Book Review of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)

Note: This review was originally posted on Goodreads on April 10, 2017. It has been slightly updated here.


The Final Empire is an excellent fantasy novel which far exceeded my expectations. I’m new to Brandon Sanderson with one exception.

I’d tried to read The Way Of Kings last year, and I put it down after 5 chapters because I found one of the characters very trite and annoying. But after reading The Final Empire, I may need to go back and give it another shot.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope. –The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My wife recommended The Final Empire, and I realized this was the same author a few chapters in. The opening didn’t grab me here either, but she insisted that it would be worth slogging through. Lucky for me I gave it a chance because what I read was would become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.

The beginning

Action as a hook doesn’t work for me because there’s no emotional resonance. Until I care about the characters, I really don’t care about the action. But once you pass this brief requisite “hook”, the characters start to connect and the setting begins to get interesting. Next we’re front-loaded with world building, still without a character to really hold on to. More trudging on.

But after you climb these early, awkward steps it starts to get interesting. And then it gets fascinating, captivating, magical.

The Plot

The plot itself isn’t what’s engrossing here. It’s a standard hero overthrows the evil villain story. What’s interesting is how Brandon Sanderson is able to craft a standard villain into a believable human being with doubts and insecurities. It’s equivalent to making Sauron from Lord of the Rings a character you can relate to.

He does this in numerous ways, but primarily through the use of journal entries. As we read the diary of a man who’s about to rise to supreme power, we see that he was not always the evil emperor who enslaves us today. There was a time where he was just a person like you or me.

I consider myself to be a man of principle. But, what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, considers his actions “moral” after a fashion.

Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?

I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

There are many revelations, and I won’t give any of them away, but they culminate into a brilliant “Ah ha!” moment when the reader finally sees [not a spoiler, you learn this in the beginning] why the Hero of Ages is now the Lord Ruler. Brilliant character development and story telling here.

That’s all subtext though. I know.

The actual plot follows a thieving crew who’s been hired to overthrow the lord ruler. It takes a fairly predictable path, but that’s ok. What’s interesting are the two protagonists whose relationship grows so subtly throughout the book.

There are probably a thousand different moments of slight character progression as they transition from one mentality to another, or as they loose or gain insecurities, or grow just a little closer to another character. It’s fascinating to see all this constant movement feel so natural, and it’s brilliantly done.

Setting

This is fantasy, and it contains a unique magic system. It’s fun, limited, and believable. Some people have one magic ability, others have many, and the rest have none. I enjoyed the fact that the magic behaved differently than magic I’ve seen before. It turned out to be a mix of Jedi and Matrix powers, and the combination was fun.

The environment is believable enough. It doesn’t stray too far into fantasy lane, meaning there aren’t any elves or ogres or goblins, etc. The ash the constantly falls from the sky was a really nice touch, and the mist itself is an ever-present thing. I enjoyed how the mist felt like a character at some points. It’s these details that carry the setting and keep it interesting.

Writing Style

Brandon Sanderson’s writing is direct and clear at all times. He doesn’t really get bogged down with metaphors or imagery, opting instead to be clear and concise. Prose flow well without getting in the way. It works well when there’s so many intricacies to the plot that any confusion would hamper the story.

He smiled despite the grief he felt at the deaths of his men; he smiled because that was what he did. That was how he proved to the Lord Ruler-and to himself-that he wasn’t beaten.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Some writers like to get readers to think through their prose, but Brandon Sanderson likes to get writers to think through his characters and their relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is: the writing never stood out to me in a bad way, but never stood out in a great way either. It works well and delivers the ideas it needs to effortlessly.

Conclusion

Read this book! Other than the beginning, I don’t have any gripes. This was one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, up there with Name of the Wind (if you know me, you know how high praise that is). So give the man some money and have a great time reading.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

The Three Greatest Influences on Grim Curio

This week I reached a major writing milestone in Grim Curio. I wrote my 50,000th word. This is a big step in the process and to celebrate I’m going to share some of the works that have influenced me over the past few months.

What follows are GC’s three greatest influences, which is by no means a complete list. Each of these books feature specific elements in the area’s of tone, character arcs, and genre elements that I’ve taken, made my own, and tried to emulate. Let’s get started.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - Book CoverEvery Cormac McCarthy novel has blown me away. The guy is a master of prose, at genre subversion, and at non-conventional storytelling techniques. He has a voice all his own and manages to write genre fiction with deeply embedded literary flair.

Of his works, you might expect The Road to be the greatest source of inspiration. It shares the Post Apocalyptic genre with Grim Curio, and it’s probably his most well-known book at this point. And while The Road is certainly a book that makes me aspire to being a better writer, there are only really superficial similarities between that book and mine.

No, the McCarthy book that had the greatest impact on GC is easily No Country for Old Men. From the tightly paced narrative and the interesting moral dilemmas to absolutely stunning prose and fantastic character arcs, there’s so much to draw on.

Is No Country for Old Men an action novel? You could argue that it’s an action subversion, taking the guise of an action narrative while flipping all the tropes on their heads. Or perhaps it’d be better classified as post-action, especially in the way the book ends. Whatever it is, it’s a damn fine novel, and one that inspires me continually as I write.

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The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - Book Cover

Switching genres, the next major influence is the Mistborn trilogy which consists of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. These books feature an epic fantasy plot with a unique magic system and massive twists all along the way. But it’s not really these elements that inspire any element of Grim Curio.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every aspect above, but what really caught my eye was the near perfect character arcs. While reading I kept picking up on these often subtle character changes. Almost none of the major characters are static, they all end up as drastically different people than they started as, but the progression feels so subtle and natural.

Taken by the character progression, I ended up watching a series of novel-writing lectures from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube hoping that his secret would be revealed. Turns out it totally was, and it changed the way I write.

He has a unique approach to novel planning which I’ll dive deep into in a future post. It involves listing out all the major moments in a characters arc, then figuring out how that a character will earn that plot point. Each of these will turn into a scene. The end result, when done well, is subtle character growth leading to major changes over time.

While Grim Curio isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as Mistborn, I hope it still carries elements of this kind of character progression with all the major characters.

Mushishi

Long time followers may have guessed Mushishi would appear on this list. Mushishi is a quiet, contemplative and amazing piece of entertainment. Some may criticize it for being slow, but to them I say “no one asked you!”

Mushishi follows Ginko, a sort of traveling medicine man in feudal Japan. He wanders the rural villages to cure the ailments brought on by Mushi, creatures that exists in a different plane, yet affect our world in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways.

While this one isn’t at all an edge of the seat thriller, it does instill the viewer with a sense of awe rarely felt while watching TV or movies. While technically Grim Curio will likely be categorized as Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction, it’s really Fantasy masquerading as Sci-Fi. The fantasy elements are all written through a Sci-Fi lens, but really it’s closer to Mushishi than any sort of hard science fiction.

GC attempts to take these small moments of wonder, and then build and build upon them until the scale is massive and the stakes are higher than ever. But it also seeks to capture periodic quiet moments of contemplation.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Conclusion

There you have it, the three biggest influences on Grim Curio. If you’re interested in learning more about inspiration, be sure to check out this post where I explore how to live a lifestyle that encourages constant inspiration and idea generation. Or if you’d rather get more peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, check out Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio.

Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio

It’s been radio silence on my end for the past few weeks, which isn’t cool at all. So today I’m jumping back into the game, filling you in on what’s been going on in my world, and update you the production of Grim Curio.

Mo’ House, Mo’ Problems

Last month I bought my first house. Woohoo! It’s a bit of a fixer upper, and I’ve been doing a fair share of the work myself as well as juggling contractors, suppliers, and getting the whole furniture situation worked out.

This effectively destroyed all of my blogging and social media time which is why there’s been little coming from me lately. Worry not. My actual writing progress has been as good as ever despite the work. Setting aside two hours a day four or five days a week has become an ingrained habit. Social media and blogging, isn’t on that level yet. Maybe one day.

Grim Curio Progress

You may remember the major rewrite I undertook about two months ago. It was an attempt to better establish the setting, as well as shift from first to third person perspective and from past tense to present tense. That work has finally been 100% completed!

On top of that, there used to be quite a bit of stuff I’d written that I realized would never make it to the final version, but I held on to it for a long while. All the dead text has been stripped away. I ended up cutting around 15,000 words and adding around 20,000.

The result is a tighter, more immediate story that can effortlessly shift perspectives and weave an intricate plot. There multiple perspectives and several storylines that affect each other, subtly at first then more pronounced as the story progresses, and these changes made that structure much more natural feeling.

Plotting

When I first started writing Grim Curio I had beginning, middle, and ending scenes in mind, but nothing outlined. I simply started writing by aiming the plot in the direction of the middle scene, building future scenes in my mind as I went. Some writers call this method “pantsing it” or “discovery writing”, and it’s the way I wrote Discovering Aberration.

This worked fine for Grim Curio so far, in fact I think it’s the best thing I’ve written. But sometimes it’s nice to have a better idea of a slightly more granular view of where things are going.

Recently I read about one of Brandon Sanderson’s plotting techniques (then quickly began watching his writing course on YouTube). Basically he writes a list of his most important scenes, then adds bullet points as to how the characters will “earn” each of those scenes. The bullets points are then turned into their own scenes, and boom, he has a plot.

I’ve never been a fan of traditional storyboarding, but this method sounded great to me, so I gave it a shot. The result is the fully plotted story structure of Grim Curio. I have to say that I really like this method so far, we’ll see if that holds true as I continue to try it out.

Structure

Now that this plotting exercise is complete, I have somewhere between 40-50% of the story written. What’s done is the first act (which is generally the longest act in most stories). Act 1 is mostly a self contained story with a side plot which will build into the meat of act 2.

Act 2 introduces new characters (Tannea and Simon, two scientists experimenting with parallel universes) and a new conflict which will permeate the rest of the novel. James will be drawn into this conflict in a much different way than he was drawn into the conflict of act 1.

However, Nat (antagonist who’s had the second most screen time of all the minor characters) will be incorporated into this conflict as well, but her screen time will be shared by the newly introduced characters as well as the rest of the Sisterhood.

Act 3 will be a doozy. By act 3 I think we’ll have the final set of secondary characters established (namely the government officials who’s actions drive much of the conflict of the final act). The conflict will build on what came before in act 2, but the stakes will be much higher than at any other point in the story (as might be expected from the climax). I even have an idea of what the last few sentences of the novel might be.

Stay tuned for more.

Hopefully that gives you a peek into my progress without giving too much away. But there’s more I’ve been preparing aside from Grim Curio. Recently I’ve been thinking about my publishing career as a whole and what I can do to right the wrongs I’ve done in the past (ie. not finishing The Gin Thief). There’s a lot I have on my mind, and a lot of planning that needs to happen, all of which I’ll address in the near future. Till then, you all keep reading!