The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

December 31, 2007 at 3:49 pm (Brandon Sanderson, Reviews)

Brandon Sanderson - The Final EmpireIt’s fairly well known by now that Brandon Sanderson has been selected to complete Robert Jordan’s beloved saga, The Wheel of Time. I didn’t bother reporting the news here; many other blogs had it covered, and I didn’t feel the need to jump on the pile. Furthermore, I didn’t really have anything to add to the topic. Am I happy that the series will be finished? Yes. How do I feel about Sanderson being the one to do it? I don’t know; I’d never read his work. But if this guy is going to be finishing A Memory of Light, then I need to know what I’m in for. And a slew of other people picked up his books with the same sentiment. Of course, I was already planning to take a look at Sanderson’s Mistborn series, all the announcement really did was bump it to the top of my list.

I approached The Final Empire with mixed expectations. I wanted to love it. If this is the man to complete The Wheel of Time, then he’d better be good. But at the same time, I wanted to hate it. If A Memory of Light turns out to be a disappointment, then at least we’d have a scapegoat. Either way, it’s not going to be the same as it would have been had Jordan been able to finish it. But will it be good enough?

Brandon Sanderson has been known to site Robert Jordan as a major influence, and I think that it shows in his work. Their writing styles are vastly different, sure. Jordan is stricken with an extreme, and sometimes irritating, attention to detail, while Sanderson takes a more minimalist approach. He pays less attention to the scenery, and more to his characters. Which is not to say that there is no depth to his world; he just doesn’t get bogged down with descriptions of how everyone is dressed. But while their writing is so dissimilar, elements of the story in The Final Empire rings with an echo of The Wheel of Time.

Sanderson takes and interesting, and, I believe, unique approach to epic fantasy – this is no quest of a prophesized savior to unite the land and save the world from a supernatural threat. Sure, that in there, but it happened a thousand years in the past. The Final Empire, book one of the Mistborntrilogy, deals with what happened after. And what happened was that, apparently, the Hero of Ages failed. The world is now controlled by the tyrannical Lord Ruler. The common people, or skaa, have been reduced to slaves, working in mines and on plantations, beaten into submission by the noble class – the nobles themselves being the descendants of those who supported the Lord Ruler in bid for domination.

But the Lord Ruler can’t keep everybody in order. Throughout the history of the Empire, there has been rebellion. However, the Rebellion has been fairly useless; the people just too deflated down to insight enough passion to overthrow their dark Lord.

Besides the ineffective rebellion, an underground of thieves has also sprung forth. Outlaws band together and devise plans to rob the merchants and nobles, always hunted by the Empires enforcers, the Obligators and the Inquisitors. The story in The Final Empire follows one such thieving crew. Their plan? To rob the Lord Ruler. But they don’t want his money, or at least not just that. Hired by the Rebellion’s leader, they will attempt to steal the Empire itself.

The Final Empire features two main characters:

Charismatic crew leader Kelsier. Former prisoner at the Pits of Hathsin, and the Pit’s lone survivor, Kelsier is determined not only to take the Empire away from the Lord Ruler, but to kill the Ruler himself – a feat that most consider impossible.

Vin is an orphan, conditioned to mistrust by her older brother, Reen. Beaten and betrayed, Vin is abandoned in the underground, working under a reckless crew leader, until she’s rescued and recruited by Kelsier.

These two characters are well realized. Both of them almost pitiable for the psychological wounds that they must overcome. Kelsier, despite betrayal and imprisonment, is able to view the world with undaunted optimism, while Vin comes to it with unrelenting paranoia. Vin is smoothly transformed from an urchin to a socialite, and Kelsier from a prestigious thief to a legendary leader and potential megalomaniac. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder along the way if Kelsier will succeed in unseating the Lord Ruler only to replace him, with the nobles and the skaa changing places. The same tyranny but with different victims.

My only complaint about The Final Empireis with the supporting cast. Specifically, Kelsier’s crew. There is a diverse set of personalities – the haughty and manipulative Breeze, the strong-arm and amateur philosopher Hammond, the sour old Clubs, the practical and efficient Dockson, and the passionate, former Rebellion leader, Marsh. Every member has his role to play, and they do it well. Only they do it, for the most part, from behind the scenes. I just felt that they were a bit underused; what was supposed to take a full team ended up more as a two-man operation.

The story progresses with Kelsier, Breeze and Hammond trying to rally the people and build an army, while Vin and Marsh infiltrate the ruling class as spies.

Like many others have said before me: the magic system is where The Final Empirereally shines. Sanderson sets up a detailed, job oriented system called Allomancy, which involves the ingestion and burning of certain metals, each having their own magical attribute. The system is very specific in what the different metals are able to do. Those who are able to use this power are called Mistings, and are limited to one power a piece. Then there are the extra-special people, Mistborn, who can use the whole bunch. Mistings are rare, and Mistborn even more so. Naturally, our two heroes are both Mistborn. They’d have to be. Right?

It’s a difficult system to explain, so I’m not going to attempt to sum it up any further. Indeed, the author goes through much effort to explain it within the book, and I think that it needs those lengthy explanations to be understood fully. Even though the plot sometimes got stalled by it, the system itself was interesting enough that I didn’t mind.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t I talking about how Sanderson compares to Jordan? Well, outside of the level of detail in the magic system, which he manages better than Jordan, each chapter is begun with an excerpt detailing parts of the Hero of Ages journey to save the world from the mysterious Deepness. Written as journal entries in the Hero’s own voice, they often express self doubt of whether he is qualified for the job. It is those passages that resonate with Jordan’s influence. Even though we see precious little of him, the Hero’s tale holds a similarity to that of Rand al’Thor, and raises many of the same questions. Does the Hero fail? Or does he succeed and, corrupted by power, become the Lord Ruler? It is a mystery that permeates The Final Empire, never allowing you to fully grasp what actually happened until he wants you to know.

Besides the mystery of the Lord Ruler and the Hero of Ages, there are many others questions that compelled me along the book: What is the power of the Terris people? Why did Vin’s brother, Reen, abandon her? How did he betray her? Are the nobles really as bad as Kelsier believes them to be, or are they secretly just as oppressed as the skaa? How do the Inquisitors function? What does the mysterious eleventh-metal do?  Where did the mists come from? What was the Deepness? Can the god-like Lord Ruler even be killed?

All but one of those questions are answered in the end. Have to save something for the next book after all.

But one more question remains: Is Brandon Sanderson the right choice to finish The Wheel of Time? I think so. He’s already written a story that, except for the different magic systems, could serve as its, unofficial, sequel.

Overall Impression: Fantastic.

Final Thoughts: The Final Empire is exciting, clever, and, at times, thought provoking. With religious overtones, and deft political maneuvering, the plot is well paced, and manages to stay intriguing all the way through.

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