I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess that I’m not the first, or even the fifth, person to review this book over the years for CBR. In fact, it was the recommendation of fellow CBRer narfna that finally led me to pluck Mistborn off my wishlist. I’ve been going through a major fantasy kick over the last few years, but it wasn’t until recently that I’d heard of Mistborn, as all I really knew of Sanderson to that point was his role in finishing off the bloated monstrosity known as the Wheel of Time series. Well, I’m certainly indebted to narfna, as I enjoyed the book tremendously. In a way, this book very much reminded me of The Name of the Wind, with well-worn tropes used in interesting new combinations combined with strong worldbuilding and a dynamite magic system.
A thousand years ago, a bog-standard Hero went on a bog-standard quest to Save the World. But instead of saving the world, the Hero enslaved it. Now, one thousand years later, ash falls from the sky, the sun burns red, mist envelops the night, and the land is blighted and parched. Flowers, really greenery of any kind, are but a memory. The vast majority of the populace are skaa, slaves laboring under the cruel lash of the nobility. The nobility in turn are kept in line by the obligators, priests-slash-lawyers-slash bureaucrats who use the terrifying Steel Inquisitors as muscle to maintain orthodoxy and stamp out revolution. Above all is the Lord Ruler, the Sliver of Omnipotence, the all-powerful divine tyrant atop the Final Empire. The Hero. One is put in mind of an alternate version of Lord of the Rings, one where Frodo harnesses the power of the One Ring, overthrows Sauron, and rules the world.
Against this godlike ruler, and all his manifest powers, stands a small band of thieves planning the greatest scam in history: a coup d’etat. Kelsier, the Survivor of Hathsin, a smiling yet scarred veteran of the struggle against tyranny, is gathering together his closest and most puissant friends to somehow succeed where a thousand years of occasional rebellion has failed. He also makes the acquaintance of Vin, a street urchin of mysterious parentage whom he befriends and trains. The story, in a fundamental sense, is hers, as she’s the one with a proper narrative arc (coming-of-age, more or less), while Kelsier’s character development is rather slim. And of course, she will turn out to be a key part of his plan, but the odds are long and their enemies are unfathomably powerful.
As co-protagonists, telling the story from alternating third-person POVs, Kelsier and Vin provide a fair bit of variety (even if Sanderson occasionally stumbles in differentiating their voices). Kelsier is the classic rogue, a devious man with a smile on his lips and a plan for every contingency in his mind. He’s a more bloodythirsty Locke Lamora, as tragedy in Kelsier’s past has given him little regard for the lives of anyone serving the Lord Ruler. Vin is the classic young protagonist, plucked from obscurity to have a hand in Great Deeds, and she learns quite a bit about herself along the way. They’re backed by an able cadre of secondary characters, all of whom have something to hide. Worth particular mention are the fastidious steward Sazed, who is keeping alive the memories of religions long since extinguished, and slacker one-percenter Elend Venture, whose bookworm tendencies and casual manner seem to stand in stark contrast to the abject cruelty of his fellow noblemen. The overall effect is a book that’s part caper, part bildungsroman, part revolutionary fable. It’s a heady mix, and again, Sanderson doesn’t always precisely pull it off, but even his small failures are entertaining, and the book as a whole is definitely something that will keep you up past your bedtime.
The magic system is one of the high points of the novel, as it’s well thought out and utterly unlike any equivalent system I can think of off the top of my head. In a weird way, it’s less like magic and more like having superpowers, as the cleverly-named Allomancy requires no incantations and no spellbooks. You can’t use it to summon demons or light anything on fire. Instead, an Allomancer swallows small bits of metal and burns them inside their stomach to, well, do all kinds of cool stuff. Each metal provides a different power, and the metals are linked so that a base metal and its alloy have somewhat opposite effects (tin, for instance, enhances your senses, whereas pewter enhances your physical strength, dexterity, and endurance). There are ten metals in all, and most Allomancers can only burn one type of metal (giving rise to all kinds of cool taxonomy and nomenclature). But the Mistborn, like Kelsier and Vin, can use every kind of metal. And man oh man, do you ever want to be a Mistborn. The combination of powers makes a Mistborn part Jedi Knight, part Neo from The Matrix, and part Mikasa from Attack on Titan (minus the bulky maneuvering gear). They are, in effect, superheroes, particularly since Allomancy is an inherited trait.
As the first in a trilogy, Mistborn does a splendid job of doing what first books should do: provide a fairly self-contained narrative, while leaving enough loose ends to carry on into subsequent volumes. Sanderson’s prose is propulsive enough that the book feels far shorter than its six-hundred-some-odd pages, and while the language doesn’t sing with quite the intensity as, say, Patrick Rothfuss, neither does he indulge in George Martin’s penchant for prolonged description. Sanderson is a Professional Writer, and he’s smart enough not to get in the way of his well-paced story.
I suppose the true indication of how much one enjoys the first book of a fantasy epic is how long it takes one to purchase subsequent volumes. Let it be known that I braved the Great Los Angeles Rainstorm of 2014 to buy the other two books in the trilogy at an actual bookstore, as I knew that I’d be long finished with Mistborn by the time Amazon would be able to deliver the next book. And I was only about a hundred pages in when I knew that I was hooked. In short, Mistborn is by no means a perfect book, but it stands well above many of its peers in the genre, and the story gets even better in the next book, The Well of Ascension. If you’re a fantasy fan, well, you’ve probably already read this, as I’m a bit late to the party, but if you haven’t, then I highly recommend clicking that link up top and availing yourself.