I was less than halfway through this epic fantasy story before I went on holiday so I wasn’t entirely sure I would even finish it whilst I was away. Thankfully we had one incredibly rainy Sunday where we spent nearly the entire day inside reading. It meant that I was able to get quite a way through it and finish it in the middle of the trip. Of course, I hadn’t brought either of the other books in the trilogy so was unable to continue with the series but I was actually grateful for a break. It was a fairly long and intense book. And not necessarily what I expected. I’d heard a lot of people celebrating Brandon Sanderson on Instagram and the like so, during a book slump, I decided to pick up the first Sanderson book that I came across. It was simply luck of the draw that the book in question happened to be The Final Empire. I haven’t read much fantasy besides Tolkien and George RR Martin. I guess I’ve been put off by some of the overly silly stuff I read as a kid. But it felt like Sanderson was a good person to start with.
The Final Empire is the first in a trilogy of fantasy books that follows the exploits of Vin, a street urchin who finds herself caught up in secret plan to overthrow an evil theocratic leader. We are transported to Vin’s home world: a land that is ruled over by an evil man who maintains power of the rich and suppresses the poor, or Skaa. It is a bleak world, covered in ash, haunted by mists, and lacking any natural beauty. There have been rumblings of an uprising for years but, with the help of the mysterious Kelsier, the Skaa might finally be able to challenge the Lord Ruler for his seat of power. As Vin discovers, Kelsier has a personal vendetta against the Lord Ruler and is desperate to repay his debt. Thankfully, he has a trick or two up his sleeve, in the form of the magical ability called Allomancy. Those who possess these powers are able to “burn” metals inside them and gain special abilities. The majority of Allomancers are only able to burn one metal and thus have access to just one ability. Mistborns, like Kelsier and Vin, are able to master them all. Kelsier quickly becomes something of a mythical figure for the Skaa and, with a new-found hope, they are able to see a way out from under the Lord Ruler’s regime.
The Final Empire is the kind of book that captivates your from the outset. It’s opening prologue is one that it is impossible to read and not be drawn in by. It’s perfect. However, the rest of the story can’t maintain the pace and drama of the opening. That’s not to say the rest of the story is bad but it does occasionally feel as though it’s dragging at times. There are plenty of unnecessary twists and turns within the narrative and plenty of sections that we don’t really need to see. It’s almost as if Sanderson knew he had to write an epic fantasy and just added as much detail as possible to ensure it happened. The plot just feels kind of repetitive and slow at times. It is also incredibly stereotypical. It’s your classic hero’s journey without any real original elements. Yes, the world-building is quite exciting at times but Vin’s development is just uninspired.
In fact, there is a problem with characterisation in general. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was instantly drawn to the character of Kelsier (and subsequently imagined him played by Tom Hiddleston) I’m not sure I’d have been able to keep going. The characterisation on offer isn’t very developed and is often inconsistent. Kelsier is the best of the bunch as he gets a semblance of a back story and some level of purpose. However, he is a massively problematic character. I get that he’s a Byronic hero of sorts but the ease with which he kills and cheers the death of nobles feels unnecessary. Vin, on the other hand, is the typical Mary Sue kind of girl. She is shown to be able to deal with her new abilities with unbelievable ease. There is nothing that she can’t do and it makes it really difficult to really connect with her. She doesn’t feel real. No matter how poor or alone she is. And that’s the two main characters. Imagine what it’s like for the supporting cast. There are some fun introductions of people but they never get any development. We don’t learn anything about them beyond their name, power, and general appearance. They are plot devices rather than characters and it’s quite easy to forget they’re there most of the time. When it comes down to it, there are very few characters within this book that you really feel able to connect with.
In a similar way, I didn’t feel as though I could connect fully with the magical system of Allomancy. I think it’s an exciting and interesting idea but it doesn’t work well on paper. Whether it’s just Sanderson’s writing or something else, I don’t know, but there were times when it just didn’t translate very easily. It’s obviously a very visual power but the description just becomes confusing and unhelpful. Like the way Sanderson tries to describe the power that causes blue lines to burst from the Allomancer’s body onto metal objects. The first time this power is used it is so badly described. It takes a good few hundred pages before it really starts to work and that’s mostly because you’ve seen it so many times. Allomancy is great in theory but it feels like it’s a power made for a visual medium rather than a written one.
The Final Empire has left me feeling very confused. There are so many aspects about it that I really didn’t enjoy but, at the same time, I kept reading. I wanted to see how it ended. I’m not entirely sure that I like Brandon Sanderson’s writing and I certainly don’t think this book is as clever as it thinks it is. There are several big plot twists within the novel that are incredibly obvious from the first few chapters. There is so much of this book that feels so uninspiring and simplistic whilst there are others that seem too complex and unfathomable. Yet, I read it all and kind of enjoyed it. There was a point, early on, where I was convinced this was going to be my next big series. But I can’t deny that I started to skim read as the book went on and on and on and on. Once I’d finished, I was almost glad that I hadn’t brought the second book. The Final Empire does a decent job of introducing us to Brandon Sanderson’s world and it shows there is potential for later books. It doesn’t, however, fill me with great confidence in Sanderson himself or give me any kind of reason for its almost flawless reputation.