Book Review: Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

a.k.a. Mistborn: The Final Empire
Series: Functions as a standalone, but is followed by The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. This Mistborn Original Trilogy is itself followed by another series in the same universe, called the Wax and Wayne Series.
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Pages: 643
Published: 2006, Tor Books
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Teenaged thief Vin falls in with a crew of rogues, and learns that she, like their dashing leader Kelsier, is a Mistborn, a person born with a rare ability to magically manipulate metals (Say that 5x fast!). Using a variety of magical and criminal skills, the crew plans a rebellion against the Lord Ruler, a tyrant of immense and mysterious power who has ruled for a thousand years and just might be immortal.
Reason for Beginning: Accolades online gave the impression that it was a fresh, creative twist on high fantasy. Plus, I liked the title and cover art.
Reason for Finishing: Excellent, page-turning writing. Plot and characters both kept me invested, while the pacing kept me up late reading many nights.
Story Re-readability: Moderate. I’m more immediately interested in pursuing the next book in the series, and perhaps other titles by Sanderson. It has enough depth to reward at least a second reread, and the Thrilling Adventure and Intrique quotients should be high enough to counteract any restlessness from knowing the story’s conclusion in advance.
Prose Style: Sanderson’s style is approachable and direct, keeping the story focused and the characters lively. He successfully engages with some fairly serious themes without getting ponderous or preachy. In prose, there is a definite preference for directness, sometimes at the expense of beauty of phrase, but that seems the right side to err on for this story.

Recommendation: High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.

Key Thoughts

Billowing cloaks. Misty streets. Shadowy figures watching from rooftop perches, working to protect an intimidated populace from evil, corrupt forces. Whispered plans in secret hideouts. Unraveling conspiracies rooted in ancient legends. Warm banter between comrades who have mischief in their eyes, noble intentions in their hearts. A bit of magic. Romance, dancing and more magic.

I’ve always loved these imaginative elements, especially running together in the same story. This very blog is named for one of my earliest characters, the elusive, noble Twilight’s Warden, whose stories have had all of them in some form or another. Reading Mistborn is almost like experiencing my childhood daydreams sifted through someone else’s mind. The base elements of my own daydreams are here, but the forms they take are new and exciting to me. I think you’ll enjoy them too.

The hook of Mistborn is the new magic system Sanderson developed, called Allomancy. Characters who are born with this power can manipulate metals in specific ways. They ingest metals in powder form and use their power to “burn” the metal reserves in their stomach. For example, burning iron and focusing on a metal object Pulls it towards you, while burning steel Pushes it away. But Push against something heavier than your own body, say a metal door, and you will be the one Pushed back! It’s a tight, exciting system, with clear rules to define the powers and their limitations, while still allowing room for creative results and surprising, but logical, discoveries.

If Allomancy is the hook to set the book apart, the beating heart is still the characters and their fun, heartfelt interactions. The world they live in, the Final Empire, may be a depressing place, full of ash and haze, and drained of vivid colors, but Kelsier and his crew of rogues laugh, banter, and dream big in spite of it all. One of Sanderson’s themes is that of friendship and trust, a lesson that our heroine Vin struggles to learn. As an orphan of the slave class, raised on the streets as a thief, she’s been taught her whole life not to trust anyone, not even the criminals who take her in and work with her. It’s a shock when she realizes that Kelsier is actually friends with his “Merry Men”; they genuinely like and trust each other, and want to include her in what passes for a family. To Sanderson’s credit, he doesn’t gloss over this by making it an easy transition for Vin. A teenager who has only known betrayal, disappointment, and selfishness from those supposed to be close to her isn’t easily going to learn how to trust. She struggles with it the entire book. It’s an affecting, compassionate portrayal, and I was glad that as she began to put these new virtues into practice, she also was able to teach Kelsier and his friends a thing or two. Nobody’s perfect, everyone can learn something from each other.

Mistborn manages the deft trick of being an action-packed, character-focused epic. It takes great joy in some classic fantasy tropes, while carefully overturning others. The magic is integral to the setting and story, and provides avenues for the characters to learn more about themselves. While it doesn’t strive for the sort of high poetry or mythopoeia that much other high fantasy does, it presents a compelling story in an entertaining, substantial package, without any real flaws to speak of. It also has a number of twists and secrets that I haven’t even hinted at here, but that worked very well for me. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think most readers will too.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

  1. I really enjoyed Mistborn, as well. I think you hit the one thing that slightly irritates me about Sanderson, which is that his prose could definitely be more beautiful. However, in terms of plot, world building, and thought-provoking stories, Sanderson is one of my favorite authors.

    1. It’s a complaint I also have about JK Rowling, but I admit it’s more of a minor pet peeve. The beautiful prose styles I love can seem boring to others. One of my cousins recently got into books and fantasy, and has been looking for recommendations after finishing Harry Potter (his favorite books ever now). I recommended “A Wrinkle in Time” — he thought it was boring and nothing happened in it! However, he recently started Mistborn and is enjoying it. Different people, different likes. I do hope one day he’ll learn to appreciate Madeleine L’Engle’s writing, though…

      1. I agree. It’s a struggle because some people do feel bogged down by intricate prose. In that case, I think Sanderson is a great author for making high fantasy seem approachable. But I also have friends who really value good prose, and I can’t get some of them into Sanderson. They read the first few pages and roll their eyes and put it down. They don’t want to stick around for an interesting story if they don’t like the writing. It’s such a dilemma.

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