The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Those four words right there are one of two main reasons I’ve shied away from reading anything by Brandon Sanderson until now (the other reason being a contrary streak in my nature that makes me resist recommendations of prolific, well-loved authors until I bloody well choose to read them – against all logic and good sense, I know). To me, the words ‘laws’ and ‘magic’ have no right being in such close proximity to one another: magic, by its very definition, is nebulous, mysterious and unknowable. Fair enough, most fantasy stories wouldn’t be very interesting if magic didn’t have limitations and consequences; however, imposing strict rules and providing detailed definitions turns magic . . . into science. And correct me if I’m wrong, but most people who read fantasy are drawn to its, well, fantastical nature. They want to read about what is possible, not what isn’t.
Anyway. The disgruntled part of me – the part that knows that amazing books such as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are awesome precisely because of magic’s vagueness and unpredictability – expected to dislike this first outing with Sanderson, and to feel fully justified in continuing my grumbles about ‘laws’ and ‘magic’ into the foreseeable future. However . . . I really, really enjoyed The Final Empire.
The first book in Sanderson’s bestselling Mistborn series, The Final Empire is of course based around a strongly defined magic system. ‘Allomancy’ is the practice of swallowing metal and then ‘burning’ it in order to access magical powers, with different types of metal granting different kinds of power. It sounds ridiculous (I myself spent much of the novel with a nagging voice in the back of my mind whispering, “that can’t be healthy!”) but it’s actually very innovative, though at times it feels as though we’re being lectured about it in place of seeing it in action. Indeed there are large parts of the beginning of the story that consist of pages of exposition regarding the finer points of allomancy, giving it the feel of a scientific journal rather than an exciting fantasy (there’s even a helpful table included as an appendix, in case readers want to brush up on internal vs. external metals, and which ‘group’ they fall into). There’s too much telling and not enough showing, at least at the beginning.
I found myself feeling similarly spoon-fed as the main characters first came together to discuss the ‘grand plan’ that is the focus of the story. Not only do characters repeat certain points over and over again, but the main character also writes the main points of this super-secret plan in clear bullet points on a big blackboard, as though spelling things out s-l-o-w-l-y for us dull-witted readers. I also found the first few demonstrations of allomancy in action to be similarly repetitive, with almost each new paragraph of a fight scene beginning with the phrase, “Kelsier burned [insert appropriate metal here] and then [insert appropriate action here],” which became somewhat tedious.
Happily, the novel improves vastly as it progresses, and as we become more involved with its main characters. The two protagonists of The Final Empire are radically different: one is a reckless, egotistical man, cocky and confident in his mastery of allomancy; the other is a young fearful street girl, struggling to accept that she too has powers, and fighting against her natural instinct to distrust everyone around her. Although I know plenty of people are huge fans of Kelsier I found him to be irritating and unsympathetic for the majority of the novel, despite his tragic background and supposed charisma. My favourite character by far is Vin, and I really liked the way her character is developed: she gradually comes into her own as a main character rather than being thrust into the limelight, and I enjoyed the way that Kelsier begins to take a narrative backseat to allow Vin to come to the forefront instead. The allomantic combat scenes also become much more complex and exciting as the story focuses more and more on Vin, who is discovering new and interesting ways to apply her myriad powers to any problem she encounters.
Aside from the numerous exposition scenes at the beginning there is never a dull moment in The Final Empire. The characters are always busy setting things in motion, and the settings they occupy are varied and vivid, whether it’s a dingy mine, a royal ballroom or a mist-shrouded city street. The steadily increasing pace makes for an especially climactic build-up to the final events, and there are a few surprises along the way that keep the momentum rolling along nicely. The last couple of hundred pages in particular are full of just one more chapter-type excitement – not at all the stuffy, rule-obsessed pedantry I thought it would be – and I can’t wait to get hold of the next Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension. Against all expectations I now openly declare myself a Sanderson convert, and highly recommend The Final Empire to anyone who hasn’t yet tried his books.