That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Subverting Expectations: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

I started reading Mistborn: The Final Empire while I was deep in my own research for my first book, Level Up Your Life, a strategy guide for people to look at life like an adventure and live out the real-life version of the Hero’s Journey. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a concept that many great stories in history—from the Bible and the tales of King Arthur through The Lord of the Rings—follow a specific arc: a fish out of water befriends a mentor, receives a call to action, embarks on an extraordinary journey, faces tribulations and recruits allies, saves the day, and returns home a changed person.

Having just gone on a reading spree (tearing through The Warded Man, The Kingkiller Chronicles, and A Song of Ice and Fire), I was wary of starting another sprawling epic series that would consume my life. After avoiding Mistborn: The Final Empire in my Kindle queue for well over a year, after hearing about it from so many freaking people, I finally broke down and started reading.

Now, because I was so involved with Hero’s Journey research, I entered Mistborn expecting to enjoy a fun, engrossing tale that followed a traditional path. Instead, I was thrown into a world which flipped many well-worn fantasy tropes on their head in really unexpected ways. It was a powerful reminder that the best stories take unexpected turns and the best characters don’t follow traditional archetypes. Two weeks later I had read through all three books, and the series seemed to occupy every waking minute of my free time.

First, I had expected the book to start in the green fields of the Shire or Two Rivers. But there were no roaring rivers, no majestically constructed towns and castles to make me feel safe and comfortable. Instead, I was thrust into an ash-covered barren wasteland. To put it bluntly, in Scadrial life sucks for most people, and there’s not much to look forward to. The book begins with the disturbing concept: “What if the bad guy actually won?” You see, there’s the “Lord Ruler,” who has reigned for 1,000+ years after saving humanity from absolute destruction—he was the hero! Now, while those at the bottom of the social pyramid (the Ska) live boring but relatively secure lives, true freedom has been compromised for safety while Lord Ruler has control.

Second, there are no characters that fit neatly into the neat archetypes that we would expect to see from a fantasy series. Instead we’re shown real characters with checkered pasts and ulterior motives, who demonstrate ambiguous, questionable judgment. Or, in other words, they’re authentic. No offense to Frodo and Sam, but I loved reading about people that operated in the grey space between black and white. Vin, our main protagonist, is an orphaned thief unaware of her powers and suspicious of everybody around her. Her mentor, Kelsier, is the leader of a crew of thieves gathered to overthrow the ruling parties and return freedom to the Ska.

Sounds simple enough, right? Neither of these characters’ motives are obvious, and I found myself second guessing my own opinions about both as the story developed. The story becomes real and impossible to put down, because we can’t fill out the ending in our heads. My perspective on who the hero was, and where this story’s arc was heading changed completely as I read.

Next, we have Allomancy. What more needs to be said about maybe the most creative magic system ever seen in a fantasy setting? Instead of simply giving characters magical powers or making them wave a magic wand, Sanderson has given us a unique implementation. Some people are born with the ability to ingest small amounts of different metals, granting them special abilities. For example, consuming steel allows a “coinshot” to push against metal objects, sending the object flying if it weighs less than the Allomancer. Or, if the Allomancer weighs less than the metal object, the Allomancer is sent flying! Consuming aluminum has an opposite skill, freeing up the user to “pull” against metal.

My favorite use of these particular skills has to be their use in conjunction with embedded metal spikes spaced strategically between cities. This system allows Allomancers to “push” themselves through the air from one spike to the next in rapid fashion, giving them the ability to travel great distances—practically flying through the air—at incredible speed. Throw in some creative use of dropping coins to “push” against them to launch somebody up or down, and you get the equivalent of Magneto-like power, manipulating the environment around them.

Outside of metal manipulation, there are other fantastic abilities: burning tin allows an Allomancer to have heightened senses, while burning pewter gives the user boosted physical abilities and makes them great fighters. There are a dozen other metals, each with their own hidden abilities and potentially other secret uses. Thanks to mechanics like this, you’ll constantly be wondering throughout the book who is burning what, and just how much each person is revealing their particular abilities—both good guys and bad.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention maybe the most bone-chilling and creepy character type I’ve ever encountered in a novel: Steel Inquisitors. Just typing those words out made my skin crawl. These are people who have massive metal spikes driven through their eye sockets (and out the back of their head), giving them supernatural, Allomancer-esque powers and making them incredibly difficult to kill. Like the invincible Lord Ruler, the Steel Inquisitors are capable of a brutality that’s both awe-inspiring and horrific. Their arrival in any situation is enough to put you on edge, fearing for everybody’s lives; however, just like everything in this series, even the Inquisitors are not as they seem.

We’ve come to expect something from the heroes of our favorite stories—a familiar setting, story arc, and traditional, feel-good ending. Sanderson understands this, and brings his story alive by subverting our expectations. Throughout the story, he zigs when you think the only move is to zag. In fact, just when you think things are going well and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, the rug is brutally pulled out from underneath you. It wasn’t until the final pages that I finally understood where the story was going.

When I dove into the Mistborn world I was deeply immersed in how the Hero’s Journey applies to our own mere mortal lives. Sanderson reminded me that even while living out our own Hero’s Journey there is room for unpredictability. Our quests and surroundings may change, and our idea of a rewarding ending can morph into something we never imagined. And that is pretty damn cool.

I realize here on Tor.com I might be preaching to the choir, so thank you for allowing me to gush about a series I was late to the party on. I’ve never been so engrossed with a cast of characters, magic system, and a plot that had enough twists to keep me guessing until the final page. See you all in Scadrial.

Steve Kamb is the author of Level Up Your Life and the force behind NerdFitness.com, which began as a simple blog that has since evolved into a worldwide community of nerds, average Joes, and desk jockeys helping each other make positive changes in their lives. He lives in New York City, and hopes to one day become Captain America.

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