Whitaker's Reviews > The Final Empire

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
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Dec 23, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy-scifi, e-book, z_2009-read

This is a second attempt at a review of this trilogy, my first having been grievously ignored (whimper!). This time, I'm gonna play it straight.

I love it when fantasy gets original. All those D&D Tolkeinesque clones bore me. That's why I read Robin Hobb--one of the more original fantasy voices out there. And Brian Sanderson has now joined the list.

The least original thing about this trilogy is the system of magic: Certain persons have certain abilities that allow them to make use of powers fueled by certain metals. Allomancers ingest small amounts of metal, and depending on the metals they ingest and the extent of their powers, they can gain strength, pull or push on metal objects, or even see a short way into the future.

Ferruchemists can store up various characteristics in metals that they wear on their person. Again, different metals allow the storing of different characteristics. So, a ferruchemist can store eyesight or speed allowing for enhanced use of either in times of emergency. The downside is that the characteristics must come from the ferruchemist himself: it's a zero sum game. Better eyesight later means having to spend time severely myopic. Better speed later means having to spend time moving slowly.

Hemalurgy uses blood and metal to endow powers on its users. The practitioner kills an allomancer with a metal spike and in so doing takes his allomantic powers from him, infused into the spike.

Even more impressive, the system of magic is intrinsic to the resolution of the dilemma that our heroes find themselves in. Without giving too much away, a great deal of knowledge about how magic works has been lost by the time the trilogy begins. An understanding of the system and how it has been used by the forces seeking to destroy the world, and just what role these forces play, become a key part of the resolution.

The system of magic therefore has an internal logic to it that is not simple geekery but is critical to the story and its denouement. Too many fantasy series seem to add on the fantasy elements like a lazy afterthought. This can be either a lazy construction of the system of magic--oh, let's just have them wave a wand and voila!--or a failure to consider how having magic would actually impact the way a social, political and cultural system would be structured. Or we have some variant of "find the sword/magic orb/powerful whatever, kill the beast" where the magical object is just the Mcguffin. It could be replaced by anything because all it is is some god in a machine dressed up to look pretty.

Here, the system of the world is worked upwards from the basic premises of the system of magic, which then provides the reason and resolution for the core of the crisis as well. Sort of like how the physical construction of our world based on atoms and nuclear forces underpins how our world works and also, in a novel about nuclear warfare, forms the basis for the crisis as well. You really can't ask more from a fantasy series than that.

And yet Sanderson provides more. The characters are drawn in remarkably well-rounded terms. The heroine, Vin, starts off as a Skaa street urchin. This both hampers her--lack of confidence, inability to trust--and provides her with her strengths--strong survival skills, ability to read people etc. She meets a man, Kelsier, who plans to lead the Skaa in a revolt against the Lord Ruler. Vin may turn out to be the prophesised Hero of Ages, but can the prophecy really be trusted?

So far, so good. But what really nailed it for me was a consideration of real world interactions in such an environment. So, how do you get an oppressed class to revolt? Once you've engendered revolution, then what? Would the system of tyranny have been better than the resultant chaos? When the world is falling down around your ears, what kind of leader should you be? Can democratic and benevolent ideals operate in a situation of war? And when one part of a couple in a relationship has superpowers and one does not, what does it do to that relationship? Are religion and knowledge ultimately useless? And can prophecy, that faithful cornerstone of multiple fantasies, always written so capaciously, be really understood or is it simply interpreted in such fashion as to suit the time? Amazingly, Sanderson actually tackles these questions in his series, and not in a simplistic fashion.

Highly recommended.

The First Review

Durgan plonked his helmet over his head and strode determinedly into the mouth of the cavern. Above him, the mountain moaned under dark scudding clouds, wailing its centuries-old grief to the unambergrised skies.

His ice-blue eyes took some time to adjust to the dark and he almost failed to notice the ravening Fantasy-Cliché galumphing towards him. He muttered nervously to himself as he unslung his trusty Sword of Well-Used Plot Devices, and swung with all his might. It clanged uselessly against the hide of the beast.

Durgan leapt back quickly and felt a faint woosh as the Fantasy-Cliché's teeth closed on the air where he had just stood. His next well-timed slash was interrupted, however, by a small tinkling sound near his feet, and he saw a copper coin glitter briefly in the darkness of the cavern. A man dressed in somber clothes came flying through the air, his ragged cloak fluttering behind him. A series of small metallic objects flashed out from his palm, slivered through the air and sliced through the Fantasy-Cliché which exploded into confetti.

As the pieces of paper rained down around him, Durgan turned to thank the man. He immediately realized his error as he took in the face before him. A girl, no, a woman, slim-built with close-cropped hair. She turned her dark, unsettling eyes toward him. Durgan took off his helmet, the better to show his handsome square-jawed features and day-old stubble.

"Thank you for your assistance. That was pretty impressive. I'm Durgan, of Every Fantasy You've Ever Read. And you might be?"

"Vin, from the Mistborn Trilogy," she answered almost shyly.

"What did you do to it? I've never …"

"Seen magic like that before? No, you wouldn't have, I think."

Vin extended her hand, and the glittering objects that had destroyed the Fantasy-Cliché came flying into her grasp.

"I'm an Allomancer," she said, "I ingest small amounts of metal and burn them to extract their powers. Different metals grant me different sorts of power. Steel allows me to push metal objects and iron allows me to pull on them. I just used iron."

"And so you just threw bits of metal at it? Somewhat unlikely that, since my Sword of Well-Used Plot Devices failed to penetrate its thick hide."

"You're right. No, these objects had to be crafted specifically against the Fantasy-Cliché. It took a lot of painstaking work."

Durgan peered at the metal objects in her palm. She was right, they were beautifully shaped, like snowflakes, each one different from the other, glittering and utterly unique. It must have taken a great deal of care and skill to construct them.

"This one here is Unique System of Magic. This is Examination of Themes of Power, Love and Religion. This other one is particularly interesting." She pointed at a darkly glinting piece, "It's Subversion of Fantasy Tropes."

"And this?" Durgan asked, his eyes drawn almost against their will to the last piece, a multi-coloured item whose myriad spikes seemed to penetrate time, space and other unknown dimensions.

"Ah, that," her voice was almost sad, "It's Three-Dimensional Complex Characters."

And the objects suddenly flashed out from her palm. Before they hit him, before Durgan turned into strips of cardboard, he had just enough time to think to himself, "Damn, I wish my creator had been as inventive as Brandon Sanderson."
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 23, 2009 – Shelved
December 23, 2009 – Shelved as: fantasy-scifi
December 23, 2009 – Finished Reading
January 22, 2010 – Shelved as: e-book
May 29, 2011 – Shelved as: z_2009-read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! It's good to play it crooked sometimes.

Whitaker Man, but I'm getting all this positive voting feedback for straight.

Milo I like when you play it crooked.

Whitaker Milo wrote: "I like when you play it crooked."

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the crooked version. I like it better too! :-)

Milo Perhaps you should ask to be Sanderson's intern. You write a better Vin than him. (Can you tell I didn't like the book much?)

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