The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages

AuthorBrandon Sanderson

Pages: 784 pages
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: October 14, 2008
ISBN-10: 0765356147
ISBN-13: 978-0765356147

The Final Empire, the first volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy kicked my ass (in a good way). A great blend of original ideas, charming characters a nicely self-contained story (no real cliffhangers to speak of), and good ol’ fashioned ’80’s style fantasy. It brought me back to my roots, reminded me of when I first discovered the genre through the likes of Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Feist and R.A. Salvatore. Maybe not for everyone, in the age of Joe Abercrombies and Hal Duncans, but an accessible novel that left me wanting more.

Sanderson followed that up with The Well of Ascension, which turned out to be a massive disappointment. Instead of delivering on the promises of the first novel, Sanderson left his characters at a stalemate, giving them time to evolve, sure, but grinding the plot and world development to a halt. Gone were most of the most interesting elements of The Final Empire (the forbidding Steel Inquisitors, most notably) and in their place were insipid, weak characters dealing with politics and love stories that I just didn’t give a damn about. Elend, in particular, regressed from a confident paramour to a self-doubting child thrust into a position of rule. It felt false, and, even worse, pointless.

So, home-run in his first at-bat, flaming strikeout in his second, how was Sanderson to fare with his third (and final) attempt? Let’s call it a ground-rule-double. The Hero of Ages succeeds, but doesn’t quite hit it out of the park like the first volume.

Sanderson’s an exhaustive outliner, so it’s frustrating to wade through so much useless plot (the Siege of Luthadel in The Well of Ascension, the stale retread of bringing down a corrupt leader (two, actually) in The Hero of Ages) and self-indulgent character development at the cost of telling a fast, interesting story. It’s somewhat fitting that Sanderson was chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, considering how strongly the Mistborn ‘trilogy’ screams to be a duology. Sanderson is known for his breakneck endings (and Hero of Ages is no exception), but one has to wonder how the series could have succeeded if he had simply taken the plotting, action and revelations from the second and third volumes and worked it into one novel, cutting out all the fat that bloats down the first half of each.

Still, Sanderson should be lauded for his endings, and his labyrinthine plotting. Once the revelations start rolling in, it’s clear that Sanderson had things under control from the very beginning. Seemingly small elements from the early pages of The Final Empire fall into place and have cataclysmic effects on the outcome of the series. The final 200 pages of the novel fly by as Sanderson brings the series to a satisfying, shocking conclusion. And, hell, he leaves a body count of major players that would make even George R.R. Martin blush.

Despite my grumblings about Sanderson spending so many of the early pages on philosophical/religious/political ramblings and theories, it was nice to see him using these to expand the roles of some of the minor characters from earlier in the series. We finally see Sazed come into his own, as he struggles with inner demons. Marsh continues to kick ass and treads the thin line between villain and saviour, with the reader never quite knowing which side he is truly on. And TenSoon gives a unique perspective of the events, as well as being a key to many of the series secrets. It may have been unnecessary, but that constant internal monologuing of all the Point-of-View characters certainly leaves the series with a strong, memorable cast of characters.

Sanderson tries to avoid the dreaded infodump by doling out a lot of information and history through the ‘epigraphs’ before each chapter. These short snippets of text (a sentence to a couple of paragraphs long) were always a highlight, something I was constantly eager to get to, for they held many secrets, but also seemed like a bit of a cop-out. He wanted to avoid infodumps in the text, but, you know… ‘A rose called by any other name is still a rose.’

Sanderson’s prose and dialogue continues along the same course set by the first two volumes. It’s serviceable, and his description is never too much, but often feels mechanical and over-polished, like Sanderson’s forcing the pieces together to make a point, rather than letting it all fall into place naturally. He also paints his characters with a rather modern brush, and it doesn’t always work. One particular scene was particularly jarring:

“You know,” Elend added, “during those days when you refused to marry me, I constantly thought about how strange you were.”

   She raised an eyebrow. “Well, that’s romantic.”

   Elend smiled. “Oh, come on. You have to admit that you’re unusual, Vin. You’re like some strange mixture of a noblewoman, a street urchin, and a cat. Plus, you’ve managed—in our short three years together—to kill not only my god, but my father, my brother, and my fiancée. That’s kind of like a homicidal hat trick. It’s a strange foundation for a relationship, wouldn’t you say?”

   Vin just rolled her eyes.

p. 193

‘Homicidal hat trick?’ Really? Sanderson tried to explain the justification for keeping the anachronistic phrase in (even when his editor wanted it cut) in one of his annotations:

My editor tried very hard to get me to cut the “homicidal hat trick” line. Not because it wasn’t clever, but because he felt it was anachronistic, as the phrase is commonly a metaphor for some quite modern sports. However, I was able to prove via Wikipedia (which is infallible) that the term was used as early as the nineteenth century and didn’t always refer to sports, but to three wins in a row in even simple games of chance. So, grudgingly, he let me keep it.

I don’t care what Wikipedia says, in the minds of readers ‘Hat Trick’ is a term associated with modern sports and sounds incredibly out of place in Sanderson’s Industrial Age world, especially when one considers that a world ruled under the iron fist of the Lord Ruler likely had little room for organized sports. Sorry Brandon, your editor was right.

In all, Hero of Ages is a marked improvement on The Well of Ascension, but can’t quite live up to the promises made by The Final Empire. The plot twists are strong, the characters well-realized and the action is frenetic, but the politicking is wearying, the love stories are forced and the pacing is, at times, scattered and slow as watching grass grow. In an age where Fantasy series often fall off the tracks, hit double-digits in number of volumes and putter out towards the end, Sanderson manages to tie off a compelling story in only three volumes… it’s just too bad he couldn’t have done it in two.

  • kevin October 13, 2009 at 7:35 am

    I’m definitely in the minority opinion as I liked “Well of Ascension” the most and “Hero of Ages” the least. I think Vin and Elend had pretty much developed as far as they could by the end of WoA and they just didn’t have much to do in HoA until the finale. My favorite sections of HoA were those with Spook.

  • Ryan October 13, 2009 at 10:53 am

    First you say “the dreaded infodump” which sounds like something you very much dislike. Then “always a highlight” “eagerly look forward to” Obviously liked them. Then “cop-out” “wanted to avaoid infodumps”. but a rose by any other name. Hmm. Seems like not the same thing at all. So if he would have put it in the text as an infodump you would have hated it and putting it at the front where you loved it are actually NOT a rose by any other name. One love, one hate. Seems like complete opposites to me.

  • aidan October 13, 2009 at 11:02 am

    I don’t mind a properly place infodump, especially if it sheds light on important information in the story. I enjoyed the ‘epigraphs’ for that reason. Still, Sanderson tries to avoid a difficult part of writing – the infodump – by hiding them at the beginning of his chapters, instead of within the chapters themselves. Like you say, it’s a bit of a Catch-22, and one that I had a love/hate relationship with.

    The Final Empire did a much better job of doling out those mysterious story bits through the ‘epigraphs’ and not just devolving into a character, more-or-less, ‘telling’ you important pieces of the secrets in the story and the history of the world.

    From Sanderson’s annotation:

    I knew I had to work the text into the actual narrative, rather than relying on the epigraphs, since people tend to skip those. (If you do, however, be warned that you will be missing some of the great clues in this book.)

    Sanderson even admits in his annotations that many of his readers skip those annotations, and yet he stores important information in them anyways. There are better ways of revealing secrets that have haunted the series since the first volumes than by simply telling the reader in a short clump of text, as evidenced by much of what does go on in Sanderson’s chapters.

    I enjoyed them for their secrets, but felt the execution was a little heavy-handed.

  • kevin October 13, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I totally get where Aidan was coming from on that one. I thought Sanderson did a pretty good job of integrating that exposition into the body of the main story in the first two books. With Hero of Ages it seems like he couldn’t fit in as much organically as he would have liked so the chapter teasers just become a sort of repository of additional material that is interesting in and of itself but clumsily integrated into the text.

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  • Paul December 24, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    I actually liked that “homicidal hat trick” line, it’s the reason I even found your webpage. I was listening to the audio book version and the googled the line. It also wasn’t associated with sports at all in my mind. I think it’s more just come to mean pulling off a number of hard things in a row, without failing.

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  • Chris September 14, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    I really enjoyed the Wheel of Time Books Sanderson wrote..I also loved the Way Of Kings Book, And halfway through Mistborn i was so excited about the series the crew of main characters were extremely intriguing with so much potential..If i had known that pretty much none of those characters would be alive bu the end of Hero Of Ages i would never have continued..The idiotically high body count didnt make it feel more realistic it took the all the air and fun out of the story..Dreadful and totally unsatisfying..Making weak references to those characters maybe being Gods or being happy in some heaven like place was insulting and shows that he knew ending was empty so he threw that rubbish in..the 2 other books ive read by him were so good that i was shocked how weak the Mistborn series was