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.

All The Threads Are Coming Together

Stats

  • Words added last month – 14,295
  • Total word written – 42,812
  • Named Characters – 24 (give or take a couple)
  • Drafted Chapters – 11
  • Drafted Scenes – 58
  • Paperback pages – 215

Excerpt

“It sucks feeling small, doesn’t it?”

Nat nods.

“And doing what we do, it makes us big. Just like you said, alone you can’t do anything. Nobody listens, nobody cares, everyone is dying and everyone knows it. I’ve seen people dying everywhere in slow and ugly ways. Nothing I can do about it. What I do now makes a difference. Makes a big difference. People all over are scared of me. They don’t know it’s me they’re scared of, but they’re all frightened of my shadow, of my influence, of the threat that my existence brings. Not just the surface dwellers, not just the undercity, all of ‘em. You, the girls, everyone. And if you don’t think so, it’s because I haven’t had a reason to show you yet.”

Above is a snippet from a recent scene written in Grim Curio. It’s been a while since I shared a proper update, so let’s dive in.

Threads are Coming Together

Grim Curio has a decently complex narrative. There are three separate threads that affect each other both directly and indirectly as the story progresses, eventually all merging into a single thread. At times it gets difficult to write in a way that everything makes logical sense and is fun to read, so the further I get, the slower progress is coming. Right not I’m in the thick of it as all three narratives are coming together, but once that’s complete I expect my progress to pick up again.

Feedback

I’ve also shared the first four chapters on /r/DestructiveReaders, a subreddit I frequent in order to improve my writing and get feedback from readers while the book is still in progress. Feedback has been great!

Three or four months ago I shared these same chapters in an earlier form, and the critiques prompted me to overhaul the style (you can read about the decision to rewrite everything I’d written here). I’m glad I did because readers are responding much more favorably to GC now, with feedback focusing on specific elements rather than the broad strokes.

By the way, I wrote a blog post on how to use critiques like these to improve your writing. If you’re interested in improving your prose, read my critique feedback loop strategy here.

Become Part of the Process

Some readers have approached me with a desire to become part of my writing process. There are actually lots of ways to do this, so I thought I’d share them with you.

Become an alpha reader

You may have heard of beta readers, but with my GC I’ve been taking it one step further with alpha readers. While beta reading is a structured process with a predefined set of readers giving regular feedback, alpha reading more free form. You can learn the differences here.

I share chapters on /r/DestructiveReaders, and you read and either leave comments in the Google Doc, and/or write a short summary of your thoughts. If you want to be notified whenever a new chapter is released, go to the contact page and send me a message. I’ll email you whenever a I share a new chapter.

Conclusion

That’s what’s been going on with me and my book lately. We’re chugging along. If all goes according to plan, I expect to finish the novel by the end of the year. Want to be notified when Grim Curio is released? Sign up for my mailing list so you don’t miss out!

Aaron Burden

From Mind to Paper: Creating a Character

Above: Ginko from Mushi Shi.

Writing is a process. Prose don’t appear on paper perfectly executed. First drafts are a spew of consciousness, a firehose of concepts splattered haphazardly with the wrong words in the wrong order, the wrong setting with the wrong details, the wrong character featuring the wrong motivation. But you have to start somewhere.

First I mash my mind onto the keyboard, sleep it off, then begin the process of refining everything. Rearrange sentences. Alert the senses. Mold your characters into believable people. But for now, let’s focus on that last point – characters.

Clive and Nemesis

These are two very different characters featured in Grim Curio. You can read a scene featuring both of them now in The Working Copy. Among their differences, Clive is a bit character, created out of necessity to carry a few scenes forward, Nemesis is a major character, antagonist, created to foil some of the plans of James and co. Beyond this, their very conception is different, Nemesis being a premeditated character and Clive being a necessitated one. So let’s look at the differences.

Conception of a Character

Above: Harry Lockhart from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

When bringing a character to life, I’ve found I tend to follow one of two paths into inception. There’s the Premeditated Character and the Necessitated character. Premeditated refers to the days I’ve spent constructing a character and theorizing her place in the story. Necessitated refers to the moment I reach a point where I realize I need someone new to carry the current scene(s) forward.

Premeditated Thought Process

I need an antagonist and I want it to be a person that’s unlikable yet somehow relatable. How do I do that? Make her a girl. Make her young, like sixteen or something. Thrust her in an scenario where the only way out is by ‘going to the dark side’. Have her emerge confused, conflicted, wracked with insecurities but steadfast in her convictions. Etc. This could lead to an interesting villain.

Premeditated is the most obvious method, I stroll through the day, mull on a character and think how this person exists in the world I’m creating. Like Whinnie the Pooh, I think think think think think. I sit to write, fingers frozen over the keyboard while I consider from which angle to attack this person first.

Necessitated Thought Process

James needs to go to Clayton, how does he get there? Does he walk? No, too dangerous. What then? He hires somebody to drive him to Clayton in an ATV. Ok, so what is a person who does this like? For that matter, how many people like him exist in this universe? Not many, maybe 5, they’ll be called runners, and this guy, let’s call him Clive, is the only one James trusts. But why does he trust him? Because of his reputation as the only runner you can really trust. This guy must be expensive, how does James hire him? On and on, deeper and deeper, etc.

You can see how answering question after question a character might emerge, pieced together until he’s fully formed. These tend to be bit characters, but they often morph into major ones without me premeditating it.

The Execution

Above: Alfred Borden from The Prestige.

Writing Premeditated

Premeditated characters are a pain to get started. They feel fully realized in your head, but they’re not. They’re an amalgamation. Inspiration comes from my influences, my experiences, bits from people I know, bits from things I’ve seen people do, and most of all just my own sick mind. That’s not a person, that’s a blob and a blob must be sculpted.

You take this mass and begin to massage it as you write the first scene where they appear. For me, this scene is almost always emotional, tense, proving who the character is in a dire circumstance. That’s just me though, the action nerd wanting to see what my puppets will do when facing the gun.

As it turns out, these scenes are rarely the right way to introduce a character to a reader. They are good for me because now I get to learn more about who this person is. But for a reader coming across this sort of scene as way of introduction, everything feels disjointed and unearned.

Writing Necessitated

Necessitated characters come about in a much less deliberate way. Often they are a means to an end. James needs to do something and needs someone to interact with to get the job done. Enter minor character.

But each character needs to feel fully formed, no matter how or why they’re conceived. In action, I tend to set the scene, flesh it out, write the major points I want to hit, then go back and add. It’s exactly the opposite of the premeditated character. Instead of a blob that I need to refine and temper, it’s a brick I need to add to and build up until a fully formed house emerges, or at least one that looks fully formed.

Closing Thoughts

I have more to say on this topic, but I think this will do it for now. Come back soon when I follow up with some critiques I received for the writing of Nemesis and the changes that led me to make. I hope you find it informative and interesting. Until then, have a great weekend.