The philosophers assure me that this is the time, that the signs have been met. But I still wonder if they have the wrong man. So many people depend on me. They say I will hold the future of the entire world in my arms.
When they see me, do they see a liar?
Once, a hero rose to save the world. He failed.
For a thousand years since, the world has been a wasteland of ash and mist ruled by the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler. Every revolt has failed miserably.
Yet somehow, hope survives. Hope that dares to dream of ending the empire and defeating the Lord Ruler. A new kind of uprising is being planned-- one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and the determination of an unlikely heroine: a teenage street urchin named Vin.
Where a hero rose to save the world and failed, can a young heroine succeed?
~Print copy, 659 pages
Published: 2006 by Tor Teen
So, I realize I've been a bit absent on this blog lately, but never fear. I have been ruminating. Mulling over. Cogitating. Pondering. And, as always, voraciously reading fiction in between staring at the ceiling and watching TV.
And so, a new idea for book reviews has surfaced in my mind: a way to satisfy my love of lists and make some form of organizational sense. Normally, I'd just freewrite my entire review, rambling on about plot and whatever happened to stick out while I was reading. Now, I've got A List of Areas, and a fraction of how much I liked this particular area. 1/5 being it was either entirely unremarkable or almost painful to read, and 5/5, of course, being absolutely amazing and remarkable and very much a pleasure to read.
So here goes.
There's a little bit of a misnomer about that summary. It glosses over the "criminal mastermind" part and elaborates on Vin. When in reality, this is the first in a series and Vin is... she's more like an apprentice. In this novel, at least.
That "brilliant criminal mastermind" is named Kelsier. He's a Leader. The driving force behind the whole book, really. He's creative and impulsive, a genius, a strategist of Big Plans. He is given a job by the leader of a rebellion to gather an army, but he takes it much further -- he takes it to big heights. He plans on killing the immortal Lord Ruler, with his magical ability and some metals. (I'll elaborate on that later.) And his crew of soldiers, noblemen, and craftsmen all look up to him.
Vin, on the other hand, is an urchin, one of many thieves in an underground thieving crew. Her abusive brother abandoned her in this nest of leery criminals and she's wielding the only ability she can to survive in such conditions: she can Soothe the emotions of other people. And it's this ability that catches the attention of Kelsier, who takes her on as part of his own "thieving crew".
The character arcs of these two alternating narrators are pretty amazing. Over the course of over 600 pages, Kelsier goes from the bragging survivor to the somewhat-more-levelheaded leader, from an ambitious thief to a thoughtful authority figure and inspiration for thousands of people. Vin stretches from survivor to dazzled noblewoman to someone who can finally trust the other members of her crew.
Vin, truth be told, had me a little underwhelmed at first. She's tough and distrustful at first, very down-to-earth. And then she becomes a spy for Kelsier in the rich world of the noblemen, and becomes... almost like them. Grown away from her roots, she becomes her fake persona, Valette. But she redeems herself in the end. She makes some fumbling mistakes, spends some time soaking in the wrong message, but in the end -- she's a character to root for. She redeems herself something powerful.
Kelsier, well, I won't go into him too much (spoilers, after all), but... he is the more spectacular figure. There is no doubt to anyone who reads this novel that Kelsier is that person, the Artemis Fowl of this story, if you will. Powerful, confident, and just a bit too arrogant, he steals from the rich and is sympathetic to the poor. He's the Hero. (Though not, of course, the one that failed a thousand years before the story takes place.)
Gracious wisdom, is the worldbuilding in this novel fantastic. It's fantasy, so of course it's well thought out... but it goes beyond that.
There are people called Mistings and Mistborn, who can swallow metals and "burn" them in their stomach in order to produce magical effects. Mistings can only swallow one of the eight Basic Metals for use. Mistborn -- like Kelsier and Vin -- can burn all eight, and then a couple more (the rare two Higher Metals). Both groups' magical abilities can range from Soothing and Rioting emotions to pulling and pushing metal objects around them.
It's all very organized. The metals are grouped into groups of four, according to whether they "push" or "pull" (Soothing emotions involves "pushing" the emotions down until the recipient is calmed; Rioting emotions involves "pulling" on certain emotions to excite the person). They're also grouped according to whether they are "external" or "internal" (Soothing and Rioting are external, because they affect someone else's emotions; but enhancing one's senses [pulling] and enhancing one's speed, strength, and endurance [pushing] are all internal, because they affect the Misting/Mistborn themselves).
And, of course, this is only one aspect of the worldbuilding. As impressive as the magic system is, the world itself is very vivid. The ashfalls from the nearby volcanoes and the mists at night are the dominant weather patterns. But it's not some backdrop: it highlights the brutality shown to the working class, the "skaa", who are seen sweeping the ashes away into the river; who struggle to keep the bare plants from dying under the dismal sunlight and frequent fallings of ash. It's for the skaa, who are abused and neglected at the hands of the noblemen, that Kelsier puts up this whole "kill the Lord Ruler" idea.
The strict class system, in which skaa are slaves and the noblemen are supposedly descendants of the Lord Ruler's allies back a thousand years before, is a tense one. The rebellion breeds under the Lord Ruler's nose, but he doesn't bother quenching it entirely. And the noblemen squabble amongst themselves regularly. But there is little overlap between the two groups -- noblemen are required by the Lord Ruler's law to execute any skaa women they bed. But some of them fall through the cracks, and what results is someone like Vin -- a skaa girl scratching out a living in a thieving crew, while possessing the Mistborn talent that is inherited only by the noblemen families.
All of this becomes a major part of the novel, tied tightly to the plot. And that's how worldbuilding is done -- tied so tightly to the plot that it becomes impossible to separate the two.
The plot is pretty darn beautiful. It all unfolds in just the right way. It's very well-thought-out, like the worldbuilding.
It all centers on the struggle between the Kelsier, Vin, and the skaa rebellion vs. the Lord Ruler. Vin is just a street thief, until Kelsier comes along and hires her for her Mistborn talents. The leader of the skaa rebellion has enlisted him to raise an army 10,000 strong to march against the Lord Ruler, but Kelsier wants to take it a step further -- he and his friends (a soldier, a nobleman, and a skaa woodworker) all map out a plan to throw the capital city in chaos, and he needs Vin's help to do it.
Of course, Vin is kind of an apprentice here. She almost takes a backseat; she's not a leading character like Kelsier, and ends up another team member with the secondary characters, spying on the noblemen for information while Kelsier does the job of throwing the city into chaos. But she slowly takes a bigger role as the book progresses.
But, like I said, this all unfolds just slowly enough. The pacing is just right, despite the hefty 600 pages. There look to be a few slow places, but at the end of the book I look back and realize tha those scenes were good -- they helped you catch your breath after all of the daredevil magic and action.
I was a little less enthusiastic on themes.
For one thing, despite Vin's redemption in the end, she still appears for most of the book to oscillating between prissy, spoiled noblewoman and hardened thief. And the idea behind it was a little sketchy, like, "Of course she'd be wowed by all of the beauty of this place; she's just a girl. So of course she'd just throw out this crazy idea of noble excess that she's held her entire life."
But I'm not really doing it justice. This idea is turned on its head at the end. Still, reading it, I feel like the former idea stretched on for too long a stretch, and the revelation that really, the opposite is the theme came a little too late. And she is still one of the only female characters in this book, besides maybe one noblewoman she's turned into an enemy and a couple of female skaa workers. So the idea makes it seem like women don't really have a place in such rebellions, unless they have special, rare magical talents.
Still, I think the other themes aren't too out there. The whole theme of "chaos can be a beautiful thing" is pretty good. Many books attempt it, but this one actually engineers the chaos, and harnesses it for social change. And the themes on class, how the clueless excess of the higher class can blind it to the oppression of a lower class, hit spot on. The nobles see the skaa as something less than human, something other than human, and that's a very familiar line of thinking when it comes to traditional race oppression in this world.
The subtler gender ideas in the novel don't appear to be deliberate. And the other thematic ideas presented more obviously are ones I agree with. But let's just say I prefer enjoying the magic and worldbuilding more than the themes.