Since this is supposed to be a recommendation post, I’ve tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but there are a few thematic & basic premise spoilers below!
I have a love-hate relationship with the ‘epic’ style, medieval-esque, traditional European kind of fantasy. For a lot of reasons — it’s usually tediously homogenous in its characters, full of weird racial & gender politics (some more overtly than others), unreflecting about violence and politics, and if it’s not about wholesome farm-boys with a destiny it’s about kings and nobles. Who needs kings? Not me. Fuck kings. Bring on the fantasy revolution.
So imagine my delight when I started The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (first book of the Mistborn trilogy), and found it was just that! In this world, the boy with a destiny won, became ruler, and wasn’t very good at it. The common people (called the skaa) are oppressed, brutalised, and miserable, and the immortal, theocratic ruler has been in power for so long that it all simply seems like the way things are and always will be. The book deals with themes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a fantasy book like this. The effects of institutional violence; trauma; political extremism vs moderation; what means are justified, and by what ends. And the main character is a teen girl! I was starry-eyed as all this was coming to light. Finally someone fulfilled one of my fantasy dreams.
With all of that you might expect the books to be grim and dispiriting, but they’re not. Not only are they written with a wonderful subtle sense of humour, this is also a series of books that believes in people and their worth. These books are really into trust. They practically beat you over the head with it. Trusting people close to you even if you don’t agree with or understand them. There is a point in the book where the protagonists are prevented from talking out their plans by an outside force (this is not a story where drama is manufactured by characters refusing to communicate vital information), but because they’ve spent thousands of words growing their trust, they work it out. Relatedly, the books also feature one of the truest-ringing romances I’ve read — although I’m not very experienced when it comes to romance in novels, so I don’t have a big basis of comparison.
Brandon Sanderson has apparently written about what makes a successful fantasy novel — although I haven’t read any of his stuff on the subject — and he certainly seems to like twisting tropes around. There isn’t an exposition dump at the beginning… you actually find out more and more of the world-building as the books go on and the characters find out how their world works. You never know much more than they do, and it has two effects: what the books are is constantly shifting below you, and you’re always reassessing what happened before 1, AND once you realise that, it’s incredibly fun to collect all the hints and evidence you have and figure out where it’s all going… which is exactly what the characters are doing, too. It’s like you’re research buddies with them. (If that makes it sound dry, it’s not. The fight scenes are literally nail-bitingly intense.)
But although all the tropes he includes are quite well written, I wish he’d just… left some of them out instead. The requisite love triangle is LESS irritating than other requisite love triangles, but it still feels contrived. (And I’m a little upset by the fate of the third in this one, but part of that is probably my over-empathizing with characters with mental health problems.) And, well… I could say more at this point, but I don’t want to spoil anything! If you read these books, you’re going to want to enjoy the ride without knowing too much in advance. I do have one big complaint about the books, which stops me from being AS in love with them as I could be:
Too many (cis-het) dicks on the dancefloor 2
Yes, the main character of the books – Vin – is a teenage girl, and a very well-written one, but she is still surrounded largely by dudes. Granted, the lack of women role models and the way she associates femininity with the nobnility is an important part of her coming-of-age narrative, but I still think some more women could have been worked into the story – some skaa women, to give us a bit of class/gender intersectionality! The only ones of significance that we hear of — Mare, and Vin’s mother — are dead before the beginning of the story. Even if the thieving underground is ‘a man’s world’ as it keeps telling us, there has to be a few women around.
Even MORE suspension of disbelief stretching, to me, was how overpoweringly het every single character was. Now, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m used to scrounging for bits and pieces of ambiguity for my queer representation, but EVERYONE in this book is obnoxiously shouting their straightness from the rooftops. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very well-written straightness, it’s all plot or characterisation relevant, but I think every single named character has a het love interest at one point or another. I don’t want to tell Mr Sanderson his business – not that I imagine he will ever read this – but as far as I see it, it would have been an easy thing to change some of the existing characters’ gender or sexuality. 3
Despite that it’s still a really good series of books. A fantasy story like I WANT them to be. Read it! And when you’ve read it, tell me what you thought of it. And if you know any more books that could fulfil the fantasy revolution of my dreams, comment and let me know so I can put them in my brain via my eyeballs.
1 Unfortunately that means it also moves away from the revolutionary fantasy of my dreams a bit – there’s still kings and prophecies, grumble grumble. But it stays good.
2 youtube.com/watch?v=rpzmjeCOJdY Enjoy having that stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
3 For those who have read the books: imagine trans man Breeze. Imagine woman Kelsier motivated by her husband’s death. Imagine female TenSoon, getting misgendered by everyone for ages. IMAGINE QUEER GIRL SPOOK. Yeah, I know. I’ll let you bask in the perfection of that image for a little while.