The Final Empire
Author – Brandon Sanderson
Pages: 672 pages
Release Date: July 31, 2007
Back in December of 2007, Brandon Sanderson was just like every other new-to-the-scene author, just trying to make his way as a young author of Fantasy novels. He had a few published novels under his belt (and a whole slew more hidden in the deep corners of his house), had been getting good critical acclaim and decent sales, but was far from a household name. Things were looking up for Sanderson, but no one had any idea of just how high he would climb. Then came the announcement: Brandon Sanderson was chosen to complete the late Robert Jordan’s legendary Wheel of Time series.
Since then, Sanderson’s stock has risen to meteoric heights. His own novels have been released to strong critical acclaim and he’s landed himself on the New York Times Bestseller list. Wheel of Time fans wait with bated breath for the fall release of The Gathering Storm, eager and/or reluctant to see whether Sanderson is able to do justice to their favourite work. As someone who will not be reading The Gathering Storm when it arrives, I was nonetheless curious to see what all the fuss was about. I had dipped my toe in his work before (a half-finished copy of Elantris still sits on my bookshelf), and being on the hunt for some meaty Fantasy, I picked up The Final Empire, the first volume of his Mistborn trilogy.
Though not free of cliche, it’s clear from the get-go that Sanderson wants to put his own spin on the typical Fantasy story, to make a point that we haven’t necessarily seen it all. Yeah, at its heart, The Final Empire is about bringing down the oppressive Lord Ruler, but it’s the details that count, and Sanderson’s details are tight. The big hook is that Sanderson’s Dark Lord is not a faceless demon, hellbent of taking over the world, rather he already controls it, and has for 1,000 years (natch). Even more interesting is the fact that Sanderson’s Dark Lord, before he came to rule… was once the Hero of Ages, prophecised to defeat a mysterious force called The Deepness, and save the world. Something, however, went very wrong.
Praise has been heaped upon Sanderson because of his deep, thoughtful systems of magic, and The Final Empire is ample evidence as to why. Allomancy – which involves ingesting and then ‘burning’ particular metals to unleash their power – shows a level of thought and real-world practicality that few other authors can claim. Most importantly, it has a very direct effect on the plot and conflict of the novel. It’s no simple special effects show, but rather a integral part of who the characters are and how the economy of the world operates. My biggest regret (and something I hope will be addressed in later volumes) is that Sanderson didn’t get more philosophical about the (no doubt) addictive qualities of what amounts to a drug that grants super-human strength, washes away weariness, enhances every sense and even allows the user to manipulate the emotions of those around them. Even Terry Brooks was addressing the ideas of addictive magic, over 20 years ago, and it seemed like a missed opportunity on Sanderson’s part.
Which brings me around to one of the general inconsistencies of the novel. Sanderson’s prose is safe and easy, but fails to capture the ruthlessness that one might expect from an ash-choked empire crushed under the iron fist of a ruthless dictator for a millenium. Slavery abounds, mass executions take place just to prove a point, rape is whispered about… and yet Sanderson somehow manages, through use of PG-rated language, to make the novel feel safe. It’s a disappointment that Sanderson’s prose wasn’t able to better challenge the unique, oppressive nature of his world and characters.
At its heart The Final Empire is a heist novel, the tale of a thieving crew trying to bring down the empire. Naturally, a lot of the novel’s success relies on this group and Sanderson manages to deliver a likable, if somewhat uneven and Mary Sueish cast of scoundrels. Kelsier, the leader of the crew and legendary Mistborn (a super-powerful Allomancer) is the obvious standout, being The Final Empire‘s version of Gandalf (albeit more rougish, volatile and reckless) and the protagonist, Vin, shows nice growth through the novel, even if the reader has to suspend belief when considering her advancement from street urchin to powerful Allomancer by the end of the novel. Sanderson throws in enough genuine twists to keep them all on their toes as they try to pull of the biggest heist their world has ever seen.
Prophecy plays a big role in The Final Empire, and Sanderson plays cleverly with the idea of history and information warping as time passes and it filters through the hands of those in power. The first volume doesn’t touch on this aspect as much as I would have liked, but a particular scene during the rip-roarin’ climax suggests that it will be an important element through the final two volumes of Mistborn.
As someone who was introduced to Fantasy through Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore and J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s nice to find a book that reminds me of those early, exciting days of discovering the genre. I suppose the best thing I can say for it is that The Wheel of Time fans have nothing to worry about; with his charming characters, great grasp on how magic is supposed to work, and easy-to-read prose, Sanderson is surely setup to complete Jordan’s series as well as anyone writing. For the first time since Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, I’m excited at the idea of continuing on with a series, instead of hitting that towering pile of books, littered with other authors waiting to be read.
“My biggest regret (and something I hope will be addressed in later volumes) is that Sanderson didnâ€™t get more philosophical about the (no doubt) addictive qualities of what amounts to a drug that grants super-human strength, washes away weariness, enhances every sense and even allows the user to manipulate the emotions of those around them”
I think this becomes a more important issue as the series progresses. Starting in book 2 and continuing to one of the major POVs in the last book. It isn’t confronted in any kind of “very special episode” kind of way but the element of trust with regards to emotional allomancy and the effects of relying too much on a specific metal are definitely discussed as the series progresses.
Funny, I’m actually listening to The Final Empire right now via audible.com. The voices are all great, except Vin’s (whose exhausting trust issues are a little more annoying than I think they would be if the voice wasn’t so stereotypically “female”) and Sazed (who sounds like a horribly racist/stereotypical Asian speaking staccato English).
But I definitely agree with you, the magic is extremely well thought out and shows much more depth than the typical fantasy. Though at times I do think that there’s a little too much focus spent on the allomancy.
I’m curious: are there any more Mistborn books in the works/planning?
Mike – That’s encouraging. I’m half-way through The Well of Ascension, and it’s come up a bit more, but I still don’t think Sanderson’s taken full advantage of it. Still have half the trilogy left, though.
Keith – I’ll assume you know about the other two novels in the trilogy, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. If not, that’s the next step. Otherwise, Sanderson has talked a couple of times of writing another series of books set in the Mistborn world, but many years in the future, when technology has caught up to a modern level.
‘I will, someday, write a follow-up trilogy to Mistborn. It will be set several hundred years after the events of the first trilogy, after technology has caught up to where it should be. Essentially, these will be urban fantasy stories set in the same world. Guns, cars, skyscrapers–and Allomancers.’
A question for you, one of the problems I have with Sanderson’s writing is that I have trouble figuring out how to pronounce some of the characters names – specifically Sazed (Sayzed – rhymes with raised? Sah-zed?) and Kelsier (Kel-seer? Kel-sea-eh?). can you help me out, having listened to the audiobooks?
As a listener of the audiobooks, I can tell you that Sazed is pronounced with two syllables (SAY-zed) and Kelsier is pronounced (KEL-seer). Or at least, that’s how the narrator pronounces them, which isn’t to say it’s canon. One thing that surprises me in listening to audiobooks is the lack of communication between narrators and authors regarding proper pronunciation or accentuation.
My biggest concern for The Wheel of Time after reading this book and Elantris, is that at their core both these books are essentially urban in nature. While there are brief interludes that take place in more rural settings, like the caves in Final Empire, Sanderson’s world-building seems to be confined to cities. So I’m a bit worried about how well he’ll capture the expansive breadth of the world of the Wheel of Time.
Thanks for clearing that up, Seth. It may or may not be official, but it helps smooth things out in my head, at least.
Re: Urban Setting
It’s funny you mention that. I’ve been reading Sanderson’s annotations as I complete each chapter, and just today I read on that contained the following passage:
‘One of the problems created by my writing style is that it’s hard to give a real feeling of scope to a kingdom or landscape. When you read something by Robert Jordan, for instance, you get to see a whole world full of peoples and places, since the characters travel all about. I prefer to set my stories in one or two locations, usually a large city, since this lets me focus on the political wrangling, and it also lets me give a strong sense of place to that area.
It was impossible in these booksâ€”particularly the first bookâ€”to give a sense of how large and varied the Final Empire was. I threw in Spook’s street slang and Sazed’s cultural references to try to hint at the different ethnicity, but these were only thatâ€”hints.
I don’t regret the way that I write. However, I am aware of the issues involved in the choices I make. I think that’s what you have to do in a bookâ€”you make trade offs, choosing to focus on some things and not others.’
Obviously, it looks like Sanderson’s aware of his strengths/history as a writer, so it will be interesting to see how this aspect of the final WoT books turns out. Still, at this point in the series, there should be little world-building left to do, and Sanderson should just be able to have fun in Jordan’s world. This is also one of the reasons I don’t really want to see Sanderson (or anyone) go after the Outrigger trilogy.
True, and just the fact that Sanderson is aware of this quality in his writing allays many of my fears.
For the first time since Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, I’m excited at the idea of continuing on with a series, instead of hitting that towering pile of books, littered with other authors waiting to be read.
The comparisons are hard to ignore between these two considering both trilogies came out roughly at the same time. I like both quite a bit and as completed series, both are extremely high on my personal favorites list.
Exactly what Seth said about the pronunciation. I do agree with Sanderson himself that the “hints” he makes are just that. I think instead of making mention to a dozen different religions, it would have been better for focus to be put on fleshing out just a few, and making mention that many others exist out there. That’s just my opinion though, you definitely get a great sense of Luthadel and how society works in this corner of the world, but the others are just a rumor and mystery.
I honestly fear for a world with both alomancy and machine guns… But that would be interesting, I haven’t seen a setting that has been looked at in such a wide time range before.
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