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.
For this review, I’m travelling back in time a little. I’ve been putting off reading this second in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson until I had the time to read the last two books together. It avoids the cliffhanging ending being too much to bear for a year and more until the last episode comes along. So, off we go with another strength-enhancing dumbbell of a book. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, The Well of Ascension continues the fantasy saga of the Mistborn. But rather than a “conventional” text, it’s written with very clear postmodernist sensibilities. It would be easy to see this story as only about a small group, mainly magicians of varying degrees of power, trying to cobble a government together using democratic means while being threatened by invading armies. But there’s a lot more going on in the text.
Michel Foucault proposed in a series of articles and books that the best way to understand the present is to interrogate the past. He described this process as a type of intellectual archaeology. Researchers dig down into the early layers of documentation. Every new piece of evidence being important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. The lacunae are just as important as the finds. This process is central to this book as the Terris Keepers are walking archaeologists, each carrying a datastore of the accumulating knowledge about the past and present. As new facts are uncovered, the researchers cross-reference and annotate, creating an ever more comprehensive view of past events. All this scholarship does, however, rest upon a simple assumption. That no-one else can change the records they find or keep. Just imagine how distorted the research would become if someone was able to manipulate the records.
This theme directly links into the second proposition that access to control over people depends on a linkage between pouvoir and savoir — power and knowledge. Societies are built on and driven by a continuing stream of discourse. In their most refined form, the discourses of constitutional law and political influence dictate the shape and operation of the state. At the lowest levels, the discourses of class and culture determine how people present themselves to the others with whom they interact. Everything is essential from the clothes they wear, their body language, the accents with which they speak and so on. Leaders dress in particular ways to communicate their right to lead. There are deliberate borrowings from semiotics in this fantasy as Tindwyl, one of the Terris Keepers, tries to instruct Elend, the potential leader, in the theories of communication and the manipulation of signs and symbols.
In this story, there is access to all parts of the discourse at a metalevel with only the records engraved on metal outside direct control. Lower down in the layering of discourse, access follows the real-world structures of political power brokers and increasingly less influential classes. But, interestingly, two of the magical skills are soothing and rioting which allow those with the power to directly interact with the emotions of those close to them. Thus, the combination of words, body language and magical ability (substitute “charisma” in the real world) endows speakers with the maximum ability to influence their audience.
Then there are matter of the heart. Hardly the concern of a postmodernist but Sanderson rises to the occasion with an extended parable about choice. In one set of relationships based on romantic, courtly love (albeit not quite in the real-world mediaeval European style), the Mistborn finds herself between two brothers who could not be more different. She is young and inexperienced in love, but the need to make a choice between the two brothers becomes increasingly real as the book continues. In the second relationship between a mature couple, we are presented with two Terris Keepers. Male Keepers like Sazed are eunuchs. Tindwyl has her own reasons for preferring to remain platonic. In this trilogy, Sanderson’s central preoccupation is on the relationship between love and trust. He muses on how people might transcend their differences and find comfort in each other. It could be an entirely rational and somewhat dispassionate process. Or it could be intuitive as the couple try to see beyond surface impressions. It might be driven by the genetically-programmed desire to continue the race by producing children, or the couple might be intellectually compatible while incapable of producing children. As a separate but allied thread in the plot, we also have the developing relationship between the Mistborn and her kandra who, by reason of his ability to take on the shape of humans and animals, is not who he seems to be. With the kandra, we have a person who feels bound by the strict letter of his race’s agreement with humanity, yet is tempted by the freedom to choose.
The danger with books of this kind is that they become too preoccupied with the discussion of ideas. Every author walks a fine line. One of the best examples of the problem is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. As an academic specialising in semiotics and literary theory, Eco could have sidelined the mystery to identify the murderer in a mediaeval abbey, but the primary narrative of how William of Baskerville “solves” the case manages to rise above its context. Although not quite on the same level as Eco, Sanderson also drives the plot along as the imperial capital of Luthadel finds itself surrounded by two armies. The threatened arrival of the third non-human koloss army keeps everyone on their toes. The merits of a democratic as against various kinds of more direct power structures are pivotal to the unfolding of events, but they remain sufficiently a subtext to let the narrative to drive forward. The emerging interest in religion also hints at future developments.
On balance, I found this an intelligent and pleasing book. I hesitate to limit it by genre. Yes, it’s ostensibly the second in a fantasy trilogy, but Sanderson’s willingness to explore the ideas and relationships gives an added depth and resonance to the otherwise simple story of daring-do. For once, I swept through a long book and immediately picked up the concluding volume, The Hero of Ages, to see how it all turned out. Five hundred and seventy two pages later, I had the answer.
For a review of the sequel, The Hero of Ages, and two YA novels set in different universes, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There’s also a stand-alone novel called Warbreaker and a novella The Emperor’s Soul.
You also have the first two novels in The Stormlight Archive:
The Way of Kings
The Words of Radiance.