Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review of Mistborn

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy novel, 643 pages.

Mistborn is unconventional. Instead of knights, dragons, and damsels in distress we have metallurgists, kung fu fights, and factories. Sanderson believes in bending and changing the heroic fantasy genre, as was shown in his debut success Elantris. Every book he writes pushes past stereotypes to create strange yet familiar worlds peopled with memorable characters. The sheer inventiveness of his world building makes readers stop and simply ponder the enormous effort of invention that went into the creation of his backgrounds.

Mistborn, the first book in his first trilogy, gets high marks for sheer effort. Sanderson abandons the tropes of fantasy like swords, witches, wizards, and orcs and creates a world that seems to have more in common with the Russian Revolution than the medieval backdrop that is the common setting of heroic fantasy.

If world building were his only talent he would still be read avidly. But his characters, and their unique situations and conflicts, add a further layer of not just verisimilitude, but the simple unexpected joy we find when a novel hooks us and we "just want to find out what happens to this or that character."

Sanderson creates characters whose web of relationships are reminiscent of the high Victorians: George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens. In Sanderson's novels family and the lack of it are as much a catalyst for the plot as the magic systems.

The main character of the series, Min, is reminiscent of the waif's found in Dickens novels. Self consciously so I believe. It is as if Sanderson were asking: What if Oliver Twist woke up one day and realized he could toss Fagin, the Artful Dodger, or Bill the murderer around the room without even lifting a finger. Of if he could pick a pocket from a mile away? Imagine what would happen if say Little Nell, or Little Dorritt, were given the power to kick the living shit out of the bullies and hypocrites that have plagued her life. How would life change if she could fly through the night, enhance her muscular strength to ten times that of a normal human, and have her senses sharpened to the point she could perceive conversations and faces from miles away. What would the story be like if she also learns she has been born with the kind of power that comes along once in a millennium? Commoners speak her name in whispers and even emperors secretly fear her.

What if she was trained like Oliver Twist to pull off heists and capers. She has these amazing powers, but before realizing them she worked her way up a heist gang to become a proficient burglar. She could become rich beyond her wildest dreams and not need anyone's help.
Along with her newfound powers she has a severe case of Reactive Attachment Disorder from life on the streets. Whenever Min finds herself getting close to someone in the novel she pulls away to avoid getting hurt. Or her powers flare and she finds she hurts people without meaning to.

The novel opens with Min serving as the low person on a gang of thieves in an industrial city. A scarred stranger recruits her to the revolution forming against the Lord Ruler, a being whose reign is repressive but who, we learn along the way, may simply be the lesser of evils plaguing the land. Killing him may do more harm than good.

Min is slowly drawn into the circle of the revolutionaries(who at one time were professional heist men) and the story begins to resemble ocean's eleven. She is expected to fulfill a minor role in the plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler but her co conspirators learn more about her power along the way and her importance in the novel grows from least likely to survive, to most likely to actually kill the Lord Ruler.

If Sanderson has one fault as a fantasy novelist it is that he is too good at world building. His worlds are rich and filled with complex, yet never boring, histories where the past is not just the past, it is the here and now. Events have as much bearing on the present as they did on the day they occurred.

Unfortunately for a reader this means that you find yourself following a plot line and the movements of characters but want to stick around and listen to the rest of the story. Its like when you went to the natural history museum and your parents pushed you through the exhibits but you gleefully wanted to stay and hear the whole story of the cro magnon man and his mate while your parents looked at their watches.

The ending of Mistborn left me with wanting more. And Sanderson does the professional novelist's job of using this book to sell the next book. You do want to find out more about the characters fates, you are emotionally involved with a child who should not have survived but seems to have done so not due to chance but to fate. And in the final pages of the novel you learn, much to your surprise, these characters and their fates have much to teach you about your own.

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