One can find beauty in many different things, including various entertainment media. All too often, Christians focus only on the God-glorifying aspects in explicitly Christian media, which is kinda sad. We miss out on so much when we do so. Part of the point of Speculative Faith as a website is to explore not just Christian fiction, but see the glory of God in all worthwhile fiction.
Though a Mormon and not a believer, Brandon Sanderson has still written books that show the beauty and truth of God via the struggles and triumphs of his characters, as well as the lessons they learn. In his original Mistborn trilogy, he gives readers not just a rip-roaring good adventure, but also deals with such themes as Christ-like sacrificial love, and dealing with the loss and reawakening of faith.
I decided to review these books to help show the beauty and edification we can find even in works that are secular. Indeed, shouldn’t we all be looking for this, in some small measure, in the books we read?
Caution: Spoilers ahead
Two quick notes about this review. The first is that some major spoilers will abound. I know some folks don’t like spoilers, and I am sorry about this, but it cannot really be helped. I am quite serious about exploring some major themes of the works for their beauty and edifying nature. To do this, I cannot help but reveal such information. If you don’t want to be spoiled, please do not read.
The second note is a quick run-down of the structure of the review. This trilogy can be purchased in one volume or in separate volumes as an ebook, as well as separately or in a box set as a physical book. Each work is a distinct, but interrelated, part of the larger tale. I will be reviewing this as one cohesive story, and therefore discussing and rating each volume, after which I will finish off with some thoughts and a rating for the trilogy as a whole. Now, let us begin.
Mistborn: The Final Empire
As Mistborn: The Final Empire begins, the reader is introduced to a world where there are massive “ashfalls” from volcanoes and other ecological disasters. In the midst of this, the ruler and “deity” over most of the world, known as the “Lord Ruler” controls the massive caste system in his vast empire. The upper-crust, called the “nobility,” are those whose ancestors are said to have supported the Lord Ruler’s rise to power as he fought against the evil forces destined to destroy the world before his “ascent” to “godhood.” The truth is that the Lord Ruler is not a god. He is a man who was ruthless, if well-intentioned, when he gained power upon doing the mighty deeds of legend, and in the intervening years has grown more and more evil. He has destroyed all of the prophecies and religions present in the world before his time, and has thus removed all truth from the world. Only a small underground network of scholars is left trying to use magic to preserve knowledge and seek out the truth.
The nobility rules over the under-class, called skaa. These people are shorter in stature, though arguably stronger physically, and lacking the traits which give their rulers magical powers called “Allomancy.” Allomancy is the ability to take swallowed amounts of specifically mixed metal alloys of different varieties, which are then “burned” by the Allomancer’s body to release the energy to perform incredible feats. These Allomancers are split into groups according to their ability. There is also a limitation to this magic in that either an Allomancer can burn only one metal granting them a specific power, or they can burn all metals to exercise all of the powers. Those that can do such are called “Mistings” and “Mistborn,” respectively.
The Lord Ruler, to prevent the existence of skaa Mistings and Mistborn, who could rebel against him, outlaws romantic relationships between the nobility and the skaa. Such liaisons are only allowed if the nobleman kills the skaa girl before she can become pregnant. The government also tries its hardest to kill so-called “half-breeds” that result from disobedient noblemen who fail to kill their lovers. Some such half-breeds escape alive and turn to crime — or, in a few cases, legitimate business — to survive while hiding their abilities. This is a world where the Lord Ruler uses magic, physical violence, and psychological warfare to oppress the populace. Of course, things are about to change.
One of the “thieving crews” of skaa decides to attempt the impossible. They are going to try to help the insignificant skaa rebellion overthrow the Final Empire and kill the tyrannical Lord Ruler. This goal seems ridiculously impossible, and indeed, there are many setbacks. But in the end, it just might happen.
The crew, lead by the charismatic Kelsier, have found a boon in another Mistborn, the young street urchin named Vin. After rescuing her from death at the hands of her old crew leader, they begin to train Vin in the ways of Allomancy. Now the skaa rebellion has something it has never had before: a group of powerful Mistings and Mistborn, as well as a plan that could actually work.
The world-building that Sanderson gives us is incredibly well thought-out and intricate. Allomancy and Feruchemy, the other major (also metal-based) magic system, are very precise. The author clearly spent quite some time thinking over his systems of magic, and the story certainly benefits from it. Indeed, understanding the “laws” the magic is governed by can help one to better visualize, and even predict, the actions of the characters in a given situation. The various ecological and geographical aspects of the world and its problems are also described in pain-staking detail.
Perhaps the best parts, in my opinion, are the earlier referenced lessons in the work. Despite the harsh, and horrifying circumstances the crew find themselves in the midst of, they still love and trust each other. Sazed, though a (not by choice) eunuch who has himself, along with his people, been persecuted by the Lord Ruler, still catalogues religions, and believes that one of them must be true. There is a God, He is not the Lord Ruler, and He has a plan. Think about this for a moment. Here is a man who has the most reason of anyone to be atheist, and he holds to his faith.
Indeed, it is this same love the crew has for each other, and Sazed’s faith in his “forgotten gods,” that touches Vin. The teenaged girl is scarred from her life on the streets and the harsh lessons of her brother who did all he could to protect her, but in a very bad way. Her journey from a frightened, mistrustful child to a young woman who has faith in her friends and hopes for a better future is the emotional thrust of the novel.
Vin starts out thinking everyone will betray her, but slowly, over the course of the novel, Kelsier and his crew invite her into their midst and show her the true meaning of friendship. She can learn to trust people. Yes, she risks being hurt, but what type of life is there with no faith and trust in others? Interestingly, this notion of faith in others, of having to take a “leap of faith,” is used again to show how faith in God is better than no faith.
I can’t really think of anything to dislike about the book, except that I wish that the “love story” was not so rushed. It made no real sense in the tale. We have Vin’s point of view, but not her love interest’s. That really made it hard to “root” for the characters. Or, at least, to root for the love interest. Only the passion of Vin makes the couple anything interesting. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The love interest is a character you can root for, as he is such a nice guy, but we are so rarely shown his thoughts on any subject. Most of the time he has a point of view, he spends hardly any time thinking about how he loves Vin, or “Vallette” as he knows her, as compared to other topics.
In the next book, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, the stakes are even higher, and the faith of our characters in each other and (in Sazed’s case) God, is put to the test.
Rating for Mistborn: The Final Empire: 5/5 stars.
Mistborn: The Well of Ascension
The Well of Ascension, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, begins about a year after the end of the first book. Since the (self-proclaimed) god-like Lord Ruler was defeated and killed by Vin, Sazed, and Marsh, the various regions of the Final Empire have fallen into chaos with either anarchy or tyranny being the new norm. Vin and the crew of the late Kelsier are now lead by the new king of the Central Dominance (where Luthadel, one-time capital of the now-defunct Final Empire, lies): Elend Venture.
The Lord Ruler in his life never released more than a small amount of the Atium (a specific metal which gives Mistborn an edge in combat making them very formidable) he had in his possession, so everyone believes it must be somewhere, and this much-rumored cache is believed to be in Luthadel. The desire of other monarchs in the disintegrated Final Empire to gain control of the Atium is at the heart of the plot of the second book. These other monarchs march large armies to the former capital city to lay siege to it.
As Vin and the crew struggle to protect the city, and Elend Venture attempts to learn how to be a true and effective ruler, the whole world seems to be taking a turn for the worse. The once-harmless mists are killing people again, which they haven’t done since before the Lord Ruler first ascended to his supposed “godhood” a thousand years earlier, and the Steel Inquisitors have seemingly gone off the deep end. Vin and Sazed remember the Lord Ruler’s last words, how he said that by killing him, they have doomed themselves. They begin to wonder if he was telling the truth. With the rest of the crew, lead by Elend, they try to find a way to make things right again. But an evil force is manipulating them, and their attempt to save the world may just wind up leading to the end of it.
This middle novel of the trilogy was much darker than the first book, and much more bloody. Even the carnage in the first book was mostly done to faceless crowds, or minor side-characters (with the exception of Kelsier). Here, the mood is depressing, and everyone is in a desperate fight to survive. In the midst of this difficult time, what gets the crew to stay together is trust. Trust in each other, and trust in God that Sazed preaches.
Sanderson seems to have Sazed use an idea similar to the arguments of Lewis, Tolkien, and others of the “One True Myth.” He believes that the religions he has memorized can bring comfort and that they are alike in some parts because, even with the fact that almost all of them have to be false for there to be a true faith, there is some truth in them that touches on the truth of that faith which is real. In his case, he is coming to think the Terris faith of his people is true.
Of course, this isn’t an easy thing, as Sazed is entirely too naïve and ecumenical, in that he accepts too many religions, and his answers of “bringing comfort” can’t be true when his faith is more happy feelings than actual faith or belief. There is no solidity to his faith, nor any time of testing. This comes back to bite him at the end of the book.
On another note, Sanderson continued his excellent worldbuilding. I liked how he kept the magic system very consistent. He didn’t violate the rules for the sake of the plot, but thought through everything beforehand. Any new insights gained make sense within the framework he had already established.
I also appreciated that the myths and religions of the world were actually developed to the point where the prophecies and how they affect the main plots were reasonably complex. I’m all for a good, simple story of good versus evil, but too many fantasy authors don’t think through the plot elements they employ. Sanderson does, and it shows in the machinations of the good and evil supernatural forces.
What I didn’t like was how much of a downer this book was. I heard this book described as being like The Empire Strikes Back in tone, and that is quite accurate. In fact, Empire was positively cheery compared to The Well of Ascension. I’m not saying that cliffhangers or suspenseful stories are bad, just that there should be at least some upbeat parts to make it more palatable.
I am known to harp on characterization, but for me, that really is the key to any story. How do the characters develop during the story? How do they interact with each other? If you don’t focus on such questions, even the best tales will fall flat. I loved watching Elend learn to be a better leader, Vin grow more confident and trusting, Breeze and the rest of the crew shown to be decent and good people underneath their more cutthroat personas. In short, the characters grew, changed, and so forth.
Of course, the sad part is how Sazed suffers and his faith is destroyed. But was it really faith? Or just some comforting, general idea of the Divine? The next book examines his struggle for faith and meaning in life, and the characters’ efforts to fight an impossible force. The only thing that can sustain them is what has done so already: faith, self-sacrifice, trust, and love. And a healthy dose of beating up bad guys. 😉
Rating for Mistborn: The Well of Ascension: 4/5 stars.
Mistborn: The Hero of Ages
The Mistborn Trilogy concludes with The Hero of Ages. It has been over a year since the ending of the previous book, The Well of Ascension. At the end of that volume, Vin, believing herself to be the fabled “Hero of Ages,” took the power of the Well of Ascension, and released it, as the prophecies said that she should. Then she sensed a dark force screaming in delight that it was free. Sazed, who had realized the truth, was too late to get to Vin in time to prevent her mistake.
Now that same evil force, a god calling himself/itself Ruin, is loosed upon the world, and is going about doing what its nature calls for, causing “ruin,” or entropy, to set in on an incredibly fast scale, trying to end the world. There is a power that can oppose Ruin, a being called Preservation, but how do the heroes harness this entity’s power, and will it be enough? Also, how do they handle the truth that the Lord Ruler, while evil at the end, was not truly as evil the whole time as they thought that he was, and was driven insane by Ruin’s influence? Can they trust the Lord Ruler’s posthumous plans to help them defeat Ruin? It will take all of the skills of the heroes, including Vin’s and Elend’s (his gained at the end of the previous book) Mistborn powers, as well as the skills of the rest of the crew, to defeat this dark god, while saving as many people as possible. If they don’t succeed, the world will literally be destroyed in a short time.
This book was quite a roller-coaster emotionally and in terms of tone and plot. I mean, every time things seemed to be hopelessly down, they seemed to get better, and vice-versa. It seemed that nothing could go well for very long, and that in the end, the heroes would lose, despite their small victories. Would the end be averted? Well, it was, and when it was, the downers on the way to victory were major, and should have made me hate the book.
The thing is that it did not make me dislike the book at all. I found the end of the story bittersweet, and yet this made the story all the more satisfying when the resolution came. This was because the victory over evil wasn’t easy. It was costly, yet at the same time it was an impressive and hard-fought victory. The twists and turns of the tale were absolutely riveting. I felt like I was on the edge of my seat watching an engrossing thriller at a movie theater. Such was the power of Brandon Sanderson’s narrative and story-telling skills.
As for what I didn’t like, well, that would be the downers. It really was hard to take the deaths and the sadness, except for the assurance that they don’t regret their actions, that they are in a happy after-life, and that, in a spoiler, they did it on purpose to die for the sake of others. Sanderson has extensive notes for each book on his site, and has given information in various media to flesh out the books. I believe him in his claims in said notes that he didn’t sit down intending to let his ideas on religion enter his writing, but that it just happened. Regardless, there are some key parts of the book that are edifying and beautiful in the truth that seemed to organically flow from Sanderson’s pen.
The first part would be the character arcs of Vin and Elend. The two of them are very much Christ-like. This is a huge spoiler to explain this, but I’ll put it here. They die, but they do so willingly. Sanderson has stated that Elend died on purpose to help defeat Ruin. Using a duralumin-fueled atium burning, he saw what his death would entail and how it would lead to Ruin’s downfall. The careful reader can pin-point the part where that happens. Vin also dies to defeat Ruin. Elend and Vin love each other very much, and have only had a few years together, yet they gave it all up to save the world.
I also found Spook’s struggle against Ruin fascinating. It kind of mirrors the struggle against a tempting demon. The ins-and-outs of how this takes place I’ll leave unsaid, though the reader will pick it up quite quickly, I think. It was fascinating to watch this good-natured young man slowly become corrupted, and then, at the pivotal moment, turn from evil. Despite the immediate pain, he did what was right. Indeed, he gave up powers that he had always wanted in exchange for stopping evil.
Sazed had the most interesting arc of the story. The real “meat” of the edifying scenes centered around him. At the end of the previous novel, he had lost his faith, and no longer believed in any God. When confronted with his own people’s faith, the Terris religion, he is disheartened to see how it is like some other religions, and thus (to his depressed, skeptical way of thinking) is false. Eventually he realizes that perhaps they really do have some commonality because those shared themes are true. This is an older argument that hearkens back to that of C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others of their acquaintance, about the “One True Myth” of Christianity and how within the various pagan myths are nuggets of truth referring back to Christ.
I know that Sazed in this book was annoying to many readers, who found him to be a “whiner,” but he wasn’t annoying to me. Oh, to be sure, he could be somewhat aggravating at first, but once the story placed me more in his head, if you will, his thoughts really did make sense. I have struggled with faith before, and wondered why bad things happen, to various degrees throughout my life. I have looked to parts of my faith that seemed contradictory to the human mind, and really are impossible to prove. I think that all believers have. Sazed reflected this struggle quite well, and his finding of faith at the end touched me. The most compelling passage of Sazed’s slow journey to rekindling his faith are the words of some elders which eventually struck a chord with him.
“This is the truth,” one of the kandra said.
“That’s what every religion teaches,” Sazed said, frustration mounting. “Yet, in each of them I find inconsistencies, logical leaps, and demands of faith I find impossible to accept.”
“It seems to me, young one,” Haddek said, “that you’re searching for something that cannot be found.”
“The truth?” Sazed said.
“No,” Haddek replied. “A religion that requires no faith of its believers.”
The above resonated with me, because it is so true of us and our doubts sometimes about Christ. He told us that we would have to have faith in Him, and He further said it would be good for us in the long run. Despite this, we consistently want what God has told us He will not give and is not good for us: easy answers with no need for leaps of faith involved. Sazed’s struggle is really the struggle of every Christian, because we can have logical exercises like Lewis and others have done in apologetics, but in the end, it is all about faith. Like Sazed, we all have to simply decide whether to believe or not. The beautiful part is that he finds his faith again before it is proven correct.
Hero certainly has a twist ending. The prophecies end up being true, but have a result that some may see, and others not see, coming. At first, this seems to be an ending that is very Mormon-like, but in terms of the larger cosmology of Brandon Sanderson’s shared universe (including The Stormlight Archive, Elantris, etc.), this really isn’t so. All of these books are inter-connected in Sanderson’s attempt at a huge fantasy crisis cross-over, like in comics but with fantasy novels.
It was truly a surprising, yet satisfying conclusion. Or at least it was for me. I knew some of its spoilers ahead of time, but even then, I found the surprise on the prophecies to be unique. They even explain the reason behind what I thought was a pretty useless scene and reference from the first book. I won’t say what scene and reference so as not to spoil the book too much more outrageously than I already have done so. 😉
Rating for Mistborn: The Hero of Ages: 4/5 stars.
I cannot express enough how much I was engrossed and touched by this fantasy trilogy. These were exciting adventures, and filled with beauty. At several points, there were, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, parts of the narrative that will point the reader to Biblical themes. That is what makes this such an incredible novel and trilogy as a whole.
To be sure, one shouldn’t expect a sermon or a purposeful message of salvation, but that is not the point. The point is what we discussed at the beginning of this review: seeing the beauty and the Christ-honoring aspects even in secular writing.
This was such a great, fun story, with real lessons and Christian themes. I just can’t recommend it enough.
Rating for The Original Mistborn Trilogy as a whole: 4.5/5 stars.