Friday, September 4, 2020

"The Final Empire," by Brandon Sanderson--Fiction Review

Good Morning dear obscure readers of the interwebs, how about we talk about an epic fantasy by one of the best in the business, “The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson. It’s got a whole complex mythos and rigorously detailed magic system.

Brandon Sanderson

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

As the first book of the Mistborn trilogy, “The Final Empire,” serves to introduce this sweeping epic world and its strange magic called Allomancy. As one of the all-time best world builders I’ve read, how Brandon Sanderson sets up the world of the Mistborn is immensely impressive. There is a depth of world history and a complexity to not only how that world works, but he builds fine-tuned cultures that inhabit this world. 

Sanderson’s character work is also first-rate, this skill, combined with his talents as a worldbuilder, is what makes him one of the best fantasy writers of today. Each of the characters, from the primary protagonist Vin, her mentor Kelsier, to Kelsier’s crew of thieves, are all exquisitely fleshed out and polished to a gleam. No two characters sound the same, and they all have their distinctive roles within the narrative. 

I find the antagonist of this novel, the Lord Ruler himself, to be the most interesting character of the story. The protagonists find the journal of this malevolent figure, who once held ultimate power and changed the very world itself with the power of a god and created the first allomancers. He’s a figure that has lived for thousands of years, enslaved generations of people, and ruled as a tyrant since the beginning of his reign. But in the journal, the Lord Ruler seems like a kind soul. He’s a man who doesn’t shrink from violence but wants what is best for all. It’s an interesting mystery of how the past idealistic man in the journal became the despot tyrant of the present.  

What I don’t love about this book:

More a critique about all of Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy work, then just this novel specifically—but he has a way of meandering in one location for way, way too long. Sanderson creates sandboxes the size of continents, populated with diverse and exciting people, and then—especially in this novel—we spend almost all our time in the same twenty square miles of that continent-sized sandbox. Luthadel, where we spend most of that time, is an interesting city, don’t get me wrong, Sanderson packs so much into it it’s like a fantasy version of old New York City—but it is still just one city, and the Final Empire covers a whole planet.   

For me, the revelation of how the Lord Ruler became the way that he is, felt like a massive cop-out and was ultimately disappointing. It’s the main reason I didn’t enjoy the ending of “The Final Empire” as much as I thought I would. Well, that’s not entirely true, at the time that I read it I thought I liked the ending, but then I stewed on it for a few days and was horrified to realize that I didn’t like the end. Horrified because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much, and endings are my favorite parts of stories—so how could I not love the ending? It was a whole existential crisis for me, well, as first-world reading problems go, that is, I mean, it’s no scavenging for food in the wilderness kind of problem.   

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story opens on a plantation. A nobleman is surveying his fields while meeting an important man from the capital. As pleasantries, they discuss the peasants who work the noble man’s fields—skaa they’re called—and they’re slaves. After the visit, the nobleman thinks casually about raping one of the skaa girls when he sees a skaa grin at him, and he’s so taken aback he struggles to find his guard to go and whip the man. By the time he returns to his wits, the skaa man is gone—vanished. That night the smiling skaa, Kelsier leader of a skaa rebellion, kills that nobleman and all his guards and finally burns down his manor. 

Then the narrative shifts to focus on the actual protagonist of this trilogy, a young thief named Vin. Before meeting Kelsier and his crew, Vin isn’t totally aware of her powers. She’s sure that she has something that helps her get by that she calls her “luck,” but introspection isn’t a luxury Vin can afford in this hardscrabble world.

After meeting Kelsier, a Mistborn, and his crew of Mistings—a lesser form of Mistborn that only has access to one field of magical power, unlike Mistborn, who have access to all allomantic magics—Vin learns that she is Mistborn too. This begins Vin’s education on what it is to be a Mistborn, users of allomancy, which is a form of magic that utilizes different metals, ingested by the users, to create various magical effects. 

During her training with Kelsier and the other Mistings, Vin learns that the crew’s ultimate goal is to overthrow the Lord Ruler himself, the god-emperor who has ruled the Final Empire for nearly a millennium. She, of course, thinks the scheme is madness, but not having better options, she goes along with the plan.

As part of Kelsier’s crew, other than being another Mistborn, Vin’s primary job is to infiltrate the noble society of Luthadel—the capital city of the Final Empire. It’s while she’s attending several society functions, in the guise of Valette Renoux, that she meets and falls in love with Elend Venture, the son of a prominent noble lord.

Meanwhile, the rebellion picks up more steam in recruitment because Kelsier claims to have found an eleventh secret metal of Allomancy, which he will use to defeat the Lord Ruler. Things are going well for the heroes, so well, that Kelsier and Vin even manage to sneak into the Lord Ruler’s palace and escape with their lives and the Lord Ruler’s journal from before the Final Empire, back when he was known as the Hero of Ages. The journal depicts a man in jarring contrast to the man the Lord Ruler became in the present. 

Eventually, though, the rebellion begins unraveling, as it has always done over all the long years of the Final Empire. Their secret army that Kelsier has been painstakingly building out in the wilderness gets too confident in itself and exposes its location, only to be subsequently crushed.

Diminished, and back in Luthadel, Kelsier’s rebellion is forced into increasingly desperate straits to survive. Kelsier even faces the Lord Ruler himself in single combat and is killed with very little fanfare.

Kelsier, however, planned on this contingency and planned to spin his death as a martyr for the cause to inspire all skaa to rise up and rebel. Furthermore, using one of his allies’ uncanny ability to disguise himself as someone else, namely the dead Kelsier, it even seems like Kelsier has come back from the dead to lead the skaa. Then the true rebellion begins, as every skaa rises up to overthrow the nobility and the Lord Ruler.

In the final confrontation of the Lord Ruler, Vin’s use of the eleventh metal doesn’t directly lead to the mad tyrant’s defeat. What she learns through its use is that the Lord Ruler isn’t the man in the journal, and wasn’t the actual Hero of Ages. He was one of his guides, Rashek, who betrayed the hero in the journal to his death and took the power meant for the hero for himself and created the hellish current day world. Through this knowledge, though, Vin discovers how Rashek has been keeping himself alive all these years and separates him from it, which causes him to age rapidly, Indiana-Jones-style, to his death.           


“The Final Empire,” despite being a story taking place in one of the most oppressive settings possible, is ultimately a story about hope. Even though the various rebellions against the Final Empire have always failed, for centuries, and the current resistance even assumes it too will fail—they persist. They plan for and prepare stratagems that will take place over generations, centuries even. Sanderson’s point, I believe, is that ultimately, no matter how successful—an autocracy is intolerable. People will always resist.

As I’ve hinted above, the most moving aspect is the characters that live through Sanderson’s plot of “The Final Empire.” I’ve purposely omitted most of them because the true cast of character’s in this novel is staggering. How he manages to give them all their moment in the sun and make them all distinct personages, is truly amazing. Plus, on top of all that, another thing I had to omit most of is the sheer detail and complexity of the world Sanderson built for these characters.    

My biggest problem with this book is the end, it’s not the worst ending in the world by any means, but after such a consistent A+ performance throughout this very long book, a C- ending leaves a bad after taste in my mouth. Having Rashek not be the hero from the journal, but just some prick who betrays him last minute and assumes his identity misses a massive opportunity in my mind. That opportunity was to show how absolute power and the immortality of an autocratic ruler, no matter how well-meaning at the beginning, is inevitably unstable. It would always lead to despotism, and that corruption of a good man to becoming a despot is an interesting story, there are even hints in the journal that this is how it would of went. To have the mystery summed up at the end of why the hero in the journal is nothing like the Lord Ruler because it turns out he just isn’t that guy, but some dickhead who was always a vicious power grasper—is unsatisfying to me.  

Parting thoughts:

Another thing I didn’t point out in my analysis that I wanted to use as a jumping-off point for my parting thoughts is that “The Final Empire” also works as an indictment of ideological purity. Kelsier and the Lord Ruler, while being diametrically opposed, share this quality in that they demand people share their exact worldview and values—everyone outside of that is the enemy. Kelsier, by the end of his life, unlike the Lord Ruler, learns to overcome his prejudices when he saves Elend Venture despite him being noble-born. 

The primary problem with ideological purity is that it is ultimately a self-defeating way of thinking. Because of its inflexibility, it alienates potential allies because a person who demands it basically says—if you don’t believe everything I do, in precisely the way I do, well, then you’re a traitor to our cause. Great leaders don’t maintain such a belief system because there are just too many divergent perspectives out there, people with vastly different life experiences, to reasonably expect people to follow lockstep with one set of principles. 

It’s great to see when your intellectual opponents engage in ideological purity purges because then you can strategize how to pick them apart, which will be made easier because they will be actively narrowing their pool of supporters. What’s more difficult is when you see it in your friends or your allies.

When the focus turns away from opposing the opposite ideological perspective and becomes more concerned with who is a “bad” ally, this is a symptom of rot in the foundation. Because there is nuance in everything, so-called “bad” allies should be addressed, especially if they’re overwhelmingly hurting their own cause. But when it becomes a movement’s primary focus to root out traitors, however, it means that side has stopped winning significant contests against the opposition and is looking to fight easier battles—not for any gain but only to save face.       

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