Mistborn / Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn was a series that I started out really enjoying but my enthusiasm tanked towards the end and I haven’t managed to force myself through the third book.
Full disclosure: part of the issue is I am not a fan of Sanderson’s “rules” about fantasy novels. Part of it is also a culture clash issue coupled with probably at least a little bit of my own prejudice. There were some implied judgments about interpersonal relationships that I found really distasteful; I’m willing to say that this wasn’t Sanderson attempting to push an agenda but rather his cultural background influencing the way the plot developed.
As a result, this is going to be a somewhat weird review as I’m finding it really hard to separate my personal distaste for my admiration at what is a well-done series.
Mistborn opens 1,000 years after the stereotypical fantasy hero completed his quest. Whether or not he was successful is not immediately clear, but the result was a world constantly bathed in volcanic ash where basic agriculture has become nearly impossible and mysterious, terrifying mists appear every night. The hero is now the Lord Ruler, a terrifying, nigh-omnipotent dictator.
Vin is a street urchin who possesses the instinctive, possibly supernatural ability to influence others. When she encounters the rebel Kelsier, she discovers that she is one of the mistborn, a group of people who can “burn” metals they consume in exchange for supernatural powers. Joining Kelsier’s band, Vin sets out to defeat the Lord Ruler.
So how is it?
The first book is pretty good. I really like the plot and there are some really well done, satisfying twists to be found. The series also asks some interesting moral questions about the basic assumptions that are generally standard for the epic fantasy genre. The magic system is interesting and presented consistently.
I really don’t like Sanderson’s laws. I’ve mentioned them before and I may or may not do a whole post about them, but I’ll just sum it up here: Sanderson is of the opinion that to make books interesting and effective magic needs to have clearly spelled out rules that are presented to the reader and that the reader understands. The problem with this is that the more you try and create a perfectly logically consistent system of magic the more readily visible the seams become. I ended up getting distracted with questions about how the magic worked that weren’t adequately addressed in the text. I normally wouldn’t find this so distracting, but when there’s a highly visible attempt to make the system internally consistent the inconsistencies become more glaring.
Another issue is that Sanderson attempts to describe a diverse world, with one character whose entire mission in life is to memorize everything about every religion he can as a sort of Farenheit 451-esque living book, but this attempt comes across drawing attention to how there’s no real diversity. It’s superficial cartoon diversity, where people have different rituals but there’s no real cultural distinctiveness. I think that this is mostly due to my next (and biggest) issue.
The series becomes increasingly dominated by Sanderson’s religious views as it goes on. This isn’t so visible in the first volume, but the second volume presents a view of marriage that in no way resembles my marriage or anyone I actually know, and the third volume features a plot point where scripture engraved on metal plates is the only non-corrupted scripture. I don’t know if this was intentional or not – I’d like to think that it’s just Sanderson writing what he knows, but given the tendency towards proselytization I think that might be too charitable. It would also be really easy to read the way the plot develops as an endorsement of totalitarianism and fascist apologia.
It’s really disappointing. The setup for the world in the first volume is really interesting and intriguing, and there are good ideas throughout. I especially liked how the morality of killing the evil overlord’s guards was brought into question.
The incident that really soured me on the series takes place in the second volume. Minor spoilers follow. Vin encounters another mistborn, Zane, who has overcome similar struggles and whom she easily identifies with. Vin starts to have second thoughts about her relationship with her love interest from the first book, Elend, because she has a wealth of shared experience with this new person. In the end, Vin stays with her previous love interest and the jilted mistborn subsequently tries to murder her. At the same time, Elend from the first novel is struggling with balancing the war and competing domestic political factions and is hoisted on his own petard when his emphasis on the rule of law causes him to be deposed.
Considering that the book opens with the revelation that maybe the Lord Ruler wasn’t actually a bad guy and was just doing his best to save the world, the political events of the second book strongly imply that seeking an egalitarian society is foolish and self-destructive.
Vin and Zane’s relationship is treated as a distraction from the “true” Vin and Elend relationship, as Zane ends up being too “broken” and despite the fact that Vin’s actions have horrified and traumatized Elend who doesn’t understand, they still end up together for no apparent reason. The nature of Vin and Elend’s relationship becomes increasingly uncomfortable to me, and there’s an abrupt “abstinence before marriage” message that appears for no clear reason.
Sazed’s discovery of the “true religion” and the nature of the overarching conflict are uncomfortably close to the story of the foundation of Mormonism. It’s upsetting to me that a series that started out by asking interesting questions ends up answering them in such a trite way. End spoilers
So, to summarize my perspective: Mistborn is a well written series with a good premise and actively confronts many of the tropes of the fantasy genre, but it is too obsessed with explaining its magic to the extent that is inconsistent with the way things happen in the latter part of the trilogy, there are some Unfortunate Implications regarding some plot points, and the plot becomes an increasingly tattered cover for Sanderson’s religious views (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that).
I realize the above makes it seems like I hate this series, but I have and will recommend it. It’s just that I find the subtext extremely uncomfortable.
It’s a must-recommend to LDS leaders who will love the resolution if they can survive the early portions. It’s a slightly more hesitant recommend to fantasy readers in general but I wouldn’t rule it out.
As I mentioned above, some of this is probably due to my own prejudices, but if I was to recommend a religion-inflected fantasy novel I’d go with Throne of the crescent moon or Alif the unseen before I’d go for Sanderson, even if the latter also has some (to me) objectionable content in the gender-relations department.*
*I’ve read some of Wilsons other stuff and I’m thinking I might not be remembering Alif properly as I haven’t seen anything like the issues I had with it. As a result I’m going to commit to rereading it before I review it here.