What would happen if Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, wrote a fantasy novel? Well, it would probably be a little heavy on the political philosophy side of things, but, setting-wise, it might look a little something like this, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn tetralogy.
Here, instead of the inevitable and eternal success of liberal capitalist democracy, we have the seemingly eternal success of a classically fantastical Dark Lord. For the last thousand years, this immortal tyrant has controlled, well, everything. His grim autocracy, marked by tremendous inequality between a noble and serf caste, is enforced via monstrous individuals gifted by the emperor with tremendous power. As the story opens there doesn’t seem to be any reason why this status quo should ever come to an end.
Vin is an adolescent thief, bullied and half starved, scraping through as part of a criminal crew. She’s pulled out of this life after being discovered as a mistborn by Kelsier, a revolutionary and mistborn himself. What’s a mistborn? I’m glad you asked. The magic system Sanderson’s devised here is definitely one of the selling points of the books. There are eight basic metals (some more are encountered as the story progresses), each of which can be consumed to have some particular effect. For example, iron can generate an attractive force between the person ‘burning’ it and any nearby source of metal. Only a few have the ability to burn metals, and the vast majority of these (mistings) can only burn one. Mistborn have the ability to burn all of them. It’s a bit arbitrary (why these metals and not others? where does this power come from in the first place?) and a bit ambiguous at times too (is it genetically linked? if so, how?), but maybe it’s not really the place of fantasy novels to be answering these questions. At any rate, Sanderson does just what he should with the pretty strict system he’s sketched out — creating cool fight scenes where Kelsier and Vin get to combo their array of special powers to great effect.
The plot involves the planning and execution of a plan to oust the Emperor put together by Kelsier and his comrades. Create a secret army, generate a diversion to get the Emperor’s troops out of the city, set the noble houses against one another, destroy the empire’s economic underpinning, and, somehow, kill the immortal emperor. All of these end up working surprisingly well, particularly creating dissension amongst the nobles. This plot strand requires a pygmalion-esque transformation of Vin from guttersnipe to lady of leisure in order for her to infiltrate the constant balls that take place in the capital. Here we get to see that – shock! – not all nobles are evil. In fact, there’s a rather dishy one who likes to read books and thinks that all this raping and killing of serfs might not be entirely kosher. This turns out to be pretty handy at the end of the book when *** SPOILER***
…they manage to oust the Dark Lord and decide to install a monarch in his place. Being a (small r) republican, this was pretty disappointing to me. Of course, it takes a lot to break away from the social conservatism that pervades the genre, but I was hopeful that Sanderson’s revolution would end in a more ambitious model of government.
***END SPOILER*** So that’s the plot. The characterisation and dialogue were decent, if nothing to write home about. The real strength of the book, as is so often the case for fantasy, in the details of the world building and the quality of the action scenes. Sanderson scores highly for the first (I particularly liked the spike-eyed Steel Inquisitors), and maximally for the second. I leafed through the first of his Wheel of Time books and was underwhelmed, but, having read The Final Empire, I can see that he’s really a perfect choice to see Jordan’s gigantic series to its conclusion. The two writers have much in common.
I’m not in a huge rush to read the other 75% of the series. I’m glad to have read this one, but I feel like I’ve gotten up to speed on Sanderson. With that job done, I can move on to other things (The Crippled God keeps looking at me expectantly).
So, recommended, kind of, I guess…