Zach's Reviews > Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
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Jul 29, 12

Read from July 11 to 25, 2012

I read this because of its high placement on the Most Interesting Magic System list, as voted by Goodreads readers. I found that list, in turn, because of The Name of the Wind's high placement there, and as I mentioned in my review of that book, I really loved the internal consistency and depth of Rothfuss's magic system. Mistborn didn't quite live up to Rothfuss's standard, but didn't disappoint either. More on that in a moment.

I want to talk about what it means for a magic system to be "interesting." That same list that gives proper credit to Sanderson and Rothfuss heaps praise on the Harry Potter series, of all things. Now, there's nothing wrong with liking Harry Potter -- I read all of them and enjoyed them (although less and less as the series wore on). But to call J.K. Rowling's system of magic "interesting" is to divest the word of all meaning as it applies to literature. Yes, all those magic spells are incredibly varied, fantastical, and surprising at every turn -- and that's precisely the problem.

At wizard school with Harry, we start to get a glimpse of the vast variety of ways magic can work in this world: there are potions you mix up; words you chant while waving a wand and thinking particular thoughts; magical artifacts that no one seems to understand how to make. As the series expands outside the school, the scope of the magic expands as well, and we discover all manner of new magical mechanisms: strange genetic abilities like turning into an animal at will; the Weasley twins' magical pranks; apparition and disapparition; traveling through the fireplace network. The means of casting spells are apparently arbitrary, and there is apparently no limit to what may be accomplished through magic, except when it's convenient to the plot.

In Rowling's world, there are no guardrails to tell the reader what may or may not be possible. Those infinitely varied magical abilities are all little deus ex machinas waiting in the wings to tidy up whatever plot issue might crop up. When every spell is exceptional and unique, then none of them are. It's senseless to try to figure out how the protagonist is going to get out of a jam, because the answer, likely as not, relies on some new, arbitrary spell that we haven't been told about yet. This is the antithesis of good world-building.

In contrast, the Mistborn books posit a magical world with well-defined (but not completely understood) limits. When a character is in mortal danger, you are relatively assured there's not going to be any saving coincidence, like his wand being made of the same unicorn hair as his attacker's, to bail him out. (I know it was a phoenix feather, I'm just saying.) This allows the danger to feel real, and for you to attempt a guess at how things are going to turn out -- a guess that won't prove wildly off base because of some secret magical ability that the author hasn't been bothered to tell you about yet.

That's important, because Mistborn is an action book that makes good on its back-cover promise of magically-assisted martial arts scenes. Fast-paced fight sequences drive the major plot movements forward. Sanderson does a remarkably good job of conveying every move in these frantic sections so that you can easily follow it in your mind's eye. This is a rare ability, and a stark contrast to the muddled sense of the action that I often get when reading fight scenes.

All of this action takes place on a backdrop of revolution against an ancient evil dictator, with a just-right-sized cast of likable and interesting characters. Some of the in-between chapters did get a bit slow, especially the protagonist's long infiltration into noble ballroom culture that was a bit too Jane Austeny for my tastes, but overall the pacing was excellent and made for compelling readability.

If you're one of the people who voted Harry Potter to the top of that list, you owe it to yourself to check out Sanderson's world. It's not as colorful -- in fact, it's literally gray and brown for the most part -- but I think you'll find it much more rewarding to explore.
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