Mistborn: The Final Empire is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy series Mistborn. The novel focuses on Kelsier, an escaped slave, who is an uncommonly strong magic user, known as a mistborn, who is able to burn all metals (each with their own unique power, such as strength or telekinesis over metals) rather than just one. In the novel, Kelsier aims to re-unite his old thieving crew in order to set up a plot to overthrow the dominion of the Lord Ruler.
This is the second novel that Sanderson ever published (and his first series), and it is perhaps the fantasy series that Sanderson is most well known for. Consequently, it is a series that I have been meaning to read for a very long time. I cannot remember how long I have had the book in my library, but it was about five years ago that I first attempted to read it. I read about one hundred of its pages, and then stopped reading. Not because of any fault in the book necessarily, but just because it was one of those moments in my life when I was reading less. Well, recently, I decided to give it another go, and I read the whole novel in just a couple of days. Given the size of the book, that already goes some ways to indicating the quality of this book, but perhaps I should go more in depth about that.
One of the first things that has to be mentioned about this book is the magic system. Sanderson is well known for his detailed and methodical magic systems, and much of that reputation comes from this series. This book contains two different magic systems, each utterly unique from any magic system that I have ever read about. Both of those systems are also very well thought out (both in terms of what the magic can and cannot do), and it is a pleasure to read about the creative ways in which Kelsier and Vin (a street urchin recruited by Kelsier and arguably the second main character) use the magic without ever breaking any of the rules that have been established. I loved that.
A frequent complaint made about the magic systems in Sanderson’s works in general (and in this one in particular) is that they remove the element of wonder from magic. (I have also discussed this idea in my review of Sanderson’s Elantris, review of which can be found here.) To some extent this is true, but I disagree with it being a bad thing. For one, Sanderson goes some ways towards introducing wonder into his magic systems by having elements of that magic system remain mysteries to both the main characters and the readers. Secondly, by sacrificing some of the wonder from his magic system, Sanderson is able to produce more satisfaction in the reader in how magic is used to solve problems, as well as a different kind of wonder, a wonder at the creativity with which the magic can be used without breaking any of the established rules. This trade-off works well for me, and I greatly enjoy the way in which Sanderson uses his magic system here. That is not to say that it is the only kind of magic system that I would ever like to read about, but I think it would be a shame if we demanded that all fantasy works deal with magic in the same exact way.
The second thing that has the be talked about when it comes to this book is the central idea of the novel. The premise of The Final Empire is the question: what would it be like if the Chosen One from the frequent fantasy trope were to have failed? This book is the result of that question, as the Lord Ruler that Kelsier and co. aim to overthrow was the prophesied Hero of Ages who, after destroying the Darkness, established a totalitarian regime where most people exist as nothing but slaves. This is a fantastic and intriguing idea, particularly for someone who has read a lot fantasy, and I am pleased to say that Sanderson executes this idea in a fantastic and interesting way.
The execution of that idea goes hand in hand with the quality of the plot in this novel. The Final Empire consists of quite a standard plot type (overthrowing of a totalitarian government), but it executes it in a unique and interesting way. Rather than focusing on military might, the novel focuses on infiltration and espionage: without giving too much away, Kelsier and co. seek to undermine the government from the insider rather than focusing on overwpowering it through military might. What also makes this novel stand apart from others in the genre, is that this plot type is executed in just this one book, rather than as a trilogy. This is both very satisfying, and very interesting to read. It’s especially interesting because the book is the first of a trilogy, so it intrigues you to find out how the series is going to continue.
In terms of its pacing and use of plot twists, the plot in The Final Empire is of the usual Sandersonian quality. The pacing is top notch, and the twists are surprising and satisfying. It’s amazing to me how consistent Sanderson is in his quality in these departments. The same can be said of the characters and the writing in the novel as well, which are as good as always. There were a couple scenes which I found a bit awkward writing wise, but overall the writing throughout out was very much fine.
I should also talk a bit about the romance found in this book, which features more prominently here than it does elsewhere in Sanderson’s work. I was quite hesitant about the emergence of that subplot, because I had not been given to expect it from the beginning of the novel, and I was concerned it would demand too much focus from the main action of the novel; I was concerned that it would overpower the other parts of the story. I’m glad to say that, ultimately, I need not have been so concerned. Although the romance subplot is not my favourite part of the novel, I thought it was well done, and did not at any point become too much of a focus over the main plot of the novel.
What I found perhaps most interesting about this novel was its treatment of religion. Through the secondary character of Sazed, the novel very interestingly portrays the multiplicity of different religions, how they differ and what their worshippers are like. Even more interestingly, without giving away anything about the plot, the plot itself shows a practical example of the formation of religion. I found this to be a fascinating topic to delve into. It’s not a topic that I’ve often read about in fantasy, and here it was done brilliantly, as it not only fits into the rest of the plot perfectly, it also leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve read the book.
In all, I simply love this book, and heartily recommend it to everyone. If you’ve read Sanderson before, this is more of the same quality; if you’ve not read Sanderson before, then I think Mistborn is a perfect place to start reading him.