It is often stated that the Epic Fantasy genre has gone through significant changes in the last decade or two compared to its previous existence. There is often a line drawn between the traditional fantasies of Tolkien or later followers like Feist or Eddings and the more modern fantasies of GRRM, Abercrombie or Morgan which tends to have adjectives like gritty, cynical or ‘grimdark’ applied to them. I think dividing the genre like that does tend to feel a bit simplistic and Sanderson’s Mistborn series is one example of why that is. This is a series set in a world far bleaker and nastier than most of those found in other modern fantasy series, but the style of writing and storytelling feels more reminiscent of the popular fantasy series of the 80s and 90s and as a result it is a much lighter read than might be expected given the plot.
I’ve seen the series praised for its worldbuilding, this praise often seems to focus on the inventive magic system Sanderson has designed, but I think the design of the world itself is more important to the book. The story is set millennia after a prophesied hero defeated an evil threatening the entire world and then promptly seized power himself. Since then the seemingly immortal Lord Ruler has come to dominate every part of the world, the only permitted religion being the one that portrays him as a divine ruler whose edicts are unquestionable. The world itself is covered in almost perpetual gloom due to the ever-present ash clouds and mists while most of the population have short and miserable lives of drudgery trying to eke a living out an unproductive land, the only luxuries being reserved for the small elite of noblemen who oppress the rest of the population on behalf of the Lord Ruler. Both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ epic fantasies have often defaulted to a setting more or less based on medieval Europe, I can’t think of many that have a setting like this series and it is an interesting idea to explore how a traditional fantasy world might end up if good didn’t triumph over evil. Although I generally like the world-building here, I think one criticism is that it perhaps lacks enough detail to be entirely convincing, in particular although the ‘Final Empire’ is supposedly vast we barely see more than a single city and it’s difficult to get much impression of what the rest of the Empire is like.
Sanderson does show repeatedly and at great length how miserable a world this would be to live in. It is here that the writing style does make a significant difference to the experience of reading the book. If it had been written in the same style as some recent fantasy series with explicit and detailed portrayals of the violent scenes then I think this might have ended up being a depressing and possibly gruelling book to read. Instead, Sanderson largely avoids getting too visceral in his descriptions of the frequent violence and atrocities, it may be set in a brutal and nasty world but it doesn’t need to show the details of the violent acts to portray that. Opinions may vary on how successful this is, but I think it makes the book easier to read and more entertaining than some of the alternatives even if the contrast between the nastiness of the world and the book’s squeamishness about sex scenes or swearing does feel slightly jarring.
The characterisation is generally good but not without its flaws. I think Vin and Kelsier make a couple of interesting main characters. Vin does fall into a few epic fantasy clichés (orphan, mysterious parentage, latent powers she needs to master to defeat the enemy) but she is a likeable protagonist and she does get the best character development of any character in the book as she gradually learns to reduce her paranoid suspicion of everyone else and start to trust in others. Kelsier does have some elements of the traditional ‘wise mentor’ role but his arrogance and sometimes excessive bloodlust do help make him a more interesting character. The supporting characters do have a tendency to be basically good or evil with perhaps a single character flaw to make the good characters slightly less good, their characterisation does sometimes feel a bit lacking in depth or nuance. I think the characterisation is another area where this feels more like an older fantasy series than some of the popular modern works, the idealistic (if sometimes cynical) band of rebels bantering among each other as they fight against seemingly insurmountable odds feels more like something from David Eddings rather than George R.R. Martin.
The book moves along at a good pace, although this is the first book in a trilogy as much seems to happen in the first volume as happens in some entire series. The plot has a few interesting mysteries and surprising twists and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion which means this could have worked as a standalone novel even if there is some set-up for the sequels. Sanderson’s prose isn’t particularly notable or memorable but it does a decent job of efficiently telling the story. The frequent action scenes are done well and the Allomancy magic system Sanderson has devised does help the action scenes feel fairly fresh and different to the traditional fantasy battle scenes, even if explaining the magic system does apparently require a lot of exposition.
Overall, this is an entertaining read with some interesting features that make it stand out compared to other fantasy series although sometimes the world-building and characterisation may feel a bit lacking in depth.
Rating : 7.5 / 10