Reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Posted: November 20, 2013 in lessons learned, reading
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I enjoyed reading The Final Empire, the first of Brandon Sanderson‘s Mistborn books.. It’s not in my list of all-time greatest reads, but it’s a fun tale well told, and I got to the end despite its epic length. This comes as a relief, given how much I like Sanderson’s writing advice – I’d have had a lot of re-learning to do if one of my favourite writing guides turned out to be a shmuck.

Final Empire

A world builder’s book

This is clearly the work of someone who loves world building. That has a lot of advantages. The background and mechanisms of the world are elaborately and consistently worked out. As you learn about the society and magic nothing feels out of the blue or incongruous – it all makes sense. There was slightly more direct explanation than I needed, characters explaining to each other how everything worked, but that was included as smoothly as it can be, and was always important to the development of the plot.

Not really a heist story

Sanderson has said that he intended this to be a heist story. I can see that intention in the book – the protagonists spend the book planning a caper/revolution, but I think this story was actually something else.

The heist stories I’m used to are films. They’re lean and snappy, rattling along without giving you time to consider their logic. There might be lots of set-up but its never padded out, and characterisation mostly comes through action.

Epic fantasy is in many ways the opposite of that. It takes time to explore its world and characters, to expand upon details and create a sense of wonder, to pause and let you consider how things work. That’s no better or worse than a heist story, it’s just different.

This is definitely epic fantasy, and so while it contains many elements of a heist story, it never feels like one. It’s a quest full of criminals.

Hint of cheese

The story has its inter-personal cliches, and the big twists didn’t surprise me. This isn’t to say that they were wildly telegraphed, just what you’d expect given the story, characters and set-up. I found them satisfying but not novel. After seeing them coming for so long, I would have preferred to be wrong in a way that made sense, but at least it wasn’t some terrible ‘gotcha!’ twist.

Lessons learned

So, what have I learned from this book as a writer?

Firstly, think through the implications of your world. Sanderson does a fantastic job of this, and it’s what has me interested to read the next book. It means that the characters, plot and setting fit seamlessly and satisfyingly together.

Be careful about modern idioms. The characters talk in an informal way that doesn’t try to create something antiquated and olde worlde, which was mostly great. But just occasionally – literally three times in 643 pages – there were phrases that felt too modern, and that jolted me out of the scene. That was a real shame, but so easy to do. I wonder how far that’s a matter of the writing and how far it’s a matter of my personal perspective, but it’s still a useful lesson.

You can get away with a lot with likeable characters. Seriously, I would never have got through this thing if the characters hadn’t been both likeable and quite interesting. I’d have liked to see more edge from some of them, and more depth in others, but in the end I wanted to spend more time with them, and that’s a good thing.

Final thought

Up until now I’ve kept it spoiler free. So unless you’ve read the book, or don’t intend to, now’s the time to stop.

So, the final twist in Kelsier’s plan – I couldn’t help but see that as a commentary on religion. I mean, here’s a man of magical power letting himself be put to death to inspire others to a greater good. But when you read it, did you feel that it cast a cynical or an optimistic light on religion? Was it saying ‘hey, look how a messiah can inspire people’, or was it saying ‘hey, this guy just manipulated people into building his cult’? I’m pretty sure Sanderson intended it as optimistic – he’s a Mormon, so not likely to be too cynical about religion – but did it feel that way to you?

And on that note, I shall get back to work. Then maybe some more reading – I have two more Mistborn novels waiting on the shelf. In the meantime I’d be interested to hear what others think of the book – leave your comments below.

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