The following contains minor spoilers.
Wading through ash
“What if the Dark Lord won?” is the tagline of The Final Empire, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. The Lord Ruler rules the Final Empire as a god-king, immortal, immensely powerful and all-knowing. According to legend, he vanquished the Deepness, an unknown evil which would have destroyed the world otherwise. As it is, the battle resulted in massive volcanic eruptions that changed the environment to an ash-covered waste with little vegetation that is barely reached by the rays of the sun at day and is covered in mists in which strange creatures roam during the night.
After his victory, the Lord Ruler established a caste system; those people who supported him became nobles, who now – 1000 years later – form the economic and administrative elite. His enemies he changed into skaa, a slave caste that performs all manual labour, if its members are not lucky and can serve as minor soldiers, have certain crafting skills or are able to survive outside the law.
In this world, Sanderson’s story follows the life of a skaa youth called Vin and that of her mentor Kelsier, leader of a thieving crew and a legendary figure among the slaves, whose actions lead up to a slave rebellion.
The above-mentioned tagline is a bit of a red herring, since the novel’s protagonists have nothing to do with the Dark Lord directly for most of the book. Both Vin and Kelsier have the power of allomancy, which involves swallowing and “burning” metals and alloys thereof to cause effects that seem magical, like giving the user extraordinary strength or enhanced senses. This system seems to be simple on the surface, but is extremely complex in reality. The same applies to the society Sanderson invented for his world. While that is not a problem as such, spending more than a third of a story with exposition is. The plot of The Final Empire advances only very little during the first part of the book, while the author spends his words on teaching the reader about his setting. That makes for a pretty boring read. Sanderson also ignores that the Empire has existed under a cloud of ash for a long time without having any apparent difficulties in growing food for its populace.
Thankfully, the pace picks up after a couple of hundred pages. The events leading up the story’s culmination may sometimes feel familiar to genre fans, because Sanderson uses not a small amount of tropes. He did manage to surprise me a few times, however. I thought at first I knew where the story was going and how it would end, but Sanderson manages to play with the readers’ expectations a little and keep them on their toes. I only was disappointed that I managed to correctly guess the Lord Ruler’s function about 100 pages in. The plot itself requires a certain ability to suspend disbelief, unfortunately. This is the story of an uprising against an oppressive tyranny, after all, and it comes about a bit too easily, setbacks notwithstanding.
A strong point of The Final Empire is the characters. Even minor supporting figures never feel like plot devices and the main protagonists are never inconsistent. I found it a little odd that the author switched the reader’s point of view to a couple of minor characters at a few occasions, but that is not a grave problem. Sanderson’s use of language, on the other hand, might be. He generally writes in very short, clipped sentences. It makes the book easy to read, but I sometimes felt that language is a blunt instrument for him. It is one that he wields it with proficiency, though, and you can breeze through the novel in a few short days (once you cleared the zone of exposition, that is).
Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire can be an enjoyable read if you are able to overlook its problems. His characters seem to be alive and he came up with a very involved setting for this and further stories. I would like to learn more about both. However, I am currently disinclined to do so, because I found Sanderson’s style of writing a bit off-putting.