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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Conventional (Ring*Con 2)

‘t was a jolly weekend that I spent at the 8th annual Ring*Con, a German fantasy convention that brags being the largest fantasy convention in Europe. It was founded as a Lord of the Rings-convention but has since incorporated other strains as well, although Tolkien’s shadow still hangs heavily over the proceedings. Two other major foci this time around were the Harry Potter and the Twilight franchise. I had some fun. I should have gotten drunk before and during the whole thing, but I didn’t and I guess that’s my fault. So I spent the weekend sober, trying to parse images, ideas and politics. The latter was dire: Any focus on Lord of the Rings implies righteous right-wingery and somewhat competent critics tripping over their oversize magical cloaks, metaphorically speaking. The inclusion of Twilight apparently gave license to some of them to spout even more nonsense than they would have habitually done. Speaking and writing about books as poorly written as the chaste chants of Edward’s and Bella’s sparkly love affair invites some critics to self-righteously attack their own profession and its standards (while still using the same, in what I call ‘idiot’s paradox’).

However, first things first. The convention took place in the outskirts of Bonn, about five minutes with the subway from where I live, in the marvelously plush Maritim Hotel. Most of the non-commercial activity took place in four different rooms, or halls, rather. There were lectures, discussions and, what’s usually the center piece of these kinds of conventions, as far as I know, panels with the star guests. The Ring*Con is organized by the FedCon GmbH which organizes a SciFi convention once a year at the same location. Last year, FedCon panels starred celebrities such as Summer Glau. By contrast, at this year’s Ring*Con, the biggest star was Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies and who was a no-show. Instead we got Kyle Schmid and Dylan Neal, stars of the mind-numbingly bad show Blood Ties, we also got Matthew Lewis who plays Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies and five different actors who played minor roles in the Lord of the Rings movies. Lastly, Edi Gathegi and Christian Serratos who play similarly minor roles in the Twilight movies. So, the glamor factor was very low. However, a few of those almost-celebrities were great fun. Three of the Lord of the Rings actors put on a hilarious show on the last day of the convention, drawing the largest crowd of all the events I saw.

This convention was, to a huge extent, about fun. There were a few people selling things, a man tattooing customers, the usual assortment of commercial offers, but also two men who built a huge table with small painted figurines, thousands of them, to depict Sauron’s vast armies from the last volume of the Lord of the Rings (see picture below).

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There were makeup artists for hire, but dozens of people came with incredible costumes, incredibly elaborate and colorful makeup. There were all kinds of movies for sale but there was also a group of amazingly talented people presenting a movie based on one of Tolkien’s myths, screening it for free and they will also put it up for free on December 1st.

The movie’s called Born of Hope and Kate Madison, director, producer and actress should be congratulated for the amazing work she did on a tiny budget (picture of cast below). In fact, that movie was the best part of the whole weekend. It tells the story of Arathorn, LotR’s Aragorn’s father. Their screenplay is based on a tiny note in the appendices to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conservative canter through myth and (old English) language and sundry areas. The language of it is a nice pastiche of Tolkien’s own style, with all the flaws and benefits this implies. In the movie there is great acting, absolutely great editing and surprisingly great visual effects. The whole movie was shot over several years and with a budget of roughly 25.000 pounds. Here is the page where you can access the project, where you can support them and where they will put up the movie come December 1st. Go there, support them, and read about them. Their energy and patience is inspiring. Don’t miss out.

Born of Hope

Less fun but still entertaining enough proved to be the multitudes of lectures. There were the competent but dull ones like Heidi Steimel, who talked about fairy tale parodies or Dr. Oliver Bidlo who talked about Tolkien and the sciences and Tolkien and science fiction. There were those with lectures that were competent, less dull but still verging on the trivial, like Germany’s foremost expert on vampires, Friedhelm Schneidewind. Schneidewind’s lectures on immortal beings and vampires were clearly based on a vast knowledge of the topic, although one based on breadth rather than depth of knowledge. I’ve taken notes on books and movies that I haven’t even heard before but will read and watch in the near future. Steimel, in contrast, is methodically competent but not particularly well read. Schneidewind’s major weakness is his enormous ego. He is too fond of quoting his own nonfictional work and his own awfully written play based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s charming novella Carmilla, as well as other people praising his work. This is not incidental, it exemplifies his style of talking, of presenting information and knowledge. On a convention that banks so much upon lightness, enthusiasm and generosity, this is more than a small weakness.

But that was nothing compared to the single most incompetent critic I have had the displeasure of listening to in well over two years. I won’t mention the name of the lecturer here, but she was shockingly awful. Her lectures were characterized by a complete and utter lack of understanding even of basic literary critical methods, of literature in general, of the basic difference between analysis and value judgment. She delivered cheap jokes that revealed nothing but her own lack of any kind of understanding. Her referencing of Sir Philip Sydney, Alfred Lord Tennyson to support her inconsistent thesis highlighted the enormous extent to which her mind is fed on wiki knowledge and easy google-able bites of text. In a defense of sorts of the Twilight franchise she built a thesis on what I call idiot’s paradox, which is what happens when you build your thesis with tools that you, on the other hand, reject on principle. All of this was laced with a dismissive attitude that was offensive to a large portion of the audience, some of whom, among them Mr. Schneidewind, complained afterwards.

But this was, although annoying, very entertaining. These paragraphs cannot properly convey all that I experienced this weekend. To sum up, it was a lot of fun and I am deeply indebted to a wonderful woman to’ve made it possible for me. If you find the time, I can recommend it to you. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Although I’ve spent little time reading this weekend, finishing a novel by Roth (The Humbling) and some secondary literature, it was worth it.

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