Spoiler Rating: Moderate
With the failure of Crown Duel in mind, I spent a good half hour prowling through the bookstore last weekend, on the hunt for something similar that didn’t look likely to break my heart. And lo, there was Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
Ashers, my life will never be the same.
Once, a hero rose to save the world. He failed.
For a thousand years since, the world has been a wasteland of ash and mist ruled by the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler. Every revolt has failed miserably.
Yet somehow, hope survives. Hope that dares to dream of ending the empire and defeating the Lord Ruler. A new kind of uprising is being planned–one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and the determination of an unlikely heroine: a teenage street urchin named Vin.
Where a hero rose to save the world and failed, can a young heroine succeed?
Vin Is Not A Spunky Heroine
Vin was raised on the streets of the capital city by her elder brother, who beat her to teach her to withstand beatings, and who betrayed her to teach her that no one can be trusted. When the story opens, she’s basically the indentured servant of a street-gang crewleader. Does she parade around with a mischievous glint in her eye, getting cheeky with the gang leader and leading the imperial guards on a merry chase that she always wins?
Vin’s observant, intelligent, curious, strong-willed, and brave–but also mistrustful, paranoid, and always braced for the worst. In other words, she’s a real person who’s been markedly affected by the world in which she grew up, not a Spunky Heroine who strolls through hardship with a smirk. Three cheers for that!
(And don’t worry, Camon doesn’t keep her down for long.)
Kelsier Is Your Kind Of Guy
That “brilliant criminal mastermind” mentioned in the synopsis is Kelsier, a man in his mid-thirties who’s totally hot in a way you’ll like: the nonchalant-but-totally-powerful, has-a-risky-plan-to-change-the-world, will-kill-and/or-die-to-succeed sort of way.
But, like Vin, Kelsier comes across as (and yes, this is once more italics-worthy) a real person. He has flaws as well as strengths, and those flaws become increasingly apparent as you get to know him. Neither of these characters are perfect, and their imperfection is fantastic.
Their Mission Is A Team Effort
Ashers, you’re a Pathfinder-playing lady. I know you appreciate a good story featuring people of varying talents working together to…do whatever it is that people of varying talents work together to do. And although only Vin and Kelsier are mentioned in the synopsis (and are the only POV characters), Mistborn is totally a team-driven book.
Kelsier leads a hand-selected group of underground magic users, hired by a man named Yeden for a very daunting purpose.
Each of Kelsier’s men (plus Vin) has a specific ability that makes them essential to the scheme, and if anyone fails, terrible deaths await them all. Likely at the hands of one of these guys:
The Tone Is Well-Balanced
Obviously, Vin’s life hasn’t been roses–and what we see of her life before she’s taken in by Kelsier is, uh, unpleasant to say the very least. Her treatment at the hands of her original crewleader is deplorable, and both the abuse and her reaction to it comes across as brutally honest.
But I don’t want you to think that this book is entirely gritty and grim, because it’s not. Kelsier’s charming and witty and funny, and his men have some genuinely humorous interactions as their personalities meld and clash.
The plot is all about a skaa (read: slave/slave-ish) rebellion against the Lord Ruler, led by the skaa/noble halfbreed Kelsier–but so much of the story is about how the rebellion changes people. And it is glorious.
You remember who Part Two of Crown Duel involved the heroine Mel “infiltrating” the king’s court to do some spying, which resulted in chapter after chapter of her learning courtly manners and having awkward interactions with sexy Shevraeth, but not much else?
Street urchin Vin, like Mel, is put in a ballgown and thrust into noble society to do some spying:
Unlike Mel’s experience, (a) things happen when Vin enters court, (b) those things make sense, and (c) those things matter. All of which is made even more powerful by how realistically Vin’s slow transformation from powerless, paranoid thief to noblewoman-impersonator (with secret and powerful magical abilities) is portrayed. It’s in the way she moves, where she directs her gaze, the decisions she makes, the words she chooses. Her transformation is real, because it is slow and subtle and doesn’t change everything about her; she still struggles with trust, and this struggle affects both her transformation and the plot.
How awesome is that?
And yes, she does meet someone at her first ball. And no, I’m not going to tell you anything about that.
Vin’s trust issues play into a larger shadow of betrayal that sort of looms over the entire story, making for some powerful tension as Vin waits for the next betrayal to happen. Each character is suspect, and each one’s potential betrayal would be potentially devastating.
Vin grew up with the knowledge that everyone will eventually betray her, and therefore no one is to be trusted. When she gets picked up by Kelsier to be part of his scheme to bring down the Lord Ruler, she’s confused and disbelieving to witness how Kelsier trusts his men, and they trust him. Vin isn’t forced to work for Kelsier and his team; he gives her a choice to stay or go, and she stays not because she believes that their scheme is right or just or worthy, but because she wants to see exactly how this whole “everybody trusts everybody” nonsense pans out for Kelsier and his team. It can only end badly, she thinks–but at the same time, she longs to be proved wrong.
I love it.
Motives And Doubts
Vin’s motives to stay with Kelsier’s team aren’t particularly noble or self-sacrificing in the beginning, but, like all realistic motives, they slowly change over the course of the story. This, of course, ties back into the whole Vin-feels-like-a-real-person thing I like so much.
But Vin isn’t the only realistic one. This story has a decently-sized cast of significant characters, and each one approaches their insane mission with their own motives and (are you ready for this?) doubts. They aren’t all one hundred percent certain that what they’re doing is feasible, or even right. They doubt their methods and their abilities. Hell, they even doubt Kelsier, their leader:
And as the plot thickens, their doubts strengthen, affecting their interactions and their morale, doing wonderful things to the story’s tension. Man, I’m all up on this book.
Uprisings kind of tend to be complex situations, as a rule–and although Mistborn would have to be twice as long to really delve into the myriad details of such an uprising (thereby becoming pretty boring), it does the situation’s complexity justice. Not to keep beating up Crown Duel, but it really was far too simplistic in its approach to overthrowing an unfit ruler. Yes, Mel realized her plan was too simplistic and unrealistic. Yes, she had to attain the aid of someone closer to court politics. Yes, there was a hint about how the common people living closest to the king were less interested in rebellion than those in Mel’s distant county. But that was about the extent of it.
Mistborn, on the other hand, shows how the threat (and reality) of a skaa rebellion affects not only the people directly involved, but also the upper and lower classes’ daily lives, the empire’s economics, noble’s (and Ministries’) shady political maneuverings, and so on.
Take this, for example. Very early in the book, Camon (the leader of the skaa thieving crew whom Vin is indentured to) is in one of his characteristic bad moods:
Did you think all of the skaa would be frothing at the mouth for an uprising? They’re not. That would be too simplistic and unrealistic, not to mention dreadfully dull.
I absolutely adore books that pay attention to realism.
Do I have some issues with it? Yes. But they’re really just minor irritations in what’s otherwise a really fantastic book.
One, for example–and this is extremely nitpicky, and perhaps is clarified later in the series–is the absence of flowers. In this world, massive volcanoes have filled the skies with smoke and ash for (we assume) a thousand years, leaving the sun a hazy red orb and the stars invisible. The people battle to protect meager crops from the ash and a generally poor climate. Plants are brown (or occasionally yellow or red), and the very idea that plants can be green is laughable. Flowers, too, are a totally foreign concept. Yet fruit exists.
There are a handful of details like this that don’t mean anything–don’t affect the characters or the plot at all–that nonetheless irritate, because they’re not explained.
Even worse, there’s one issue that does affect the plot. See, the magic system Kelsier and Vin use (to be super vague, sorry) in part involves being able to push and pull metal objects directly away or towards themselves. In straight lines. Not angles, not curves. Yet Kelsier manages to move things in directions other than directly toward or away from him, and this sets my eye atwitch. I mean, the book makes a big deal out of this particular limitation of the magic, and forgets it completely in a couple of key scenes.
Did these flaws ultimately affect my enjoyment of the book, though? No. Definitely not.
Let me conclude by confessing that Mistborn affected me more intensely than I’d anticipated; no lie, I sobbed.
I present this as proof that this book is truly great.