Book Review: Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile now, though at the same time I’ve been a little hesitant. The novel is by Brandon Sanderson, whose podcast Writing Excuses I’ve really enjoyed. Sanderson is a fairly good teacher, and I’ve learned much from listening to him. But when it comes to his books I’ve had a bit more of a mixed experience. The first book I read, Elantris, felt a little empty, and not just because I had figured out the key to the mystery very early in the book. The second book I read was his mid-grade children’s novel, Alcatraz Vs. the Evil Librarians. While he targets his humor quite well for his age-group, I got tired of it very quickly. I don’t care for slapstick and absurdity in more than small doses.

So I wanted Mistborn to be a better experience. I want to like the work of the guy I’ve somewhat adopted as a mentor. I want him to demonstrate that he is good at all the things he’s been telling me to do.

I can relax. Mistborn is a good book. His characters are complex and likable. His world is deep, well-developed and interesting. His plot is engaging. And this time I didn’t solve the mystery, even though the clues were all right in plain sight all along.

The story centers around a teenage heroine named Vin, who joins crime-gangs to survive in a world where an all-powerful Lord Ruler keeps her people enslaved. But when a near-legendary crime-boss enters her life, reveals her hidden powers, and takes her under his wing she finds herself part of an impossible plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free her people.

I thoroughly enjoyed the coming-of-age story of Vin. She’s got a lot of room for growth, but she’s sympathetic. We realize we would be just like her in the same situation. But we also cheer for what she becomes under Kelsier’s (the legendary crime-boss) tutelage. Sanderson conceived a marvelous character arch for her, and delivered fairly well on it.

But the novel is also a “heist” story. Kelsier has assembled a team with the intent of pulling off “the” heist of all time: steal the precious metals the Lord Ruler uses to control the nobility who control the rest of the population. Kelsier’s team is built on trust, something initially alien to Vin, yet it is evident from early on that Kelsier is not trusting everyone with the entire plan. This tension helps keep the story moving through parts that could have been boring under other writers’ hands (aka mine).

The world-building that went into Mistborn is also considerable. Sanderson is perhaps well-known among writers for “Sanderson’s First Law of Magic”, which is essentially that the more we know about how the magic works the more the writer can use that magic to solve problems in the book. This “law” is evident in Elantris, and is writ large in Mistborn. In both novels the magic system is key to the plot, but in Mistborn Sanderson sufficiently muddies the waters with multiple magics and systems, side plots, and a large cast of characters that I was simply unable to devote the brain-power to unraveling the mystery much before the characters did.

What I’m not so sure Sanderson realized is that there is another “magic” system in his book: leadership. Orson Scott Card correctly calls out this aspect of the novel in his own review. Kelsier, as the group leader, is the key point for exploring this aspect, and I found it perhaps the most compelling subplot of the book.

The world itself in which the action takes place is three-dimensional and very present in the book. That may sound odd, but there are many novels out there where the world, the cultures, the settings, etc., are largely background and barely addressed. Here it’s vibrant, and a key component to the story. One of my frustrations of the book is that so much of why things are the way they are is largely left unexplained. It appears that this is on purpose, as the subsequent books in the trilogy appear to address these gaps, but it wore on me a bit. There were details I felt could have been revealed, but instead its as if Sanderson went out of his way to not reveal them yet.

The concept driving the entire book is also interesting. The world is the way it is because at some time deep in the past the prophesied hero who was supposed to save the world failed. We are presented with some insight on this through “chapter bumps” and through characters reading the hero’s journals within the story. We still don’t know by the end of the book what it was he was fighting against in the first place, or the complete ramifications of his failure, but it is an interesting side-story.

Unfortunately, it’s a side-story I ultimately found unsatisfying. I can’t say more without spoilers. I also found Kelsier’s sub-plot unfulfilling as well. His character, his plans and the extent he is willing to go to to carry them off were some of the aspects I found most deeply satisfying, so having it ultimately turn out to be irrelevant is what ultimately left me feeling a little empty in spite of having read such a rich, compelling book.

I realize it had to be so. This book is ultimately about Vin, and the fulfillment of her character arch requires the ultimate solution be hers. I understand that. But I also have my own ideas about how the novel could have ended more satisfactorily. I just can’t discuss them without spoilers.

The funny thing is that I evidently think best in writing. I finished the book over a week ago, and all this time I’ve been unable to put my finger on what it was about the ending that bothered me. Then I sit down to write this review and I have it in just a few paragraphs.

Anyway, if you’re one of the few fantasy fans who hasn’t read Mistborn (yet another party I was very late to, I realize), I would recommend it. Chances are you’re one of the many fans who’ve been recommending it to me. And has been rereading it so often that I had to get a copy for myself because the library never has it in. In hindsight I don’t mind. Sanderson deserves my patronage for this one.

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