Monday, January 16, 2017

Down the Stacks #44: Mistborn

A belated Happy 2017 to you.  We’re going to kick this year of Down the Stacks off with, big surprise, a Brandon Sanderson book.  Specifically, I’m going to be reviewing a trilogy I should have done much sooner than this: the original Mistborn trilogy, also known as the The Final Empire or Mistborn era one.  Mistborn was Sanderson’s second published novel, following the stand-alone Elantris (that’s also on my to-do list), and the one that helped make the whole Cosmere a viable publishing project.

Mistborn is set on the world of Scadriel, future home of Wax Ladrian from The Alloy of Law.  In the current era, however, Scadriel is the scene of what happens when the rise of the Evil Lord of Darkness was not stopped by the usual band of plucky heroes.  A thousand years ago, a man ascended to god-like power and proceeded to plunge the world into darkness by means of an endless rain of volcanic ash.  Humanity is strictly divided into the few privileged Nobles, said to be descended from the few people loyal to the Lord Ruler at his ascension, and the Skaa, downtrodden and uneducated slaves who may be beaten and killed by the Nobility with impunity.  Breeding between the two classes is completely forbidden in order to keep the power of Allomancy among the Nobles.  The Lord Ruler keeps control via the quasi-religious Steel Ministry and its freakish Steel Inquisitors, the threat of armies of the ogre-ish Koloss, and the simple fact that the Lord Ruler is impossibly powerful and immortal.
Vin is a sixteen year-old Skaa living in the capital city of Luthadel, living on the razor-thin edge between being a useful member of a thieve’s crew while not attracting too much personal attention to herself.  Vin possesses an ability she calls Luck, short moments of being able to adjust other people’s emotional states to make them more susceptible to her crew’s cons or to keep the crewleader from beating her.  During one such con, Vin attracts the attention of a man named Kelsier, who brings her into his own crew comprised of Skaa Allomancers and teaches Vin that her Luck is a form of Allomancy and that she is Mistborn, the rare kind of Allomancer that can use every Allomantic metal.
Kelsier is Mistborn himself, relatively recently awakened to the power by his unprecedented escape from the Pits of Hathsin, the Lord Ruler’s secret Atium mine disguised as a deadly penal colony.  Driven by his passionate hatred, and a little desire for revenge, Kelsier has arranged for his crew to pull a heist on the Lord Ruler’s treasury and help the Skaa rebellion topple the Final Empire.  Once the planning is complete, Vin’s task is to infiltrate the Nobility as one of their own to sniff out political information that could be used to throw the Noble Houses  into open war with each other.  While attending one of the ubiquitous balls held by the Noble Houses, Vin encounters Elend, heir of House Venture and low-key rebel against the Nobility’s rules of decorum and House ranking.
Moving between the worlds of the Nobles, the Skaa Rebellion, the thrill of Allomancy, and her old survival instincts, Vin begins to see that the world isn’t as black and white as others insist.

In the other volumes of the trilogoy, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages, Vin and Elend have to confront the possibility that the Lord Ruler may not be the worst thing that could happen to their world.

As the main character of the trilogy, Vin doesn’t fit into Sanderson’s typical mold for his leading ladies.  While she does have to play the part of the guile-using socialite as part of Kelsier’s scheme, Vin’s true talent is in Allomancy.  As she grows into her abilities, she becomes a scarily effective fighter and aims to be more than just a jack-of-all-trades like most Mistborn tend to be.  She undergoes a great deal of character development under Kelsier’s care, which is a strong contrast to the abuse she suffered from her now-absent brother and various crewleaders.  Vin begins as a quiet, constantly alert urchin always waiting for the next betrayal, but eventually gains the confidence to trust people and throw her own opinions into discussions.
Kelsier is a quintessential Charming Rogue, full of smiles, insane plans, and the skills to actually pull those plans off.  His crew trusts him to lead them to success because he’s done it before, but none of them are shy about pointing out the audacity of a plan to raise a whole army of rebel Skaa, steal from the Lord Ruler, and watch the Final Empire crumble through bankruptcy.  As smart and witty as Kelsier is, though, he’s extremely single-minded in his goal to take down the entire Noble class and the Lord Ruler with them.
Elend is a perfect match for Vin, filling the politics-and-guile role that balances her preference for action.  Although he’s the heir to the most powerful House in Luthadel, Elend doesn’t quite fit with his peers.  Under the guise of simply acting out to annoy his father, Elend gives actual thought to the social and political models the Final Empire operates under and questions the status quo. We don’t get to see as much of him in Mistborn compared to the rest of the trilogy, but he’s no less important to the narrative than Vin and Kell.

The Mistborn Trilogy is an interesting mix of story types: it starts as a Heist tale set in a place that would give Mordor a run for its money, with the scheme directed at a guy you’d normally throw a Chosen Hero and his magic mentor at, but then morphs into a coming-of-age epic with stakes that keep rising and don’t get any easier.  In the end, it’s a Cosmere story that dives deeper into the meta-plot than most without ever leaving the planet or giving world-hoppers like Hoid a major role.
The trilogy isn’t without its flaws, of course.  The compatibility between Vin and Elend is just a little too convenient, and even with the twists and revelations of the second and third volume, the story is more straightforward than most of Sanderson’s work and doesn’t feature his great last-second complications.  The climaxes are still pulse-pounding, but not in the same way as, say, Warbreaker or The Way of Kings.

I have to recommend Mistborn and its sequels, not just as a great and innovative Fantasy story but also as an ideal gateway into Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere.

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