Home > Book Reviews > Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

What are some of the key characteristics I look for in a fantasy novel? Well, a complex but consistent magic system, unique and complete worldbuilding, compelling characters, an unpredictable plot, and an author’s ability to reserve some secrets for later (or never). The first book in the Mistborn series, The Final Empire, has all of that.

First off, the magical system(s). Sanderson creates a pair of interrelated, but separate, magic systems based on the user’s use of metals. Differing metals cause differing outcomes, and specific alloys of these metals change the talent. While an increase in strength or senses might not be that unexpected, the author’s creativity in the talents of pushing or pulling metals was. Instead of an all-awesome telekinetic power like the Jedi in the Star Wars saga, the talents are much more constrained by physical laws. For example, one can push against a metal object, but one’s own weight and leverage is taken into account. One can pull a metal toward oneself or push it away, but it must follow a straight line trajectory; one cannot cause objects to hover in the air or spin around a target.  Using thrown coin bits and metal latchings on buildings to basically Spiderman yourself through a city was fascinating.

Another part of the system is that the citizens of the Final Empire either have no talents, have a talent with a single metal (a Misting), or have access to all talents (a Mistborn). While the Mistborn, for the most part, occupy a privileged class in the society, they aren’t necessarily more powerful or skilled in each individual talent. Those Mistings, for example, who can only “soothe” or “riot” people’s emotions can often achieve much greater subtlety in the art — to better effect and with less metal resources required.

And that’s just the first system. The second allows a person to store attributes (such as eyesight, strength, or memory) in metals to effect some of the same results.

Why is this cool? It’s logical — I suppose ironic for magic — and it obeys natural laws. It also categorizes the metals, something that a more scientific analysis might do:

  • pushing vs pulling
  • physical, mental, temporal, and enhancement effects
  • internal vs external effects

While reading the novel, I was instantly drawn to the “heist movie” aspects like Ocean’s Eleven, where a charismatic individual gathers a group of specialists to build and execute a complicated plan to steal the treasure. Kelsier builds a crew of Mistings with the goals of taking down the oppressive government and to steal the Lord Ruler’s rare metal stash. Not surprisingly, elaborate plots within plots are required to build a secret army, infiltrate the nobility, and set the noble families into chaos.

As one might expect, with so many moving parts, political machinations, and organizations with competing plans, there are multiple setbacks. Sanderson gives hints of other characters and other undercurrents of society which, undoubtedly, he’ll build upon in later books — for example, what is the purpose of the Steel Ministry, the Obligators, and the Inquisitors? What are the secrets of the persecuted Terris people and their strange version of metal magic? What happened 1000 years ago to create the Final Empire? And what is the Darkness which led to volcanic ash falling continuously from the sky, the disappearance of all green plants and flowers, and stars being obscured from view?

Other series which resemble this book in tone are the heist novels in the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies) and the dark, underworld novels of the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks (The Way of Shadows is the first novel, and the only one I’ve read so far).

I highly recommend Brandon Sanderson’s website. On it, he has essays on the creative process, shows status reports on all of his works in progress (including the completion of The Wheel of Time), and annotations on each chapter of completed novels.

The story continues with The Well of Ascension and concludes with The Hero of Ages.  I also recommend Sanderson’s stand alone fantasy novel, Elantris.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished September 30, 2010)

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