I consider Brandon Sanderson to be one of the most inventive and important sci-fi/fantasy writers of the early 21st century, and his defining trilogy is ample evidence.
The Final Empire is set in a vaguely medieval dystopian society, where ash falls constantly from the sky, plants are brown, and supernatural mists choke the night streets. A thousand years prior, the Lord Ruler rose to power and became a god when he repelled an enemy known as the Deepness.
Vin, a skaa street urchin, is recruited by thief Kelsier and his crew when they discover she is a Mistborn – an Allomancer with access to the full range of powers granted by “burning” specific metals to gain supernatural abilities. Kelsier has a plan, and he needs Vin to help him and his team: to infiltrate the capital city of the Final Empire, Luthadel, and overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the skaa from slavery.
The Mistborn series’ first trilogy, comprised of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages, takes your standard fantasy world and tropes and promptly flips most of your expectations completely upside-down. You think the story is heading in one direction? Think again. That throwaway line in the first book? Not so throwaway after all.
Sanderson’s writing is not perfect. The Mistborn books were among some of his earlier works, when he was still learning how to pace his books (I believe a better editor could have cut down the page count by several hundred per book at least) and realise that he could have more than one well-developed/named female character per book. Kelsier “grins” and “smiles” at least fifty times per scene he is in, so much so that you have to wonder how his cheek muscles haven’t frozen that way; we are assured just as frequently that he is insane, or has been driven mad, but this rang hollow to me as the most I ever saw was a man who had nothing else to lose and could not admit his internal agony to himself.
But what Sanderson does well, he does very well. Kelsier is oh so very clever, and he keeps you guessing at every turn. His team are a colourful collection of Allomancers and planners with their own set of skills, reminding one sharply of a fantasy-Ocean’s Eleven scheme with much higher stakes.
I was divided for a long time on the character of Vin. I’ve seen complaints that she’s too perfect, or too incredible as a teenage street-urchin with incredible powers and sharp wit and intelligence. On the one hand, I can see where this criticism comes from – she’s hilariously overpowered. But on the other hand, I’ve seen male characters with her exact role within their own stories, and the complaints about those ones are that we never see women in those positions (!). Ultimately, I love Vin. She’s complex, powerful, damaged and essential to just about everything that goes on in the trilogy.
The downside is that, as pretty much the only significant female character in the entire series, a lot rests on her shoulders. There’s no reason why some of Kelsier’s crew could not have been women; there’s also no reason given for the gender inequality in this world (there are no female heads of noble houses, for example). I feel that this is unintentional on Sanderson’s part; he used to be a Mormon missionary and no doubt carried a lot of subconscious sexism, but with his more recent books we see him balancing his cast more evenly.
There’s not more much about the plot that I can say, lest I spoil – well, everything. But I’ve never read a cleverer or better-plotted fantasy trilogy than I have with the Mistborn trilogy. My standard for fantasy has risen very high since reading this trilogy – so much so that I’ve yet to find a rival for Sanderson in this department. Sanderson’s creativity, I hope, is something that will encourage a smarter, more modern change in the genre of fantasy, and help authors move away from the grim-dark GRRM-ripoffs and LOTR-inspired worlds of stereotypical elves and dwarves minus Tolkien’s pathos and ingenuity.