The Final Empire

by Brandon Sanderson

Rating: ★★★

My first attempt at reading Sanderson's work was a couple of years ago. I read some of the first chapter or so of Warbreaker, which he'd posted online. I bounced off it immediately -- I forget all of the red flags, but there was a girl who was complaining about being invisible despite being literally highlighted as special, and an old maid who was "As you know.." delivering all of the geopolitical exposition as if that's a thing maids do. The dialogue was bad. I couldn't figure out if this was unusually bad for Sanderson or if the people who recommend him just couldn't tell that there was something wrong with this. I dropped the book and moved on. I've heard a lot more people praising Sanderson since then, particularly his worldbuilding, and I do like good fantasy worlds, so I decided to give him another shot and read a whole book.

I was initially (and by 'initially' I mean for a good few hundred pages) pretty convinced that this was a mistake. There are elements of Sanderson's writing that are often just bad. Dialogue can be awkward and stilted, pivotal scenes can be bizarre and forced. To give an example, the conversation in which the thieves are recruited into the rebellion just made me wince -- it made no sense. The person soliciting the work didn't want it done, the ask was massive and vague and open-ended, and there was no obvious reason to come to these people for it. Worse, while Sanderson did eventually address parts of this, for hundreds of pages it only got less sensible. The group are described as thieves, but not only do we not see any of them act like thieves, but they have teams and systems that don't have any obvious application for the purpose of theft. Breeze is a master manipulator of crowds, with a complete signalling system for managing them -- very useful for recruiting people to a rebellion -- but how often could that possibly be of use to him in organised crime? I could certainly see a plot where these people are gradually brought in, for different reasons, from the underworld to a team centred around the rebellion, but that 'okay, so our heist is we're going to destroy the empire' meeting was not the way to do it.

So far as worldbuilding, Sanderson does well at certain elements of design, but leaves holes in others. His magic systems -- Allomancy and Feruchemy -- were pretty interesting systems that throw out some fun possibilities. I didn't really like the idea that an alloy was the inverse of the base metal, especially given that the alloys often include elements of the other Allomantic metals, but it's hardly a terrible issue for authorial fiat to solve. Feruchemy is a nice tradeoff for forward planning, and while some of the consequences of Allomancy are a little videogamey, it does lend itself to a variety of interesting tactical problems. More troubling for me were the holes in other parts of the world. Like the idea that the atium mine was considered so critical to the Lord Ruler, and yet he kept essentially no guard over it and it could be quickly destroyed by a single idealistic or desperate noble.

Forcing myself to read on was on balance beneficial for my impression of the book. The rather simplistic moral lines drawn at the start are given at least a little complication, the lore is filled out to entice, and the events get a little more entertaining. Characters and dialogue are not the author's strong suit, but there is at least plot. I kept waiting, though, for the "but actually": "But actually, the Empire, while unjust, was on net better than the raging interstate wars that had preceded or would follow it." or "But actually, Kelsier was a pawn for the secessionist rural aristocracy." or "But actually, the rebellion were the Lord Ruler's controlled opposition.". There were some climactic scenes a little like this, but they were slightly too heavily foreshadowed and not as much of a reframe of events.

Overall, an 'okay' rating is as high as I could go with this, and is possibly too generous. There are things I've seen here that put me off reading more of Sanderson's work, but I acknowledge it's possible that I'm just in the wrong mood to read this -- I've read not-very-deep light fantasy series before and enjoyed them because that's all I felt like at the time. I possibly came into the Mistborn series expecting too much.