Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: MISTBORN by Brandon Sanderson

A thousand years ago the Lord Ruler fought against The Deepness at the Well of Ascension. He won and in his victory he retained a tiny sliver of Godhood for himself. But the battle changed the Lord Ruler from a cautious, but decent, warrior into a vicious, bloodthirsty tyrant.

Uniting all the kingdoms of the world under his banner the Lord Ruler burnt religion from the land and turned many of its people, the skaa, into slaves.

Today the skaa are beaten down and trodden upon, afraid to lift a hand against the God who rules them or the gathered nobility who carries out his every whim.

That is until Kelsier the Survivor of Hathsin arrives. Kelsier, along with a skaa thieving team, begins to put together an ingenious and seemingly impossible plan that to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the skaa.

The team slowly cobbles together an army, fabricates a war amongst the nobility and plans for the day their people will finally be free.

Tasked with infiltrating the nobility in order to acquire valuable intelligence is Vin. Raised from the slums of the Lord Ruler’s capital Vin discovers she has the power of Allomancy, which allows her to ‘burn’ certain metals and temporarily acquire unique physical or mental abilities.

Vin attends the balls put on by the nobles and monitors the shifting alliances and loyalties of the Great Houses. It is here she meets the disillusioned Elend Venture, heir to the Venture seat. Elend is bored with the nobility’s endless politicking and yearns to change the world, but how?

MISTBORN, the first in a trilogy of novels, sets the foundation for a well thought out fantasy universe. The author, Brandon Sanderson, has clearly put in a lot of time constructing a universe with a rich and detailed history where every story element has a purpose.

But in the rush to make sure every tree in the forest fits into the overall narrative just so, Sanderson at times loses track of the dramatic thread of his work, needlessly explaining back story when he could be developing events in the here and now.

Show, don’t tell, is an essential truth when writing for the screen and it’s a lesson that would serve Sanderson well in this book. Essentially MISTBORN is an extended heist story that morphs into a standard swords, sandals and sorcery book by the end. Sanderson spends a considerable amount of time early on in the book laying out Kelsier’s plans. Plans are mad and remade and contingency plans are layered overtop just in case something unexpected to happen. But, by the time you make it out of this planning session the general thrust of the novel has been laid bare and any air of mystery about the heist has faded like the mists that permeate this world.

Adding to the aura of too much information is Vin’s training in the Allomantic arts. As a lifelong breaker of electronics, and analyst of everything, I enjoy delving into a number of mysteries in order to understand how they work. But when nearly every known element of Allomancy is explained in horribly intricate detail I got little frustrated.

It’s a little bit like sitting down to read a book you’ve eagerly been waiting for but being forced to read a two page executive summary first. Let me find out on my own! Let’s have some trial and error. Potential dramatic subplots about Vin’s Allomancy discoveries were seemingly tossed aside in favour of narrative expediency. Vin never gets to discover much about Allomancy on her own as its force fed to her in uninteresting information dumps.

I also found character lacking in this book. It seems inevitable that a collection of characters, who are defined by the single Allomantic trait they possess, would end up being one note individuals. But when the lead character’s development is so seriously flawed and contradictory it begins to strain reader suspension of disbelief.

Initially Vin is characterized as being a very repressed, low born thief with deep seated trust issues and anti-social tendencies. Seemingly, with little resistance at all, she casts off her former personality and quickly blossoms into a courageous, well-spoken Allomancer with scant evidence of her traumatic upbringing.

There’s a strain of torrid romance novel that runs through this story. Despite years of conditioning by her abusive brother, about the danger of trusting anyone, Vin almost immediately begins to fall for Elend Venture after a chance meeting a party. It’s the kind of forbidden affair that Harlequin novels and TWILIGHT aficionados thrive off of and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Vin’s character seems to be as pliable and flexible as Sanderson needs her to be, developing new personality traits seemingly at a whim.

These timely coincidences are unfortunately rampant in MISTBORN. In the build-up to the story’s climax Vin discovers heretofore unknown ways to maim and injure Steel Inquisitors, not using her Allomantic powers in a new and interesting way, but by simply MacGyvering common objects. Which is pretty amazing when you consider that Kelsier had been apparently been studying Inquisitors for years and hadn’t managed to come up with anything similar.

Brandon Sanderson is the author handpicked by Robert Jordan to carry the torch on his blockbuster WHEEL OF TIME series. Reading MISTBORN I can see why that might be the case. There are definite parallels between the two series that lend themselves well to a sympathetic treatment of Jordan’s work. In fact, Sanderson’s first two novels of in the WoT universe are some of the strongest and most accessible in recent years.

I can understand if you get the impression that I wasn’t big on MISTBORN. And that’s not the case at all. I enjoyed the book and the obvious affection Sanderson has for the characters and the world they live in. But too often I found myself distracted by the structural choices the author made in his writing and how it impacted my overall enjoyment of the finished product.

It's kind of like sitting down with a bunch of friends after movie night and saying “I think the film was great, but…” or “That was a really great sequence but that actor totally didn’t work for me.”

While I don’t believe MISTBORN to be the indicative of the quality Sanderson is capable of it is an interesting and enjoyable story nonetheless. I look forward to reading the next two books in the series to see if they can expand and develop the strong premise that Sanderson has set up here.

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