Sunday, March 16, 2014

REVIEW: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2006
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: The Final Empire #1
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated By: Michael Kramer

This book is on my 100 Books Project list and this is my fourth in 2014!  Progress is tracked here.

As may be apparent, my reading is driven by a lot of blindly wandering around and grabbing random books in a genre I happen to be in the mood for at a particular time. I’ve gotten a little bit better at making educated choices of my reading material, but I do still love to just browse in the library, clueless, waiting for something to strike my fancy. So it’s no surprise that I had never heard of Brandon Sanderson until he was named to finish Robert Jordan’s infamous Wheel of Time Series. I’m not actually a fan of this series (I lost interest somewhere around book 3 or 4) but obviously Sanderson was an author of note in the epic fantasy genre to be chosen for this daunting task. I did some investigating and focused in on The Final Empire series as his work of the most acclaim and note. I love a good epic fantasy so was excited to dive in.

I would normally leave this until the end of the review but because I think it may have had some bearing on my experience with this book I feel I should first of all say that I listened to the book (from Audible) and I did not like the narrator. He has a nice voice but his reading was rather uninspired and didn’t bring a lot of life to the story. It was flat and this won’t be the last time you see that word which is why I thought I should mention this before delving into the book proper.

Here is goodreads very succinct but nicely accurate synopsis of the book:

“A thousand years ago evil came to the land. A dark lord rules through the aristocratic families and ordinary folk labor as slaves in volcanic ash fields. A troublemaker arrives. A rumored revolt depends on an untrustworthy criminal and a young girl who must master Allomancy, metal magic.”

The world is a fantasy dystopian one where most people (Skaa) are slaves and an evil tyrant rules with a powerful magic and a heavily empowered aristocracy. All the color has quite literally been leached from the world along with much of the happiness and light. Ash rains from the sky almost constantly and the night is filled with thick swirling mists. The magic system of the world is intricate and based on metals (called Allomancy) and the ability to wield this ‘magic’, which rests almost solely in the hands of the aristocracy, is the primary mechanism for keeping the Skaa downtrodden. Basically things really suck for 99.9% of the population. The one spot of hope is that occasionally some aristocratic blood finds its way into the peasant population creating a class of Skaa who can wield Allomancy. The most powerful of these wielders are called Mistborn and they can control or ‘burn’ all the metals. They are extremely rare. Most allomancers can only control one metal and are called Mistings.

One of these Skaa Mistborn, Kelsier, is mad in all senses of the word. He used to run the most successful thieving crew in the Capital city of Luthadel but after a stint in the prison mines, he comes back with the intent to destroy The Final Empire. Following him are a crew of Mistings, a mysterious factotum called a Terraceman and a teenage girl who has just discovered she is a Mistborn.

If I was to compare this book to others I would say it felt like a combination of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, Joe Abercrombie/George RR Martin’s gritty realistic fantasy with a splash of Tolkien. That sounds like it should be fantastic and it definitely is an impressive work of fiction but unfortunately it just didn’t entirely work for me. It wasn’t clever or sparkling enough to entertain and dazzle like Scott Lynch’s books, or gritty enough to suck you in like Martin and Abercrombie. And while it has the flavor of and epic fantasy quest, it wasn’t epic or adventurous enough to draw me along on the journey. Basically it struck me as a pastel version of all these styles, particularly where characterization was concerned.

As is obvious from above, there is much going on and the world is complex and detailed in its imagining. The plot is pretty standard,-feisty band of misfits overthrows powerful overlord - but it has a number of satisfying twists and turns that keep it from feeling clichéd. When Kelsier’s master plan is finally revealed, it was a ‘whoa’ sort of moment. I also really liked the introduction of early journal entries by the evil tyrant, before he embraced “evil” which brings into question who he actually is and draws a lot of worrying parallels with Kelsier himself. When all is revealed it’s pretty stunning and impressively orchestrated by Sanderson.

So what could possibly be wrong with the book? Why didn’t I love it? Well first of all while I enjoy a unique magic system and world as the next person, I usually prefer that they are simple and are easily submersed in the plot. If it’s complicated enough that the author has to spend pages explaining, telling not showing, how things work, it takes away from what I am truly interested in, namely the characters, their relationships and the story. This book felt VERY heavy on the detailed descriptions of the world, its cultures, and the magic system which for me meant that the stuff I really care about, suffered.

Namely, the characters which felt really flat to me. Kelsier is meant to be charming and charismatic but I found him rather boring and didn’t really understand why everyone was so drawn to him except by his abilities as a Mistborn. The other main character in the ensemble cast, is Vin who is a young woman Mistborn with a hard upbringing. Regardless of her upbringing, she’s a prodigy and she represents the humble young peasant with amazing powers they never dreamed they had. This is a character trope I usually respond to well but Vin just irritated me. Much was made about her lack of ability to trust anyone but herself while she then proceeds to trust a whole bunch of people really quickly and easily. She actually seems overall very trusting and gullible except in certain situations when her inability to believe or listen to anyone else just lands her and anyone with her in life-threatening danger. She’s an idiot and immature even though we are told repeatedly how clever and mature she is for her age. Don’t tell me one thing about a character and have her act completely differently - it guarantees that I will find that character seriously annoying and not terribly believable. In the end I didn’t believe in her at all and at times downright disliked her which was especially a shame as she is the only female character in the book. Her love interest and the token aristocrat in the book, Elend, starts off as possibly interesting but ended being earnest, naïve and just simple.

With the characters really failing for me, I needed the plot to move in and kick some ass and dazzle and while it had its moments it frequently felt buried under the conversations about alomancy and the history of the Final Empire. Actually, it makes me curious about the further installments in the series; if perhaps with all the explanations of the setting and magic system out of the way they might be a little more appealing to me? Because when it comes down to it my overall meh-ness towards this book is really about my personal preferences as a reader and not with any deep flaws with the book. And then there is also the influence of the audio book narrator.

Final Verdict: I would have preferred a less setting driven book but in the end the story that unfolded was pretty satisfying. I may pick up book two but will avoid the audio version.

If you are a fan of the series and after reading my personal objections above, do you think continuing with the series would be worthwhile?

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