In Mistborn, the first book in a trilogy of epic fantasy, Brandon Sanderson’s creative ability truly shines through. He has a certain knack for intricate systems of magic that manage to be complicated without being completely so, and grounding them in some sort of reality that we as non-super powered beings can grasp onto. Also, the medieval setting in which he places his characters and themes becomes merely the back drop for characterizations that feel real in a type of world where there are usually pretty standard fantasy tropes. The themes seem to resonate on a deeper level than one might expect at first glance.
When the story begins we learn that this is a world where the bad guy has already won. A thousand years before, the land was taken over by a man with evil intentions and is still under the constant shade of tyranny of the Lord Ruler. We mainly follow a teenage girl named Vin who, despite her fragile exterior, has a harder edge that comes from a life among criminals and thieves on the streets. A man named Kelsier discovers her, reveals he is a Mistborn, and seems to think Vin is one as well. They quickly fall into the standard roles of mentor and student as he shows her the nuances of the Mistborn’s abilities.
If this all sounds pretty straight forward in terms of fantasy story telling so far it is important to note that all of this is established right in the beginning. It’s what happens when the story truly gets going that sets this one apart.
The magic system itself, called Allomancy, seems built to play right into the unique plot. In the simplest explanation possible, there are eight different metals that one can ingest to receive a certain ability tied to that metal. Mistings have the ability to use only one of the eight metals’ allotted powers, but they are fairly common in the world. Mistborn are extremely rare and are able to use all eight. There are physical metals like Steel or Iron that allow one to push or pull on metal objects, thus making that user able to perform great physical feats. Then there are mental metals like Zinc or Brass that can suppress or inflame the emotions of those they are directed at. This can be especially useful in swaying opinions one way or another in conversation. There yet still other metals that detect the use of Allomancy, while there are others that hide it from detection. Each power seems to have an exact opposite.
One might be able to see how this could set up a sort of Oceans Eleven style heist that would require the use of a dozen people all doing very specific jobs to complete their mission. The mission in this story just happens to be overthrowing the Lord Ruler’s thousand -year reign. There are scenes that you can truly see the intricacies of doling out responsibilities and laying out what must be accomplished before they can succeed. It is no less spectacular here than it was in that movie. You can tell Sanderson really put some time and thought into this.
In this world, the noble houses have all the power and wealth and the rest of the people are either slaves or criminals. One of the requirements of this grand heist is for one of Kelsier’s group to infiltrate the most important noble houses to see what they are up to and try to ignite a house war that will make the capital city easier to take. Vin is thrust into this position unwillingly, requiring her to muster a form of regality she’s never had. She soon finds that the man she has been sent to investigate for information about the noble houses is her age, and is as fed up with the way their society works as the group planning the heist. The moments of the story that take place in these formal settings almost play out like some sort of like some sort of star-crossed love story. It really is a treat to see how Vin goes from absolute loathing for Elend and his noble upbringing, to respect for him not being like the others, and then love after she realizes how great a man and natural leader he really is.
Still, the main issue at stake here is the fate of the land and the climax doesn’t disappoint. There is the obligatory big battle in the streets of the city between the rebellion force and the Lord Ruler’s standing army, but it has a certain weight so many fantasy tales don’t have because it is only one piece of the grander master plan of the rebels at work here. It would seriously take several more pages to be able divulge the true intricacies of the plot, which again speaks to Sanderson’s ability to fit his puzzle together expertly. Oh, and when the little seen Lord Ruler does finally appear on screen near the end it is certainly ominous, even in book form. I found my eyes glued to the page.
If these other elements weren’t enough we are left with a lingering sort of awe involving a certain element of theme from the mentor character Kelsier. His actions at the end provide an idea that it is more a symbol of hope than a specific good individual that ultimately motivate an oppressed people to action. The fact that it was his plan all along and the final piece of the grand heist makes it even more special.
This is truly a great tale for readers of any type and genre preference. There seems to be a trend lately to break out of the traditional fantasy elements and move the entire genre onto a platform more closely resembling the importance and relevance of traditional fiction. The fantasy genre isn’t going away. It’s merely evolving and Brandon Sanderson seems poised on the cutting edge of this movement.