The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
Well, after a steady read through the last two books in sequence by Brandon Sanderson, I have arrived at the end of the Mistborn trilogy. It was quite an effort, if only in terms of holding such heavyweight tomes for so long without straining a muscle. The conclusion? What starts well in Mistborn: The Final Empire, and continues with intelligent panache in The Well of Ascension, comes to a grinding halt in The Hero of Ages. What a disappointment!
The first two books have a tight focus. In Mistborn: The Final Empire, everything moves with smooth precision towards the death of the Lord Ruler. The Well of Ascension picks up the pieces after the success of the revolution, and deals with the inevitable disintegration of the Final Empire. The siege of the capital city becomes the crucible in which the survivors are forged into a more self-confident group. But The Hero of Ages becomes diffuse in structure as the survivors are spread thin around the collapsing Empire in their attempts to find the key to survive the destruction of their environment. We are left to juggle different balls in the air as Sanderson explains the physiology and abilities of the different groups, and leads up to the conclusion. This makes the action very repetitive. Elend plays the reverse role. In The Well of Ascension, he was defending a walled city. This time, he must lead an army against another walled city. Spook leads another revolution in a second city. Our poor kandra gets chased around the landscape, while Sazed ponders the nature of religion and generally mopes around after the death of Tindwyl. And then there’s the fighting. What was quite interesting the first and second time round, has absolutely nothing new in this final volume. All that changes is the scale of the fighting. Vin and Eland, now both Mistborn, must fight koloss and inquisitors in ever greater numbers. There is, I suppose, a not unpleasing irony in Elend’s last hurrah against the koloss, but most of the other fighting is boring.
Worse, Sanderson feels obliged to explain most of the detail in the construction of this world (leaving the central mystery of the nature of the overarching power completely unexplained). This is not merely a local supernatural phenomenon. As the two personified forces in apparent binary opposition, Preservation and Ruin were able to agree the creation of the people on an unoccupied planet. In this, we can admire Sanderson’s ingenuity and smile because he cares nothing for genre boundaries. The blurring between fantasy and science fiction becomes increasingly overt as the trilogy advances. Who would have thought that a little knowledge of astronomy would become so useful towards the end. But, taken as a whole, narrative drive is sacrificed to allow for an express and implied discussion of the dynamics of change.
Sanderson hopes to beguile us by producing a dialectic between forces that are not completely antithetical. Ruin, as its name suggests, is the force of entropy which breaks everything down and produces an equalisation of matter into its lowest common denominators, while Preservation is stasis or inertia, providing some delay in the inevitable process of ruin, death and decay. I suppose, in political terms, this is a battle between conservatives who prefer the status quo and ruinous communist revolutionaries who wish to overthrow the current order and reduce everyone to the same social level. Unfortunately, what this dialectic ignores is the possibility of some creative alternative to the status quo. No-one has ever produced a society in which everyone was completely happy. For a given percentage of the population, the maintenance of the status quo is oppressive. Hence, Sanderson plays the game of allowing the eponymous Hero of Ages, a human who can balance the inanimate forces of preservation and ruin, to ascend to the godhead and set the world to rights. The assumption is that the existing “deities” are somehow unable to change their essential natures. Some external force has removed their capacity to evolve into something different or greater. Thus, the ending is like a Garden of Eden in which the surviving rump of the human population suddenly finds itself in an expanse of flower-studded grassland with only a few tins of food to keep them going while they look around for something with which to build a shelter. Like that’s a big improvement! A utopian rural idyl beckons, so long as no-one sins, of course. Thankfully, there are no apple trees in sight.
There are also problems with the plot. Ignoring the ultimate nature of the “deities” and the superplanetary context in which they operate, the world itself is odd. For some unexplained reason, there only seems to be life on one area of the land mass on this planet — the people seem to be able to walk from one Dominance to another across empty countryside in a few days. Was human reproduction artificially limited? Once urbanisation began, why were the humans not going at it like bunnies to boost their numbers? Perhaps the koloss were acting as the barbarians at the gates, culling the humans to keep up their own numbers. Yet, there is no acknowledgement of them as a population thinner in the first book. I do not understand why the “deities” should stop with such a limited act of creation. Or are we supposedly dealing with a small Pangaea or Gondwana: a single piece of land, totally surrounded by ocean, that limits the population spread? But that would mean the oceans would then rapidly become supersaturated with the falling, albeit degrading, ash. And, on the map, there are islands. . . Ah well, who cares? This is fantasy and, unlike science fiction which should have some rational underpinning, fantasy need not make any sense. But then again (my poor brain will not stop working) I suspect that if the mist covering a continent was suddenly to converge on a single spot in the space of a few minutes, this would be the equivalent of a weather disaster. Winds would blow at superspeeds as the suction draws everything to the epicentre. There might even be a vacuum created at the peripheries. Further, what happens to gravity if the spin of the world is suddenly accelerated through half a rotation and then decelerated back to its original speed? And so on.
So this brings me to an unhappy conclusion. All the good work of the first two volumes is thrown away in a mass of different plot threads. Although they are vaguely linked together, they are thematically parallel and not driving the narrative cohesively. Worse, there is too much dispiriting discussion and debate and, with respect to the author, the ending is embarrassingly trite. Why must books with a religious thread take the survivors through fire in a kind of ark and end with an Eden? Thus, if you have read and enjoyed the first two instalments, there is some interest in seeing the explanations offered in this volume, but be prepared to turn the pages fast through the sometimes quite lengthy boring bits.