The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1) by Brandon SandersonI cant remember being this violently conflicted about a book in quite some time. There are some areas where its just so well done, with the author absolutely nailing it, and then others where I found myself grinding my teeth in frustration. Im going to abandon my usual practice of writing short, pithy reviews and just drunkenly ramble on a few things here. (Still no spoilers, though.) That OK with yall?
Language. About two and a half chapters into this book, I found myself asking, Why does this feel like a kids fantasy book? It wasnt the subject material or the plot, both of which are much more sophisticated than Harry Potter and his ilk. While I would feel perfectly comfortable having a 12-year old read this PG13-violent and utterly asexual book, I dont feel as though its necessarily written for tweens. Finally it occurred to me: its the language. This book is one of the most simply written books Ive ever read, using only the most basic vocabulary. That isnt a bad thing, as Id rather read something direct and simple than something flowery and overwritten, but Sandersons language is so simple here that its almost as if hes drawing with the Crayola 16-set when other authors have the big 64. (One notable exception: having apparently become recently enamored of the word, he uses maladroitly at least three times. Maybe he was jamming some Weezer while he wrote.) I havent read any of his other works (yet; Mistborn #2 is on deck), but I have to assume this simplicity is by conscious choice, and its an interesting choice at that. Im just not sure yet how I feel about it.
One language choice that I am sure how I feel about is Sandersons decision to have his characters speak good old American English. The narration is similarly plainspoken, with a fair amount of American slang thrown in, rather than the twee, faux-Elizabethan style of a lot of fantasy authors. I like the approach. One of the most time-honored fantasy tropes is having all the characters thee and thou each other, with a few neer did yon stars of Yomama glimmer so resplendently, my suzerain for good measure. And I can handle that stuff, having been weaned on Tolkien and everything that came after, but I found Sandersons decision to move away from that convention refreshing. I interpreted it as Sanderson saying, The unspoken assumption here is that this book has been translated from whatever languages they speak on this made-up world, so why translate it to anything other than what is most understandable and comfortable for you to read? To couch this story in funky language is to insult your imagination by implying that you need that in order to realize youre reading a fantasy novel.
Setting and Plot. The setting is a typical high fantasy world - feudal-style nobility and peasantry; shadowy, powerful priesthood; mysterious evil lord, etc. - with some odd, almost steampunk flourishes thrown in. There are wristwatches. Mens formal wear is described as something more like Victorian coat and tails than medieval garb. Magic in this world is fueled by elemental and alloyed metals, which are described rather exactly, using percentages. Its a unique and interesting blend.
The basic plot is about as stock as it gets. If youre familiar with the Star Wars films, the Harry Potter or Percy Jackson books, Eragon, the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, Dune, Enders Game, or any one of about a million other works, please play Mad Libs with me:
Dear [kid with weird name], I know you are only a [farmer / orphan / urchin / child of a minor noble], and this will be hard for you to accept, but you [have Great Powers / are the Chosen One / insert name of funky power here]. You are the only one who can [save the world / save the universe / defeat the Empire / restore order to the Force / kill the Big Boss]. Luckily, even though you just learned your destiny fifteen minutes ago, you will make up for lost time by quickly becoming better than anyone in the history of ever at [Quidditch / dragon riding / sandworm riding / Allomancy]. Any questions?
Needless to say, the books plot could have been a ticket to Hack City, but it really isnt. Vins growth and development are handled well.
Exposition. This is a fantasy book for the video game generation. By that, I mean that the book follows the general path of a first person RPG:
1) Introduction to the world and the main characters
2) A few early levels whose only apparent purpose is to teach the player how to use the buttons
3) Quests of increasing difficulty, with progressive reveals of the Big Plot
4) Fight with the Main Boss, including the inevitable twist
5) Denouement and teaser for the next installment.
Not that thats a bad thing! But I was really surprised at the way Allomancy (the main magic in this world) was laid out. In the two towering fantasy/sci-fi works of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings and Dune, the supernatural elements of the story operated behind a sort of curtain or screen. The One Ring in LotR and the spice Melange in Dune both held great, mysterious powers, but the specific effects and extent of those powers were seen only in fits and flashes, and never understood completely by the characters or the reader. In contrast, fairly early in this book, Kelsier takes Vin on a practice run where he explains how her powers work and what their advantages and limitations are, using plain language and real-world physics, and lets her fly and mess around and just generally exult in her magic. It left me, the reader, as well as Vin the character, feeling that even if we didnt understand this magic perfectly right now, we might at some point in the future, which was a very different feel.
OK, after enough rambling about things I feel ambivalently about, lets wrap up with one big win and one big fail:
WIN: Brandon Sanderson can write the hell out of an action scene. (And since the final quarter of this book is pretty much all action, playing directly into Sandersons strengths, it kicks all kinds of ass.) The fights in this book are gut-wrenching without being overly gory, and the chases and sneaks are heart-stopping as well. Perfect combination of pace and detail. Amazing. Possibly the best Ive ever read from an author in this genre, and if hes able to do that so effortlessly, so early in his career, it gives me hope that he can fix...
FAIL: ...the dialogue. In spite of being favorably disposed due to the use of informal American English, I eventually found the dialogue here really clunky. Everyone is too wordy. Everyone says one sentence too many. Over and over again, I found myself going, Real people dont talk like this and especially, Real people who are supposed to be close friends dont talk anything like this to each other. Seriously, think of how you talk to your best friends in private, then compare it to this book. In addition, there was always that odd feeling of unneeded exposition, as if the characters were talking half to each other and half to the reader. It was unfortunate, especially in contrast to how slick and fast-moving and just plain awesome a lot of the other writing was.
All in all, this was a fun, kinetic read...with a few holes in it. It builds, it explodes, and the ending is really good. If half-stars were allowed, this would have been a 3 1/2. Good stuff.
Also, here are my (spoiler-free, suitable as previews) reviews of the second and third books in the series, if you enjoyed this one!
Catherine the Great Limited Series Trailer - Rotten Tomatoes TV
The Last Kingdom
On Dvd & Streaming
Forgot your password? Don't have an account?, Forgot your password?