The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Well, that felt like reading a JRPG – in fact there are some (very, very loose) alignments with the plot of Final Fantasy VI. But what I really mean by that is the fact that Sanderson’s Allomancy ends up reading like the mana draws one has to undertake in those games. Although the different metals vice just one mana source can also draw parallels to the magic system in The Witcher (game, not books – I haven’t read the books). There are three things that made me love this book and push it into 5-star territory: tight plotting, a comprehensive magic system, and a great heist plot with memorable characters.
First the plotting, of all the books I’ve read recently, only GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire books seem to have this level of tight plotting where everything is on the page for a reason, even if you don’t kow it yet. And my younger brother, who’s finished the first trilogy, says that the series as a whole is an even greater accomplishment of plotting. (SO EXCITED to continue!) Pretty much everything in this book is foreshadowing, even if you don’t know it. The chapter-opening quotes, the magic system, and the little tidbits you learn about the different characters all add up in a way that shows to you that Sanderson didn’t cheat anywhere. There isn’t anything that crops up out of nowhere. That’s a delight and also one of the things I enjoyed in Sanderson’s Warbreaker.
Second, sometimes I can get lost in a popcorn-fantasy book. The magic system is loosey-goosey and sometimes acts as a deux ex machina. We all have fun and we don’t think about it too much. But more often than not, a magic system that isn’t well thought out can really pull me out of a story. Similar to how a lot of plots don’t work in a world with cell phones (leading movie writers to come up with contrived reasons for them not to work), it can be frustrating to have magic without limits and yet not a perfect world. But Sanderson gives you magic with limits. In the Mistborn world it involves ingesting of metals and an entire economy revolving around this (including a key bunch of plot points). Not only do the metals run out as they’re used, but using too much at once has consequences to the user. This means that we can enjoy our characters’ superhuman feats, but also recognize there’s a timer – like running out of Mario’s star ability right as you run straight into a goomba. Yes, there are some elements of a chosen one, but that’s also a trope that Sanderson is playing with quite a bit in this story so it’s not as bothersome as it has been in other narratives. Additionally, the magic in this book is mostly based around physics and that leads to the need for characters to THINK about how they use their powers, again, making it a more fun romp than a traditional magic story.
Finally, there are the characters. There can be good stories without great characters as was often the case in Golden Age science fiction. But great characters can take a story over the edge – especially when you’re doing a heist plot. The main chunk of this book is like Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy, early industrial setting. What makes those kinds of plots fun is the characterizations of all the experts that have to come together to pull off the heist. Vin is the story’s main character, but there are others who are also fleshed out as the story goes on, even getting POV chapters or paragraphs. Sanderson both makes use of archetypes and also deconstructs and reconstructs some tropes around these archetypes to good use for the story, suspense, and plot twists. Vin and (view spoiler)[Kelsier (hide spoiler)] see the most character growth and while I’m sure a cynical reader could poke holes in their characterizations, they grow pretty realistically based on what happens in the story and their growth is rewarding.
Very highly recommend, even if you are not the typical fantasy person. This is much more of an urban fantasy that might take place in a Victorian England-type setting and the people with powers move around the world the same way you do when playing Assassin’s Creed. It really is a lot of fun.