Letter to Kaladin, or a musing on the peculiarity of fiction

You should be able to understand the gist of this piece even if you haven’t read the Stormlight Archive; you just won’t get a few jokes and some of the more specific irony. But do be aware that there are some indirect and some small spoilers for The Way of Kings.

Dear Kaladin,

I would like to introduce you to somebody very important. His name is Brandon Sanderson, and he is the source of all your miseries.

Photo by Captain Demoux

Brandon was the one who killed Tien, and who made Amaram murder your spearmen. Brandon was the one who decided to bring Roshone to your hometown, and Brandon was the one to give Roshone the idea to force Tien into the army. Oh, and Brandon also killed Dunny, Maps, and Narm, and he’ll probably kill you too someday. Unfortunately, Brandon lives in an entirely different universe, so you can’t do anything about it. (But at least he’s darkeyed.)

You see, I hate to break it to you, Kaladin, but you’re actually a fictional character. You kind of don’t actually exist. Somebody made you up in his head and wrote down about it, and now little copies of you live in lots of people’s heads with slightly different physical features based on the age and gender of the person involved. (If you have trouble believing this, ask Hoid. He knows a lot of other very interesting things, too.) It’s sort of like a shared hallucination. Come on, isn’t that cool? You’re a shared hallucination! I can’t say that about myself. Anyways, so this guy Brandon Sanderson has a kind of overactive imagination, so one day he created you and decided to start making all those agonizing things happen to you because he was bored and besides, he needs to make money somehow and he didn’t want to be a surgeon.

The nice thing about being imaginary is that you’ve got an all-powerful creator watching over you who can turn your life around whenever he wants. For instance, you may be interested to know that in your original incarnation, you took the Blade and Plate of that Shardbearer you killed, and it was okay. In fact, you got to go to the Shattered Plains and have an entertaining time outdoing everyone in the army with your awesomeness while becoming best buddies with Adolin, then finally saving the Kholins from treachery in a whirlwind of magical Shardbearing coolness. But then Brandon decided that was too boring and made you an enslaved bridgeman instead. Now that particular example may not be particularly encouraging, but just think, Kaladin – if Brandon could make your life horrible just because he decided to, he could certainly make your life wonderful just as easily!

But you shouldn’t worry about it anyways, Kaladin. Your almost being driven to suicide was really all for the best. Because now you have a huge fan club over in this universe! Tens of thousands of people pay Brandon so they can watch you be “forced to forsake healing to fight in the most brutal war” and “struggle to save [your] men” as the advertisement on the back of the book says. Some of us use your woes for entertainment when we have to go on really long train rides and we can’t stand looking at the scenery and sitting on seats without nearly enough padding anymore. Others like to watch you narrowly escape death while they’re stuck in their houses because it’s raining so hard outside that they might actually get wet if they went out. I, for my part, had a lovely time reading the scene where you see Tien die while I was baking cornbread and had to sit and keep an eye on the oven temperature, because I own an awful oven that can’t even hold its temperature. (The cornbread turned out very nicely, by the way.)

But this might make it sound like we don’t really care about you or take you seriously. Oh, no! You can be sure that many of us care about you deeply. Some take your future welfare so seriously that they spend hours and hours thinking, writing and drawing about who you should marry. (I think you should go with Shallan, by the way.) Others are more concerned about your health, so they diagnose the exact mental and psychological disorders that you face and prescribe what you need to do to handle them. We also tend to get into arguments over these subjects, because after all, it’s extremely important to be right and to convince everyone else of what’s right so we can best help you. Who knows what terrible damage could be done to your soul if some idiots ship you with Syl!

Then there are the fans who admire your grit and determination and want to be like you, so they dress up as you and go to big meetings where they have to wait in really long lines for Brandon to write his name in copies of books he wrote about you. After all, he’s the one who gave you reasons to display your grit and determination. And then there are those of us who are so committed to you that we put Bridge Four sticker decals on our cars. Never mind that they decrease the resale value of those precious objects – as we sit and drive around the country in air conditioning, and as we stop at gas stations, rest stops with public bathrooms, and fast food chains, we are showing that we stand with Kaladin Stormblessed in his pain and suffering and his commitment to making the world a better place. Even better, we can pay Brandon to get hats with your slave brands on them so we can wear the hats and advertise our choice to be nerdy and cool whenever we want!

Kaladin, I am truly sorry for all you have gone through, and it really is a shame that Brandon had to do all that to you so he could make some money. Alas, happiness doesn’t sell. But I want you to remember, no matter what you go through – no matter who dies or who you fail, no matter who you lose or who betrays you, no matter what apocalypses, catastrophes, disasters, agonies come your way – you’ve entertained thousands of middle-class suburban nerds, not to mention a few urban ones, and they’re cheering for you. Cherish that, Kaladin. Don’t let anything get you down, because you’ve got a fan club. And after all, Brandon Sanderson’s going to die someday and leave you in peace.

Books I Read in 2014

In 2014, apart from all my reading for school, I read 80 new books by 48 authors, about 25,270 pages in all. If you count a reread as another book read, then I read 91 books in 2014! You can see the whole shebang (except for reread books) on my shiny new Goodreads account, but here I’m just going to highlight some of the more memorable and/or significant books and authors of 2014 and compare them. (Because as you may have discovered in my Mistborn review, I like comparing stuff.)

Top Three Authors by Books Read

1. Lemony Snicket (12 books) – his books are very clever, very funny, and very plentiful. I love their strange, playful, gloomy narration, their symbolism, their atmosphere, and the mysteries that permeate his stories. My favorite Snicket book from 2014 is probably The Penultimate Peril for its powerful emotional clout, but The Unauthorized Autobiography is a close second – I love how it uses all sorts of papers and documents to tell stories, and how it tells so much just by implying connections.

2. Brandon Sanderson (7 books, or 13 if you count rereads!) – Brandon Sanderson may not be the most skillful writer I’ve ever seen, or the most deep, or the most clever, but somehow in every book he manages to tell a wonderful story that really clicks with me. His writing also has a tangible warmth and excitement to it that I really enjoy. Mistborn: The Final Empire is my favorite Sanderson novel of the year, but Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, the fourth volume of the Alcatraz series, is a very, very, very close second…and I have to at least mention Elantris, which is less polished but still lovely.

3. Terry Pratchett (4 books) – I wrote somewhere else that I love everything by Terry Pratchett that I can understand. The fact is that his books often lose me because they’re just so rich and clever. But when I can follow the richness and the cleverness, I enjoy his writing tremendously. The Discworld novels that I read this year are intensely funny and wonderfully strange without sacrificing thoughtfulness, and that’s just the kind of thing I love in a novel. My favorite of this year is The Light Fantastic, mostly because I love the character of Rincewind.

This list is the same as my “top three favorite authors of the year” list would be if you just switched Lemony Snicket and Brandon Sanderson, so I’m not going to make a separate list of favorite authors.

Favorite Books

Now, there’s a big difference between saying that a book is good and saying that you liked the book. I read lots of terrific literature that I don’t particularly enjoy, and I read lots of so-so literature that I do really enjoy. So here I’m going to distinguish between favorite (and least favorite) and best (and worst).

Favorites

1. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton – I need to reread it before I can say anything coherent about it, so let me say something incoherent: Brilliant! Hilarious! Twisty! Deep! Symbolism out of nowhere that worked so perfectly! Wild! Joyful! Intense! I actually stayed up late to finish it and I have NEVER done that before! Yes, BRILLIANT!! This is the kind of book that makes me desperately want to write because I want to write something that incredible, but that also discourages me from writing because the world has already arrived, the perfect book has already been written, we can all just stop trying now.

2. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson – I had quite a few problems with this book once I had thought about it for a while, but immediately after finishing, it was just brilliant as far as I was concerned. And I’ve had tons of fun watching my sister experience it, reading Sanderson’s annotations for it, talking at great length with said sister about it, getting my friend to read it and then getting excited emails from her late at night about it, etc. Really, it’s a favorite of this year not so much because it was a great book as because it was a great experience.

3. The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket – This book has three things I really enjoy in stories: 1) heroes falling into evil (for some reason this plot really moves me), 2) a quirky narrator, 3) lots of symbolism. Said symbolism is pretty heavy and sometimes intrudes into the plot…but I enjoyed it anyways. After all, sometimes I want to read a book with a lot of symbolism without having to really tease it out like I might with better-written and more subtle books. Anyways, listening to the audiobook of this novel was an incredible experience and was definitely the culmination of my read of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Least-Favorites

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – I don’t hate this book – I just never really connected with any of the characters or cared about them much. The whole time I was reading I felt like it was taking itself extremely seriously while I didn’t really care. But I suppose I was doomed to dislike it, seeing as I don’t often care for young-adult books, violent books, romantic books, humorless books, or extremely popular books. Though I’m glad I at least gave it a chance!

2. The Interrupted Tale by Maryrose Wood – This is the fourth book of the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. I enjoyed the first three books, finding them sweet and funny, but this one…Well, it was still sweet and funny, but while reading I realized that I had been hoping for more development in the story – particularly deeper characters – and that it just wasn’t there and probably never would be. This book also has some plot twists so implausible and so annoying that I wasn’t willing to let them slide like I usually would with silly books like these. So I guess you could say that I’ve gotten disillusioned with this series. I’ll still finish it, but at the moment it has a bad taste in my mouth that would take a lot of brilliance to get rid of.

3. The Princess Bride by William Goldman – I guess I just didn’t get this book. I thought I would like it because of its oddness and humor, but then I just never connected with it, and that was disappointing.

Best Books

This list was a lot harder to make than the list of favorites! Though I am trying to judge objectively how good these books are, my personal opinion and bias will obviously still color my decisions, so don’t murder me if I get it wrong. Also, I’m going to list five books because for the life of me I can’t choose just three.

1. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton – Again, I’m not sure exactly what I think about this book yet, but I know that it is very, very good.

2. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Patton – I read this for school, technically, but I loved it so much that I felt the need to claim it for my own. This book is beautifully written and very moving. I think it does a wonderful job of portraying many different sides to a situation, and I love the author’s technique of telling small, self-contained stories and fragments of stories to describe things like the shanty towns and the different attitudes of whites towards Africans. Lovely, lovely book.

3. The Chosen by Chaim Potok – Another school book. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel; the language and the plot are deceptively simple. But in the end I found it to be a deep, moving character study that also gave me a lot of insight into modern Judaism.

4. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin – This was actually the last book I finished in 2014, so I haven’t had that much time to let it settle…but I think it’s very good. The language is beautiful, and the story works perfectly both as a metaphor and as just a story – something very hard to pull off! The central characters are also astonishingly deep for such a short book. In the end, I felt like this book had given me a lovely, eloquent portrait of a certain worldview in amazingly few words.

5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – And another book for school. Rich, dark, intense. I loved it.

Worst Books

As it turns out, I don’t think I read any really bad books this year, even if a few of them were rather lacking. So I’m going to make up for listing 5 best books above and only list the one worst book I read this year…which is unfortunately…

1. The Interrupted Tale by Maryrose Wood – The incredibly convenient plot twist with Simon. Seriously? I thought he was joking at first. However, again, I think that pretty much all the books I read this year are okay, so this novel is the worst compared to a bunch of pretty good books…or in other words, it’s still decent. I did like how Lady Constance acted in this book, for instance.

Rereading

Most likely to reread: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton – Again. Because I can’t talk coherently about it and I need to be able to.

Least likely to reread: The Dove in the Eagle’s Nest by Charlotte Mary Yonge – It really is a decent story, but it just didn’t click with me. Most of the other books I disliked I think may still reread someday because I might enjoy them more later, or I might end up reading them to somebody else who would enjoy them. But I doubt that my feelings on this book will ever change, and I doubt that I’ll ever read it aloud to somebody, either. (It is rather long, after all.)

Other Comparisons of Interest (at least to me)

Now the fun stuff!

Longest book: Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes – My edition has 760 pages of actual story – 760 of tiny print with no breaks between lines of dialog. Ugh. It’s an awesome book, though.

Shortest book: The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket – I listened to this with my family in the car and it was a lot of fun.

Book that took me the longest to read: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dosteyevsky – I’m definitely going to have to read this book multiple times to appreciate it or even understand it decently. This first read-through took a lot of effort and was sometimes frustrating, but I did really enjoy some parts and now subsequent reads will be easier and more fruitful.

Most serious book: Tie between A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell – The former is one of the most depressing, cynical, serious, humorless books I’ve read for a while (I’m amazed I managed to get through it, now that I think about it), even though it is very well written and I did like it, particularly the picture it presented of Russia. The latter book is full of attempts to probe the deepest mysteries of the universe and the self (which may or may not be the same thing) by analyzing myths and dreams. It’s brilliant and full of provocative ideas (even if I don’t agree with most of them), but it can sometimes feel a little odd when Campbell treats the sillier dreams and stories just as seriously as all the rest. We’ve got the truth of human spirituality at stake here, after all!

Least serious book: Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson – That was easy. What other book tries to get the reader to stand on his or her head and juggle seventeen live trout with his or her feet while singing? (It does have its serious moments, though. In fact, it’s the most serious of the whole series. Wait, now I’ve probably scared you off. Scratch that.)

Most unique book: This was a hard decision, especially because the fourth Alcatraz book was a contender and it’s really hard to deny an accolade to an Alcatraz book, but I think that The Unauthorized Autobiography by Lemony Snicket wins. (The Man Who Was Thursday…yes, sorry, that book again…came close, and so did Don Quixote.) What other book is simply an eclectic, disorganized, and obscure collection of documents, ranging from pop songs about the author’s childhood to letters that may or may not be from the person they say they’re from to the author’s obituary (published when he was still alive) to blurry photographs to the most brilliant index ever written? Not to mention a reference to a movie called Vampires in the Retirement Community. Yes, it’s a very strange and very unique book, and I loved it. (It’s incomprehensible if you haven’t read A Series of Unfortunate Events, though.)

Least unique book: Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman – Guess what this one is about! But never mind if it wasn’t unique – it was a good book and it did its job. If I have to choose a least unique piece of fiction, it would probably be Black Star, Bright Dawn by Scott O’Dell (a straightforward piece of historical fiction) or Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (an intelligent-teenager-with-issues-trapped-in-American-high-school story). Both are very good books, though, especially Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Honestly, I feel horrible giving that novel a Least Unique of 2014 label because it was so good.
Best title: A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois – An intriguing, unique, and pretty title that also fits the book. However, a big silver medal to Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket. Who other than Lemony Snicket would name a book that?
Worst title: Popular by Alissa Grosso – This novel is actually quite good, complex and unique, but the title makes it sound like it’s just yet another book about high school cliques.
Best cover: This is kind of tricky to judge, so I read so many of these books on my e-ink Kindle and thus I don’t even know what many of their covers look like. But in the end I think Tales of the Kingdom by David and Karen Mains wins – that’s the only cover among the contenders that makes me want to keep looking at it and studying it. The art inside, not to mention the typography, is beautiful too.
Worst cover: Since I’m not counting the generic cover of The Hidden Hand, the winner is definitely Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson. Actually, I think the Alcatraz book would win even if I was including the cover of The Hidden Hand. Because what on earth is Alcatraz swinging? And where did the pictured scene come from? And why did they need to use that image for a back cover when it’s so strange and embarrassing to have on a book you’re carrying around?
Funniest: Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson – Also a definite winner. There are several jokes in this novel that had me laughing every time I thought of them for days.
Saddest: If you’re talking about a depressing sadness, then 1984 by George Orwell, and if you’re talking about more just sad sadness, then The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket. I may have read books that were more tragic this year, but these ones affected me the most. Their endings were especially memorable.
In theory most suitable for me (as in, the book that I, as a teenage American girl, am most “supposed” to like): The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In theory least suitable for me (as in, the book that I, as a teenage American girl, am least “supposed” to like): Probably The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Parts of it were definitely over my head, but I think that I still got a lot out of it.
Most mind-sucking: Let me define “mind-sucking” first: when applied to a book, it means that the book tends to take over your mind so that you’re thinking about it all the time. (This word originally came from an online review of a book from A Series of Unfortunate Events; my sister and I found it amusing and then started using it.) The winner this year is Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, because while I was reading it it was hard to think about anything else, whether I was visiting friends, shopping, going to the dentist, talking with my family…I even woke up thinking about it, for heaven’s sake. My sister experienced the same phenomena when she read it, and she also had trouble working on any of her stories while she had The Final Empire on the brain. I also found The Man Who Was Thursday and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World quite mind-sucking, but for different reasons. Mistborn was mind-sucking because of its world and characters and plot; the others were mind-sucking because of all the interesting ideas in them.
Book my mom was most interested in (excluding school books, since she kind of has to be interested in my school books, seeing as she’s my teacher): The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket – My sister and I listened to an audiobook of this novel, mostly while during chores, and my mom was often there while we were listening. She got pretty involved in the story and wanted to know what happened during all the times she wasn’t there.
Book I most want to read to my kids, assuming that I have kids someday: The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket – Really, I want to read the whole Series of Unfortunate Events to my hypothetical children, because they’re great stories that are also full of big questions that I would love to discuss with my kids. And if I read the books to them I could warn them that there won’t be any happy endings. It would also be great fun to read them P. W. Catanese’s Books of Umber, though.

Other Books I Want to Highlight But Haven’t Yet

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis – So funny, so clever, such a blast to read! I’m definitely going to investigate Willis’s other works.

The Flames of Rome by Paul L. Maier – I wish more people wrote historical fiction like Maier does! He bases his stories very heavily on history, and even when he does make up details, he puts a lot of research into making them as plausible as possible. Yet the resulting novels are amazing stories full of surprising connections to the Bible and to other sources I’m familiar with.

The Books of Umber by P. W. Catanese – Fun, creative children’s fantasy with great worldbuilding and some awesome characters. Again, these were just really fun and also refreshing to read.

The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling – My sister and I have been listening to audiobooks of these, and we’re really enjoying their creativity and humor. Unfortunately, we’re also really enjoying the audiobook reader’s peculiar renditions of certain lines. “Noooo, don’t do thaaaaat…”

Mistborn: The Final Empire as read by an Alcatraz fan

I actually quite like this cover, except for all the pink. Seriously. Why the pink?

I actually quite like this cover, except for all the pink. Seriously. Why the pink?

Spoiler policy: People usually look at book reviews before they read a book, to see if it’s worthwhile. For these people, it’s usually important that the reviews they read don’t have spoilers, so they can properly enjoy the book! But people like me also enjoy reading reviews after they’ve finished a book, perhaps to see what other people thought of it, or to find more information about the book, or to read a good analysis of it. To these people, a good review might have to contain spoilers so it can properly discuss the book.

I hope that the following review of Mistborn: The Final Empire will be of interest both to people who haven’t yet read the book and people who have already read it. So there will be spoilers, both from The Final Empire and from the Alcatraz series, since I’ll be comparing the two. But in the interest of those who haven’t read these books yet, I will hide significant developments from Mistborn and from the Alcatraz books. When I hide a spoiler from an Alcatraz book, I’ll note what book it’s from, so you can read this review in peace even if you’re not done with the Alcatraz series. Please do note, however, that there will be no spoilers for the later Mistborn books. I haven’t even read them yet!

However, my review will still contain quite a few details from Mistborn and Alcatraz. So if you’re the kind of reader who prefers to enter a book knowing as little as possible, you could just read the intro, “Who should read it?” and conclusion sections below. These contain my feelings on the strengths and weaknesses of Mistborn and on who should read it without details. Okay. Now let’s get down to business.

Mistborn: The Final Empire (hereafter just “Mistborn” or “The Final Empire”)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Series: The first out of 3 in the Mistborn series
Pub Date: 2006
Pages: 647, depending on what exactly you count
Format: Mass Market Paperback

I stumbled across Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz series last year through a series of truly divine coincidences. This four-volume young adult series is a silly, off-the-wall fantasy adventure with a snarky, talkative narrator full of opinions on writing, reading, fame, responsibility and fish sticks. But it’s not just entertaining; I also thought it was cleverly and skillfully written. The narrator’s monologues on writing technique and commentary on his own story made me realize that Sanderson, the actual author, was really thinking through his narrative choices. It made me wonder what kind of story he could write if he wasn’t being silly and crazy and random. So I decided to read Mistborn: The Final Empire, simply because it’s the first book of his best-known series, the Mistborn trilogy.

I’m glad I did. This book is well thought-out. It’s a solid, entertaining, well-constructed story with a fast-paced and twisty plot, interesting characters, atmospheric worldbuilding, and a few nice themes. It’s not of great literary value, it has its flaws, but ultimately it is a very well-told story – in fact, I think it’s better written than the Alcatraz books. And yet, I believe I will always love the Alcatraz books more. Perhaps it’s because they were the first. Perhaps it’s because the Alcatraz books are more unique and more charming. But ultimately I think it’s because while Mistborn is, really, a very good story, Alcatraz has a bigger spark of awesomeness to it, an extra bit of specialness that Mistborn lacks. That spark more than makes up for the weaknesses of the writing in the Alcatraz books. But Mistborn doesn’t have as much of a spark to veil the flaws. In the end, then, while Mistborn is a wonderful story, for me it does not quite reach that upper level of pure delight. That’s why I would give Alcatraz 5 out of 5 stars and Mistborn 4.5 out of 5, even though Mistborn’s writing is stronger.

The basic plot

A thousand years ago, a young hero rose up to fight an evil power that was threatening the world. Then something went wrong. Now said world is full of ash and mist and is being ruled by an incredibly powerful evil overlord, the Lord Ruler, while the peasants, called the skaa, are oppressed by a magically-gifted nobility. The skaa have rebelled time and time again, but having failed every attempt, they are now beaten down and without hope. Then Kelsier shows up. Half-skaa, half-noble, he has the magical powers of the nobility, but the cunning of a thief. With a group of fellow thieves and rebels, he hatches a plot to finally kill the Lord Ruler and overthrow the oppressive empire. He’s joined by Vin, a young woman who grew up on the streets in constant fear of abandonment and betrayal, but who also has the unusual powers that Kelsier does. Led by the charismatic Kelsier, this motley group must somehow incite the skaa to rebel, break the power of the nobility, and most difficult of all, kill the Lord Ruler.

A pretty standard plot. But then, as Alcatraz says, “Summarizing sucks. Summarizing is when you take a story that is complicated and interesting, then stick it in a microwave until it shrivels up into a tiny piece of black crunchy tarlike stuff.” The question is what Mr. Sanderson can do with this simple base…

Some pertinent information about my background coming to this book

I actually don’t read much fantasy. Usually when I read the back of a fantasy novel, I think “That’s weird” or “That sounds rather clichéd” or “That sounds interesting, but why should I read this random book when I haven’t read the fantasy classics?”. (I’m working on solving that third one.) So I’m not a good judge of how Mistborn compares to other fantasy novels. But I do have knowledge of many of Sanderson’s other books – as I said, I read the Alcatraz series before I read Mistborn, and I also read Sanderson’s YA novel Steelheart pre-Mistborn. Post-Mistborn, I read Sanderson’s Elantris, The Rithmatist, and Legion. So while I won’t compare Mistborn very much to other fantasy novels, I will definitely be comparing it to the Alcatraz books and perhaps a little to my experience of Sanderson’s writing in general.

Also, months before I decided to read Mistborn, I read extensive reviews of the whole trilogy. (My sister was nervous about getting invested in the Alcatraz series, and wanted me to read reviews of the Mistborn trilogy to see if Sanderson had a good track record of finishing series well.) So unfortunately I got spoiled for several plot developments in this book, finding out that Kelsier would die, that there would be some kind of religion formed around him, that the Lord Ruler would turn out to be more complex, not just evil, that Vin and Elend would end up together, and that the crew would succeed in their plan to overthrow the empire. I also learned a few things about the later books. So I read this book with more foreknowledge than a fresh, unspoiled reader would have…yet the author still managed to surprise me quite a few times. In fact, looking back at all those things I was spoiled about, every one of them turned out differently than I expected.

What I thought

Worldbuilding

As I began reading Mistborn, I was not terribly impressed. I thought the first two parts were good, but not great. Interesting, but not really grabbing. But the Alcatraz books and Steelheart also start out a bit slow…only to get very good by the end. So I hung in there.

The beginning introduced me to Sanderson’s world, which many reviewers raved about, saying that it was incredibly creative and detailed. Perhaps it’s because I myself am a worldbuilder and so tend to be picky, but I thought the worldbuilding was just good, not amazing. The world feels small. Virtually all the action takes place in two towns, and while you hear bits and pieces about other places, they’re never pictured clearly. There are definitely interesting elements to Mistborn’s world: the ash falling from the sky, the red sun, the canals, the mists, the spires of the Lord Ruler’s palace. But it never struck me as mind-blowingly creative – just plain, solid worldbuilding. The world does set the mood nicely, though, with the dark ash, the mysterious mists, and the gray and brown plants. I also appreciate the fact that Mistborn’s world isn’t just a straight knock-off of a particular time or place (Medieval Europe! Victorian London! Or, for something completely different…Ancient China!).

Also, I found the names in this book to be a bit peculiar. You have some names that are actual words, like “Marsh” and “Breeze” and “Mare” (Mare? Really?), and then you have completely made-up names, like “Kelsier” and “Elend”, and then you have names that sound faintly English-like: “Dockson”, “Valette”. Again, though, I’m a language creator and I tend to pay more attention to such things than most readers would. And the names do fit their characters or places or whatever they denote, and that’s really the most important thing.

But then there’s the magic system. I said that I like how Sanderson thinks his narrative choices through, and this is no more apparent than in his magic systems. The Mistborn trilogy actually includes several magic systems, but there’s just one main magic system in this book: Allomancy. It involves swallowing metal and then “burning” it to affect people’s emotions, or push and pull on metal objects, or improve your senses, or do a variety of other things. Swallowing and burning metal. Weird. Yet by the middle of the book you’re so comfortable with it that you have experiences like my sister and I did – we were listening to an audiobook of another fantasy story in which the magically-gifted main character was creeping up on a few people to eavesdrop, and we both immediately thought, “Burn tin so you can hear better!” Then we realized in embarrassment, “Oops, wrong book.”

Allomancy is limited – there are only so many metals that you can burn, and each has just one particular power. Allomancy is straightforward – it has a clean, mathematical elegance to it. Yet Sanderson and his characters are also creative with it, and there are still mysteries surrounding it that promise to get quite interesting in later books. And so Allomancy manages to appeal to both my sense of logic and my imagination.

Allomancy feels quite different from the wild, unpredictable Talents of the Alcatraz books and even the system of Lenses and Oculators. In the Alcatraz books, one noble family is gifted with Talents like breaking things, or arriving late, or waking up ugly, or tripping and falling. It’s fun to watch the characters figure out clever ways to use their Talents to solve problems…and it’s also fun watching the unpredictable Talents wreak havoc. The Alcatraz books additionally include Lenses, special glasses that only people gifted as Oculators can use. Oculatory powers are a lot more open-ended than Allomancy – in every Alcatraz book, Sanderson introduces a new Lens or two with new powers. In general, the magic in Alcatraz has an aura of crazy, clever problem-solving, while the magic in Mistborn is more elegant, dramatic, and beautiful.

Also, Mistborn’s world feels very different from that of the Alcatraz books. The world of Mistborn is dark and oppressive and small; the world of the Alcatraz books is bright and crazy and large. Additionally, Alcatraz has some hilarious cultural clashes as people from the “Free Kingdoms” (continents unbeknownst to us) muck about in the “Hushlands” (our known world). Mistborn has a few of these cultural misunderstandings between the classes of society, but that was all. I loved the differences of culture in Alcatraz and hope this shows up more in later Mistborn books.

Characters

The beginning of Mistborn may be a bit bland, but then the characters begin to deepen and grow. The depth of the characters are, I think, one of Mistborn’s strongest points. The two central characters, Vin and Kelsier, are complex and interesting. Honestly, I like Kelsier better and wish he could have been the protagonist. (I rarely really connect with the Action Girl types.) But he doesn’t really have enough growth to be good protagonist material. Vin, on the other hand, changes a lot over the course of this story. Growing up on the streets with only an abusive half-brother to take care of her, in the beginning she is reserved, suspicious, and fearful of being betrayed. But then Kelsier discovers her Allomantic powers and adopts her into his group, and things begin to change. He trains her and she learns to use her powers. She masquerades as a noblewoman in order to spy on the nobility at parties, and is exposed to a part of society she had never seen before. She truly becomes part of Kelsier’s group instead of just focusing on her own survival. Ultimately she begins to understand loyalty and trust, even as she keeps an edge of caution.

This business of learning to trust is an old trope, but I think Sanderson handles it more or less deftly and gracefully. For one, I don’t think Vin changes too fast or too drastically; there’s a natural progression, with ups and downs. But Sanderson does tend to pound character development into your head a bit too much. For instance, the characters often rather conveniently think about how they’ve changed. “Psst, Reader, see? They’re changing!” The Alcatraz books also suffer from this same tendency to inform the reader of what the characters are like, instead of being content to just show us. (But with Alcatraz it’s more forgivable, since the more explaining the narrator does, the more jokes he can make!)

Then there’s Kelsier. Read reviews of this book and you’ll get all kinds of descriptions of him, because he rather defies description. On one hand, he’s joyful, impulsive, clever, and generous. He leads his crew well, keeping them on track and giving them hope. He treats Vin like a daughter. But then he also has an edge of violence, deception and keen bitterness that is a bit uncomfortable. He hates nobles and is happy to kill them whenever it’s convenient. He enjoys having control over people. He lies and deceives and keeps many of his plans secret from his group, knowing they would disapprove. This is what makes him such an interesting character. You like him, you want to root for him. Yet…

That’s good writing. I was feeling the same tension that the other characters were feeling as they trusted Kelsier, but worried about what he was doing…and what he might do given the chance. It’s for this reason – and because he makes me laugh – that I enjoyed Kelsier so much in this novel.

As I said, he doesn’t grow much over the course of the book. He learns to treat the nobility a little better and saves Elend (how many times is he going to get saved, anyways?), at least. But it’s more your perception of him, and your realization of what he’s up to, that grows. One reviewer said that they would have liked to see Kelsier struggling with his fate, trying to figure out a way around it, but ultimately deciding that he had to die for the rebellion. Admittedly, this would have been really cool. But in the end I think his death was better as a surprise, so that it socked you like it did the other characters.

Speaking of Kelsier’s death, that was my favorite moment in the book (and the fact that it made me so sad just heightens my appreciation of it!). I’ve always wanted to see an author kill off a main character quickly and suddenly like that, but thought it would be nearly impossible to do well – if you want to kill a main character without making your readers angry, you generally have to give their death some sort of meaning and quite a bit of drama, and a quick and sudden death doesn’t lend itself to either. Yet here the very swiftness of Kelsier’s death adds to the impact instead of taking it away. You’re left going, “Wait, wait, did that really just happen? That can’t have happened, he can’t…!” And there you are again, feeling the same feeling as the characters. Brilliant! Then you do still get the meaning and drama that was lost in his sudden death with the rich, spectacular payoff in the next chapter, when you realize that he was planning this all along. Okay, maybe that’s my favorite moment in the book instead. I don’t know. Gosh.

Vin and Kelsier are definitely the most developed characters, but many of the side characters are also interesting and have much potential for later development. Naïve, scholarly Elend makes me laugh, and he adds a good balance to the portrayal of the nobility and Kelsier’s crew. I can’t wait to see how he clashes with the crew and how he grows in later books. Sazed, the keeper of religions and guardian of Vin, is wise and intriguing. Marsh, Kelsier’s brother, has a keener sense of morality (not to mention caution) than his brother, and I ended up really enjoying his character for its steadiness and subtlety – so different from Kelsier! Marsh and Kelsier’s tense but caring relationship is also an interesting foil to Vin’s relationship with her abusive but protective brother Reen. The other supporting characters are generally entertaining and memorable enough that you don’t confuse them, but are pretty flat.

Okay, perhaps “much potential for later development” sounded a bit suspiciously like “well, they aren’t really developed now, but trust me, they could be later!”. Many reviewers did complain that most of the characters are pretty flat, defined only by a few traits, and often inconsistent. I can see where these reviewers are coming from. Most members of Kelsier’s crew aren’t given much depth, and most of the nobles we meet are even more shallow. It would have been nice for these characters to be more developed. But on the other hand, an author can only have so many round, dynamic characters – particularly an author like Sanderson, who is a bit wordy and takes time to develop his characters. I think it’s okay to have a few more flat guys in the background as you thoroughly develop your central characters. In this case, Sanderson chose to focus on Vin and Kelsier and skimp a bit on the others. Also, if what I’ve heard about the later books is correct, he will develop some of these side characters a lot more. (Certainly the absence of Kelsier will give him a big void of awesomeness to fill.) Again, I would have preferred for Sanderson to flesh out his side characters more; if he was a better writer, perhaps he would have had time to develop them. But in the end I think they do serve their roles as supporting characters well. They’re distinct, they’re entertaining, and they are important to the plot and the development of the protagonists.

One thing I liked about Mistborn is how many of the relationships are non-romantic: Kelsier as a father to Vin (I loved their relationship), Marsh and Kelsier as brothers, Sazed as a loyal protector to Vin, the crew as close friends to each other. Most of these relationships are healthy, believable, delightful to read and more important than the bits of romance that are still there. They also add a welcome warmth and lightness to the story. It isn’t all Deadly Serious: there’s also friendly teasing, debate, and counselling. (After discovering the same trait in another eight of his books and reading lots on his website, the feeling I get is that Sanderson is too happy a person to write very depressing novels!) In fact, some reviewers complained that there wasn’t enough suspicion, betrayal, deception, and general meanness among the members of Kelsier’s crew; they seemed too nice for a bunch of thieves. I thought, however, that the book took care to point this out as a noteworthy aspect of Kelsier’s crew, something that made it different from all the other criminal gangs Vin had been involved in, and so I was fine with it. (Though it is a bit odd that in the end, nobody has actually meaningfully betrayed Vin [except Kelsier, perhaps? *smirk*], even though she was paranoid of it the whole time.) So if you prefer darkness and suspicion in your novels, perhaps you wouldn’t enjoy this book.

But now how about the romantic relationship that does develop between Vin and Elend? Like many other reviewers, I felt that it started too fast. There should have been more reasons that Vin, so suspicious and so cautious among the nobility, would suddenly take an interest in a nobleman who only bantered with her a little bit. (Yes, she’s a sixteen-year-old girl, but still. Just because you feel an attraction to somebody doesn’t mean you act on it. I don’t, and I don’t have the kind of control over myself that Vin would have after her horrible upbringing.) And I think there could have been more interesting reasons why she might fall for Elend – perhaps she could have been surprised to find such goodness in him, or that he would choose to be such a recluse when he had so many opportunities for power and influence. There were narrative opportunities there that the author didn’t take advantage of. But nevertheless, once the relationship was on its way, I think Sanderson handled it well. I really appreciate how slowly his romances go, and how his characters remain careful and sensible even as they get more and more tangled up in emotions. In the end, I enjoyed it, but I’m still hoping for more depth in later books, especially more conflict between Vin and Elend’s very different worldviews!

The differing ideas of the characters was actually one of my favorite aspects of this book. Really, the characters in Mistborn have all kinds of complexity: different opinions, different moral standards, different ways that they tend to look at the world. No one person is completely right about questions like the role and value of the nobility, for instance. And then you have characters like Kelsier who are noble and admirable in some ways, but in other ways deviate significantly from what you – and some of the characters – think is right. Such moral grayness and complexity of worldview has been portrayed more skillfully by other authors, to be sure, but I still really enjoyed how it came out in Mistborn. Mistborn also lacks the deeper darkness that you sometimes find in books with lots of morally gray characters (like the intense brokenness you find at the end of A Series of Unfortunate Events). Sanderson writes in an annotation for one of his books that he generally likes to write about the kind of people he finds in real life: good people who are faced with difficult decisions and sometimes make the wrong choices. That’s Mistborn. The protagonists, and even some of the villains, are ultimately good people who sometimes did the wrong thing, or believed the wrong thing, or chose to pursue their noble goals in the wrong way; there’s only the occasional truly evil or truly gray character.

If the complexity in worldview and moral standards in Mistborn takes the same trajectory as it did in the Alcatraz series, it will get more pronounced in the remainder of the trilogy. The Alcatraz books start off with a clear demarcation between good and evil, but by book three, things are getting a bit mushy, and at the end of book four, it’s really getting complicated. (It remains to be seen how things will turn out, though, since the fifth and final book hasn’t been released yet. Four years and counting…) In general, though, Mistborn’s characters are more complex and developed than those in Alcatraz. After all, the Alcatraz books have more hectic plots and spend a lot of time commenting on themselves, stealing time from the characters. Sanderson also does a better job of showing instead of telling what his characters are like in Mistborn, as opposed to Alcatraz, which is full of hilarious descriptions of the characters courtesy of the snarky narrator.

But I do love those hilarious descriptions, and those hectic plots, and that self-commentary, and no matter how much I like Kelsier, I still love the crazy, good-hearted, deeply flawed character of Alcatraz even more. And even if the relationships in Mistborn, both romantic and non-romantic, were better portrayed, the relationship between Alcatraz and Bastille (book 4) has still got to be one of my favorites (indeed, the favorite of the Sanderson romances I’ve read). Again, Mistborn is more solidly constructed than Alcatraz (though Alcatraz’s construction isn’t sloppy, either), yet Alcatraz has that extra indefinable element of awesomeness.

Plot

At the same time as Mistborn’s characters begin to grow more interesting, the plot also begins to speed up. Now, I love Brandon Sanderson’s plots. (Though maybe it’s partly because I don’t often read books that are so heavy on fast-paced, rich, twisty plots; my regular diet of literary and historical fiction tends to focus on characters more.) The plot of The Final Empire is no exception. At the beginning it’s pretty straightforward, maybe even a little dull, but then it builds and builds and builds into a crazy, twisty ending of multiple, layered climaxes – an ending that, for me, somehow managed to both satisfactorily resolve the book and make me want badly to read the next one. I think Sanderson particularly excels in his endings, but there are other things that make his plots good, too. For one, Mistborn’s plot is full of twists of the best kind: you can’t guess them easily, yet once they happen, they seem forehead-smackingly obvious. I got surprised several times even though I had guessed, or been spoiled for, many major events of the story. I knew that Kelsier would die, but I didn’t expect him to die quite like that. I guessed that the Lord Ruler would have something unexpected in his backstory, but I didn’t expect that he would turn out to be Rashek the packman or that he would have special powers from a combination of Feruchemy and Allomancy.

The characters also face real obstacles; there were several moments when I wasn’t sure how they’d recover from some setbacks. (I really knew I was in trouble when I began to wonder if certain scenes were just dreams, since they seemed too crazy to actually be happening.) People get injured and can’t do much for months. Clever schemes go wrong and major components of the master plan get destroyed. Characters misunderstand what happened or don’t realize what they’re supposed to do. Certain reader favorites who shall remain nameless do rash things. Sanderson isn’t afraid to knock his characters around quite a bit, but in the end they nearly always manage to wriggle their way out of trouble.

Some reviewers were still bothered, though, that the Grand Plans usually worked out in the end, even if there were quite a few modifications along the way. I personally felt that Sanderson struck a good balance between the believability of his characters running into lots of problems and the satisfaction of their solving the problems. Carrying off a master plan without many complications can badly strain my suspension of disbelief…yet it can also be a problem to have too many complications and then make the story really convoluted in order to deal with them (which can get confusing) or just have lots of failures (which can be unsatisfying). I think Sanderson had the right number of complications, the right number of twists to deal with complications, and the right number of failures and deaths and other such unpleasantries when complications couldn’t be fixed. But other readers with different tastes may prefer more failure or more success.

Once again I must admit that I think Mistborn beats Alcatraz when it comes to the quality of the plot. Sanderson has more time in Mistborn to develop a deep plot, and as a writer less skilled in brevity he needs that time. A deeper plot also lets him build up to a more intense and layered ending. So the Alcatraz books, which are all significantly shorter (and spend so much time joking about themselves instead of working on the story), have smaller plots and smaller payoffs at the end. But the Alcatraz books still have plenty of clever twists and wrenches in the plan. The fourth book was especially good: “We’re doomed! No, wait, we’re saved! No, we’re doomed! Really, we’re doomed! No, wait, we’re saved again! But actually we’re not! But we are! But we lost our Talents! GAK!” (book 4)

In the end, by the time I had finished part three of Mistborn, I was hooked. I was settled in the world, the characters were deepening, the plot had just thrown them some major curveballs, and I was ready to settle down, enjoy the ride, and watch everything coalesce in a wild ending. And I sure got my ride and my wild ending.

Mistborn’s ending is just so layered. In some ways there’s only one climax: the final conflict with the Lord Ruler. But before that there are multiple other climaxes in the development of characters like Vin and Elend and Kelsier that underpin this last conflict and make it much richer. The only problem is that some of these character climaxes – okay, for me, really just the death of Kelsier and the revelation of his plan – have such emotional clout that once the real climax rolls around, you already feel like the book is winding down. In other words, the emotional climax (with the characters) and the actual climax (with the main conflict) aren’t synchronized; and because the emotional climax is, for me, more memorable, it overshadows the actual climax.

But I am definitely not complaining. I loved the ending. Like most other Brandon Sanderson books have, it left me in a glow of happy satisfaction with the book. Most good books make me feel like I’ve eaten a nice snack once I’ve finished; Mistborn was the right length and complexity to make me feel like I ate a full, delicious meal. I may have found plenty of weaknesses in it once I took time to consider the book carefully, but I think it is significant that I was so satisfied with it immediately after finishing.

Themes

Since the Alcatraz books are so silly and Mistborn is so comparatively serious, it’s odd how many similar themes they have. The dangers and challenges of fame and leadership play big parts in both. (In fact, they play fairly significant parts in every one of the eight Sanderson novels I’ve read.) Alcatraz, who struggles with learning how to lead and also not getting his head turned by fame, reminds me eerily of Kelsier. Certainly Kelsier is far more mature than Alcatraz, but he too faces difficult choices, painful responsibility when things go wrong, and the lure of fame. Alcatraz and Vin also have similarities in their fears of being abandoned and their resulting tendencies to avoid deep relationships with people. But while Vin spends The Final Empire learning to trust people, during most of the Alcatraz series Alcatraz is experiencing the flip side of this – he’s discovering the pressure of having people trust him. Alcatraz and Vin also both struggle with their identities, but then, that’s a standby of fantasy novels that involve young people with magical gifts.

These themes permeate Mistborn and form the backbone of the characters’ development, but they’re not the focus of the book. They’re nuggets in a larger story; they’re not the story itself. And like he does with other aspects of character development, Sanderson tends to push the themes a little too hard, choosing clarity over subtlety. But this doesn’t detract much from the book because discussing these issues is not the main point of Mistborn – the story is the main point.

Writing style

Perhaps the most notable thing about the Alcatraz books is their writing style. They’re told by Alcatraz in a very self-aware, happily fourth-wall-breaking manner, with lots of tricks on the reader and asides that have very little to do with the actual story. Mistborn’s style is completely different. The narration is much more normal with a straightforward third-person-limited point of view, rather unlike Alcatraz’s Snicket-esque first-person ramblings. In fact, I had a little trouble getting my bearings at first when I began to read Mistborn, simply because it felt so different from Alcatraz and so much more serious. But even if Alcatraz is still a lot funnier, Mistborn definitely isn’t humorless – it has plenty of playful banter and I, at least, found Elend’s cluelessness about what’s actually going on very amusing!

The dialogue is actually something that a lot of reviewers complain about, saying that it feels lame and wooden and that it tries to hard to be witty. Others say that it’s too modern and colloquial and breaks the mood of the world. I can’t really see where the first reviewers are coming from – Mistborn’s dialogue feels alive to me. But I can see how some readers could think that it was too colloquial. The characters talk in a pretty casual way and use some modern expressions, though they do also use the occasional world-specific expression or curse (just like in most Sanderson books!). However, no matter how much I enjoy good worldbuilding and creativity with how people use language, I prefer my fantasy to have a more modern, colloquial feel just because I like that style of book better. I sometimes have trouble getting into very formal, dense dialogue, like in many parts of Lord of the Rings; it can easily end up feeling stiff or dull or even corny to me. But other readers may feel differently.

Several reviewers also criticize other aspects of the writing style. Now, I am not very sensitive to the nitty-gritty of writing style. I tend to read quickly and a bit sloppily, particularly when I reading for fun, and so unless the writing is very awkward, very good, or very strange, I won’t really notice it. So I didn’t notice Sanderson using piles of adverbs, or having characters constantly roll their eyes or smile or pause or stare blankly at each other, or using the word “maladroit” five times. (See this review.) But now, looking at Mistborn more carefully, I must admit that it’s all true. Sanderson is not the greatest writer of prose – Alcatraz, too, suffers from writing that’s often clumsy or wordy. But for me, at least, Mistborn still worked. You may feel differently, though, so if you are bothered by awkward writing, you may want to avoid this book. Or you may just want to avoid the audiobook – I personally notice clunky prose a lot more when listening to an audiobook.

Content

Yes, I read Brandon Sanderson’s books mostly because I enjoy them, but there’s another big reason why I like his work: it’s clean. I have looked at so many interesting books only to decide not to read them because I’d rather not read a book with sex scenes. (Yup, I’m the one teenage girl left on the face of the earth who feels this way.) Every time I find an intriguing book written for adults, I want to read a lot of reviews in order to make sure that I’ll be fine with it, and so I often end up learning a lot more about the book than I would like to. But I trust Brandon Sanderson enough at this point to read one of his books without worrying about content, and that is so refreshing. Mistborn may have quite a few sexual references, but many young adult books are much worse – Divergent, for instance.

Mistborn is pretty violent, though – it can get a little gruesome at times. But I never felt sickened or deeply bothered and I never felt that it was meant to be titillating. Indeed, in his annotations Sanderson says that he finds some of these scenes a bit disturbing himself, but thought that they were necessary to the story. To me, that’s a very good sign – the author is aware of how he’s affecting me and is being careful with how he’s using violence. As far as language goes, Mistborn has a tiny bit of swearing, but it’s nothing compared to what I routinely find in young adult books; again, it’s wonderfully refreshing to read a modern book not written for children that’s clean.

And now, finally, let’s bring this review to a close…

Who should read it?

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, entertaining read with a backbone of intriguing characters and themes and a creative magic system, check out Mistborn. If you’re an Alcatraz fan, and you like the plots, characters, and themes in the Alcatraz series, you may really enjoy Mistborn. If you dig Alcatraz just for the quirky narration, though, Mistborn may not be your favorite. If you’re a writer, Mistborn may inspire you with its magic system and its great plot, and it could also just give you a good picture of how to put a lot of things together – world, characters, plot – to create a compelling story. As for fans of other fantasy novels, I can’t really judge if you’d like Mistborn since I don’t read much fantasy myself!

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for subtlety, unusual and/or deeply developed themes and philosophies, good prose style, and a lack of action and violence, Mistborn isn’t the best choice. A book that’s trying to be more literary would probably be better.

Conclusion

Mistborn: The Final Empire was a great story and a satisfying book. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the logical wonder of Allomancy or the awesomeness that is Kelsier or the end of part four, and I can’t wait to see how things will develop with the rest of the trilogy. But for its warmth and specialness and indefinable spark of something else, I think I’ll always love the Alcatraz books more.

The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket – A brief, emotional response

The Penultimate Peril – A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12
Author: Lemony Snicket
Pub Date: 2005
Pages: 368
Format: Audiobook

Wow.

All I can say is, I did not expect anything like this when I started A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I first came to this series after reading and enjoying a number of other books that reviewers said were similar – The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and others. I read reviews of The Bad Beginning, the first book of the series, but came away thinking that it sounded rather mediocre. And besides, I thought, if I read the first book, I’d probably want to read the other twelve, and thirteen books is an awful lot to read just for one mediocre series! So I didn’t pursue getting it. But then my sister also read reviews of The Bad Beginning and decided on her own to borrow it from the library and read it. And then it was left sitting out. And, well, if a book is sitting out that I’m at least mildly interested in, and it’s entertaining, and especially if it’s short, well, I’ll end up reading it. So I did. And then my sister borrowed the next few books and left them sitting out, and I read them too. They were short, they were entertaining, they were fun, but they weren’t particularly exciting. It was only around book 6, The Ersatz Elevator, that I became really interested. And then I was the one who convinced my sister to borrow book 7, and then once we were done with that, I convinced her to borrow book 8… Well. At that point I was indeed quite curious as to what was going to happen, and I felt the books were getting more clever, but the series was still rather…well, flat. Small. It was only later on that things began to grow into something genuinely engaging. Book 9 had some wonderfully chilling moments. And then book 10, The Slippery Slope, was the first book of the series that I found truly beautiful. Book 12, The Penultimate Peril, far surpasses that.

But why do I find it beautiful? What do I find beautiful in a book, anyway? Consider this.

The fact is that the world is full of light and dirt. Love and disease. Beauty and death. In other words, wonderful things and horrible things.

The world is also full of emotions and mathematics. Whimsy and science. Randomness and fractals. In other words, messy, confusing things and neat, orderly things.

Bad books ignore this multifacetedness. They focus too much on the light and the emotions, maybe, resulting in something fluffily idealistic. Others maybe focus on the dirt and the emotions, resulting in shallow angst. Or perhaps it’s an overemphasis on dirt and mathematics, resulting in a coldly, voidly horrifying dissection of evil. Or light and mathematics, resulting in an unbelievably orderly piece of soulless theory.

Good books, on the other hand, recognize both the light and the dirt, both the emotions and the mathematics. They look them in the face. They may not look them completely in the face, or very obviously in the face. But they accept the world as it is. And then, acknowledging that huge, messy storm of light and dirt, emotions and mathematics, they say something. They find meaning; they find a theme running through the storm.

That’s why I love books that have elements of darkness in them. Yes, a book that is all sweetness can have good points in it, can have truth. But I will be far more willing to listen to a book that can see the darkness, because I feel that it actually acknowledges the world as it really is. It is not creating some idealized fantasy and then getting a message out of that, a message that the author has only proved to me will work in that idealized fantasy. No, a good book takes a real world and gets a message out of that. And by using a real world, the author has said to me, “Look, this is important for you, because you live in a real world. You need to pay attention, because this is your reality.” *

I loved The Penultimate Peril, and more than that, I found it beautiful, because it does this. It acknowledges the ugliness of the real world even as it portrays its loveliness and humor. And then, from that picture, it gets a message, it finds a meaning, it traces a theme.

Now, it’s not perfect, of course. After all, perhaps the most distinct meaning one gets out of The Penultimate Peril is that there is no meaning in the world – it’s just a terrible, chaotic conglomeration of unfathomable mysteries. And it has other flaws, too. The Penultimate Peril is not going to become my favorite book. It’s probably not even going to go on my (very informal) list of favorite books. Rather, it will join many other books I’ll read this year that I found beauty in; books that left me with a feeling, a feeling, a very powerful feeling that there’s something deep and intense inside, even if I don’t understand it quite yet. Something deep and intense under all the random funny bits and sad bits and good bits and bad bits. Much like the world itself, I’d say. And that’s what makes those books beautiful. They mirror the world. Imperfect, lovely, chaotic, hilarious, sad, happy – messy. But with something meaningful, perhaps many things meaningful, just underneath.

There. Now you’ve seen my light-and-emotions side. Hopefully once I’m actually done with the series I’ll write a more full, analytical, dirt-and-mathematics review. But for now, I’m enjoying the thrill of a book that has really made me feel something.

And so…go forth and read!

*Now, when I say “real world,” I don’t mean to say that fantasy novels or other books set in imaginary worlds can’t achieve this. Not at all! Rather consider this: A good fantasy world is realistic, no? And what does realistic mean? It mean it’s believable. It means it fits with our experience. And if it fits with our experience – well, then maybe it has relevance to our experience. It has applicability. And so if an author creates a believable fantasy world and gets a message out of that, when I see the realism of the imaginary world, I see the parallels to my own world, and I see the need for me to listen to the message.

Are well-read people less likely to be evil?

If you would rather listen to this essay, here’s a recording of me reading it.

I recently listened to the tenth book of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, The Slippery Slope, with my sister (and enjoyed it – this series definitely improves as it goes on!). As we were listening a week or so ago, I came across an interesting thought. In the bit we heard that evening, the main characters meet a mysterious boy who seems to want to help them. However, they’re not sure if they can trust him, so they ask him if he can try to prove to them somehow that he’s trustworthy. The boy proceeds to define an unusual word that one of the protagonists had used, explaining that he knew it from having read extensively, and then says, “In my experience, well-read people are less likely to be evil.” The main characters, though they do go along with him, aren’t so sure; I’m not either. The fact is that many people (especially educated people, oddly enough!) do seem to believe that educated, well-read people are more likely to be good. But I, for one, don’t think this is the case. Here’s why.

First of all, let’s consider: what do books give you in the first place? Besides entertainment and other such more transient things, books give you experience. You get to live in the shoes of the characters and see what they see, as in most novels. Nonfiction books can also describe true events that then can become part of your experience. In addition, books can give you ideas. You may hear the characters or the author expounding their thoughts and opinions, sometimes arguing for them, sometimes just mentioning them. Often a narrator will interject little side comments, e.g. Nick saying that “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” in The Great Gatsby. This whole question of whether well-read people are less likely to be evil comes from an idea a character expressed in a book, as I explained, and goodness knows Lemony Snicket interjects plenty of other comments into his narration throughout the rest of the series. Nonfiction books also often have ideas; for example, I read a book once, called The Genesis of Science, which argued that “the Middle Ages laid the foundation for the greatest achievement of western civilization: modern science.” That’s an idea, not a hard, provable fact, since “laying a foundation” for something is a rather abstract, mushy concept. Of course, books can also communicate facts, which is the whole point of most textbooks, for instance. So books can give us experience, ideas and facts and so increase our knowledge.

Experience, ideas and facts are all tools we use to gain wisdom and figure out what the best course of action is. For instance, say I have the experience of putting a wool sweater in the washing machine and then finding it shrunken.1 From this experience, I might come up with the idea that putting a wool sweater through a washing machine cycle shrinks it. Then, after I consider existing facts, such as that the sweater was fine before it went through the wash cycle, I could come to the conclusion and believe as a fact that a wool sweater will shrink if you wash it in a washing machine. Now, following from this experience, idea and fact, I could become wiser and know that next time I want to wash a wool sweater, I had better not put it in the washing machine. I have gained wisdom from experience.

The wonderful thing about books is that you can gain experience, come across ideas, and learn facts that you could never have in your own life. For instance, I recently read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I could never have the experience of a young German man serving in World War I myself. I doubt I’ll ever have any experience being in a war in the first place. But through this book, I could experience a bit of what it was like to fight in a war. I also found ideas in this book about the evil of war and its impact on the young, and facts about the actual mechanics of the fighting. Nonfiction also can give you experience, ideas, and facts that you could not come across in your life. Take any of the books I’ve read on linguistics. In them I can find experiences linguists have had studying various tongues, ideas about how humans think, and facts about how humans use language, things I would never have found out or thought of on my own. Fiction or nonfiction, books let somebody gain far, far more experience, ideas, and facts than they could on their own. And with this larger base of knowledge to draw from, people who are well-read are better able to gain wisdom; they are better equipped to figure out what’s true or what makes sense to do.

But no matter how much experience, ideas, and facts books give you, and no matter how much wisdom you garner from these things, books cannot change your heart and actually give you morality. Experience, ideas, and facts, from books or otherwise, can help change your heart, for sure. But you are going to have to take the initiative to actually work to change yourself. You can’t just read the right books or see the right things or think the right thoughts or understand the right facts and automatically get a good heart. For instance, say a small country gets miserably defeated in a war and is left wrecked and weak. The ruler of that country could see the desolation, have compassion out of a good heart, and conclude, “War is evil. I had better make my country neutral and try to promote peace among our neighboring countries to avoid something so horrible happening to anybody nearby again.”2 Or that ruler could look at the destruction and feel anger and bitterness out of a bad heart, and then say instead, “That country that defeated us is evil. I’m going to do everything I can to destroy them just as much as they destroyed us, if not more.” That one ruler could work from the same experience, the same ideas, the same facts, and still come to very different conclusions, all based on what is in his heart. But whichever path he chooses, because of this experience, he is more well-informed to better do whatever his good or evil heart desires. If he’s a good man, he could use this experience to better understand the plight of those caught in a war so he can help them more effectively. If he’s an evil man, he could use this experience to better understand how to most hurt his enemies. And there’s the rub. Being well-read gives you more experience, more knowledge, and more wisdom, so that you are better able to do what you want to do, but it can’t change what you want to do in the first place.

Now, reading books can definitely help make people want to change. I feel more compassionate for refugees after reading novels set in refugee camps. I feel more eager to promote peace after reading novels about wars. I feel more anxious to be zealous for God after reading nonfiction about great Christian thinkers. Etc., etc. Books can do this just as actual experience can – I could also feel more compassionate for refugees after meeting and getting to know some, or be encouraged to work harder for peace after witnessing the destruction of war first-hand, or want to be more zealous for God after actually meeting a great Christian. And, as I said, with books, you can get more experience and so on than you ever could in real life, giving you more impetus to change. But you will still need to have a heart that is willing to change in the first place. I would certainly agree that quality books, if read well and thought about carefully, will encourage people to reconsider their views and examine what they think. But books alone cannot change somebody’s heart so that they will actually choose the right thing after examining and reconsidering. Books can’t change your heart. They just make you more aware and more wise so that you can more firmly and successfully pursue whatever your heart wishes to.

So I would say that being well-read makes a person more clever, more aware, not less evil. And if somebody is evil, I would say that being well-read would make him or her more quick to justify his or her evil, since again, good reading can make you closely examine what you think and believe, and so prompt you to justify it. A man who is not well-educated or well-read who steals bread to feed his family is not likely to bother carefully justifying his thievery before he carries it out. He just wants to take care of his family, and that’s a good enough reason for him. He is not concerned with having watertight logical reasons for everything he does. I, on the other hand, would have to go through a great deal of ethical wrangling before I could ever be comfortable with stealing something, mostly since my education has taught me to have those logical reasons for what I do. Another, trickier example: in many third-world countries, if you steal or murder or otherwise commit a crime, you get punished, and that’s an end of it. In America and other such more educated places, however, while criminals are certainly still punished, people tend to look for justifications for why they couldn’t help but commit that crime. Maybe the offender came from a poor background. Or was abused as a child. Or got bullied into doing something wrong. Often this can lead to a sentence being softened. Now, I’m not saying that this is wrong; I think it is good to be aware of what may have encouraged somebody to commit a crime and then try to get rid of those evil influences.3 I’m just saying that in more educated places, we tend to look more for justification. So then well-read people tend to be more concerned with having reasons for what they think, since they tend to examine themselves more, so to speak. And so in the end, I would argue that well-read, well-educated people are more artful, more alert, more careful to think things through and argue them out – not less evil.

I have seen this in my own first-hand experience growing up in third-world countries but coming from a middle-class American background. Where I live, a place where people are less educated than they are in America, there is more straightforward crime and evil like murder, robbery, bribery and the like. But these wrongs are recognized as evil by most of society. For instance, even though almost everybody pays bribes, and many people also take bribes, they will say that this is bad – most only continue doing it since they feel they have no other choice. Contrast America. I would say – and I know this will offend some people4 – that living with somebody before you’re married is wrong. This is accepted as wrong in many cultures. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen – of course people still live together before marriage sometimes even in more conservative places. But it is still recognized as wrong by most of society, again, often even by the wrongdoers themselves – they just shrug it off or ignore it. In more-educated America, on the other hand, many people have thought it through and come up with rationalizations for it. And so now many (if not most) Americans would say that it’s not wrong to live with a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage. Such people are educated. They see value in justification. Which is great – it’s good to think things through! – but they’re using their education to make it easier to do wrong. If their hearts were in a good place, they could have used the tools their education gave them to come up with reasons not to live with somebody before marriage and so make it more difficult to do wrong. Again, being well-read, and being well-educated, makes it easier to do whatever your heart wishes to do in the first place. So to sum things up, people do bad things in both poorly-educated and well-educated countries: just they do different bad things, and the people in the well-educated countries are much more concerned with explanation and rationalization.

Now, there may appear to be data contradicting my argument, namely figures showing that crime rates are lower in more educated (and so presumably more well-read) places. First of all, you can do a great deal of evil that isn’t crime, per se – you can deceive, mock, slander, hold grudges, and do a number of other things that can cause tremendous strife in a community without actually requiring violence on your part. Even just considering crime-type evil, again, if most of the population tends to justify certain types of wrongdoing, then there probably won’t be laws against it, and so it won’t count as a crime. Additionally, more educated people generally have a much easier time getting jobs, supporting themselves, etc., and so have a lesser chance of feeling that they must resort to crime, no matter how evil their hearts may be. Finally, more educated people, being more aware of the world they live in, probably have a better sense that they’ll get punished if they commit a crime (if this in fact is the case) than somebody who is not as well-educated and not as aware of the consequences awaiting criminals. A person aware in this way would probably then work out his or her evil desires in ways that are not technically criminal: once more, a well-read and well-educated person will, in my opinion, be more careful and artful in whatever he or she does.

So now you’ve seen how I think. Well-read people, I believe, are just as evil as those that are not well-read: they just work out that evil in their hearts in different, often cleverer, ways thanks to the additional knowledge they have. But this conclusion does very much come from my belief that people are evil at heart, even though they do have some good in them. Somebody who thought people were good at heart might quite reasonably conclude differently. This opinion of mine also comes from my belief that human knowledge, which we find in books,5 can only get us so far – indeed, it can often mislead us – and so books alone, having only human knowledge in them, cannot lead us as high as we can go. In some ways, this ties into another theme I’m seeing being developed in the Series of Unfortunate Events: we can never know everything, we can never really be sure of anything. I do think that we humans on our own can’t know everything or be completely sure of anything. But I also think that as a believer in Jesus, I do have something more: I have the absolute truth God gave us. I have a basis and a foundation of something I trust to be completely true to depend on, something to support me even while all other knowledge is unsure and can be challenged. God’s absolute truth also gives me a set of assumptions that I can work from, a set of postulates from which to argue. As I have explored philosophy and science and the rest from both secular and religious viewpoints, I have realized more and more than no matter what you think, you are going to need to assume something. If you believe there is no God, you are going to need to assume that somehow all the matter that makes up the universe came into existence by itself. But if you want to explain the existence of matter spiritually, you’re then going to need to assume there is a God. To get anywhere productive, you’ll need to have some supposition to work with; you’ll need to have faith in something. And I, myself, have chosen to have faith in Jesus and the Bible – not the limited human reason and knowledge that I can find in books.

1We are discussing a question brought up by the sweatered scout, after all.

2By the way, I’m not trying to say that this is the best idea, or that it’s not, for that matter. The point is that his heart was good and so he had compassion; there are multiple sensible ways he could work out that compassion.

3Consider Luke 17:1-2 (NIV here): “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.’”

4Let me just note that if I come across somebody who has done this, I do not run away screaming OH NOES EVIL PERSON GOING TO HELL. I see somebody who, just like myself, has a sinful heart that needs to be changed and who should be loved. Somebody who, before God – and God’s opinion is really the only one that counts – is more or less in the same position as me. Not somebody who should be ostracized or pointed out as Especially Bad.

5Other than the Bible – again, in my opinion.

The Hidden Hand by E. D. E. N. Southworth

Such an exciting cover, too.

Such an exciting cover, too.

The Hidden Hand
Author: Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (now that’s a mouthful!)
Pub Date: 1859
Pages: 584
Format: Kindle ebook

I had a bit of a scare reading this book. When I had first downloaded it onto my Kindle, I had been surprised at how short it was, but I shrugged and thought that then I could finish it quicker and get on to the next book on my list. So I read happily along, drawing closer and closer to 100%…and then it ended. Just ended. And there on the next page was the Project Gutenberg license. At that, I panicked. “Ack!” I thought. “What if the people at Project Gutenberg haven’t completed the book? What if they’ve abandoned the project? I’ll be left hanging FOREVER!” A terrifying thought, indeed! It’s certainly happened to me before. Once I started reading a book while visiting America and then had to leave before I could finish it, leaving me wondering the rest of the year.

So off I went to try to find the rest of the book. I checked the Amazon reviews of what I had got first, and there, indeed, multiple people were warning, “This is only the first half of the book! You’ll have to get the other half elsewhere!” Elsewhere? Elsewhere? Where elsewhere, I should like to know? I found all the free versions I could and checked them; no luck. I checked the plain text and HTML versions at Project Gutenberg, just in case the problem lay with the Kindle version. Nope. My future seemed dark indeed. Despairing, already miserably forming emergency plans of how I could get at the rest of the book by borrowing it from friends in another country in four or so months, in a hopeless whim I clicked on the name of the author at Project Gutenberg to see other works by her, to see if by any chance…Wait! There! Capitola the Madcap! Why, Capitola is the name of the heroine! Perhaps that’s it!

And indeed it was. In the front text it calls itself a “sequel” to The Hidden Hand. Sequel! A sequel to a book with no ending, that’s what. But at any rate, I was able to finish the book – phew! – and so in the end it was really twice as long as I had first thought. Anyhow! At this rate this review is going to be twice as long as I first thought.

So, The Hidden Hand. I first read it many, many years ago, maybe when I was 10 or so, and could distinctly remember a few scenes, a few paragraphs, even, but little else. And so I was happy when I finally came across it again with the recommendation of a friend. Trying not to spoil too much, it’s the story about a girl living on the streets who is discovered by her rich “uncle” and taken back to his estate, where she decides to set herself to capturing a local outlaw, Black Donald. There’s also an extensive subplot featuring a poor but noble widow and her son and all the good and bad things that happen to them. And, naturally, as you go, there are various revelations about how everybody’s related to each other and who’s going to inherit what and why who wants to kill whoever else.

Now, this book was first published in 1859, as I said. It definitely shows. This is such a very Victorian book: the evil villains, the noble heroes, the coincidences, the happily-ever-after perfectly-tied-up ending with the double wedding, the complicated family tree, the triumph of good over evil – it has it all. The fact is that I usually don’t go for books that tend towards the…well, clichéd side of the spectrum. I like books that play with old tropes, that take old themes and twist them in new ways, that surprise, that leave things a bit more mushy and complicated – and more realistic – throughout. But sometimes I just want to read a nice, neat book that entertains me and makes me laugh and then ties up everything neatly at the end. Particularly since I just got back from a trip to America that was filled with books that twisted tropes and were wildly unpredictable and left things unresolved, all leaving me with rather wracked nerves. Especially after having read eight books of the Series of Unfortunate Events in a row.

And the fact is that The Hidden Hand does what it does very well. For one, it does play a bit with those 19th-century archetypes – the heroine, for instance, is tomboyish, stubborn and independent, even if she does like to sew and embroider. (See, tough girls can do that sort of thing too. So if Capitola can sew and capture outlaws, I can knit and run Linux servers.) And some – some! – of the heroes have their flaws. But those differences are sort of beside the point – which is that this book is genuinely engrossing, exciting and satisfying despite all the stereotypes. It uses them well. So don’t expect some grand, unique, mind-blowingly creative brilliance of a work. Expect a fun, clever, exciting old-fashioned novel. And if you feel like that sort of thing, you would probably enjoy The Hidden Hand. I know I did, even if I laughed at some of the parts I was supposed to be crying at, and even if much of that enjoyment was due to too much of Lemony Snicket all at once.

Alright, now that I’ve explained that, let’s move on. How did I like the characters? Well, some of them were certainly amusing – I loved the scenes of Capitola and Old Hurricane’s arguments, for instance. And at least the central heroine and villain are pretty round and interesting as characters. But most of the people in this book are rather flat and don’t change much. Take that whole subplot I was mentioning – the noble widow, her noble son, her son’s noble love, her son’s noble friend, the vindictive villain looking for revenge – all flat, all unchanged by the end. Does that mean they’re no fun to read about? Certainly not! Indeed, one of the most memorable parts of this book for me was an incident involving that noble son, his noble friend, and his vindictive arch-enemy. They are definitely entertaining. But you are not going to get hours of mulling and analysis out of them. You are not going to spend whole meals discussing them because they’re so brilliantly new. (And yes, I have been known to do that with characters from other books.) Now, the main character, as I said, is more interesting, but (as far as I can see) there isn’t much change in her by the end. But she is still fun to read about. The whole book is this way – entertaining, but not that deep. And that’s okay.

As for the plot, again, definitely a very Victorian plot – if you don’t like coincidences, stay well away! And if it bugs you when good always triumphs over evil – stay away! But again, it’s very entertaining, and the book as a whole is surprisingly fast-moving despite the complexity of the plot. Now, I would say that some bits with the widow and her son do get a bit dull (I, for one, don’t mind, but I read fast…), but later on the plot thickens and things grow more interesting. Capitola’s exploits, on the other hand, are always great fun. Then the end, of course, is very neatly tied up, but even if part of me rolls my eyes and says “This is so overdone!”, another part of me wriggles in satisfied delight.

Now, one of my favorite parts of reading older books is learning really obscure words. Jane Eyre, for instance, taught me “confabulate,” which basically means “chat.” “Confabulate.” It is just so long. It amuses me tremendously. Anyhow, this book certainly has its share of weird words. There are a few ones that actually seem that they would be surprisingly useful – one (which I forgot, perhaps with bad implications for its usefulness…) meaning a marriage motivated by money, and another, “contumacious,” meaning “stubbornly disobedient to authority,” for instance. And then there are some that are just amusing:

‘Oh, mother!’ exclaimed the boy, while a violent blush overspread and empurpled his face!

Empurpled! Awesome! Next time I blush I want to be empurpled! Okay, fine, I’m kidding. But if you like to read books with weird, delightful words, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s not as great as Jane Eyre for words, but it’s still good. Speaking of words, there is the writing style. Well, again, this is a 19th-century novel; the author is no Hemingway. But the she is fairly sparse with descriptions, and the dialog, if sometimes rather wordy, still has plenty of life to it.

I am so glad that I found this book again, not to mention that I managed to procure the second part, since it was a delight to read! The complicated, fast-moving plot, the fun characters, the awesome words, and the wonderfully tied-up ending (a rare sight in contemporary fiction, you must admit) all made for a satisfying read. If you feel like a break from the somewhat grim realism, plain writing, and comparatively simple plots of much modern literature, you might enjoy this novel. And perhaps best of all – it’s free! (Just make sure to get both The Hidden Hand and Capitola the Madcap!)