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It’s All About the Followthrough: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

“Ash fell from the sky.”

This is the first line in the first book of Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which includes Mistborn: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. A writing teacher whose workshop I attended at Comic-Con last summer used that opening scene as an example of a good setup, and so I decided to pick up the book. And the scene’s worth looking at: rather than starting in a main character’s viewpoint, we’re standing at the side of the plot, with a couple of fairly minor characters, commenting on some of the Big Plot Events that don’t become relevant to us as readers until much later in the book. It lets us dip a toe into a very foreign world in a way that’s familiar: nobles against peasants. Okay. We’re with you so far. Now, what’s the deal with the constant rains of ash?

Of course, Sanderson doesn’t answer that question for quite a while. But the story that’s playing in the foreground in the meantime is quite good at keeping us entertained.

I haven’t read a whole lot of Sanderson’s stuff, but I’ve been told that this series has a few things in common with his other books. Thorough, detailed worldbuilding; characters that are a little flat; prose that’s likewise; and plot that keeps you turning pages even when you really ought to be doing something else (I can vouch for that last bit. I was reading the last book far, far too late at night earlier this week). He claims he wrote each book of this trilogy to explore a particular clichéd fantasy/SF theme and turn it on its head; I believe, in order, the themes are evil dictators, prophecy, and the role of the hero. Most of the reviews of the books talk about their originality, and I’d agree with that – there are character types, relationship developments and plot elements here that I hadn’t seen in anything else I’d read.

Really, though, what I liked about this series was the same thing I liked about Babylon 5, for all its faults (thanks, Matt), and the same thing that’s kept me following George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire despite the admitted bagginess of the middle books. Sanderson went into the series with a plan, and he pulled it off.

I won’t go into details here, because I really think a lot of the fun of this kind of series is watching puzzle pieces drop into place. But I think an overarching story arc is a really tough thing to do correctly; it’s something I’m struggling with in my own book right now, striking a balance between telling a coherent, engaging story in the here and now and letting the reader know that there’s bigger questions that won’t be answered until much, much later. It seems like the way to do this right is to lay your feeder elements in a way that they won’t be noticed. B5 has a great example of this; very early in the series, a character drops a seeming throwaway line that hints at massive revelations we learn about almost two seasons later. GRRM’s quite good at it, too, hiding bits and pieces of backstory that the reader has to remember and fit together later on. And I’d argue that – in this series at least – Sanderson does the same thing. In the early pages of the first book, he throws down some details that don’t fit together until much, much later on.

Another, related thing this series does well is to carry us through the characters’ missteps and misinterpretations of their situation. This is something else I’m still learning to do in my own writing – that when you’re crafting a story, in addition to working out “what’s really going on,” you also need to consider the characters’ misconceptions and blind alleys and prejudices. GRRM taps into this same phenomenon in a different way, by showing us several alternate versions of “truth” through his characters’ varied viewpoints. You the author need to know what’s “really” happening… but it seems to me like it makes for better verisimilitude, and a better story, if the characters don’t. Not right away, and never entirely.

The last thing I liked about the Mistborn books — kind of after-the-fact — was their use of epigraphs. Each chapter starts with a few lines from an in-world historical text, and when I first started reading, I admit, I skimmed these. I’m one of those naughty readers who jumps shamelessly over description and exposition to get to the plot. But somewhere around the middle of the second book, I realized — as I suspect Sanderson intends you to — that the epigraphs were more than just window-dressing. They’re part of the story, and a reader who takes time to look at them carefully will be rewarded.

I guess that’s the main reason for my overall thumbs-up: I like it when books reward a reader for paying attention. This series isn’t perfect, by any means; the combat scenes get repetitive, the characters are a little one-note, and Sanderson makes a few plot choices (including one big one) that made me roll my eyes and rant to my friends about “fan service” (though he claims, in his blog, that he’d intended to make the choice from early on in writing the series). But when I got to the end of the Mistborn trilogy, I felt rewarded. The ending is different from things I’ve seen before — and pretty ambitious — but I felt like Sanderson earned it, with 2000+ pages of careful setup.

So, in short: if you like twisty plots and the feeling of all the puzzle pieces snapping together, read these books. You won’t be disappointed.

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1 Comment

  1. Cool! It’s the next series on my to read list. Even more excited after reading this! 🙂

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