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The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

book cover of The Final Empire

3.5 stars. The first two-thirds were about a 2.5 star read (halfway between “it’s okay” and “I like it”), but the last third was where it all came together into a solid four-star read. That makes this a three-star read overall, I guess, but with me having a high confidence that now we know all the world-building and info on the magical system and all that, the next book is gonna be good.

So if you haven’t yet read the Mistborn trilogy, you might be reading this post because you want to know: should you? And the answer to that is, of course, it depends. It is a work of epic fantasy, so it’s very long with a slow build-up. But the core story seems good. This first instalment, at least, follows Vin, a petty thief who trusts no one and lives in filth in dire poverty, as she discovers she has ultra-rare magic powers and becomes enmeshed in a scheme to overthrow the tyrannical and immortal Lord Ruler and liberate the downtrodden masses (the skaa).

See, Vin comes from a world where there is a dominant form of magic called Allomancy. For Allomancy to work, you have to ingest some of a specific metal, and then (if you’re attuned to that metal) you can burn it to unlock whatever power to carries; once the metal’s burned through, you’ll have to ingest more of the metal to fuel further use of that power. In theory, only noblemen could possibly be attuned to any metals: there are strict laws by which noblemen may have sex with skaa women if they want, but only if they kill them promptly afterwards, to eliminate any risk of allomantic powers being inherited by a skaa child. But even then, the vast majority of allomancers can only burn one metal to use one magical power; only a tiny majority indeed are what’s known as Mistborn, able to draw on all the powers if they have access to the metals.

It’s an interesting system of magic, notable in my mind for how strictly limited it is: you need fuel, you can only do a limited range of things, and most magic users can’t even do the majority of that limited range of things. It’s also interesting that it’s resulted in such a strongly hereditary form of class domination, whereby the nobility (who aren’t all magical, but certainly have access to allomancers within the members of each House) keep the masses subjugated through magically manipulating their emotions to keep them pessimistic and devoid of hope.

Vin, however, is the product of a nobleman’s blunder: her mother was a skaa prostitute who this nobleman failed to have killed after he’d impregnated her. By the start of the story her family is all gone, and she's only aware of a small part of her powers, which she calls Luck. It's when she crosses paths with Kelsier – another skaa-born Mistborn – that she’s recognised for what she is. She joins Kelsier’s crew and he begins to mentor her in how to use her powers.

Now Kelsier himself is an interesting character. He’s also known as the Survivor of Hathsin, for escaping from a hard labour camp (a mine) that no one had ever survived before. He despises the Lord Ruler and all of the nobility for condemning the vast majority of the population to live in such misery. I found it interesting that as Vin became more knowledgeable about the political situation and her abilities, she started disagreeing with Kell on some things – like where Kell considered every noble to be an oppressor of all skaa and deserving of death, Vin thought there was a role that “class traitor” nobles could play in the uprising. With Elend emerging as the new king at the end of the book, I am curious to see who the narrative depicts as being more in the right: will we see a “good noble” coming to lead a benevolent absolute monarchy, or will we see the skaa rightfully angry about having their rebellion twisted into channelling power to a new nobleman, such that they still lack political power and justice for themselves? Sanderson has put so much work into crafting this society that I’m really intrigued to see how it all plays out – I just think he’s laid too much groundwork to be on the road to disappointing me.

There is more in terms of characters and world-building that I could have touched on here, but it would be more time-efficient just to say trust me, the novel is rich in those things. As for Sanderson’s prose, I don’t know that I’d say it’s my favourite ever – it’s functional, more than anything else. Characters don’t speak in some artificial, high-falutin’ style, which I appreciate, and he does enough to help me visualise the world (the grim, colourless streets, the skies permanently red from ash…). At the same time, there are a lot of action scenes and some of them drag out well beyond the point that I can keep track of where all the people in the brawl are supposed to be, and there are some weaker bits of description that stood out just because I’d have fixed them up if I came across them in my own writing (like, “smiled evilly” is a bit of a twee choice of words in my view). That said, somehow I feel that Sanderson has sold enough millions of copies of this book that he would not care about me nitpicking his prose.

Overall, this is a good book, but it also feels like a set-up book, like things are about to get way more interesting. If you like the sound of anything I’ve written about it here, and don’t mind a longer, slower-paced read, you could definitely go further wrong than picking this book up.

Books in the Mistborn series

  1. The Final Empire (you are here)
  2. The Well of Ascension
  3. The Hero of Ages (no review available)

★★★½

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.