This past weekend I finished up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
In terms of genre fiction craft, this series is superb. The fantasy story revolves around a prophesied savior from a vague enemy lurking in the murky distance of time (we think) and the oppressive semi-industrial world that he’s created afterwards.
I have lost track of the number of times that Sanderson rotates his mythological framework by thirty degrees at a time, revealing a new angle to the concepts he has already laid out without compromising the integrity of the mythos to date. That is hard, and Sanderson has woven an intricate double-helix of truth, history, and magical systems that expand inward and backwards into the story’s history without losing an ounce of immediate relevance.
Mistborn is a series full of action that belongs in an anime series or a beautiful graphic novel or twenty. His fight choreography is dynamic, dramatic, and tight. He lays out powers, teaches how they are used, and for the next three novels we get to see characters improvise, improve, and double-down on the potential laid out in a coherent magical system.
Sanderson’s characters are dynamic, bright, and bold. They’re quick to learn, easy to like, and they are dynamic as all-get-out. No matter how large a role the characters play, they grow and change in relevant ways as the story progresses.
Sanderson’s non-human and human-modified races are interesting, unique, and completely fit into his mythology. The “new” discoveries of their nature and origin touch on facts that have been consistent in all previous novels. This was one well-planned work.
The result of his careful planning and tightly woven character growth is a narrative energy that flags slightly in the beginning of the second novel (Even great writers are not immune to the Big Swampy Middle) only to redouble in scope and import. This is a truly epic story crafted well, full of narrative twists and turns to entertain many, if not most comers.
As a piece of writing craft, Mistborn is one of the better fantasy offerings I have encountered recently. It’s less nihilistic and deliberately sadistic to the readers than Martin’s work, though the scope is somewhat less grand in terms of narrative if not in terms of consequence.
I wanted to say those positive things first before I hit the point where I talk about why the series fills me with sadness.
Mistborn, more than any story I have watched or read since the original Ong Bak film, makes me so very glad that I am not left with the options of godlessness and power. Mistborn screams from start to finish with an implicit angst born of the lack of a true God. A supposed savior of old has set himself up as the only god, destroyed all other religions, and set up a dystopia straight out of Marxist propaganda videos, or a college “sociology” class. Really, truly nauseating modernist distortion of peasants and social classes. No society in the history of the world was ever as oppressive as Mistborn‘s Final Empire. It’s genuinely nauseating to immerse in. That makes it great to root for the band of thieving conspirators who set up to overthrow it, but the lack of ethics other than affection or loyalty within the crew is stunning. Heroes lie, cheat, steal, set themselves up as objects of worship, covet, slander, and murder… but it is all supposed to be OK because they are fighting the Marxist nightmare around them.
The solution to a false god-king? More man-made religions! Patently false religions made up by men! Worship of the dead as god! But wait… it gets even better…
Mistborn appears to point out and revolve around the nature and identity of the divine. Scholars collect destroyed religions in secret. Dead heroes are worshiped as gods by people who know that they’re inventing the religion themselves. People who know those who invent religions are in favor of them instead of shocked. It would dishonor Mr. Sanderson’s incredible plotting and work to go further into the question of whether or not there are any superhuman powers, or if those who have passed on are able to become something more than they had been by one mechanism or another. Sanderson really does dig at the topic ever more as the growing threats loom on a dying world. The mist, the ashmounts, prophecy, and more all come together in what is one of the technically best-crafted endings I have read all year. That does not, however, change the fact that for the most part all religion in this series is a pile of man-made obviously untrustworthy manure.
It is an indication that I live in a post-Christian society that I expected more disbelief at the notion. The truth is that in the course of world history blatantly invented faiths have been pervasive. Judeo-Christian terms would talk about it as idolatry, people who make something physical, call it their god, and then look to it for supernatural aid. From Roman household gods to the golden calf at Mt. Sinai.
Fantasy was originally the domain of the Believer, though the object of belief has changed from culture to culture. Fantasy draws upon the historical epic in which the gods undoubtedly functioned. Christianity’s touch on the genre shows up as early as Beowulf and the touchstone gold standard of modern fantasy remains The Lord of the Rings, an intentionally religious work whose entire history and mythology is filtered through Mr. Tolkien’s Catholicism. In the late sixties and early seventies atheists and anti-theists have tried to take the reigns of fantasy, but it is of limited success, and Mistborn highlights the problem. There is quite enough drama in the life of one touched by the gods, but the modernist refusal to have any gods worthy of the name constantly turns to a single, dreary, endlessly repeated monotone of theology:
There is a world of magic and wonder. A supernatural evil exists (somehow) and piddly humans must save it with their own power and resources because God is (A: dead, B: never existed, C: actually evil) not going to help. If something does help, it will be something untrustworthy, lying or pretending about its nature, or just another mortal.
Mistborn is to be praised for at least addressing the inevitable slump to which non-believer’s fantasy must fall: When man “kills” the idea of God, the only answer to supernatural evil is for man to become God, either a god-king, a god-like hero, Super Saiyan Level 15, The Dragon Reborn, or Raistlin.
And that is one thing I get out of stories like this. No one can wreck our world because it is maintained by a power more able to preserve than we are to destroy. The fate of the world can never depend upon us because its fate has already been won on a cross. Does this mean there can be no fantasy, no drama? Hardly! In science fiction terms the rise and fall of a single planet, city, or space station is no more of a stretch than the rise or fall of an earthly kingdom, or the Shire. There is enough drama in a people leaving slavery (Exodus) a just king coming into his throne (David) the exiled claimant seeking his due (Bonnie Prince Charlie) the lowly defenders of the mighty changing the fate of nations (Three Musketeers) or a struggle to survive the siege of a city, etc. Only man-focused pride must make man-focused action the linchpin for all time and space.
That being said, if you can stomach yet another early-industrial dystopia in fiction, or you haven’t played through one of the Fable games recently, Mistborn is a technically exceptional and thoroughly well-plotted story that is well worth your time.