I have a hard time reviewing Brandon Sanderson’s novels. Actually, this is the very first time I’ve ever done so in a public review. One of the eternal truths about life is that I’ve often found that it is far easier to tear something down than to create something new. I mean, look at PlayCroco Casino bonuses– to create this takes real genius.
There’s a reason why sites like Vox and Buzzfeed can churn out hundreds of thousands of pointless hit pieces and critiques that tear down every institution that’s been made since the dawn of time. It really is appallingly easy. A white man eating rice can be accused of cultural appropriation. An Asian man eating rice can be accused of promoting stereotypes. You can’t win, except by not playing the game.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done- especially for content writers like myself, who are expected to churn out articles regularly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about my job. However, when I encounter something really, really good, I find myself struggling to figure out how to word my compliments other than “It’s good”. Brandon Sanderson’s writing is one of those things.
For that reason, I’ll probably never give a proper review of the Stormlight Archive. It’s the same reason that I’ve procrastinated reviewing “Steelheart” since I finished reading it several months ago. But I’ll take a crack at explaining my thoughts about Mistborn- the closest thing to Grimdark that Brandon Sanderson will ever write.
Mistborn is set in the fantastical world of Scadrial and almost entirely within the city of Luthadell. Some sort of cataclysmic event in the world’s past led to volcanos covering the world in ash and tinting the sky red like blood.
Plants are brown and wilted. Crop yields are meager and scarce. Within the Empire, the rich and poor are divided into two classes: The aristocracy and the Skaa. The skaa have no rights. They oppressed like slaves, forced to serve their masters’ every whim.
Above them all is The Lord Ruler, and his militia of Inquisitors- eerie arms of the Lord Rulers regime who have spikes driven into their eye sockets. The Lord Ruler has ruled this Empire for a thousand years and perhaps will rule for another thousand, for he is immortal.
The ruling class has a distinct advantage, too: Only children of the aristocracy can become Mistlings- people who have the ability to tap into a specific allowance by consuming the metal associated with it. A soother, for instance, can consume brass to affect the emotions of those around them. However, on occasion, sometimes, a person who can use all the allomantic metals is born. Such a person is called Mistborn.
Vin is one such person, although she doesn’t initially realize it. She’s a street urchin, used to living in alleyways and working with small-time gangs and crews in order to survive. One day, she’s taken in by the charismatic Kelsier, another Mistborn, who agrees to train her to her full potential.
Kelsier needs every advantage he can get because he has a plan for which he needs a crew. A daring, insane crew, willing to do something no else has ever done- something that no one else can even conceive of being possible.
Kelsier intends to kill The Lord Ruler.
Honestly, I think this is perhaps the weakest part of Mistborn, so I want to go over it first. There are several points on the subject I want to mention.
First of all, the premise is great. It sets up a perfect underdog story, playing the long odds against a seemingly insurmountable foe. That’s a great setup! Conflict can be initially created by simply placing characters in different classes and have them play against each other. That’s all fine.
The part I have a problem with is how the characters go about their plan. The plan doesn’t really have a conclusion- and neither does the execution. I won’t spoil how everything plays out in the end, but the Vin and the main characters come through the finale more so on luck rather than any kind of skill or clever epiphanies on the part of the characters.
Again, I’m doing my best to avoid spoiling how events unfold here, which is really limiting. Basically, there’s not any real reason the bad guy lost other than he wasn’t really trying to win. The villain was built up to be a lot more powerful than he ended up actually being in the finale (and the sequel reveals how he was actually even more powerful!).
So all the characters that stepped into the room with him should have resulted in them ending up as protagonist smoothies. But it didn’t, because reasons. Which isn’t very satisfying. If the characters had worked out the villain’s strengths and weaknesses beforehand, then they could have plotted around that- but that’s not how it happened.
Strangely enough, a very similar plot plays out in Sanderson’s entirely unrelated story, “Steelheart”. That story’s premise is, “What if using superpowers turned you evil, and Superman took over Chicago?” The main characters of that story end up following a similar plotline of trying to figure out a way to kill Steelheart.
The difference is, they do their darndest to figure out Stealheart’s weakness, and when they’re not sure, they try multiple things at once in a desperate plan to see which works.
The characters in Mistborn don’t do that. This is a shame because in Sanderson’s lectures, he often describes Mistborn as a “magic heist novel”- and it certainly has all the elements of that. There’s a crew with colorful characters and a daring plan… but the actual heist itself is missing. Steelheart fits the idea of a “magic heist novel” a lot better, in my opinion.
Now the characters are really where Mistborn shines. Brandon Sanderson is an excellent character writer. All his characters have their own ‘voice’, so to speak, and as Sanderson himself has said, “good characters can save bad worldbuilding, good worldbuilding cannot save bad characters.”
Mistborn, I think, is a great example of this. I found the world of Mistborn to be a bit lacking overall, but its characters are what take it from mediocre to great. Vin and Kelsier are our two protagonists, and you really get into their heads throughout the story. Vin’s experience on the street has made her closed and cold, and she has zero trust for anyone. Kelsier, by contrast, is warm and charismatic, refuses to let anyone stop him from smiling.
However, he’s completely ruthless against anyone he has deemed his enemy and has a hard time seeing through that bias. Vin doesn’t even believe Kelsier’s insane plan will work. She just clutches to something that Kelsier provided that she never had before in her life.
The side characters get plenty of attention too. Each character is tailored to fit a specific role in Kelsier’s plan, and they all have interesting interactions with each other. One of my favorite duos is Breeze and Ham. Breeze is a Soother, so adept at his craft even other Soothers barely notice his influence. He’s also a bit of a snob and loves pushing people’s emotions around to make them willing to bring him drinks.
Ham is a Thug. His powers let him get stronger, and Ham loves talking philosophy about whatever happens to be intriguing him at the moment- which irritates Breeze immensely.
I’ve found that Worldbuilding usually tends to be one of Sanderson’s strong suits, although I don’t feel like Mistborn lives up to his usual standards. Compared to voluminous Worldbuilding in the Stormlight Archive, Mistborn feels a bit lacking.
Let me clarify: It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, compared to most, it’s quite good. The magic system, for one, is one of the best I’ve ever read. Brandon Sanderson has quite literally written the book on good magic systems in fiction- and you can check out his full university lecture on the subject, for free, on YouTube. Brandon Sanderson loves himself a hard magic system, and Mistborn’s Allomancy fits this style to a tee, and it’s all the better for it.
Luthadel itself is really where I feel the lore is lacking. As far as fictional cities go, it’s lacking a lot of character in my opinion. The Skaa population is mostly generic peasants, with only two who take an active part in the story in any meaningful way. The aristocracy is similar in who generically aristocratic they are. Sure, there’s the added element of magical backstabbing (by which I mean sending magic people to literally stab each other).
What I’m saying is, if you take the majority of the aristocratic characters and drop them into a period piece about Colonialist England, a lot of them would be right at home. There’s not a lot about them that make’s them stand out as a collective of villains, other than being generally oppressive.
Also, on a more personal nitpick, the story features 99% humans, with only two additional fantastical races- one of which only appears in the sequel. I just like worlds with lots of varied creatures and things walking around, just doin’ their thing.
Perhaps I have simply been spoiled by books like Perdido Street Station.
Mistborn is an excellently crafted novel, put together by a master of his craft. I’ve listened to some of Sanderson’s talks about the making of Mistborn and how it started first as an attempt to jump on the “Dark and Gritty” bandwagon of Game of Thrones, and that definitely shows.
However, when Sanderson pulls back from this and allows the characters to do their thing, a well-crafted drama unfolds that’s a delight to follow. Sanderson’s prose flows easily, and it never once feels like a slog (some authors tend to have a tendency to forget that their books are actually supposed to be read by people).
In short, Mistborn is a must-read of the fantasy genre, although I’m not sure if I’d put it in my top ten. Regardless, it’s good, and if you enjoy fantasy, pick it up.
8 / 10 Arguably one of the best hard-magic systems ever written. The characters are great. The Worldbuilding could be better.