On Mistborn

Posted by Jack on 2017-10-31 at 22:22
Tagged: books

As with all of my book entries, this is intensely spoilerific.

I had intended to follow up my super serious last post with more ruminating about corporate programming and my new digs at AMD, but writing about that requires a lot of effort now that I'm almost a year into the grind and it's not feeling novel as much as it's feeling like... well, work. There's a reason I barely mentioned IBM on this blog the entire time I worked there.

Anyway, life has gotten pretty hectic and long story short, I've made a conscious effort to drop the bottle and pickup the book again and as such I've spent a lot of time stone sober absolutely flying through books.

Despite the fact that I've been reading a lot of "literary" fiction like Bukowski's Ham on Rye and the most excellent Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, unpacking those books is a scholarly pursuit that sounds distinctly... un-relaxing to undertake so, I'd like to spend a bit of time writing about the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

I picked up the first book in a buying frenzy along with a slew of other books that I wanted to read, but after completing Mistborn, I had to move on directly to The Well of Ascension, and that of course led me straight into The Hero of Ages. I read the entire (first) trilogy, somewhere north of 2000 pages, in a few weeks because it's just plain compelling. This was mid-September, I'm just now getting around to actually finishing this post =/.

Let me say, unequivocally, that I enjoyed the hell out of these books and I'd recommend them to any fantasy fan. Each story is logically self-contained and yet functions in the broader arc. Each character is well thought out, with clear motivations (at least, clear after you know the whole story). I felt truly invested in Vin, Elend, Sazed, Kelsier, and really the rest of Kelsier's thieving crew from the first book all through the entirety of the story. Every one of these characters grew and evolved over the roughly five or six year span of the novels, and each one in a completely realistic way. There wasn't a single point through the entire story that I felt like plot points weren't well underpinned by previous information, or deus ex machina was used, which is especially impressive given that the story literally has gods in it.


I also really enjoyed the magic system, which is actually how I got the initial Mistborn recommendation from reddit. It's really refreshing to read a fantasy series with "high magic" where magic users are so common that society has evolved around it, instead of "low magic" where magic is so rare that it's basically extinct. This is really difficult to pull off since magic is, by definition, world breaking. The changes in society based around magic really added a huge amount of color and realism to the world. From the existence of hazekillers and the prevalence of "dueling canes" to fight Allomancers, to the caste system enforced by rounding up skaa (servant/slave class) with powers, and the Misting thieving crews created to fight back against it. Even the special creatures, mistwraiths/kandra, koloss, and Inquisitors all turn out to be natural extensions of the magic system rather than beasts that just somehow evolved nonsensically or were just created from scratch by the Lord Ruler without any regard for consistency.

Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy are all extremely well thought out and balanced in interesting ways. Allomancy requires fuel that's consumed, but provides amazing powers. Feruchemy uses metal to hold "charges", but they only work for each specific feruchemist and each feat of strength is only possible after an interval of weakness. Speed is purchased with lethargy, wakefulness with sleep, memorization with forgetfulness. It's really beautifully balanced. Hemalurgy provides great power and permanently, but it has the heavy cost of death and diminished returns and the fact that you basically need to be controlled by Ruin itself in order to place a hemalurgic spike in the right place to convey that power.


One great thing about the Mistborn trilogy is that each books really has a distinct identity.

The first book is very much about rebelling against an oppressive and brutal dictator, the Lord Ruler, who is the immortal God controlling the entire world. This story takes place in a stagnant, but extremely stable, world of basically Victorian England complete with street urchin thieves and a feudal style nobility that are fanatically devoted to that God. Add in an underdog orphan, Vin, that discovers she's actually a powerful Allomancer and gets involved with a legendary thief, Kelsier, who trains her as part of his budding rebellion to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and you've got a great basis for a story. There's a lot of thieving, spying, and even some courtly balls and romance before the skaa are ignited in rebellion. In this book, a lot of trappings of the universe, the mist that floods the landscape at night, the persistent ashfall, mistwraiths, kandra, Inquisitors all seem like pretty window dressing, but in reality they form the foundation of the overall story. Anyone that reads the setup for this book knows how it ends, our plucky heroes succeed at overthrowing the Lord Ruler, but there's quite of lot of twists and turns on the way and the consequences of that success are unpredictable.

Which leads us directly to the second book, The Well of Ascension. This book is drastically different in no small part because the society of the Lord Ruler has fallen apart and the Empire is in chaos. Kelsier, the charming leader in Mistborn is dead and his crew is tasked with forming the cabinet of the new king, Elend, Vin's love interest, who was put in charge after the Lord Ruler's death. This book is the weakest of the three, like a lot of middle books in a trilogy, because it has to form a bridge between the origin book one and the actual resolution in book three. It spends a lot of time on Elend becoming a leader rather than a scholar, the thieving crew changing into advisors and generals instead of criminals, and Vin herself coming into her own as a noble, Mistborn assassin instead of Kelsier's sidekick. Most of the characters are in a transitional state that's as awkward for the readers as it is for the characters, but at the same time Sanderson really does a good job showing how each character adapts to fit their new roles.

The second book's overall story is driven by politics instead of rebellion. Elend holds Luthadel, the former capital of the Final Empire, with the title of King, but that throne is contested by multiple usurpers in a four way Mexican siege-off. Meanwhile, the mists that were harmless window dressing in the first book, begin to kill people and last longer and longer into the day such that Vin believes that the mists are the Deepness, the mythical enemy that the Lord Rule defeated at the Well of Ascension, so Vin spends a lot of time realizing that she is the new Hero of Ages and that she has to follow the Lord Ruler's example, go to the Well of Ascension but instead of wielding the power there, like the Lord Ruler did, she has to selflessly give it up to save the world. After a ton of political manuevering, Elend getting deposed as King by the parliamentary Assembly he himself designed, and the Battle of Luthadel resolved by Vin discovering she could control the massive koloss army waiting outside the walls, Vin finds the Well of Ascension, takes the power and releases selflessly... only to realize she's made a terrible, terrible mistake and has released Ruin, who is basically an evil God that had been manipulating them all the entire time. It was a great subversion that plays so well because we've been trained to expect the hero's noble sacrifice will set things right, but instead the heroes were all acting as agents of Ruin the whole time.

The Hero Ages then opens on a world that is imminently ending. The mists are still getting worse, and now the ashfalls are threatening to choke the world. Only a tiny portion of the Empire is capable of actually growing crops. Elend, who is now a powerful Mistborn thanks to the events of the Well of Ascension, and Vin have worked together to solidify his position as the new Emperor, taking cities to protect them from the new, harsh world nearing the apocalypse.

The third book does a great job tying everything together. The book reframes the entire series conflict in terms of Ruin and its opposite, but equal god, Preservation. This is the book that introduces Hemalurgy properly (after only getting glimpses previously) as the magic art of Ruin, Allomancy as that of Preservation, and Feruchemy as the art of humanity who were created by Preservation and Ruin together. Interestingly, The Hero of Ages also completely reframes the Lord Ruler. The Lord Ruler, initially viewed as a brutal dictator, and then as a selfish impostor Rashek that should have given the power of the Well of Ascension up, was proved to be a good guy. The Deepness, which was the product of Ruin influencing the mists, had to be stopped, so the Lord Ruler took the power of the Well (instead of releasing Ruin) and attempted to burn the mists off by moving the planet closer to the sun, but screwed up. So to deal with that, he creates the ashmounts to spew ash into the sky and insulate the world by reflecting the heat back into space. Of course humans can't breathe ash and plants can't grow in it or under a red sun, so he modified them and created microbes to eat ash, and then he was distracted by Ruin to create mistwraiths, kandra, and Inquisitors through hemalurgy. After that, the power of the Well, a sliver of Preservation, faded from him. So really, his heart was in the right place but he only had power for a few minutes, constantly waning, so he had to use his experience to subtly deal with the mistakes he himself made trying to solve the initial problem of the Deepness.

The third book ends with our heroes succesfully averting the end of the world by defeating Ruin in a climactic battle.

The point of this recap, however, is to show that each book is different (revolution, politics, and apocalypse) and yet builds on all of the previous work in inventive ways such that details like the reasons for the Lord Ruler's brutal behavior, the reason that ash falls from the sky, or how magic works all fit together nicely without spending any time rehashing the same plots.

A Bit of Criticism

It should be obvious at this stage that I really enjoyed these books, and particularly how well the world was constructed and the story told within its confines with the reader's understanding pleasurably shifting from one page to the next.

That said, if I had to issue a single critique of all three books, it would be that Sanderson spent a lot of time constructing his world and constructing his plot and constructing his characters so that they all interlock perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle, but the books can come off stilted as a result.

I mentioned before that each twist and turn of the story was well supported by previous text. This generally means that character motivations are clear and well thought out, and without this level of thought there would be a lot of "where did that come from, WTF" moments that are the hallmark of shitty fiction... but it seems like Sanderson is almost too afraid of that criticism that everything needs to be not only consistent but well telegraphed and logical.

For example, in both Well of Ascension and Hero of Ages, the leaders that oppose our main characters. Straff Venture, Cett, Lekal, and later Yomen are hyper rational. This may seem silly to assert considering Straff trusts his clearly insane Mistborn son, Zane, even though he suspects (wrongly) that he's constantly trying to poison him, and Elend's old friend Jastes Lekal basically screws himself by bringing an army of koloss he can't control, but it's clear that both of them weighed their options carefully and made logical decisions even if their gambits ended up being mistakes. For example, Straff uses Zane because Mistborns are just that powerful. Indeed, if Zane didn't have his own agenda, he would have been the only tool to win the siege for Straff.

The worst offenders in this regard are Cett and Yomen, however. Cett joins forces with Elend despite Vin murdering basically his entire entourage in front of him. Is this a rational decision? Yes, from the point of view that Cett has his back to the wall and this is his best bet for coming out of the siege alive. However, I think this would be a perfect time for someone to behave irrationally having just witnessed hundreds of his best soldiers slaughtered before his very eyes and coming very close to being assassinated himself and yet Cett doesn't even beg for his life or get angry. I don't think he should have suicided or something ridiculous just for the point of spectacle, but maybe he would plot revenge on Elend, or Vin, or maybe he would backstab them at a crucial point, or maybe he's just a bit more of a dick to everyone in light of his humiliation. Anything but just accepting his fate as a willing tool of his foe for the next book, even if all that changes is a bit of angry dialogue.

Yomen, the religious zealot that took over Cett's capitol, Fadrex City, while Cett marched on Luthadel is also frustratingly rational. In Hero of Ages, he's in disbelief that his God (the Lord Ruler deposed in the first book) is actually dead and is keeping the faith by trying to maintain The Final Empire's culture in Fadrex. That's all well and good, but when he finally comes to grips with the fact that his God is dead he... abandons that religion and culture and joins forces with Elend like Cett before him. Once again, this is a rational decision (especially since it's the literal End of the World) but again we have someone who has just had his core beliefs shattered acting with the same cool and logical approach as everyone else. Now, in Yomen's defense it's easy to have a logical belief in God when he's a real person, but his belief was already relying on hand waving after the Lord Ruler's death so when his religion is proved false it seems more realistic that Yomen would react poorly.

It feels weird to me that I'm effectively complaining that the books were too logical, but in the end it does feel sterile and constructed when everyone behaves this rationally, even under extreme duress, or when their beliefs are utterly destroyed.

Along the same lines, in the Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson has a lot of trouble making the characters' voices seem distinct after Kelsier dies at the end of the first book. To some extent, the dialogue between Elend, Vin, Sazed, and a lot of the Crew are interchangeable. When they expound on topics, or devise plans, which happens alot throughout the books, you could strip away the attributions of most of the dialogue and you'd never be able to tell who's speaking except when they reference what they've been up to. Dialogue amounts to stating facts or assumptions, tying them together and then agreeing on a plan. The characters are too well aligned. Everyone is equally rational, everyone has roughly equal priorities. Even the occasional argument is taken in stride and everyone proceeds to do their duties without further incident. It's as if dialogue only exists to convey information, where a more stylistic or character driven author would use more evocative language or even illuminate the character's state of mind.

One of the best examples of this is when Yomen and Elend are speaking when Elend has infiltrated the first ball in Fadrex. These two are natural enemies and when Elend contrives to sit and talk they... debate the finer points of various books. Okay. Elend leaves the conversation with a greater respect for Yomen. Okay. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that, if you can suspend disbelief far enough to get Elend and Yomen to sit down at a table at a ball during a siege, but it seems like a missed opportunity to inject a bit of venom into the dialogue, even if it requires a character to be a bit irrational, or prideful, or spiteful.

And that's the crux of the issue. There are very few flawed characters in Mistborn. There are characters that believe wrong things, or make bad gambles, but there are no characters that are just... assholes, or cowards, or brutes, or just underhanded schemers - which is quite a feat considering the story begins with a crew of criminals. Every main character seems to have "with a heart of gold" tacked onto their descriptions. Vin, Elend, and Sazed are basically paragons, and considering Sazed literally becomes God that's not so bad, but the other characters chief failing amount to... what? Breeze has a drink sometimes? Even Kelsier, who's portrayed as something of rogue, legendary thief master, is good to a fault down to completing the mandatory Christ-like sacrifice to start the Church of the Survivor.

The most flawed character I can think of is obviously Zane, but his flaw comes in the form of a literal voice in his head, which is extremely ham handed. Zane still pursues his own agenda by wooing Vin to rule with him but Zane is mostly just a story dead end. He serves the purpose of keeping the action filled Mistborn chases in a book that's mostly political (Well of Ascension). Otherwise there's Camon, the leader of Vin's initial thieving crew that beat her, or maybe Marsh who gave up on the Rebellion (before saving it), or Yeden who leads the rebel forces to slaughter, but all of these characters were relatively minor (2/3 gone by the second half of the first book the other played a small part).

It's always good for characters to have solid motives, but without some flaws or contrasting priorities to differentiate the characters it starts to feel like all of the main characters are really just aspects of Sanderson, each applying the same logic and the same reasoning to achieve the same goal as any of the other characters would given the information at hand. Which is a shame because Sanderson does a great job developing each character's plot everywhere else, but even the bad guys feel like they are the same aspects of Sanderson with different goals. The two Big Bads of the trilogy, the Lord Ruler and Ruin, are shown to have cold logic behind their actions. The Lord Ruler brutally prepared his Empire to combat Ruin and survive, while Ruin was fulfilling his part of the bargain with Preservation.

This is why Mistborn fails to produce something that all truly iconic fantasy series need: a good villain. Sanderson is so wrapped up in logic and characters behaving rationally that there is no Lord Voldemort who wants to kill half the world for being impure. There is no King Joffrey that tortures prostitutes for a laugh. There is no Sauron bent on dominion. There's the Lord Ruler, who's not such a bad guy once you get to know him, and Ruin that wants to destroy the world because... that's what Ruin does. These books desperately needed some objective, human scale, pure evil baddie to be defeated in addition to the more ambiguous Lord Ruler and the abstract Ruin.

In the end, despite my criticism I did thoroughly enjoy reading all three books because the world is fantastic and the plot was interesting, even if the characters, no matter how much fondness I have for them, and their dialogue takes a backseat to it. The only thing keeping this trilogy from being truly classic is that it's so well crafted that it's impossible to escape the evidence of its creation. True classics, like the Lord of Rings trilogy, give the feeling that the world existed long before the story was told, and will exist long after it has ended. Unfortunately, that requires a story that's more organic and less constructed, more flawed and less rational than these books delivered. That said, I wouldn't turn down another jaunt through the world of Mistborn even if I can see behind the curtain.