Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

Hello there! This will be the first of what I intend to be a series of reviews of assorted books, movies, music, etc. that catch my fancy. I'm not quite certain how often I will post, but let's give it a go...

Mistborn is the first book in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, a relative newcomer to the Fantasy genre, and demonstrates his absolutely fantastic skill at turning the conventions of traditional Fantasy writing on their head. We open with a passage from the perspective of an unnamed, unknown speaker; he is the Hero of Ages, or so he's been told, but he has doubts about his own authenticity. The reluctant hero in the extreme, it would appear... Each chapter of the book begins with these passages, which Sanderson refers to as epigraphs, giving us further insight into this particular character; insight which we come to rely upon throughout the book to try and give us a glimpse into a distant and very different past.

Flash to the modern-day of the Final Empire, so-called because its leader, the Lord Ruler, is immortal, un-defeatable, and has ruled the entirety of the world for a thousand years. The sun and sky are red as blood, the plants are brown, and the closest things to weather that anyone has known in a hundred lifetimes are the periodic ashfalls, caused by a ring of volcanoes surrounding the capital city of Luthadel, and the nightly mists. Thicker than fog, they appear at sunset each night and vanish with the dawn each morning, and are the subject of much superstition and speculation. The skaa, the worker population, believe that the mists will kill you if you're caught out in them, or that you'll be eaten by one of the misterious mistwraiths; all of the skaa, save for the occasional Misting, one who has the forbidden power of Allomancy.

Allomancy is perhaps Sanderson's most fascinating convention, as a magic system based entirely on the ingestion and "burning" of one of the eight Allomantic Metals; iron, steel, pewter, tin, copper, bronze, zinc, and brass. There are eight types of Misting, each of whom can burn one of the eight metals. Then, there are the Mistborn themselves, who can burn any and all of the eight metals, along with the two "higher" metals, gold and atium. Atium itself is very special indeed, as it grants its wielder the ability to see into the future, if only by a few moments, to know the actions of an opponent. Faced with a Mistborn burning atium, you have only one defense--to be burning it yourself.

The story centers on three main characters; Vin, the street urchin, who grew up with her brother, Reen, on the streets of Luthadel, surviving as members of thieving crews, and only by their wits; Kelsier, known as the Survivor of Hathsin, a skaa Mistborn (a special kind of rarity in itself) who was sent to the Pits of Hathsin as punishment for a crime against the Lord Ruler himself; and last, but not least, our unnamed writer of the epigraphs, who provides the final and most crucial clues to the plot.

Sanderson's characters are wonderfully developed in ways that one doesn't really expect, with razor-sharp dialogue, and endearing but not overdone personality quirks that bring you to really care about them. The book is part fantasy, part Ocean's Eleven, and part martial arts action story. The combat scenes, relying on the part science, part magic nature of Allomancy, are fast-paced and well detailed without being monotonous or too much play-by-play. Similarly, the descriptions of the rich backdrop of Luthadel and its surrounding environs are provided through Vin's eyes--having grown up on the streets of the capital city, she knows no more about the wider world than we do as the readers, so it becomes a learning process for us all that flows very naturally.

The plot twists in ways that are rarely the expected path. Many times through the book, when I thought I knew exactly what would happen next, I could not have been more wrong, which made me love the tale even more! Sanderson brings the book to a startling conclusion that leaves you salivating for the next volume in the series, as Vin's world, and your own, is blown wide open.

Mistborn is an absolute must-read whether you love the fantasy genre, or have never once in your life picked up a novel that stepped outside the real world.