Posts Tagged ‘Mistborn’

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I tend to have three books on the go simultaneously most of the time: an audiobook for the drive to and from work; a thoughtful, dare I say literary, book for when I’m at home; and a just-entertain-me book for when I don’t actually want to think too much.

We all need a just-entertain-me book to hand.

And Sanderson does that for me and does it well.

And that’s great. I’m under no illusion: the Mistborn books are not great literature. But that’s fine. It’s a detailed and fun magic system in a pretty original and fun universe and, on those times when you need to get your geek on, there’s apparently a whole interlocking Cosmere and multiple forms of Investiture to explore.

Anyway,  in brief, the novel picks up the tale of Waxillium Ladrian – lawman and errant nobleman – and Wayne – master of disguise, thief and sidekick – about six months after the end of the slightly disappointing Shadows of Self.

This time, our heroes are sent beyond the city of Elendel – which had become a slightly confining locale – into the wider world which was a distinctly good move. In fact into a much wider world: entire continents in fact. Which makes sense: the end of the original Mistborn trilogy remodelled the entire planet after all.

We also glimpse a reinterpretation of the Lord Ruler whose powerful magical repositories the book is named after. He becomes – in the mythology of a different race – the saviour of men whose lives are threatened by the remodelling of the planet which was so bountiful to the city of Elendel.

The usual stuff is here: some slightly over blown set piece battles, nefarious uncles and henchmen, turncoats, traitors and spies. There are a few scenes which don’t work terribly well, usually humourous ones, such as the party’s first night in the hotel which seems to simply be an excuse for each character to compete for who is the most extreme. Some parts were quite touching: the romance between Wayne and MeLann the kandra is quite sweet; as is War’s growing fondness for his fiancèe, Steris.

It is just a good romp with plenty of fun and action.

If that’s all you expect, it delivers!

And there may be a hint that Kelsier – the Survivor – may be alive somehow somewhere.

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 I’ve been considering reading this for a while.  I do like Sanderson’s world building, especially in the Mistborn series; I also have a penchant for superheroes, dating back to a misspent youth. Sanderson’s take on superheroes was appealing and tempting, especially as the sequel to Steelheart, entitled Firefight, came out in January this year. 

And yet… For some reason I’ve hesitated, not quite prepared to part with cold hard cash for it. Thank goodness for libraries! Got the book out, paid nothing. And, in all honesty, I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

So, the basic premise is that something called Calamity appeared in the sky and people were gifted the powers we are so familiar with from superhero movies: Steelheart himself has very obvious echoes of Superman with invulnerability, flight, strength and energy bolts, albeit from his hands, flapping cape. He also has the ability to turn matter to steal. We also come across characters who can phase through walls and command shadows, create illusions and turn invisible, generate electricity, and demonstrate precognition. We also hear of people with powers to control earth or fire, to heal or to reduce people to ash with a thought or a pointed finger. These gifted people become known as Epics and quickly become warped, homicidal and power-hungry. 

A small group of rebels known as The Reckoners and led by the enigmatic Prof try to fight back by eliminating individual Epics. The novel commences as David infiltrates the Reckoners and shares his plan to defeat Steelheart. 

This is very much a Young Adult read: it rattles along with the pace of a computer game from set piece battle to set piece battle. The pace, however, led to somewhat two dimensional characters for me, again reminiscent of video game stock characters: a tank sporting an oversized gun, a sharpshooter, a hacker, a planner. There was never any time to feel as if I knew them, or even that there was anything to know. 

Sanderson’s world here was also not an original world such as he created in the Mistborn or Way of Kings. It is Chicago, transformed to steel by Steelheart and cloaked in eternal night. Sanderson does like to identify his worlds with individual features: the ash and fog of Mistborn; the rock and winds of The Way Of Kings; and now this steel cityscape. 

In many ways, Steelheart feels very similar to Mistborn: a city dominated by an apparently invincible tyrant; a plucky band of rebels; mysterious powers. What it lacks though was the charisma of Kelsier or the depth and humanity of Vin. The Prof and David simply didn’t have the same power. 

There are some fabulous and thoughtful Young Adult books out there – nodding to Phillip Pullman and Patrick Ness, Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me – and some cracking fun one – Derek Landy and Skulduggery Pleasant. This book falls somewhere in the middle. It is a decent read but it takes itself too seriously to be joyously fun and doesn’t have the depth to really explore the characters. 

And it really annoyed me that Sanderson – or David anyway – cannot differentiate between a simile and a metaphor. It is David’s character trait that his similes are lame: 

“Wow,” I said. “It’s like … A banana farm for guns.”
“A banana farm, Megan said flatly. 
“Sure. You know, how bananas grow from their trees and hang down and stuff?”
“Knees, you suck at metaphors.”
I blushed. An art gallery, I thought. I should have said “like an art gallery for guns.”

These are not metaphors. Similes!





Fantasy is a difficult genre to keep fresh. Tolkien looms as an edifice; George R. R. Martin, similarly. Sanderson is a fresh voice within that genre: like Martin, he eschews the vague mystical nature of Tolkien’s magic and fantasy races; unlike Martin, the magic is a central facet of his world-building and he eschews the more human and secular politics of the great houses.

My problem with Sanderson is that his magic system actually takes centre stage and those small things like plot, character, dialogue and pacing come across as secondary.

Now, I have a memory – actually, more than that – with a quick google search, the article I vaguely remembered is linked here – that Sanderson has strong view on magic systems. He consciously crafts them as systems with rules and limits so that he can’t deploy them as dei ex machina to resurrect or rescue characters or to resolve plotholes. Well, that’s fair enough; I respect that.

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So let’s look at Sanderson’s system in the Stormlight Archive thus far. The physical and emotional forces of this world are personified and given brief physical form called spren. Fire, wind and rain; fear, glory and creativity. These are mainly mindless manifestations but some spren it appears are able to bond with humans who exemplify particular ideals. So, Sylphrena, an honourspren, bonds with Kaladin who is honourable; and Pattern, a liespren (also known as a cryptic), bonds with Shallan who has deceived herself about her mother’s death. The bonding creates a symbiotic relationship: the spren gain sentience in the physical world; the humans gain the superhuman powers of the ancient and mythical Knights Radiant. Absorbing stormlight stored in spheres (or directly from the storms which ravage the world), Kaladin can manipulate gravity and bind objects together whilst Shallan can create illusions. It seems that all these bound characters are stronger, can move faster, and heal almost instantaneously.

Now, I understand that. It’s a comprehensible system with scope to expand: there were ten original orders of Knight Radiant and we’ve only really seen two although Sanderson’s Interludes often show us other bound characters briefly to hint at their powers.

What stopped the book succeeding, for me, was that there wasn’t much else apart from exploring this magic system going on here!

Let’s look at plot and character. Nothing much has really happened since the end of The Way Of Kings. Shallan has made her way to the Shattered Plains and met Kaladin. A number of duels were fought. Meetings were held. Rushed into the last five or six of the eighty-or-so chapters, Dalinar goes to war, discovers a lost city and chats to the spren of the storm. There’s an attempt to tempt Kaladin to become embroiled in a plot to kill the King whose safety (as a bodyguard) is his duty. Personally, I found that temptation utterly unconvincing: there was so much put in to try to give credibility to that temptation – the King is claimed to be responsible for some innocent deaths, imprisons Kaladin unfairly, then is revealed to have (indirectly) put in place a train of events that had led to the disgrace of Kaladin’s father, his brother’s death and his own enslavement. The piling up of these reasons smacked of desperation on Sanderson’s part, almost as if he or his editor found his decision to facilitate the King’s assassination just as unconvincing as I did.

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So, Kaladin’s moral dilemma was not convincing. Let’s turn to look at Shallan, the other main point-of-view character. Just as flashbacks in The Way Of Kings revealed Kaladin’s backstory, in Words of Radiance, the flashbacks reveal Shallan’s backstory. There’s some interest in that: the young daughter of a bullying abusive father. It is not incomprehensible that such a victim could adopt a light hearted persona to protect herself. The fluidity of her identity – being a Knight Radiant, she is able to create illusory disguises and identities – is actually intriguing: one of her disguises is dubbed Veil and Shallan wishes Veil were with her at one point; and towards the end her dual-identity is discovered and one character tells her that Veil is her true character and Shallan the disguise. I’m hoping Sanderson develops that point.

So, despite some interest, I do find Sanderson’s characters very two dimensional and his capacity to add depth and conflict unconvincing.

What about the language though? Alas, for me, this is a massive problem: his language is cliché-ridden and repetitive and his dialogue awkward and unconvincing. There are only so many times that you can describe the tempest within when characters breathe in stormlight. Characters can only be described as broken so many times. Descriptions of dialogue overused the word said far more than I’d have allowed a student I teach. In fairness, I listened to rather than read this book – narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading – and I found Kramer’s delivery so ponderous I actually listened to it on 1.5 x normal speed! It is not impossible that his delivery may have emphasised things which the eye would have skimmed over. But Sanderson’s decision to use the storms as the central motif and linguistic theme does make his language repetitive.

I started this by talking about originality and giving Sanderson credit for originality within the genre. I am worried about how original he is between his own worlds. There are parallels between this and his earlier Mistborn trilogy: a similarly regulated magic system; a similar shift from a human story in the first book to a more cosmic scope by the final book; a similarly shattered world. The Mistborn world was revealed to have been earth-like once but reduced to an ashen world aeons before the final book reclaimed its verdancy. The Stormlight world is a stoney one inhabited by mainly crustaceans instead of mammals. There have been references once or twice to mythical creatures in children’s stories that resemble lions and questions raised about the use of the word hound to describe the reptilian axehounds kept as pets or hunting beasts.

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Are these hints of a lost world which Kaladin and Shallan will eventually reclaim as Vin did for the Mistborn world?

Will I read the final book? Yes. Yes I’m sure I will when it is published, for the sense of satisfaction that completing a cycle gives. I am not, however, convinced that I actually like or care about Shallan or Kaladin as much as I’d like to.

One last observation: one criticism often levelled at fantasy (in addition to two-dimensional characters and weak dialogue) is the doctrine of the improbable resurrection. Tolkien’s resurrection of Gandalf the Grey as Gandalf the White is sometimes cited as an example. X-Men and Marvel heroes rarely stay dead. In this book, Sanderson gives us not one but two improbable resurrections.

For someone who dislikes dei ex machina, to use a piece of unexplained technology to resurrect a character is just as much a ‘cheat’ as Tolkien’s magic!

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Brandon Sanderson writes high, epic fiction: huge worlds in which the very nature of the earth is as much a character as the creatures that he inhabits it with.

In the Mistborn trilogy, the ashen and grey polluted earth dominated the tale; here in The Stormlight Archive, his created world is one of rock and storm.

High Storms ravage the land on a vaguely predictable pattern from East to West bringing torrential rain and violent winds on a massive scale. The flora and fauna inhabiting this world are adapted to it: molluscs and crablike beasts take the place of cattle, dogs and beasts of burden; plants that burrow into the rock and retract back into it when the vibrations of a storm or an approaching footstep disturbs them. The High Storms dominate characters’ lives, shapes their buildings and influences their language.

The High Storms have a more than meteorological significance though. The Chronicle itself is named the Stormlight Chronicle and the storms provide some form of energy which can become stored within gemstones and generate light and then deployed elsewhere to power a range of devices: reed pens to communicate across distances; fantastic suits of shardplate armour; mystical soulcasters which can convert objects from one form to another.

It is a massive universe that Sanderson has created – far too huge for a review to summarise – replete with mythology, history and even a pre-history which is all a bit of a struggle to keep straight in your head. Fortunately, Sanderson seems to have woven an interpretation of his world’s legends – Heralds and Knights Radiant and Voidbringers – into the thrust of his narrative. He continually circles around them; two of his main characters, Jasnah Kholin and the point-of-view character Shallan Davar, are historians who can keep the reader abreast of the history and mythology.

Another massive feature of the world – one which seems likely to have a huge bearing on the overarching plot development – are the spren. Spren are like elemental personifications associated with fire, wind, rain and decay as well as personal emotions such as glory, fear, pain and honour. Whilst they are deemed by the inhabitants of the book as mindless, at least one becomes a meaningful rounded character in her own right: Syl whose association with Kaladin brings out his powers.

Thus far, there is no real magic system in the novel … and I say that advisedly! All supernatural powers are derived from technology: shardplates enhance the wearer’s strength and speed but are powered through the Stormlight; engineered fabrioles recreate powers that would otherwise seem mystical.

There is, however, clearly the potential for magic: characters who can recreate the power if these fabrioles through some innate ability. Kaladin and Szeth are both able to breathe in Stormlight to enhance their speed, strength and skills, known as Surgebinding; Jasnah and Shallan can both soulcast without soulcasters.

The thrust of this book – the first of ten apparently – is to introduce this universe and manoeuvre all the characters together. By the end, Kaladin has come into his powers and been promoted (from slave and bridgeman) to Dalinar Kohlin’s honour guard at The Shattered Plains; Shallan and Jasnah Kohlin (Dalinar’s niece) are shipping out to meet Dalinar there; and Szeth has also been dispatched there.

Nothing truly has happened after the end of 26 hours of audiobook: a vague sense of threat exists but no real antagonist; the rivalries between princes and noble houses seem – no doubt deliberately – rather petty against the hints of a cataclysmic threat. The pace of the book was good in the main part but Sanderson recounted six years of Kaladin’s life in flashbacks placed through the book which I found increasingly and unnecessarily slowed the pace: we didn’t need multiple flashbacks of his life in Hearthstone. I found myself glazing over a little as these came on and thinking about things like work instead. The whole point of playing these books is to avoid thinking about work!

Sanderson does a good job in creating characters: Kaladin, the natural leader who is also plagued by bouts of despair and self-doubt; Dalinar, the natural warrior, plagued by dreams and visions that make him doubt his role; Jasnah, the hawklike heretic and scholar with a hidden and devastating power within her grip; Wit, the King’s ‘Jester’ who seems to know far more than he should. They are a little two-dimensional but engaging: not as engaging as Mistborn’s Vin or Kelsier though.

Wit at one point introduces himself to Kaladin as Hoid, a recurrent character in Sanderson’s work who regularly seems to adopt the same itinerant knowing position. Apparently, he acts as informant in various places within the Mistborn universe too and Sanderson has plans for writing his story as a parallel to that on Vin!

The language used in The Way Of Kings is a little formulaic in places: the Shardblades always form after ten heartbeats with mist beading along their length; Szeth and Kaladin breathe in the Stormlight and always feel the tempest storming within them; the victims of the Shardblades have their eyes burned out. Perhaps these formulaic phrases were more apparent because I listened to it as an audiobook but I did find it irksome that these moments, which I appreciate Sanderson wants to make iconic, weren’t described with a little more variety. There also seems a lot of explanation, repetition and exposition: with just so much background to cover, I suppose Sanderson needs to do this – up to a point. But again I feel that the balance is just a little out.

Overall, however, for the sheer scale of the universe – and the variety of worlds within it which we glimpse in the interludes – and it’s mythology, for its engaging characters, for its sense of apocalypse, it is a strong book and I’ll look forward to its future instalments.

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I was torn between three and four stars on this but came to the view that having read through it in 4 days it was a four, but I do have reservations about this book.

It is without doubt a great read, fun enjoyable and lighthearted. It evokes the atmosphere of the 1800s in the Wild West style Roughs in which Wax and Wayne act as lawmen; and also the atmosphere of Victorian England, setting the majority of the book in the city emerging into modernity, almost reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the two protagonists Wax and Wayne are very much a Holmes and Watson double-act, Wayne specifically deferring to Wax’s powers of deduction on at least two occasions. They also reminded me very much of Batman and Robin: Wax is the discredited heir of a great house returning to the City and Society to assume the mantle of the head of house, but disappearing into the night and the mists with his mistcloak flapping about him. Is the decision to use the name Wayne an homage to Bruce Wayne? There’s even an old retained butler! The other writer that it reminded me of in its lightheartedness undercut by darkness was Pratchett: Wax seemed to have echoes of Sam Vimes at times.

I think the biggest problem I had with this book was the expectations I had of it. I was looking for the same character building, mythologising and originality that Sanderson had displayed in the original trilogy. The most intriguing and satisfying moment in this book was, unfortunately, the cameo by Marsh from the original trilogy as Ironeyes, who has evolved in the mythology of the world into a demonic Lord of the Dead figure.

The book suffers from the inevitable comparison with the original series. There was a definite arc to the original: the characters developed from rebels and urchins to statesmen and finally reached apotheosis. This feels much more static in its momentum: as a member of the society created by the events of the Mistborn trilogy and, therefore, one that we have to have faith in, Wax is interested in maintaining a status quo rather than overturning it which has inherently limited the scope of the novel. It is interesting that even Wax himself seems to recognise this: he tells the reader that in the Final Empire, his nemesis Miles would have been seen as a hero.

Nor is it in any way as original as Mistborn. Again, this is not the fault of Sanderson’s writing but of the premise. The book is set in a previously created universe and therefore cannot be original without being unfaithful. I did like the combinations of the allomancy and feruchemy to produce a different style of skills (magic doesn’t seem to be the correct term for a power system based on science and metallurgy).

Apparently conceived as nothing more than a personal creative writing exercise without the intention of being published, the book does have that feel of derivative fan-fiction rather than mythologising high fantasy, albeit done extremely well and by an extremely competent story teller. Great fun though.

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