Gourmet fast food
‘Mistborn’ takes fantasy genre to new highs

by Joe Foster

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. Tor Books 2006 544 pages.

So, I met this author, Brandon Sanderson, in passing last year at a book tradeshow in Denver. He handed me a copy of his book, Mistborn, and asked if I was a fantasy reader. I paused to ponder the question. Am I? To answer yes to such a question is to invite snorts of derision from readers of “serious” fiction, but to answer no is to, well, lie. I am a reader of fantasy, but with a disclaimer: I only read good fantasy books. Like any other category of anything else, the crap vastly outweighs the gold. Most times, in my opinion, the whole genre is ridiculous, following trite and violent formulaic plotlines, generally with a healthy dose of thinly veiled racist and misogynistic leanings. Sometimes, though, just sometimes, you’ll find the work of a truly gifted storyteller.

Look at Tolkein, the guy who basically created the genre. His work has obviously had a resurgence in popularity because of the movies, but the reason people still read his books, and the reason that his stories made such great movies, is simply that the story itself is brilliant. I’ve said this before and have successfully ticked off a number of purists, but I firmly believe that some of the fantasy being written right now is even better than Tolkein’s. Let me qualify that statement before you hunt me down and beat me with nunchucks. Tolkein was brilliant and created this genre, but the people writing now, some of them, are standing on the shoulders of this giant, if I may borrow a tired phrase. They are taking what Tolkein did and morphing it, evolving it, and making it their own.

I answered Sanderson’s question, if I am a fantasy reader, with an affirmative, saying that fantasy is my junk food … which he promptly took issue with, of course. To be fair, though, fantasy is not Tolstoy or Nabakov, Saramago or Kundera, McCarthy or Morrison. A person cannot live, however, on gourmet alone; sometimes we need a simple trip to the salad bar or the comforting hunker in the reading chair with some mac and cheese. If you’re used to gourmet food, though, that mac and cheese better be damned good. That’s a weird and self-justifying way of saying that I really like fantasy done well but hate-hate-hate the tons of crap.


That was just a long lead in to say, simply, that Mistborn is fantasy done well. The premise is intriguing: a thousand years ago, a hero, prophesied to save the world, sets off on a quest. It was his lot to save the world from a terrible darkness, the typical fantasy plot. The twist, however, is that a thousand years ago, that hero failed. He is now the immortal Lord Ruler of a wasted land of ash and death and nighttime mists populated by dangerous beings. The story is about a race of people, the Skaa, enslaved by this failed hero, and their struggle to pull him down.

There is magic, but it is only available to a few of those with pure blood, and it is different from any other magic you’ve read. Power is made available by ingesting various metals into the body and “burning” them. Most who are gifted with the power are able to burn one of the 10 metals, but a very few are able to burn them all. Those able to do so are imbued with tremendous strength, heightened senses, the ability to push or pull on another’s emotions, and the ability to push or pull on metal, making one able to fly, basically, or to make metal itself fly, making for some very lethal projectiles. Many of these magicians, or the Mistborn, can decimate a squad of soldiers with something as simple as a handful of coins, which makes for some of the most exciting and original battles I’ve ever read.

The plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler is the brainchild of one of the most dangerous and charismatic characters I’ve come across, Kelsier. A Skaa Mistborn, who shouldn’t exist, he is the leader of a band of skilled thieves – a crew of smartasses and malcontents, all imbued, of course, with powers of their own. Kelsier rescues a young girl, Vin, from a life of thievery, prostitution and a likely early death when he discovers powers that she didn’t realize she had. She joins the crew and learns from him as he begins a private war on the nobility that has enslaved the Skaa for a thousand years. He becomes legend, an ever-smiling and violent Christ-like savior for the Skaa, and the very image of a demon for the nobility he is destroying.

With enough plot twists to keep your head spinning and some actions scenes that makes “The Matrix” look like “The Power Rangers,” Mistborn had me up until two in the morning two nights in row. The characters have a wonderful amount of depth, and the land they inhabit is vivid and haunting. I was just flat unable to put it down. Mistborn was just released in paperback, and its sequel, The Well of Ascension just came out in hardcover last Tuesday. We’re talking some delicious gourmet-style mac and cheese here. •



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