Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Mistborn Trilogy #1
Gollancz, 1 October 2009
672 Pages
4.5 Stars
Book Depository; Goodreads

For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken, half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.

Kelsier recruited the underworld’s elite, the smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, each of whom shares one of his many powers, and all of whom relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream, not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot.

But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks more like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life. Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets, and gotten it. She will have to learn to trust if Kel is to help her master powers of which she never dreamed.

I read this as a participant in the #Yearof Cosmere read-a-long, which was organized by Sanaa at InkBonesBooks and is being hosted by several BookTubers.  Basically, the group is going to be reading all of Sanderson's books that take place in his fictional universe of Cosmere.  I had never read anything by Brandon Sanderson, but I knew that this trilogy is highly praised, so I decided to join in for the months they are reading it.

I am not well-read as far as fantasy goes.  My interest in the genre has been renewed for the first time since childhood as of late, and I'm so grateful that The Final Empire was there to greet me and encourage me to continue exploring.

One difficulty that I find in fantasy stories is that authors can often struggle with making the storyline about more than just the magical elements.  The characters and plot can feel secondary and be shallow in comparison.  This is not at all the case in the first Mistborn book.  Sanderson did an excellent job of balancing an imaginative and unique magic system with a thrilling plot and strong characters.

The plot was really interesting, and I was completely enthralled by the struggle between Kelsier's crew and the Lord Ruler.  Though not a short read, I never felt like the story dragged.  It wasn't so fast-paced that it lacked detail or development, but it wasn't weighed down by description either.  Going in, I thought it was going to be little more than a heist story, but it quickly became a complex revolution, and I was pleasantly surprised.  

In fact, I found the whole of it generally unpredictable.  There were several points where the plot completely derailed from its set course, and I was forced to forego all assumptions and predictions I had made.  The ending in particular was beautifully executed, and though I was right about some of my predictions, each was fulfilled in an unforeseen way.  Every single twist made sense, as well, so it wasn't as though Sanderson did it simply for shock value.  

The world-building was done incredibly well and seemed quite dystopian to me.  From the continuous volcanic activity covering the land in ash to the lack of any green plant life, the feeling of a ruined world was completed with the mists that ruled at night and the mistwraiths that lurked within them.

The magical system of Allomancy was explained in great detail, though slowly, so I never felt like I was being force-fed information.  As far as I know, Allomancy is a completely unique magic system, and I found it fascinating.  Basically, it's a hereditary power which enables the practitioner to draw power from metal that has been ingested.  Different metals grant different abilities.  For example, burning tin heightens a person's senses.  Not everyone is able to burn all metals, though.  Most people, Mistings, can only use one.  Those who can use all of them are called Mistborn.  

Though this was all fully explained, I still have some questions regarding Allomancy.  Mainly: why is the power only found in noble blood?  However, my ignorance is not due to lack of explanation but of revelation, and I have a feeling my question will be answered in a later book.

The entire political structure of the world was wielded well in the overall plot, specifically the politics between the great houses.  Feudalism is not rare in fantasy literature, but I really enjoyed the way that Kelsier made use of the nobility in his war to free the skaa, the peasant class.

This story had a little of everything from expertly written action sequences to espionage to romance to revenge.  Yet, it didn't feel like a grab-bag of separate plots because everything was so craftily woven together.  

Kelsier was my favorite character because there was so much to him.  On the surface he seemed a loveable rascal with only partially thought-out schemes and the depth of a puddle.  Throughout the novel, however, he was revealed to be much more complicated and harbor pain and dreams beyond what could immediately be seen.  For some time I was unsure of whether he was a protagonist or antagonist.  

I admired his genius as more and more of his plan was revealed.  He had a rare ability to meet necessity in the moment while simultaneously planning for it in the future.  I loved how much he cared for his crew, sacrificed for them, especially Vin, and had an unmatched ability to truly see each of them.  He was an incredibly strong character.

Though I didn't particularly like Vin, I know that she is a good character, and she showed the most development throughout the novel.  When first met, she was passive, untrusting, solitary, and pessimistic.  Through Kelsier's friendship, her stubborn, assertive side is revealed, and she learns how to love and allow others to love her.  

My issue with her is two-fold.  Firstly, I couldn't stand how foolish she could be at times.  I admire a strong woman who doesn't allow herself to be pushed around, but I have an even greater admiration for those who are smart enough to know when to submit.  The latter does not describe Vin.  There were several instances in which she infuriated me because of her refusal to listen to wise counsel, sometimes putting herself and others in danger.  My hope is that she wisens up as the trilogy continues.

Secondly, I found her reaction to Elend completely out of character.  She was a hurt, suspicious, guarded mouse who constantly sought out ways to escape.  That was Vin as I understood her.  However, as soon as she met Elend, she let down every guard and trusted him though his class, his house, his reputation, and her mentor told her not to.  This didn't make sense at all, and I was so frustrated by this sudden change that I couldn't enjoy any of their interactions or their relationship.

Who I really want to know more about, though, is the Lord Ruler.  I felt so teased all throughout this book by hints of him, and after finishing it I wish I could read an entire book just about him.  I have so many questions about him - his origins, his past, his power, his motives.  In The Final Empire he was a wonderfully built-up legend, but now I hope to learn of the man.

 The language used in this book was really simple, though the characters, themes, and plot were not.  The dialogue was written in American English, so it's completely accessible.  A dictionary was unnecessary, which was convenient, though it did make me feel as though I was reading a young adult novel.  This is not a complaint, but it does strike a different path from most fantasy works, which lean toward more archaic speech.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed this book.  It made me emotional and kept me guessing.  I loved and felt for the characters and was invested in the plot.  I can't wait to read the next book, The Well of Ascension.  

I gave this 4.5 stars.

Do you agree with my review of The Final Empire?  What fantasy novels would you recommend?  Please share in the comments.

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Happy reading!