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Mistborn Trilogy Review: 3/5 or 6.5/10

The Skinny: At the end of the day, there are better fantasy stories out there than Mistborn—probably from Sanderson himself.

Full Review: The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson

In 2009 I broke ground on my first major sci-fi series. Somewhere around two-and-a-half books into writing, I attended my first writers’ conference in downtown Chicago, at an old hotel on Michigan Avenue. Though I write fiction fairly profusely considering I’m not being paid a living wage to do it, I prefer memoirs, biographies, and journalism over most fiction. Authors who write in these genres tend to have a stronger grasp of the nuts and bolts of good writing and compelling narrative, while a lot of speculative fiction authors are great with broad concepts and intriguing ideas and worldbuilding at the expense of compelling prose. Though the latter fascinates me when done well, the former is necessary for me to truly enjoy a story.

In seeking advice from readers around this time, acclaimed author Brandon Sanderson’s name came up frequently. I picked up Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy (2006-2008) around the last the quarter of 2014 to see what a major author writing close to my genre was doing.

Avid readers often describe “devouring” books and book series much like Netflix enthusiasts “binge” addictive serials. I devoured Patrick Rothfuss’s masterful two first entries of the Kingkiller Chronicle (2007, 2011; The Slow Regard of Silent Things; the world awaits book three). Rothfuss’s journey to New York Times stardom is a writer’s Cinderella story, so as much as I love his books, he wasn’t the best gauge for what standards lead to success.

My experience with the Mistborn series was, by comparison, a slow weathering of a great stone. Or, if you want to keep the eating metaphor going: I nibbled away at it like I kid who doesn’t want to finish his broccoli. I completed the Mistborn series in September 2017 – approximately three years after I began reading. This bears some explanation.

Where Mistborn Succeeds: Worldbuilding

Mistborn’s greatest asset is its worldbuilding. Visions of ashen, gothic spires contrasting against the perpetual red of a dying sun paint clearly the picture of a world without flowers. Apparent love and effort were invested by Sanderson into developing the philosophical concepts underlying the world, portrayed in many of the dead religions chronicled by the Keeper, Sazed. The Mistborn world is believable sociologically, mythologically, and historically, which is crucial for constructing robust fantasy. The major events and people groups of Mistborn are believable because of their complexity. This is to Sanderson’s credit as a conceptualizer of high fantasy and mythopoeia, and, unfortunately, constitutes most of the good I have to write about the series.

Where Mistborn Falters: Bad Use of Voice

Major portions of the Mistborn books are unfortunate drudgery. The dialogue is often repetitious in the immediate context (i.e., it states directly what is already implied by action and dialogue) and, while colloquial, the idiomatic speech of the Mistborn world seems inconsistent both with the parlance of brigands and thieves as well as with that of scholars, kings, and noblemen. The language reads too much like contemporary American English. While clarity should always be a writer’s top goal, it need not come at the cost of narrative or characters’ voices which, to my eyes, often seemed the case.

Most of the characters’ voices bleed together due to similar vocabulary, syntax, and reliance upon the American idiom mentioned above. A few characters have distinguishing verbal characteristics, but these are often laborious catch phrases or buzz words like “good man” and “child” out of the mouths of Breeze and Tindwyl, respectively. I recall counting the use of the former phrase on one page of my Kindle edition of book three and found that in that particular passage, every line of dialogue by Breeze contained the phrase “good man.” A character should not be most clearly defined by the sum total of his catchphrases.

The only character I truly enjoyed in this series was Sazed the Terrisman. Sazed has the clearest character voice, his actions and inactions carry narrative weight, and his personal struggles with religion force much of his inner turmoil to contend with the world Brandon Sanderson created. No other character’s development makes better use of Mistborn’s mythopoeia than Sazed—the protagonists included.

Labor Pains and Fight Sequences

I recall from The Two Towers Tolkien’s description of Aragorn’s blade falling upon Uruk-Hai like bolts of lightning. Sanderson provides little such artistry in his fight scenes, which often focus on intricately-described choreography.

When it comes to writing fights, authors should follow Tolkien’s lead and not lose the forest for the trees. Painting with broad strokes and leaving sharp description to key moments in Mistborn’s battles would have kept those portions of prose moving more smoothly and would have helped the crucial portions of those sequences stand out.

Bland Characters

With the exceptions of Sazed and Spook (due to his subplot in book three,) the cast of side characters is sadly forgettable. Breeze is far more interesting as a thief than as an emperor’s aide, as the events of books two and three turn him into little more than an oenophile who provides occasional comedy relief. Ham’s philosophical queries are close to nonexistent by book three, and he is essentially relegated to a second-tier set piece by that point; most of his words and actions in book three could have been performed by any character. Clubs was never especially relevant or interesting, and the other secondary characters who come and go across the trilogy failed to provide meaningful impact upon the story or on me as a reader.

(Don't) Trust Your Reader

Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they'll know it too. -Esther Freud
Sanderson often seems to be untrustworthy of his readers’ ability to make basic logical connections, egregiously restating established worldbuilding concepts even up into book three. One example in book three’s closing pages compares the character Marsh’s abilities to those of the Lord Ruler. Not only is this fact implied because of Marsh’s abilities themselves, but the same comparison is made earlier in the same book from the perspective of another character.

Sanderson’s reasoning for this is likely well-intended: his worldbuilding concepts are big and well-developed. There’s much to learn about the world itself, allomancy, feruchemy, and hemalurgy, and a lot of people could conceivably forget much of this information on the regular. Well-intended or not, the readers of the Mistborn trilogy are often reminded of remedial worldbuilding concepts. This unnecessarily lengthens the books, makes those particular portions of narrative boring to read, and whispers to me that the narrator doesn’t trust me to remember what I read earlier.

Mistborn's Greatest Technical Weakness: Abuse of Filtering Language

The biggest offense of the books is the abuse of filtering language – the words “could” and should” usually in connection with the subjunctive mood, expressing potentiality or ability over and above reality. This is despite most of the occurrences of filtering language referring to simple active states of being.

This is a narrative problem for two reasons. First, it unnecessarily lengthens the story overall. In Sanderson’s case, I’d reckon the Mistborn Trilogy would be thousands of words shorter without the abuse of filtering words. Second, the overuse of filtering language in contexts that are actually describing the simple past or present-active implicitly removes the reader from direct interaction with the events occurring. What often reads in the narrative as “Character X could hear the sound of Y,” could have been written as “Character X heard Y.” (This leads to a lesser issue of formulaic, repetitive, predictable prose if an author is not careful, but this is surmountable with creativity.) The abuse of filtering language caused much of the nuts and bolts of Mistborn’s storytelling to be repetitive and uninteresting to read. I gravitate toward journalism and biography precisely for this reason: authors writing in these formats have to exercise great skill in turning potentially monotonous details into literary hook after literary hook – and don’t forget the hard deadlines and word count limits. In my estimation, filtering language and unengaging prose are Mistborn’s greatest technical weakness.

An Unsatisfying Conclusion

The conclusion of the third Mistborn book left much wanting, not merely in terms of unanswered conceptual questions (more metals, events about the history that were barely addressed,) but in terms of untied character knots. The three-book metanarrative ends abruptly and unsatisfyingly. With little deep connection to the characters, it's hard to care when some die, others don't, and a newer, better world waits on the horizon for the survivors.

A Prolific Author, A Mediocre Trilogy

Along with Elantris and Wheel of Time, the Mistborn Series helped cement Brandon Sanderson as a modern giant of contemporary English speculative fiction. Sanderson’s enduring success can only mean that his style has matured since 2008. My gut tells me Mistborn is not the best measure of his skills.

At the end of the day, there are better fantasy stories out there than Mistborn—probably from Sanderson himself. 3/5 for its intriguing musings on religion and detailed worldbuilding. With more compelling characters and better prose, Mistborn could have been a powerhouse series that capitalized on Brandon Sanderson’s dense, imaginative mythopoeia. It’s not a story I plan on returning to.

Mistborn’s enduring legacy may not, in the final analysis, be the story itself, but its role in launching Brandon Sanderson’s literary career.

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