Imagine what Middle Earth would look like if Sauron won.
That’s basically the premise for Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire. Ash falls constantly from the sky, allowing only sickly plants to grow; an eerie mist descends at night; most of the world is enslaved; and the Lord Ruler has reigned as a god for a thousand years.
Sanderson makes several other fun tweaks to the standard epic fantasy formula. Allomancy, the primary magic system in the novel, involves ingesting flakes or beads of metal and then “burning” those scraps internally to unleash various powers. The heroic prophecies in the story were already fulfilled long ago—by the Lord Ruler, who saved the world only to take it for himself. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a logbook the Lord Ruler wrote before that betrayal, snippets that humanize the archvillain by revealing a man wracked by self-doubt and struggling beneath the weight of expectations.
And one of the last hopes for humanity is a young girl.
Vin is sixteen, scrawny, and a thief. She’s been using Allomancy without knowing it for years (burning trace bits of metal for minimal effect), but when she comes to the attention of Kelsier, a thief himself and the story’s mentor figure, he brings her on for the biggest job of all: overthrowing the Lord Ruler’s “Final Empire.”
I didn’t like either protagonist initially. Vin is a sympathetic figure—she was beaten repeatedly growing up, both by her brother and her former crew leader—but her attachment issues came off as clichéd. So did Kelsier’s roguish flippancy. And the structuring of Kelsier’s band of thieves felt a little too much like the formation of a Dungeons & Dragons party. (Let’s see, we need a Smoker to hide us from our enemies, a Soother to calm them if they find us, a Thug to hit them if soothing fails, etc.)
But there was enough originality in the setup to make me stick with the story, and I warmed to the characters eventually. The Final Empire isn’t high literature, but it is creative fantasy, and that was enough to make for an enjoyable read.