In many ways, The Hero of Ages, the conclusion to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, is the most traditional epic fantasy of the series. An ancient evil threatens to destroy the world. Darkness blots out the sun. Monsters overrun the land. A small group of heroes resists, scattering on various missions whose telling slows the overall story and bloats the page count. But The Hero of Ages is still an intriguing read, largely because Sanderson bent the genre so imaginatively during the earlier books.
In the first, The Final Empire, things are already bad: the Lord Ruler, Sanderson’s Sauron, has dominated the world for a thousand years. But after the heroes, led by Vin, overthrow this tyrant, a power vacuum results, and the sequel, The Well of Ascension, sees the Final Empire devolve into chaos, with the lot of everyday people becoming yet more unbearable. On top of that, Vin is tricked into releasing Ruin, the ancient evil who lusts to end everything.
Now, in The Hero of Ages, the final battle plays out… but not in the way I expected.
One thing that surprised me was how dynamic the main characters were except for Vin. She did most of her evolving in the first book, and then—aside from a twist during the climax of The Hero of Ages—stayed generally static while the rest of the protagonists changed around her. Elend, Vin’s love interest, goes from scholar to leader/warrior/wizard. Sazed, also an academic at the beginning, loses faith and struggles with depression. Spook morphs from awkward teen to inspiring figure. And even the departed characters progress: Kelsier becomes revered as a deity, and the Lord Ruler is revealed to have been the lesser of two evils, an initially decent man who did everything he could to protect the world from Ruin, despite its insidious, corrosive influence on him.
There’s also more ruminating on political structures and religion than you’ll find in other fantasy novels. The former doesn’t lead to anything profound—Elend essentially comes to the realization that ruling requires making hard decisions. But Sazed’s exploration of faith ends in something more interesting: the idea that, while no religion is completely true, believing is still worthwhile, because all religions have truth. (Although Sanderson’s finale indicates that he thinks there’s one overarching truth.)
Structurally, The Hero of Ages continues the earlier books’ style of preceding each chapter with a short journal entry. But while the excerpts in The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension were penned by historical figures, contemporaries of the Lord Ruler when he first seized power, the epigraphs in The Hero of Ages are written by one of the active characters. This didn’t always work for me. When Sanderson used the clips to quickly describe a mechanic of one of his systems of magic, or an important nugget of backstory, I thought he’d found a clever way to insert necessary bits of exposition. But when he used the entries to explain the ramifications of plot developments that just happened or hint at something about to come, the delivery felt forced.
On balance, though, The Hero of Ages is a thought-provoking culmination to a creative series. Mistborn isn't my favorite fantasy trilogy, but it kept me guessing more than just about any I’ve read. For that, and its bold tweaks to the standard formula, I’ll remember it.