Cosmere: Book 2 / Mistborn: Book 1
I’ve now been back at work for a couple of weeks, thank goodness, and have been happily readjusting; although this strange new world brings new challenges. How, for example, does one manage to appear professional on a Zoom call from one’s bedroom? (I need to experiment with backgrounds.) However, weekends are still sacred and I’ve spent this particular chilly Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa with The Final Empire. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson and, while it isn’t the first in his Cosmere saga (that would be Elantris), it marks the beginning of its own sub-series, Mistborn. I’ve heard a lot about Sanderson in recent years – he’s definitely one of the most popular modern fantasy authors, in part thanks to his completion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series – and my expectations were, inevitably, high. While his inventive world-building and magic system didn’t disappoint, I was initially underwhelmed by his writing style; but that bothered me less as I made my way through the book. In part a self-contained adventure story, and in part a clearly-signposted springboard for future events, this is a satisfying romp full of honourable thieves, dark religions, disguise and politics: just up my street.
Vin has spent most of her short life on the streets, scrabbling to survive. First, her brother Reen deserted her. Now she lives hand-to-mouth in a company of thieves, doing her best to make herself useful. She is skaa, a member of the labouring underclass, invisible and unregarded by the noble elite. To them, she is little better than livestock. And yet, to those who know what to look for, Vin has a rare gift. She doesn’t even know it herself. All she knows is that she has a strange talent, which she christens her Luck: an innate gift which allows her to subtly influence the emotions of those around her. However, when a job goes wrong, the company draws the lethal attention of a Steel Inquisitor, one of the Lord Ruler’s most terrifying officials. Fortunately for Vin, she has also caught the attention of someone else: one of the few people who understands the gift she has, and can help her to harness it. This is Kelsier, already beginning to become a legend: the only man who has survived the notorious Pits of Hathsin, with the scarred arms to prove it. His suffering in the Pits has led him to a startling awakening of power, which he now resolves to use in a madcap scheme to foment rebellion among the skaa and topple the Lord Ruler. And he recognises the same power in Vin.
This power is Allomancy: the ability to convert trace metals in the bloodstream into physical powers. Each metal produces a particular effect when ‘burned’ by those with the requisite gift. Pewter, for example, bestows extraordinary strength; tin, enhanced hearing and eyesight; bronze alerts you to others using Allomancy nearby; copper allows you to hide your own usage (a potentially life-saving skill when there are Inquisitors around). Iron ‘pulls’ towards nearby metal, while steel ‘pushes’ from it; together, these two skills can allow an Allomancer to ‘fly’, using metals along their route to push and pull them towards their destination (rather like magnetism or reverse magnetism). Yet there’s a catch. Allomancy is linked to noble blood. Only skaa with nobility somewhere in their ancestry can develop these skills, and the nobility (at the Lord Ruler’s command) are quick to get rid of any skaa women who’ve ‘enjoyed’ their attentions. But some, inevitably, survive; and go on to make names for themselves in the skaa underworld.
In their most common form, Allomancers are Mistings, able to use only one of the metals and its associated gifts. Those who can burn pewter, for example, become Thugs, able to lift great weights or fight with the strength of several men. Someone who can burn tin becomes a Tineye, a valuable lookout. And someone who can burn brass is a Soother, able to calm the emotions of those around them. Kelsier’s hand-picked crew of experts contains Mistings with all of these abilities, each of whom will play a vital part in their mission. But some Allomancers can transform all these metals into power. These, the Mistborn, are the elite: gifted warriors; dangerous enemies. Kelsier is one. Vin is another. As Vin comes to terms with the extent of her abilities, she must also find her place in the tight-knit team that Kelsier has assembled. For Vin, who has only ever known betrayal, friendship is as strange and suspicious a skill as anything that involves Allomancy. But, slowly, she begins to trust; and she learns her role in this ambitious plot: to take on the role of a young noblewoman, and to spy on those at the very heart of the realm’s power.
There was a lot to enjoy here. For a start, I have a soft spot for stories that involve low-born characters impersonating nobles, as well as those that delve gleefully into courtly politics. While we aren’t quite on a Game of Thrones level of politics here, there are plenty of alliances and rivalries: for me, Vin’s scenes in the ballroom were just as engaging as her Allomancy training. Secondly, Kelsier probably falls into the category of ‘tormented hero’, despite his devil-may-care exterior, and you all know how I like my troubled heroes. And you really feel that you get to know them. Even though Sanderson doesn’t indulge in long, introspective scenes, he ensures that we understand the key things about his characters: their ambitions, sorrows, dreams, flaws and strengths. Characterisation is definitely a strong point.
Particularly at the beginning, however, I thought the writing style was sometimes rather ‘light’. By that, I don’t mean frivolous, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Sanderson’s writing doesn’t seem to have the density that I’ve come to associate with fantasy novels. (Perhaps that’s because the last major fantasy series I embarked upon was Malazan. Compared to that, Sanderson is a breeze.) The more I think about it, though, especially at the end of the book, the less this bothers me. There’s nothing wrong with being ferociously readable, when it allows a time-pressed reader to power through 600+ pages in two days. And, even if Sanderson seemed initially to lack density, I’ve finished The Final Empire with a much better handle on the world, its structure, and its systems, than I did at the end of Gardens of the Moon. I’m going to see how the style of the next Mistborn books compares: perhaps it will develop as the story becomes more complex, or as he becomes more experienced as a writer. Or perhaps it will remain light, but also full of information.
I have to close by stressing the amount of thought that Sanderson has put into Allomancy. It feels wrong, almost, to call it a ‘magic system’, because he describes it in a way that makes it sound more like a science: governed by strict rules and possible only as long as one’s reserves of metal last. Compared to the generic kinds of magic I’ve found in some other fantasy worlds – which are vastly powerful, but rarely explained in this depth – Allomancy is a fascinating system, with lots of potential (how would it work in a more industrialised world, I wonder?). Spare a moment, too, to admire Sanderson’s thoroughness in including an afterword, with tables of Allomantic powers and further details of the abilities afforded by each kind of metal. I’m looking forward to seeing how all this develops. So far, Branderson’s Final Empire has been a rather clear-cut case of good versus evil, but the book’s conclusion holds out the tantalising possibility of a less clear-cut world. It leaves us with an intriguing question. Suppose one did defeat a dark lord? What happens next? And what if you begin to suspect that, actually, the dark lord was holding back something even worse than himself?
If you’re looking for a pacy fantasy series to help alleviate the tedium of lockdown mark two, this might just be the thing for you. I say this, however, knowing that anyone who reads a lot of fantasy is likely to have already read Sanderson: I have the feeling I’m rather behind the curve.