big fan of this book for the same reasons ya'll listed out (great story, interesting political world, etc. etc.) Plus it doubled as a pillow on my flight home!

    It was refreshing to have a teen girl as a major focus of the story without her being retarded and flaky (coughbellacough).

    This book is such a contrast to the other book I'm 'reading' (audio). Full of lame characters that supposedly have these motivations that they're acting on. In reality nobody would do what they're doing. It's just stupid.

    Yeah, rocking good times. I'm psyched for #2 and #3.