Review: The Final Empire

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is an interesting beast, but The Final Empire is a great introduction. I normally stay away from fantasy sans notable exceptions, yet a friend of mine recommended it and I trust his judgment, even if he’s a fan of Robert Jordan.

But what do we really have, here? We have a magic system where a person can “burn” ingested metals to achieve certain effects. Everything is paired, and specific alloys can produce opposite reactions as their base metal. And of course it’s called Allomancy. An Allomancer can push or pull metals, sooth or riot emotions, enhance his senses or his body, or any number of paired magical yields. Well, not any number, but ten. There are ten things an Allomancer can do, unless he’s Mistborn, and then he can do all of them.

Got that? Good. Because Sanderson also introduced Feruchemy, yet another magic system based on metal. This second system doesn’t actually consume metal, but fills it like a battery with attributes from the wearer. Like Allomancy, the same metals are used to store or release the same abilities. So a Feruchemist can make himself weaker by storing strength in pewter, only to use it in a great burst later. Unlike Alchemy, stored energy can be used in any proportion, and yes, this gets used as a plot point several times.

These things are relevant because of their rarity. In the world Sanderson has created, The Final Empire is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but something of the opposite. Ash falls from the sky, mists cloak the land, a race of slaves called the Skaa can be beaten or killed at the whim of any noble, and the Lord Ruler has forced his will upon the world for the last thousand years. It’s a perfect dystopia: the Skaa literally cannot rebel, because it’s the nobles that have ready access to Allomancy, and the Lord Ruler is the greatest of them all, and immortal to boot.

It’s a perfect hook. By beginning with the end, Sanderson makes one question why. Why are things so terrible? How did they get that way? Why is the Lord Ruler immortal? What were things like a thousand years ago? And the questions just keep coming. And then we get introduced to Kelsier, who wants to bring it all down, free the Skaa, even return the landscape to its lush green past, all because it was his wife’s dream.

And why not? What exactly to any of the characters in this world have to lose? For Vin, it’s either join Kelsier’s party or stay in the streets and possibly end up in a brothel. Sazed is but a steward that hides his Feruchemy behind a mysterious past, always knowing the Lord Ruler has crusaded to destroy his kind. While quite a few other characters are admittedly more shallow, they aren’t exactly forgotten. Each has a believable back-story and motivation, including Kelsier’s brother Marsh, who gives everything to the cause.

It actually kept me reading long past my bedtime, because it was all so hopeless—that this band of rejects could presume to bring down a government ruled by an omnipotent man who has ruled effectively unopposed for a thousand years. And what if they do? The world is still an ashen wasteland. It’s good this is a trilogy, because there’s no way to address everything in a single tome.

And I can’t wait to finish it.