Weekly Read: The Final Empire

As I said the other day, I’ve finally gotten around to discovering the work of Brandon Sanderson. He’s perhaps best known as the guy drafted in to finish the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died. But he’s a prolific author in his own right and one of the hottest fantasy writers going (I swear there was one of those “a bunch of fantasy series that should be adapted for TV” lists that was made up mostly of his stuff).

Mistborn appears to be Sanderson’s magnum opus, comprising two trilogies and some other associated works. The Final Empire (or simply Mistborn, in some quarters) is where it all began. It’s a pretty fun read that does a good job of setting up the world in which Sanderson is playing, but it’s not without its faults.

The most intriguing feature of Mistborn is it’s system of magic (if that’s what it is), which is tied to the use of metals by particular people. The main branch is called allomancy and allows a person to “burn” a particular metal (already ingested) in order to enhance physical and mental abilities. A few people can use one particular metal with skill (although, naturally, the book is full with characters who can). But a very select few, the Mistborn, can burn all of them, turning them into, essentially, superheroes. There’s a less developed system, feruchemy, that also allows people to use metals in interesting ways.

Sadly, this system is dropped into a world that plies fairly common waters, with a black-hearted despot ruling a country full of put-upon subjects. To be fair, said subjects aren’t really bucking for rebellion (at least at first), which is a change. But the overall arc of the story is pretty clichéd. I thought, for a while, the big bad, the Lord Ruler, might be a more complex character than it appeared, but that didn’t come to fruition.

Allomancy also suffers from what I find to be a common fault in fantasy – it’s not very democratic. That is, you’re either born an allomancer (and of noble blood) or you’re not. And while it’s certainly up to each person to develop their inborn talents, there’s no question of someone really upsetting the magical applecart. Compare, for instance, the magic system in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which implies that anyone with sufficient knowledge can perform magic, regardless of birth or station.

Taking us through this world, naturally, is the young allomancer just coming into her powers, Vin, and her swashbuckling mentor with a dark past, Kelsier. At least they each have some interesting things to work through. Vin, in addition to being a budding allomancer, gets thrown into the deep end as an undercover agent in the halls of the aristocracy, while Kelsier has to deal with the growing quasi-religious reputation arising from his cheating death well before the book begins.

Kelsier’s main problem, however, is that he’s too damned competent. That’s particularly apparent once he’s dead (you read that right). There’s a point where it appears the grand plan to which our heroes have been striving is in tatters, almost a complete failure. It’s a setback that, nonetheless, presents some opportunities, if seized. Turns out, this was all part of Kel’s grand plan, which means it wasn’t in tatters at all. It comes across as trick on the reader and, worst of all, doesn’t even serve as a good basis for what Vin eventually does to win the day.

There’s also one technical issue, an odd choice from Sanderson that I can’t quite figure. For almost all of the novel the two point-of-view characters are Kel and Vin. We see everything through their (allomantically enhanced) eyes. Yet, as the book winds toward a conclusion, a couple other POVs pop up. These aren’t new characters, but ones who have been around all along. The new, scattered, POVs don’t really add to proceedings and threw me on my back foot because of the switch. A head scratcher, that.

One funny thing about The First Empire. As I read comments on Goodreads and whatnot, the more negative comments focus on how “slow” the beginning is and how exciting the climax is. I’m just the opposite. I loved the early world building and thought the ending felt rushed too by-the-numbers. To Sanderson’s credit, the book actually ends, while easily setting up the next volume in the series. That’s too rare a find these days.

The Final Empire isn’t without its flaws. But Sanderson’s built and interesting world, one I’m interested in revisiting. Hence, I already have the next two volumes downloaded, ready to consume – the ultimate endorsement!



One thought on “Weekly Read: The Final Empire

  1. I so desperately want to like Sanderson, but … I just don’t. His worldbuilding is stupendous, but he so often communicates it to the reader through these massive lumps of artless, expository prose. It drives me batty, especially since I know the man is insanely talented.


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