A fascinating world full of deep themes and an intriguing magic system that is occasionally let down by under developed characters and too-obvious handholding by the author.
The Final Empire is Book 1 of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.
Brandon Sanderson is a name that has, in recent years, become synonymous with the fantasy genre. This recognition expanded exponentially when he was chosen by Robert Jordan’s widow to complete the final books in the epic Wheel of Time series. I finished this series and thought that it was about time that I delved in to Sanderson’s own creation, and the most obvious choice was to start with his renowned series, Mistborn.
The eponymous Final Empire is a world where ash falls from a red sky, the greenery of the landscape is nothing more than a myth, and the Lord Ruler governs with an oppressive regime that beats the Skaa (the name for the peasants of the Final Empire) in to the ground until there is no fight left in them. No fight, that is, until a champion rises amongst them. Kelsier, who is one of the Mistborn the series is named after, discovers his powers after the death of his wife in the Pits of Hathsin and vows to use them to overthrow the Lord Ruler. With the aid of a newly discovered Mistborn protégé named Vin, and his band of Skaa rebels, he seeks to steal the Lord Ruler’s wealth and render the Tyrant from his throne.
I went in to this book with very high hopes. For an author to be so renowned in a genre that is brimming with exceptional talent, I was expecting to be blown away. I was not. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and thought that it was an excellent book, but there were too many shortfalls to make it stand as a true classic.
One of the most important parts of any fantasy novel, especially one based solely from the construct of the author’s imagination, is the world building. This, Sanderson nails. Scadrial is a dystopic nightmare. The falling ash and nightly mists oppress the population almost as much as the Lord Ruler himself. The history is deep and intriguing as we follow an ingrained story where the Hero of Ages had tried to save the world from the Deepness over a thousand years earlier, ascending to near omnipotence, and at the same time descending to the tyranny that made him the Lord Ruler. There are factions within factions that make the nobility a seething pit of snakes where even the righteous among them are too scared to make themselves known for fear of reprisal. The Skaa are downbeat, crushed under the boots of their masters, but within them are the glimmers of hope and strength that makes the reader believe that they can overcome what they have become. There is something akin to Nineteen-Eighty-Four about the whole setup, and it works when set in such a fantastical world. Religions are lost because they don’t serve the oppressors needs, the history changed to hide the cracks that form the foundation of the world, and powerful figureheads act to keep the populace in line.
What links in perfectly with this fantastic world is the magic system that Sanderson has so meticulously crafted. Allomancy, the ability to derive power from metals. Each metal and its associated alloy grants the user a specific technique, such as the ability to push or pull against metals, or manipulate emotions, or gain enhanced strength and speed. The people who are able to use these abilities are split in to two groups; Mistings, who can use only one particular kind of metal to derive its specific power, and the more powerful Mistborn, who are able to use all metals and their powers. While Allomancy is the prominent magic in the Final Empire, there are two other forms known as Feruchemy and Hemalurgy, both of which also rely on metals as the base of their strength. There is so much background and lore to this magic system that I would not be able to do it justice describing it to you here, but such is the intrigue behind it that it does genuinely set the Mistborn apart.
While the whole background and idea of Allomancy is exceptional, Sanderson’s handling of it can sometimes be patronising to the reader. I am happy to pick up a book, be given a helping hand when starting off and then navigating my own way through its complexities. I was given no chance to do this with the Final Empire. Allomancy is described in so much detail that it verges on tedious. Too often Sanderson focuses on the how of things. As a reader, I want to be pulled in to the emotion of the duel between two powerful entities, rather than having every intricate detail of how they use their powers explained to me. He focusses on explaining the methods of Allomancy so much that he forgets about the actual events it is being used for. If this was just a criticism of the beginning of the book then it could easily be shrugged off. Unfortunately, this trait is a common theme throughout and can often dampen the impact of the more emotional scenes.
This isn’t the only criticism I had of the book. Some of the main characters are excellent. Kelsier is a stand out. He is full of charisma and foolhardy ambition, and as a reader I rooted for him all the way through. He is fuelled by emotion and, as such, so are we. We believe in his plight and, just like him, we push through the tribulations of the novel so that we can feel his victory with him. Sazed is also fantastic. A character driven in to servitude, yet is able to fight against the shackles of that tradition like no other of his race. He exudes honour with every carefully thought out sentence, and navigates a stoic path of virtue and subtle heroism every step of the way.
It seems, though, for every well-developed character, there are half a dozen who conform to nothing more than mere stereotypes. Ham, the burly, muscular “Thug” who burns pewter to gain extra strength. Breeze, the chubby “Soother”, who uses cunning and manipulation to get his way. Clubs, the cantankerous old man who reluctantly lets the crew use his hideout to formulate their plan; a man who we know that, in spite of all his blustering, will join the crew when he is needed. Even Vin, who is presented as the co-main protagonist of the story, comes across as cliched throughout. This, for me, is a huge failing because her whole arc falls in to the realm of predictable. Her one-dimensional love story, her training, her reluctance. It has all been done before, and it has all been done better.
It’s not only the supporting protagonists that receive short shrift. The Lord Ruler is another cliché throughout the majority of the book. This is mainly because we are only presented with the stereotypical villain that we are so used to seeing. This changes slightly as the story progresses, but not enough to redeem the rest of his portrayal. I will say that the Inquisitors are a grotesque intrigue. If it were not for their constant threat, unique appearance, and undeniably powerful presence in battle, the book may end up feeling very empty. They provide a much-needed urgency to many scenes, generating a panic in both the heroes of the story and the reader themselves that make events unpredictable.
You may think, from what I am saying, that I am being incredibly critical of this book. And maybe you are right. I think that with the hype and recognition that surrounds the Final Empire it should be able to reinforce itself with a more unique story that holds up as well as the world and magic it is based around. Now, I say this based on the first two-thirds of the book. The last third…well that is something very, very different. I won’t go in to detail because I do not want to spoil it, but let’s just say that the path it goes down is on a very different tangent to the rest of the novel. There are twists, developments, and choices that come way out of the unknown, and turn this book from something good, in to something great. It is still not quite a classic, but it is well worth the read just for the reward you get at the end.
The Final Empire doesn’t quite carry the weight of its hype as comfortably as it should. It is prevented from becoming a classic because of under-developed characters, over-developed explanations around the use of magic, and the use of too many clichés. That’s not to say it is a bad book. In fact, I would say it is very good. It is obvious that this is the opening novel in a series, especially during the first two-thirds, but once you get to the end of the book, Sanderson ups the ante in a way that you would never be able to predict. When you pick up this book, make sure you avoid any spoilers, you ignore the tedium of the Allomantic explanations, and look past the cliched roster of character, because what you get at the end is pure excellence.