Mistborn (a.k.a. The Final Empire)
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+
In the world created just for this book, then invited back for at least six return engagements, an apparently immortal being known as the Lord Ruler has ruled pretty much the whole known world for a thousand years. Backed up by a ruthlessly efficient church hierarchy and his own practically godlike power, he has destroyed all previously existing religions and countries, and brought the surviving population under the mailed fist of what is known as the Final Empire. It's a theocracy, basically, with technology and society stagnating at a medieval level of development: war is fought with staves, spears, swords, and arrows; transportation is mainly powered by the horse, or by canal barges; and a privileged nobility lords it over a vast caste of rural peasants and urban factory drudges known collectively as skaa. The skaa are beaten down by a thousand years of serfdom, brutality, starvation, and generally being treated as less than human, so they would never even conceive of rising up against the Lord Ruler. Anyway, if they did, the clerical orders - including the scary, eye-tattooed Obligators and the soil-yourself-terrifying steel-spikes-through-the-eye-sockets Inquisitors - would surely get them before they annoyed the Lord Ruler enough to require him to exert his power. So, even though a lot of evil stuff is going on, and though the land is blighted by falling ash so that nothing green can grow, and though the nights are haunted by a weird mist in which most people are afraid to move about, and though millions of people daily suffer deprivation, discouragement, and death, everyone pretty much agrees there is zero chance any of this will ever change, if they even dared to think about it.
But one guy does dare to think about it, and in less than 700 pages, he makes that change happen. His name is Kelsier, and he's kind of insane. Until a few years ago, he was just a thief who enjoyed robbing the rich and noble. Then he and his wife got nabbed while trying to plunder the Lord Ruler himself. They were both sentenced to labor in the Pits of Hathsin, which is tantamount to a death sentence, mining a rare but extremely valuable substance called atium from narrow cracks in the earth lined with razor-sharp crystals. Kelsier emerged from the pits, the only Survivor of Hathsin ever known, scarred by the crystals, mourning the loss of his wife, but energized with a new purpose. And also, energized with the powers of a Mistborn.
I was afraid this review would get around to explaining what those powers are. It's such a big subject, and such a big part of what I mean by "you've never visited a world like this," there seems to be no way to do it justice in a paragraph. I could, perhaps, blow the whole secret in a series of bullet points, or perhaps a small table like the one in the caboose of this book; but I fear that would spoil the beautifully deliberate way Sanderson feeds you this information - in tiny drops, spread out across numerous pages. You would best learn about it as the main character does. She's a street urchin named Vin, who gets adopted into Kelsier's conspiracy to overthrow the Final Empire. Until now, she never knew she was a Mistborn, like Kelsier, born with the ability to summon eight (or ten, or maybe twelve) distinct, superhuman abilities, simply by consciously burning certain metals in her stomach. The arts, which occupy a unique middle-ground between magic and superhero powers, are known collectively as Allomancy. Some people, known as Mistings, can only burn one of these metals. People like Kelsier and Vin, who can burn all of them at will (provided they swallow enough of each kind of metal), are known as Mistborns.
Keeping the powers of Allomancy out of the hands of the skaa is a major factor in why the Lord Ruler is so harsh on the little people, and for certain practices he requires of the nobility - like killing their mistresses before they can bear children, and killing skaa who show Allomantic abilities. Only the nobility are allowed to have these powers, but Vin and Kelsier are both illegal halfbreeds. So are the members of Kelsier's crew, including a Soother (who can manipulate people's emotions), a Thug (whose metal gives him superior strength and agility), a Tineye (who has heightened senses), a Seeker (who can detect other Allomancers), and a Smoker (who can conceal other Allomancers). These are only some of the types; but with their combination of all the Allomantic metals, Vin and Kelsier can literally fly through the misty night, executing robberies and assassinations that would make ninjas look like complete klutzes.
Vin's world has some other weird creatures and people-groups in it, like people who can store things like their own strength, intelligence, age, and even weight in metal receptacles, and use them later; shape-shifting creatures known as mistwraiths, feared by many; a specialized type of soldier called a Hazekiller, who specializes in fighting Mistborns; and, it is even hinted, some kind of giant or troll that can somehow be organized into a fighting force. How could anyone bring down a worldwide empire with all these dangers in it, one that has never been seriously challenged in a thousand years, one whose populace is totally cowed and whose nobility, while complicit in the Lord Ruler's crimes, is too preoccupied with internal rivalries to be much of a threat to him? How do you get rid of a ruler most people believe is literally God, or (to be theologically precise) a "sliver of the infinite," indestructible, overwhelming in his power, and possibly even deserving to be worshiped since he did, after all, save the world from certain destruction? The answer may lie in a recently discovered manuscript written around the time of his mysterious "ascension" from mere humanity to apparent divinity, when a now-forgotten prophecy singled out one ordinary, emotionally conflicted man as the Hero of Ages. It might have something to do with the "Eleventh Metal," which Kelsier has discovered can be allomantically burned, if only he can figure out what it does. Or it might just involve one big, complex plot in which Vin impersonates a noblewoman and spies on guests at all the best parties, while other members of the conspiracy raise an army, foment a war between the noble houses, infiltrate the Obligators, and work out strategies to lure the local garrison out of the city, lure the palace guard out of the palace, and rob the Lord Ruler blind.
Sanderson takes big risks as a writer, for example, depicting in detail long conversations in which the main characters hatch their plan. His risks pay off, though his characters' risks are not always so well repaid. Everything, inevitably, goes wrong. And yet hope remains alive, in a dramatic shape that builds to a massive payoff. It is alternately, and at times simultaneously, thrilling like an action adventure, deeply touching in both noble ideals and personal emotions, and mind-blowing in the perfectly-timed resolution of its central mystery. He has lifelike characters, captivating dialogue, and a setting for which the adjective "atmospheric" seems pathetically inadequate. I laughed. I trembled with agitation. I got a lump in my throat. And I took breaks from the book, the better to draw it out and savor it.
I had a book mark jammed 45 pages into this book for a year or two, but it remained close to the top of of the pile of books I planned to read. (Coincidentally, it was right under The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, part of the "Wheel of Time" cycle, which this book's author completed after Jordan's death.) The trouble is, I kept jumping into whole connected series of books I hadn't planned to read, and reading them first, while stories I was truly enjoying cooled their heels on a table at the end of my couch. Sad to say, the stack goes down so deep, I'll probably never see the bottom of it - but, as some of my recent reviews show, I'm working on it. And the delay has nothing to do with my feelings about this book or Brandon Sanderson's writing. It's only the third book of his that I've read, but I think he's one of the great creative writers working today in the fantasy genre.
Part of the challenge of reviewing this book reminds me of another fantasy great, Raymond Feist: How do I even describe this book in bibliographical terms? I'm not even sure what the title is. The edition I read, possibly an early imprint, bears the title Mistborn, period. But apparently, that is now regarded as the name of the entire series, and current editions are giving this book's title as Mistborn: The Final Empire or simply The Final Empire. One online description of a spinoff novella (Mistorn: Secret History) acknowledges the confusion by referring to this installment as Mistborn, without italics, but adding (The Final Empire), in italics and parentheses; which is just weird. I guess this is how the movie originally known to all the world as Star Wars became rebranded as A New Hope, or sometimes "Star Wars Episode IV." Another problem is that this book is often described, even on its author's own website, as the first book in a trilogy, and the designation of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages as "the trilogy" persists even in descriptions of the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in the series (The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, and Bands of Mourning). So, basically, it's a book that has two or three titles, which is the first part of a trilogy, which begins a six-book series, plus that pesky spinoff book, which is actually described as a Cosmere novella - referring to a separate series of at least three books set in the same universe.
Moving past that, let's give Mr. Sanderson credit for the tremendous body of work he has amassed since about 2005. They include Elantris and its Hugo-winning novella companion The Emperor's Soul; five "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" books; four "Stormlight Archive" books (The Way of Kings, etc.); two "Infinity Blade" books; two "Legion" books, one of which is actually a novella; three "Reckoners" books (Steelheart, etc.); The Rithmatist, which is still hanging out there as the first book in a series but hasn't gotten a sequel yet; and some shorter pieces of fiction. Because I've been so slow reading this book, they've multiplied faster than I can keep up. Nevertheless, I want to read them all!