In this remarkable postmodern fantasy epic, Brandon Sanderson delights in subverting and deconstructing genre conventions. Set a thousand years after the archetypal hero of monomyth failed, every aspect of the novel – from the worldbuilding, to the characters, to the plot – features some level of subversion and deconstruction of genre conventions, resulting in a novel that, rather fittingly, constructs a powerful fantasy tale out of the ashes of the tropes of the genre.
I love this novel. While Sanderson is still early in his career here, and it shows in a lot of ways (his prose is still often clunky, especially with the insertion of worldbuilding explanations into the middle of otherwise interesting and exciting scenes, his character arcs are very clearly and straightforwardly communicated in a way that feels overtly functional at times, his pacing is uneven, and he seems to lose control of the story at times, such as the heist element and tone falling by the wayside around halfway through in a way that didn’t feel intentional), I still believe this trilogy is his strongest work, and of the three books, this is probably ultimately the best (although The Hero of Ages is my favourite).
Even before getting to my favourite aspect of the novel, the way it plays with, subverts, inverts, deconstructs various conventions and foundations of the fantasy genre, there’s already a lot to like. Vin and Kelsier are both compelling protagonists, the latter with his mystery, charm, and unsettling brutality, and the former with her tragic backstory, wrestles with the darkness inherent to her life and world, and burgeoning powers and relationships. Sazed and the Lord Ruler were also very compelling characters. Sazed’s past felt like just as much a story worth telling as Vin’s, and even putting aside his fascinating abilities and how they tie into the worldbuilding of the story, his character’s inner strength is admirable. Sanderson suggests there’s more to the Lord Ruler and his actions than first appears, and there clearly is more going on in his mind than he presents to the world.
Speaking of that world, Scadrial, the worldbuilding of Mistborn is excellent and innovative. The magic systems recall Newton in their strict adherence to principles (action and reaction), and science in how the systems are interpreted in certain half-right ways but the characters lack the knowledge to fully understand them. The racial make-up of the world is fascinating, as is the entire society, intentionally static from the direction of the Lord Ruler.
Baked into the worldbuilding is Sanderson’s fascination with subverting, breaking down, building up, deconstructing, inverting, all sorts of play with fantasy genre conventions. The book isn’t just a deconstructive fantasy at a superficial or shallow level; it’s a thorough, holistic postmodern fantasy work where every facet of the novel is built around coherent multilevel breakdowns of genre elements.
The entire underpinning backstory (Alendi, Kwaan, Rashek, the Terris prophecies, the Deepness, the Hero of Ages, the Well of Ascension) is a complete failure of the archetypal monomyth hero’s journey. The hero nearly every archetypal step, but at the climatic point, they fail. They seem to become a despot, a tyrant, the Lord Ruler, a brutal inversion of how the hero’s journey is meant to play out. Sanderson’s original elvator pitch for the novel was something along the lines of “the hero failed in their journey, this is 1000 years later”, and that sets the tone for the entire trilogy to come, as a postmodern work where fantasy conventions are arguably “realistically” (I’d tend towards saying bleakly, rather than trying to bring realism into it) broken down, occasionally reconstructed (that is, cathartically played somewhat straight after being broken down, such as with Vin mastering her powers as a more typical young gifted protege learning from their mentors trope), but most often just deconstructed and twisted.
Sanderson has always been fascinated by playing with, and breaking down, genre tropes, but the original Mistborn work is where he does it at a completely hollistic and cohesive level – it’s not only the backstory, but also the magic systems, the worldbuilding, the characters themselves (Vin struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder the entire series rather than being conveniently “cured” of complicated mental illnesses like that as a troublesome character such as her might have in a more traditional series), the plots, every single level. The fact the story succeeds in its own right – it’s not a satirical work, it’s own that works played straight even without reader knowledge about that metatextual playground Brandon has made for himself in the series – is very, very impressive to me.
Yes the novel has weaknesses. The prose is often clunky, Brandon bangs you over the head with the steps in the character’s arcs at times, the exclusion of more healthy sexual relationships while rape is abundantly included is bizarre when there actually are some healthy sexual relationships in the story (this is more of an issue in the sequels, but it’s at play here to an extent too), and there’s an occasional YA vibe which clashes poorly with the more prevalent tone and direction of the story. But by and large, Brandon absolutely pulled this one off. It’s a triumph to me.
I give it four beads of atium, and a secret in plain sight.