This is a combined review of the three books in the Mistborn trilogy.
I read the first book in the series, The Final Empire, in 2008 – a little over five years ago – and remember liking it enough (I gave it 3 stars) to put the next two on my To-Read shelf. But it should be obvious that I wasn’t overly impressed with it. Of the many Sanderson titles available at the time, I was drawn to this one from the premise – What would follow if the Chosen One failed and the bad guy won?
In the case of Mistborn it’s the thousand-year reign of the Lord Ruler.
Book one is the story of the rebellion that brings down the Lord Ruler’s regime, and introduces us to the series’ main characters – Vin, a cruelly abused street urchin who can burn all the metals of Allomancy, and Elend, son of an abusive noble father and an idealist who dreams of building a better, more egalitarian society. Book two, The Well of Ascension, recounts the quest to discover the location of the titular Well so that Vin can assume its power and bring an end to the Ashfall and the Mists that continue to plague the land. It’s also about Elend’s struggle to create a viable society and government in the wake of the empire’s collapse. The Hero of Ages has Vin and Elend dealing with the unexpectedly dire consequences of finding the Well in book two.
I have to admit that getting through Well was a chore, and I only made it 250 or so pages into Hero before I gave up. Complaint number one with Sanderson is that there were far too many stretches in these books that were downright boring. When he’s advancing the plot or choreographing a fight scene, Sanderson is an engaging and good writer but he gets carried away with unnecessary exposition. Ben’s review of The Final Empire mentions Vin’s development as a character and it’s probably that that gives that book my three stars but the sequels feel “obese,” they both could afford to lose several hundred pounds pages. A second complaint is that – outside of Final – none of the characters engaged me. I didn’t care what happened to them. My third dissatisfaction with the series is that there’s no “magic” in the writing. Certainly Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy are interesting magic systems but their functioning is dissected and laid out like a lab specimen, killing the animal and depriving us of the mystery of fantasy. And the prose, while plain and direct, is flat. I remember thinking about the Ashfall and the Mist in The Final Empire. I never quite felt the experience of living in a world where ash fell from the sky as often as rain, the sun was a bloated red giant, and the Mists had blocked the night sky for so long people had forgotten what stars were. I’ll give the last words to Ursula Le Guin, to whose essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” I often return to remind me of what I look for in fantasy and why I read it:
Now the kind of writing I am attacking, the Poughkeepsie style of fantasy, is also written in a plain and apparently direct prose. Does that make it equal to Tolkien’s? Alas, no. It is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat. It is not really clear, but inexact. Its directness is specious. Its sensory cues – extremely important in imaginative writing – are vague and generalized; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic. The tone as a whole is profoundly inappropriate to the subject….
A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you [emphasis UKL’s]