I was convinced that I was done with reading epic fantasy when Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn found me. I had checked the book out from the library, curious about the then-recent news that this guy was taking over The Wheel of Time series.
In all honesty, I was expecting Mistborn to fulfill the deadening tropes that had driven me away from the genre: limited character development, overly complex worlds in lieu of actual plotting and momentum, mysteries dependent on characters pointedly not speaking to each other, or just not acting normally, and so on.
What I ended up finding in Mistborn was a direct response to those stereotypes: a brisk, engaging tale with vibrant characters that felt fresh. And ninjas with physics powers!
The world of Mistborn is a brown, ash-strewn place. The sky is always clouded and volcanoes dot the landscape. Keeping order throughout the land is the immortal Lord Ruler and his various stormtroopers and caste-creating laws and so on. It’s a pretty bleak, hardscrabble place. The concept of “fun” can be equated roughly to “I didn’t die today!”
This should already sound familiar to you if you’ve read through George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Westeros, while a land of beauty and plenty, seems insistent on giving its inhabitants the bleakest lives possible, especially if you’re female. What Mistborn does differently, however, is insert a reasonable and highly capable optimist in the midst of this drudgery.
Out of Sanderson’s world come high-class thief Kelsier and street-level thief Vin, the former of which is a Mistborn, and the latter of which finds out she’s a Mistborn through Kelsier’s tutelage. Vin is our viewpoint throughout this book and we see her grow from a skittish, fearful urchin into a confident, revolutionary young woman. Mistborns are intensely powerful users of this series’ magic system, and thus are pretty rare, so it would seem that Kelsier and Vin are bound to shake the roof the world….
So why is Kelsier merely content with heisting the Lord Ruler’s wealth and calling it a day?
The motivations and morality of Vin and Kelsier are extraordinarily grey. Kelsier is here to steal the most valuable element in the world and Vin could care less about saving anyone. (Even herself, at first.) There are no out and out hero journeys here. In fact, any time one of the characters reacts to their world as if they existed in an epic fantasy novel, they end up derailing their plans entirely. (There’s an example of this two-thirds of the way in that is so stunning I couldn’t figure out how the characters would ever recover from it.) This refusal to fit the usual epic fantasy plot structure keeps Mistborn exciting and keeps you exploring the world Sanderson has created.
In contrast to A Game of Thrones, the magic system of Mistborn (Allomancy) is very physically present, detailed without being overwhelming, and fun. The magic fights are very dynamic and immediately bring to mind a childhood glee, the kind that makes you want to rush outside and launch yourself into the air, pretending to be an Allomancer. (If you weren’t 30 years old, that is.)
Even better, Mistborn is a complete experience. Every struggle and nearly every question brought up in the first book is answered in that book. You’ll want to read the whole trilogy just to see what in the heck Sanderson possibly does next, but if you’re a bit over-exhausted by fantasy, you can still stop after the first book and pick up the series later.
Need a good palate cleanser? Or a reminder that epic fantasy can come about in many different shades? Mistborn awaits.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and knows for a fact that Mistborn fans have a very cool surprise awaiting them at the end of The Alloy of Law.