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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.