Recent Read - Mistborn Trilogy

Somehow, in the midst of preparing for our move (9 days away--eek!), I managed to keep reading. Perhaps it was a sweet, sacred hideaway from the moving chaos. However this miracle came about, I managed to read the Mistborn Trilogy this month, and have some pretty strong mixed feelings about it.

If you're unfamiliar, the Mistborn Trilogy is a fantasy series by Brandon Sanderson composed of three books: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. He later bridged this series with a second trilogy set, all staged in the same world, but at a later point in time. I have yet to read the second trilogy. 

WARNING: My "Recent Read" posts generally do NOT contain spoilers--just general impressions and takeaways. From this point forward, I begin discussing specific plot elements for the entirety of the first Mistborn trilogy. DO NOT CONTINUE if you are trying to avoid spoilers! If you'd like to read my general impressions without spoilers, scroll to the bottom and look for the Summary. 

Now that I've covered my bases and nobody can yell at me for ruining their reading experience...let me be clear. I am a Sanderson fan. If you hop over to the For Writers portion of my website, you'll notice multiple resources that are provided by Brandon and/or his writing group. He is an incredible fantasy writer, and a phenomenal instructor. The Stormlight Archives (thus far) are masterful and delightful to read, and those along are evidence of his skill as a writer.

Despite all of that, no author is perfect, and I had a mixed experience reading The Mistborn Trilogy. 

Pros: If there's one thing that Sanderson does consistently well, it's magic systems. Mistborn is no exception: the magic systems are complex, restricted by rules, original, and downright cool. I particularly love his ability to tie magic systems into the setting, a trend that I first observed in The Stormlight Archives, and definitely saw parallels to in Mistborn. The result is a personified setting...the world becomes a character at the forefront of the story as much as the characters themselves.

In addition, Sanderson is skilled at balancing a diverse crew of characters. There are multiple perspectives represented, and various characters to root for. In the early stages of reading this series, I was pleased to see Vin, a female character at the forefront of the story, and arguably the heroine of the series. While the kick-butt ninja assassin female trend is not my favorite way to make women strong in fiction, Vin is a total badass, without a doubt. 

Con #1: Pacing. This hinges on preference in part, but for me, the pacing of the series was way off. My husband Andrew loves to say that Sanderson writes at a super slow pace until the last 10% or so of the book/series, and then he sprints to the finish. There's nothing in between.

While I agree partially with Andrew's assessment, I think it's a little more complex than that. There is definitely action speckled throughout each book, but there are 2 major issues that slow it down:

  1. The action is described extremely slowly and specifically. Sanderson writes action for slow-motion cinema--he wants you to know where every punch lands, and every fighter spins. It makes action feel slower than it should and robs those moments of urgency.
  2. An inordinate amount of time is spent rehashing information we already know, or drawn-out, redundant naval gazing. I nearly threw the 3rd book across the room every time I came to one of Sazed's chapters. Yes, he was in a period of depression and wrestling with his own concept of faith. But he pretty much just STAYS there, for the 90% of the book. Meanwhile, action that you're itching to get to as a reader in other perspectives is delayed, slowing the pacing. 

It's completely possible that these pacing choices were made intentionally, but I didn't care for them at all.

Con #2: Twists for the sake of twists. I shudder to think how many twists were revealed in this text. When done correctly, they feel surprising and energizing. But the sheer number of them feels inauthentic and contrived. Many of them left me feeling suspicious of the story's logic, and the believability of the world. For me, the twists in this series were like an over-salted dish: a little goes a long way.

Con #3: The major pain-point that I have with Mistborn is about promises and characterization.

Reading a character like Vin is a triumphant victory as a woman reading a fantasy book, particularly one written by a man. I was so stoked and energized to read Vin's arc, and to get to her promised victory. 

When I finished the book, I was crying out of pure anger. My anger stemmed from the specific experience of reading this trilogy as a woman. Here are the issues:

  • In the crux of the big finale, Vin--having ascended to godhood with the power of Preservation--tells her counterpart Ruin that having lost Elend, she has nothing else to live for. What a missed opportunity to show that the strength and value of a woman is not dependent upon her significant other! Her subsequent sacrifice is minimized as a result, a Juliet-esque act of hopelessness instead of the selfless act to save her surviving comrades.
  • Vin's role is further minimized by Sazed's ascension to godhood, and he robs the reader of Vin's anticipated victory. Vin's sacrifice was only "step 1" in the save-the-world plan: Sazed finishes it with flair, owning the transformation and restoration of the entire planet, as well as the book's final words of wisdom to the survivors. 
  • The only major female character in this series is Vin -- Sanderson kills her, and minimizes her sacrifice. The other prominent female character Tindwyl is killed in battle in book 2, and establishes more in Sazed's story than in her own. Surviving female character Allrianne is annoying at best, and mostly forgettable. Ergo: no women of any demonstrated value or significance survive this series, while scads of men do.

So, this was a dissatisfying read for me, and one that left me feeling slighted as a reader. That being said, it is one of Sanderson's earlier works, and he has clearly grown in a lot of these "Con" areas since writing Mistborn

If you're a man, kudos for even reading this far. I'm guessing that your experience with Mistborn was largely different than mine, and it's awesome that you took the time to read and consider a female perspective.

If you're a woman and totally disagree, that's great too! Part of the beauty of creative work is the diverse responses, and the unique ways in which each piece speaks to our individual souls. Honestly, I'm vicariously glad that you didn't angry-cry at the end of this trilogy.

SUMMARY

I had a mixed experience reading the Mistborn trilogy. As always, Sanderson is a master of fascinating magic systems and writing from multiple character perspectives. But the pacing was disruptive, and made an otherwise interesting story feel painfully slow. Additionally, the promises related to some main characters were not fulfilled as expected, and left me feeling slighted, particularly as a woman. Regardless, I recommend reading the Mistorn trilogy (and all of Sanderson's published works) for a good study in multiple perspectives, magic systems, and world-building.