Brandon Sanderson: Mistborn

Sanderson, Brandon (2007), Mistborn, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-5038-1

mistborn 1The 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.

warbreakerFantasy 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.

well ascensionWith 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.

way of kingsThe 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.

rithmatistImpressively, 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.

steelheartThis 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.

inheritanceHis 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.

DSC01516I 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.

DSC01322Finally, 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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Brian Evenson: Last Days

Evenson, Brian (2009), Last Days, Underland Press
ISBN 978-0-9802260-0-3

Writers like Brian Evenson are a rare breed. As I’ve already noted in my review of his novel The Open Curtain, his writing draws both on the strengths of genre fiction, which include a certain reduction of means and a suspenseful story that draws the reader in, the kind of book that blurbs on the jacket will label “addictive”, and on the strengths of literary fiction, which include a high precision of style and an economical but powerful use of tropes and symbols. In Last Days, his latest novel, he manages to do the exact same thing and the resulting book is a completely satisfying, if gruesome and amazingly bloody read. In what I have, so far, been able to read (other reviews forthcoming), Evenson seems to specialize in different varieties of what is commonly labeled ‘horror’, but his work is so complex and theoretically aware that it works just as well as a book of quote regular literature unquote. Also, as several excellent reviews by individual bloggers from the Franco-belgian Fric Frac Club collective have shown, Evenson’s work is wide open to readings employing, for example, Deleuzian philosophy. This is not necessarily a good thing since the kind of writing that can easily be read with theoretical tools, well used in academical contexts, frequently has its detractors. However, while certainly highly aware of how the genres he uses are structured and how they function, Evenson doesn’t burden his work with extraneous, ‘clever’ information. He doesn’t write for academia or for a fringe group of elite readers. Although Evenson’s books are published by smaller presses, like Victoria Blake’s Underland Press, Earthling Publications, Coffeehouse Press or FC2, an imprint of the University of Alabama Press, his writing isn’t any more ‘niche’ than any other novel of the genre.

Last Days hasn’t been written or even been published in one piece before. It consists of two parts of almost equal length, the first of which, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, was published in 2003, in a limited edition of 315 copies. It wasn’t until years later that Evenson decided to continue the story of that small but trenchant and brilliant novella, and wrote another novella, this one called “Last Days”. Now, in 2009, it was finally published, together with its predecessor, as one novel. And what a novel it is, a perplexing ride that can leave you breathless, a book about bodies and spaces, about religion, doubt and a detective you’d better not mess with. That detective is called Kline. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is about Kline’s introduction to a sect which practices the voluntary amputation of limbs and the more limbs you’ve amputated, the higher you are in the hierarchy of the sect. Ideally, this amputation is being done without any anesthesia. The pain is integral here, as well as the extent to which the amputation disables you in your everyday task. You can’t have your arm amputated at the shoulder and claim to have amputated seven limbs: five fingers, one hand, one arm. You have to cut off the fingers one by one in order for it to count. In the same spirit, amputating toes isn’t regarded as highly as amputating fingers, because losing a finger is much more of a handicap in your everyday life.

At the same time, there is, in the mutilates’ microcosm, in a bloody denial of the functionality of the body (which also implies a blind and strictly normative concept of a perfectly functioning body, one of many exclusionary tactics pursued by the brotherhood), a strangely functionalist thinking involved. Cleavers, knives and scalpels are almost glorified and occupy a central place in their rituals. Function is transferred from the body and split two ways. Part of it is now given over to machines. The aforementioned cutlery is one aspect of this. Gun prostheses are another. The other part is handed over to an immaterial power structure.  The curious power structure in the compound, where the man who has the least means of moving is the most powerful, is another. I called it curious but it’s more: it’s a sign of the modern age where power is not enforced by brutes with nightsticks and bullets, where power is that which we accept as we behave according to its exigencies. German blogger, musician and novelist Daniel Kulla wrote a song (Der Tausch) the refrain of which, loosely translated, starts like this: “nobody needs to force you / if you join in of your own accord”. If we make excuses for our sloppy thinking, we give in. If we don’t fight because we’re too comfy here, we give in. That list could go on for ages. Brian Evenson presents us with a whole compound full of people who have followed that logic to its extreme: the power structure they subscribed to leads to them lobbing off parts of their own bodies, of their own accord. None of them is forced to do it and the longer Kline stays among them, the more likely he is to succumb to their power structures himself.

But let’s return to Kline: prior to Last Day‘s events, he had a harrowing encounter with a “so-called gentleman”, who hacked off his hand with a cleaver. Kline then turned on a nearby oven, cauterized his hand himself, turned around and, calmly, shot his attacker in the eye. In a previous review I mentioned how interconnected the hard-boiled detective genre and the western are, and an incident such as this one suggests a very similar connection. But Kline isn’t looking for a fight and when the fight comes looking for him, he isn’t really equipped to win it. In contrast to many noir detectives such as Philip Marlowe, Kline isn’t likely, either, to be verbally abusive, snarky or clever. For someone who must have had quite a heady life, Kline, the character, is remarkably blank. This is important because in subsequent events different groups of people, among them the brotherhood, start to project hopes and ideas onto him.

In accordance with the brotherhood’s strict but unusual application of logic, Kline is widely admired in the brotherhood for cauterizing his wound himself. It’s both painful and dangerous to one’s long-term health to do so, risking inflammations and other problems, which is all the more reason for members of the brotherhood to adore someone’s undertaking of such an act. However, Kline’s amputation of his hand couldn’t actually be more at odds with the brotherhood’s beliefs: he was attacked in order to literally diminish him, to take away a part of his body, to make him less capable, as well as making him, simply, less. The pain he suffers isn’t positive in any way, instead, it’s intended to be almost punitive. Kline’s self-inflicted pain is similarly goal-oriented, meant to buy him time, to prepare himself to stall his opponent in order to be able to shoot him afterward. The brotherhood reads his motivations in a slightly different way, mostly because they assume that all amputees, on some fundamental level, share their beliefs. They appear to believe that there is something metaphysical that is inherent in the very act of mutilation.

As the novel sets in, Kline is called, or rather: abducted, to the premises of that strange brotherhood in order to clear up a murder. The plot is full of absurdities, dead-ends and similar noir staples, including a large array of colorful characters, who tend to speak in a short, humorous manner, their dialogue frequently reminiscent of Marx Brothers movies. The horrific nature of the brotherhood’s customs and the often very funny dialogue of some of its members makes for fascinating reading. In “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” Evenson combines basically three kinds of registers. Horror, humor and a kind of paranoia and claustrophobia. When nobody talks, the whole narrative sinks into a gloomy mire as Kline attempts to understand what happens to him, who these people are, and who committed the murder. The moment he enters the compound of the brotherhood, he has trouble leaving it again. He’s shut in with all these zealots and his situation appears to be increasingly desperate. As the novella comes to a close, the tension mounts to an almost unbearable degree until the reader is almost relieved at the end, horrific though it may be. That tension is twofold. One the one hand, Evenson’s plot is forceful and as we see Kline stumbling through the maze of irrational madness, we start to share his desperation. Questions are answered in riddles, and every action is transformed into a kind of indirectness, that makes it almost impossible to solve the crime.

This indirectness, not just in “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, but also in “Last Days”, is significant. I mentioned Kafka as a point of reference, for many reasons. One of them is that Kafka’s “Kleine Fabel”, that marvelous tiny aphoristic story, seems like a perfect description of the situation that Kline repeatedly finds himself in in Last Days. The other is that the hierarchies of the brotherhood and its customs create an environment that is reminiscent of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Kline, the man who had his arm cut off and still shot his opponent in the eye, is reduced to a pawn, jostled here and there, lost among a community whose logic he barely comprehends. Yes, to a large extent, this is about religion, also, clearly, about Mormonism in particular, but Evenson’s scope is larger.

The religious references are obvious. The quote that precedes the novel is from :

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee…And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…

This is interesting. In religious contexts, acts like the brotherhood’s are frequently viewed as sacrifices, but sacrifices have a goal, while these particular ‘sacrifices’ are not for anything. At best they purify the soul of him who loses a limb. Mutilation, paradoxically, is regarded as an edifying experience. The more pain and discomfort you have inflicted upon yourself, the more highly regarded you are. In the novel, this is grotesque and even horrifying. In real life, this is far more common. There is an ongoing war of most of the major Christian churches upon the body, in favor of the soul. Asceticism, renunciation, abstinence, celibacy are still regarded as laudable goals by most churches, and even by regular, non-religious people. A very similar parallel structure can be seen in the eschatological thinking of the Pauls, another brotherhood of mutilates, which references different eschatological concepts in actual religions. And were I to do a more thorough and more detailed reading, I would find all kinds of other religious references. No detail in Evenson’s book feels extraneous, to the extent that I was tempted to make a table of all the body parts curt off and find out how they are arranged within the book. But the religious references are more than games, and more than swipes at the quirks and madness of actual religions.

I think there’s a very different point there in respect to religions, and the constant indirection is part of it all. For one thing, there’s precious little successful communication between people who are not part of the same community. The first part of the book finds Kline trying to read his environment which is saturated with signs and which rings with the sibylline pronouncements uttered by the man who summoned him. The second part, again, finds people speaking, but also people listening to Kline speak, hanging on his every word, but Kline cannot make himself understood even to them. I think the situation that I have called Kafkaesque earlier, demonstrates the problem that religions and other communities who use logic just like everyone else, but use it with so strongly different premises that we may find ourselves unable to communicate with them at all. Especially if we read them as alien and grotesque, and I would suggest that Kline’s encounter with the Brotherhood, at least in part, can and should be read as an overreaction by someone fundamentally alienated by what he regards as Other.

In a book that deals so much with indirection, Evenson himself achieves a miracle doing the same. Everything in his plot has a false or double bottom, everything works on several levels at once. Just as the bloody mess of the brotherhood directly mirrors actual religious practice, so do other aspects of the book, such as its use of space: most of the book takes place in rooms or compounds, whether in a hospital or elsewhere. After a while, Kline starts searching rooms and environments for signs of difference, since many elements start to repeat themselves. He is, geographically, de-centered, drops from the world into a sequence of spaces constructed by certain kinds of thinking. These are spaces that, more and more, become his spaces, as the outside world is increasingly dangerous to and suspicious of him.

Here’s where the Kafka reference is important again. While The Open Curtain was mostly about a culture and its religion, I would suggest that ‘religion’, could be but a trope in Last Days. The world doesn’t become more rational, more sane once Kline leaves one of the two brotherhoods which have set their eyes on him. While their specific kind of religiosity is shown to be at odds with people in the ‘real world’, the basic structure of their thought isn’t. Especially since it’s possible, after all, to completely exchange the religious reading of the two sects with a political reading, which could focus on a contrast between a more collectivized, communistic ideology and a pseudo-individualistic ideology like capitalism. That, however, is a whole new can of worms that I’m not prepared to open just now.

I haven’t talked much of the second half of the book, because I don’t want to give too much away. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is much more dense, more focused upon its issues and the calamity that waits in the wings. “Last Days” bears all the weight of not just being a good book on its own, but of tying its own story and “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” into a single novel, so naturally, it’s different. Not worse, certainly, and the whole of Last Days is a marvelous achievement by a writer who’s currently producing awfully many good books. Brian Evenson’s writing isn’t prohibitive, it doesn’t crowd out those who lack the time or money (having enough leisure to read thoroughly and attentively is, indeed, a financial issue, to an extent) to pay the books as much attention as they would need to or bring an elevated enough reading horizon to that reading. His books can be disturbing, both on a visceral and on an intellectual level, but then that’s what he’s paid to do, it’s a distinction of the genre he works in. It’s both a joy and a challenge to read Evenson’s books, and they are all highly recommended.