Mistborn Book One: Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

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In my ongoing attempts to broaden my knowledge of the fantasy literacy genre I soon came across the name of Brandon Sanderson, although it was initially in the context of his having been selected to complete The Wheel of Time series begun by the late Robert Jordan. Pretty soon I also came across his solo novels about the Mistborn, and thought I’d rather like to give the first of the trilogy (Final Empire) a try.

The only problem was the price: since when did ten pounds become the going price for a not-particularly-new novel (the first instalment was originally published in 2006)? Not only that, but the edition that I picked up on Waterstones had an eye-catching cover design but otherwise felt rather on the cheap and nasty side – a cardboard cover, coarse paper, and rather thick and blurry printing. Yes, such tactile concerns really do influence my buying decisions – for example, the last physical book I bought and read was Justin Richards’ The Suicide Exhibition even though it cost only one pound less, precisely because it had a really nice feel to it.

In the end of course I turned to Kindle, and when I was shopping around I found that a combined edition of all three Mistborn novel came to just under nine pounds – three e-books for less than the price of a single printed one. I’d have been silly to say no, and indeed I’m glad I acted when I did because I note that the price of the omnibus edition has shot up in the week since I did so, in which case I would likely have decided not to bother with it at all. Instead, I seized the moment and bought the trilogy at the lower price and consider it one of my better purchases of the entire year.

In attempting to define Sanderson’s work, I think I’d settle for “modern classicist”. His books seem to follow quite a traditional structure (young protagonist realises they have special powers, is taught by a kindly mentor, and ultimately sets about bringing down the evil overlord of a dark empire) but without any of the old-fashioned details about magic, dragons, elves and goblins that were the five decade hangover from Tolkien’s influence in the sector. But nor does Sanderson’s work have the current faddish “grim” feel to it beloved of the likes of Martin, Abercrombie and company, which even Anthony Ryan (whose Blood Song I absolutely loved) adheres to. Sanderson’s writing is instead rather clean and even pristine, which is an odd thing indeed to say about a novel that is set in an urban landscape whose defining feature is the soot and ash that rains down constantly from the sky.

Sanderson spends a lot of time setting up his system of special powers for the protagonist, a young orphan girl named Vin, to learn about and start to use. Rather than ill-defined magic of nebulous capabilities, Sanderson’s construction of Allomancy is fiercely well-structured and logical to the point where the reader quickly forgets that this is an invention and starts to take it as a genuine handbook in the subject. Essentially it comes down to the ability to draw supernatural powers out of substances that have been ingested which bestow enhanced strength or senses, a limited ability to see the past or future, and the ability to influence the emotions of others. The most eye-catching and visibile ability is to be able to ‘push’ or ‘pull’ on nearby metals, which can mean they can transform something as simple as a coin into a deadly projectile; or else if that coin is attached to something immovable then they can use the force to push or pull themselves high into the air.

Much of the first book of the trilogy is spent following Vin’s growing awareness of her power, taught to her by criminal-turned-revolutionary Kelsier who like her has the full range of abilities and is therefore ‘Mistborn’, compared to the more common ‘Mistings’ who have aptitude in only one of the 12 different aspects. When Vin isn’t learning about her new capabilities then she’s being used as an undercover agent infiltrating the Empire’s aristocracy, meaning that we get extra homework learning all about the various nobel houses and the system of obligators and inquisitors used by the all-powerful Lord Ruler to maintain his thousand-year grip on the world. Vin is also having to find her way in the equally unfamiliar world of Kelsier’s crew of well-realised thieves and grifters, and trying to work out whether – after a lifetime of not being able to trust anyone, not even her long-departed brother – she has finally found people who will stand by her even then things start to go wrong. All this and a potentially catastrophic romantic diversion mean that Vin’s life is certainly never dull.

With all of this to take on board – and Sanderson certainly takes his time to build up his fully-rounded creation – I’ve heard it said that the first half of Final Empire is on the slow side. It certainly lacks any huge epic battles but I found it completely engrossing and far from dull: despite a relative lack of overt physical action there was still plenty going on to keep me completely hooked and turning the pages. And Sanderson is clever to get all that world building out of the way when he can, because when things suddenly change (and they do so in the space of a single pivotal chapter about two thirds of the way through) then the whole thing takes off and is a breathless whirl all the way to the dramatic climax, not having to take its foot off the gas for a second.

Despite the relatively slow early pace, Final Empire never makes the mistake of The Blade Itself or even The Lord of the Rings in which the first volume of each felt like an extended prologue wherein characters were introduced and set in place in the created environment, but nothing of particular note happened in terms of story progression. By contrast, a great deal happens in Final Empire and far more is resolved in this single volume than I thought likely, so the book delivers on its early promises and goes on to stand on its own as a self-contained story that doesn’t automatically require sequels to be rolled out to make it complete. It isn’t until the epilogue that we are reminded of certain aspects of the make-up of the world of Scadrial that haven’t even been prodded yet but which are now made keenly relevant by what happens in Final Empire: for example, where did the power of Allomancy come from in the first place? What was the ‘Deepness’ that the Lord Ruler defeated in order to set up his Empire, and does it still exist?

There are more questions on top of this but to go into them would be to spoil the first book for new readers, but suffice to say that it leaves enough intriguing questions and hooks hanging to make me want to move straight into the second book of the series, Well of Ascension, which is why I can say I’m very pleased that I picked up the entire omnibus edition of the Mistborn series. Even at the newly elevated price for the Kindle trilogy, it’s still under half the price that the books are in printed form and so I have little hesitation in recommending that you get the whole thing in one hit or at least try out the first novel in its standalone edition which is about six pounds as of time or writing.

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