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.

Grim Curio Writing Goals – A Deep Dive into the Ideas Behind The Process

When writing any work, it’s a good idea to establish goals. Some authors may focus their efforts on exploring the entire life of a character in a compelling way (Patrick Rothfuss and Name of the Wind). Another may focus on terse, expressive sentences and a relationship between father and son (Cormac McCarthy and The Road). Another may focus on exploring an interesting city and all the varied inhabitants therein (John Berendt and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Of course I can only guess if those goals were established by their authors. I haven’t talked to them about this or anything, but Pat, if you want some free coffee or beer, hit me up and I will gladly buy 😉. Either way, it’s a safe bet that these authors followed guidelines set up by themselves at some point during the creative process.

3 Novels Inspiring Grim Curio by S.C. Barrus

What are my goals while writing Grim Curio?

I’ve been considering my goals for Grim Curio for quite some time, and I have a pretty solid idea of what I want out of the book, at least in this stage of the process. Things may change, and that’s ok, but for now these are the driving So let’s dive in.

Minimalist style

A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match.

Discovering Aberration by S.C. BarrusMy writing style morphs a bit from work to work. While writing Discovering Aberration my goal was to write as though I were a steampunk Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson love-child. I wonder what those two would think of that sentence. I believe form should match content. A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match. This doesn’t mean writing as many three word sentences as possible, but I do like the occasional one or two word fragments for emphasis. The trick is not overdoing it.

The final thing I enjoy about minimalism is the rhythm. By the time I get to a third or forth rewrite, the rhythm and flow gets really established. It’s fun to establish a series of short and medium length sentences, then subvert that with a long, flowing thing that builds the scenes and expands the action. Then short again.

Relatable Antagonists

Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things.

One thing I loved about the novel The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson was the eventual relatability of the villain. There’s something special about a story where even the bad dudes give you the feels. I want that in Grim Curio, but in my own way. There are a few antagonists in Grim Curio, but one of the major ones, who is introduced in the second chapter, is Nat. She is a sixteen year old girl who’s still figuring out the world she lives in. Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things. It starts small, smashing windows, but what happens when she’s adopted by an extremist group?

If I do my job right, you’ll love her and hate her. You’ll want to give her a hug, or wish someone would shoot her. The same goes for my other, secondary antagonists, but in different ways. Each should be understandable, relatable, even when they’re doing something terrible.

Perdido Street Station by China MievilleStrange but familiar

All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science.

I’m a huge fan of weird fiction, like Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I love the effect of making the strange feel familiar. Now I’m not attempting to dive as deep into the strange rabbit hole as Mieville. Rather I’m drawing heavy inspiration from how fantasy is portrayed in the anime (and manga I suppose, though I’ve not read it) MushiShi.

So how is fantasy incorporated into MushiShi? Very naturally. All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science. The Mushi themselves feel like an extension of our own reality, like slightly more fantastic bacteria, strange sentient swamps, or parasites that grant supernatural hearing that drives people to madness.

If you’ve read any of my snippets, you’ve probably seen similar things. Namely the disease in Clayton that afflicts children, causing them to scream in the sunlight, slowly eating away at their consciousness. I want these fantasy elements to feel like an extension of reality, strange but familiar.

Great things from small beginnings

James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?

There is a type of story where the protagonist begins with a relatively small task, and from that is sucked into an epic adventure. One example of this is the movie China Town (and many other film noir or hardboiled novels). In China Town the detective begins with a relatively small case that expands as he uncovers… why don’t you just watch the film, it gets intense.

In these stories, an often reluctant hero must escape his/her comfort zone and rise up to the challenge, otherwise the results could be disastrous. Grim Curio will take on a version of this. What begins for our protagonist, James, as a small case in an inconsequential village will escalate into a story of survival for the last city on earth and the entire human race. James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?

Conclusion

So those are my goals for Grim Curio as I see them now. They may expand or morph over time. Writing is an iterative process, and what seems to work in concept doesn’t always pan out in execution. So I suppose a last goal is more of a process one: to have the ability to roll with the creative punches, to abandon any goal that isn’t working for the story’s benefit.

That’s it for now. What do you think of these goals? Let me know in the comments, and we can continue the discussion there.