Sanderson, Brandon (2007), Mistborn, Tor
The speed and quality of fantasy writing is quite notorious. Fantasy writers are expected to crank out thick, brick-sized books, in remarkably brief periods of time. Remarkable novelists, such as Patrick Rothfuss, whose last novel had been published in 2007, and George R.R. Martin, whose last novel of his celebrated “Song of Ice and Fire” series had seen publication in 2005, have had to defend themselves against the ire of impatient fantasy fans. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, has kept, so far, on the good side of his fans, publishing more than one new book per year, ever since debuting with the standalone fantasy novel Elantris in 2005. Since then he has not just released a trilogy of fantasy novels starting with Mistborn (2006), and continued with The Well of Ascension (2007) and The Hero of Ages (2008), but also another standalone novel called Warbreaker (2009) and he has written, from Robert Jordan’s notes, The Gathering Storm (2009), one of three projected sequels to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, and is due to publish the second of them this year. This is an incredible amount of writing, but what’s more surprising, to be honest, is the quality of the resulting output. Mistborn is not on par with George R.R. Martin or even Rothfuss, but is still an above-average achievement, a smooth, smart novel that fuses literary, genre, religious (Mormon) and mythological inspirations to produce a great read. Nothing more but also: nothing less.
Fantasy fans have very specific expectations, and they fall, I think, into one of two camps these days. There are more traditional fans, grown up on a steady diet of Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Dave Eddings. They (a gross and unfair generalization, I’ll admit) enjoy books with swords and magic, orcs and elves, and an very clear set of roles and rituals. Whether it’s Goodkind’s Ayn Rand-inspired penchant for S/M-style sexuality, Tolkien’s Catholic sense of order, or just Jordan’s rank misogyny and elitism, these writers’ attitudes to power and class can be described, euphemistically, as traditional. The other camp contains writers like Martin or Rothfuss, who play with the elements of their genre, introducing a gritty realism (Martin) and even a careful consideration of class (Rothfuss). Mistborn doesn’t really belong to either camp or rather: it belongs to both, but doesn’t excel in either mode of writing. Neither Sanderson’s tepid realism, not his slouching use of the epic fantasy order is really fully convincing. This in-between nature of the book is probably its biggest problem, opening it to criticism from both camps. However, structure, original ideas and the heavy religious inspiration endow it with a very specific, unique feel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy now and then. It’s on the strength of Mistborn that Robert Jordan’s widow approached Sanderson, asking him to finish her late husband’s unfinished series, and we can easily see why. Jordan’s main problem wasn’t his ideology. It was the terminal dullness that the books developed after a short while.
With a finite amount of authorized notes and ideas, Jordan’s widow needed a writer able to develop a plot quickly and satisfactorily, with effective and quick characterizations, yet with enough originality not to simply write a pastiche of Jordan’s style. Sanderson possesses all of these qualities in abundance, as Mistborn demonstrates. It’s rare for the first book of a sequence of fantasy novels, no matter of what length, to have a satisfying ending that isn’t at best a cliffhanger, wetting readers’ appetites for the next novel. The exasperation that fans feel with Martin and Rothfuss has, in part, its roots in the fact that they have offered no closure, the stories are in suspension, open ended. This is true for a great many writers, but not for Sanderson. As we finish Mistborn, we have been granted closure. The main story seems to be finished, almost all the open threads have been tied up and almost all questions answered. Within one book, Sanderson has told us the story of a rebellion against the Lord Ruler of the Final Empire, who appears to be God or at least God-like, he has, in deft strokes, introduced us to a wealth of characters, and sketched the history and culture of a whole new world, without any orcs or elves and with a very original, very interesting system of magic. His characters are so well sketched, so believable, that, as we pick up the second volume, The Well of Ascension, to enter a radically changed political landscape, and end up, almost directly, in an action-packed fight, we immediately recognize the characters from Mistborn. These are people we know, and due to Sanderson’s skills: people we know well. Sanderson does not, however, escape the trap of cliché in his depictions of both the characters and political machinations.
The hero of these kinds of books is often a young man, with the mind of a teenager and the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Vin, Mistborn‘s protagonist, is a woman, a teenager, with the budding skills of a medieval superhero. Oh, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. The one change here is significant and interesting, yet it also displays the full extent of the timidity of Sanderson’s realism. The story about (young) male heroes often turns around questions of heroism and masculinity. Stephen R. Donaldson’s cynical and arguably cowardly Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Robert Jordan’s trias of heros (exemplifying three facets of male adolescence and early adulthood), or “the Fool”, Robin Hobb’s fascinatingly glittering character from her two trilogies focusing on Fitz Farseer, are cases in point. Any change or departure quickly becomes part of this discussion. Whatever changes are made to the almost inevitably male hero, are just that, changes that reinforce the main template. Female heroes do turn up in number, though, especially in more recent years, but the context of their appearance is subtly (or not so subtly) different. Robin Hobb’s excellent Liveship Traders trilogy is a great example. Her heroine, Althea Vestrit, doesn’t get to be a heroine in the sense that the male heroes are. Her story is connected to female tropes, starting with water, to a very interesting communion with (some) living but (usually) inanimate objects. The focus is on questions of intuition, care, and fertility, rather than on discussions of power, violence, and strength. Even in Hobb’s able hands, these questions are channeled through and resolved by the still male characters. The same applies to Mistborn‘s Vin, although Brandon Sanderson goes further than Hobb.
Impressively, Vin’s story is largely a very masculine one. She is quietly belligerent and the way she resolves problems is through seeking controversy and fighting her way through it. Through her use of magic she’s stronger than most men, and throughout most of the book, the only other person we know possessing this power (apart from the evil Inquisitioners and the Lord Ruler) is a man, modeled on the typical male hero. This may not sound like much, but it’s extraordinary, really. So much so, that Sanderson uses additional elements to weaken his heroine in other ways. Not only does she turn into a stereotypical little teenage girl as the book progresses, head over heels in love with a a mysterious and handsome young man, who softens her mistrust towards others. She also starts to wear dresses, going to balls, and enjoying the whole ladylike lifestyle. As if to ram the tedious point home, Sanderson has her defend ‘her man’ against another woman (possessing the same powers) in what feels uncomfortably like a catfight (though it is a fight to the death). Political power, meanwhile, is still elusive to women. It is debated and decided by men, all the important offices are held by men and all the planning is made by men. In fact, Vin (and the woman she fights) is the only noteworthy woman in the whole book. To Sanderson’s credit, however, she doesn’t become a stereotypical sorceress, queen, or mother at the end of the book. The usual fate of strong female characters, which sidelines them into the nooks and crannies of narrative, is spared her. She stays a fighter, soldier, assassin. She is and remains the strongest fighter in the book.
This to and fro as regards Mistborn‘s attitude towards gender runs parallel to other instances of indecision on Sanderson’s part, such as his use of realism and originality. World-building is often considered one of the main tasks of speculative fiction: the invention of a world, distinctly different from ours, with magic, religion, science and, preferably, language newly invented or adapted for this new world. One of the predecessors to this kind of expectation is Tolkien, who invented a completely new language, elaborate mythology and history for his stories. In fact, by far the majority of his writing deal with mythical and historical stories, fleshing out the hints and allusions in his two main works of fiction. Sanderson’s approach is careful. He uses a well-known template, a simple medieval setting, he uses a generic understanding of roles and rituals (Vin is an exception), but he is also very inventive. His two main invention is his system of races and the kind of magic used in his world. In Mistborn, we only learn about two or three basic races. The Skaa, humans and Terrismen. Now, most of us remember China Miéville’s trenchant observation that no writing is innocent, not even fantasy writing. In our use of races such as orcs and elves, we don’t invent something out of the blue. Instead, we draw on stereotypes and images that we already have in our language and our cultural reservoir. Miéville asks us to be careful, to consider what the subtext is of using humanoid races like orcs, who are slow, big, and usually, with gnomes and goblins, the only non-white characters in books. Sanderson does not need such admonishment.
His races are, although I’m not sure about Terrismen, not necessarily racially different from one another. That racial difference exists in the heads of the occupants of Sanderson’s world, but we soon find that race in Mistborn is a signifier of class lines, so that humans are all noblemen, and Skaa are poor people, for example. The ability to use magic is hereditary and runs only in Noblemen, but not all Noblemen are able to use magic and any progeny of Noblemen and Skaa might be able to use magic, too. In a very deft move, Sanderson has found remarkably precise metaphors for racial and class tensions in our world. He also manages to anchor his magic in the earthly, bodily parts of his universe. They are not the amorphous weavings of Jordan’s Aes Sedai. In order to use magic, one needs to ingest metal and then ‘burn’ it. No metal – no magic. This dependance upon both the bodily process of digestion and the resources of the earth is laudable and quite unique. It’s quite saddening to see all these good ideas in a mind that isn’t able to put them to full use. Just as gender differences, on a deeper level, remain intact and problematic, so are questions of hierarchy and power affirmed in a traditional manner. The latter half of the book is infused by a deep mistrust of the common people. A people’s revolution is shown to be inevitably a brutal, rag-tag affair that will plunge the world into chaos. The people can revolt, but they need an authorized, upper-class leader to shape their anger into a politically sound result. This is what ails other instances of realism and originality, too. Sanderson’s take on a magically endowed thieving crew bent on overthrowing the empire eschews cliché depictions of ‘hard criminals’, so much, indeed, that this lack of grime has been criticized a lack of realism.
I think it is an attempt to be more realistic, open, and humorous, but this doesn’t quite work, for one simple reason: Sanderson is a horrible writer about people. His mistrust of ‘the people’ translates into an unhealthy distance to them. Any decision to forgo cliché needs, I think, to be balanced by a strong alternative idea of how human beings behave, an idea which Mistborn severely lacks. Make no mistake: the characters themselves are believable, but their interactions and motivations rarely are. This is why the book so frequently feels lukewarm and a bit flabby. Too much of Mistborn feels conceptual without the sternness and consistency that good conceptual writing depends on. The concepts are partly the metaphors and structures I mentioned, but there is one other important pillar that they rest on: Sanderson’s Mormonism. Like many Mormon (and Catholic) writers, Sanderson’s religion heavily influences his writing in more than spirit. The most famous and popular Mormon writer, who leaves ample, obvious and specific traces and references to her particular religion (as opposed to a general Christian attitude) is probably Stephenie Meyer, the best one I know of is Brian Evenson. Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at Brigham Young University, is yet another one. Without attempting a thorough analysis, there are a few things especially that have a ring of Mormonism to it. The godliness of the Lord Ruler, specific basic properties of his magic and the “Well of Ascension” in particular evoke associations to LDS concepts such as the exaltation (actually, its hard not to read the three volumes as the three stages of theosis, but exaltation is a similar concept). Joseph Smith taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Through exaltation, we can all become ‘gods’. The Christ-like martyrdom of one of the book’s main characters adds an other layer to this.
Finally, a catastrophe in the Mistborn universe that happened a few centuries ago, destroying many of the Terrismen, who are priest-like keepers of stories, history, religions and other knowledge, carries echoes of the Mormon doctrine of the “Great Apostasy”, which is a very particular version of a doctrine that many Christian churches teach. These specific references and allusions add a salvational urgency to Mistborn‘s narrative, which smoothly ties into the generic epic character of the story, but endow it with a more original power. As a whole, however, and despite all the specific changes and ideas that Sanderson brings to the table, there is an enormous amount of generic elements in his book, the worst of which is the actual writing. Without dropping to the abysmal lows of Terry Goodkind, his writing is at best serviceable, at worst dull, repetitive and, well, generic. He also displays the waste of spaced typical of his genre. While novels in other genres can describe a city, town or world, plus a set of full, believable characters in under 300 pages, many fantasy novels take twice as long without delivering twice the content. George R.R. Martin, who packs every page with action, intrigue and important observation is the exception here. More often than not, we are faced with page after page of ruminations, written in a laggard style and not serving any reasonable purpose, apart from helping to fill pages.
Still, at the end of Mistborn, lots of things have happened, and the reader has been swept away by the tide of events. It is, despite its faults, a very readable book, at least if you happen to like the genre of high fantasy. This is not one of the books that will appeal to those who dislike fantasy, but if you enjoy this sort of writing, Sanderson is a safe bet. He is an enjoyable, reasonably original and prolific writer who I very much look forward to reading more of in the months to come.
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