Reading Mistborn felt strangely similar to watching a big-budget Hollywood action movie. Don’t get me wrong; I probably watch more action movies than any other kind. It is just that I associate them with generally iconic characterization, streamlined storytelling and a certain lack of emotional complexity. Although that may sound negative, it doesn’t have to be. Action movies are ideal for mindless fun and escapism. Personally, I also find them well-suited to exercising on the elliptical, their plot tension and violence adding inspiration for my own exertion. Besides, it’s hard to hear dialogue over the fan.
The aspect of action movies that tends to annoy (sometimes even when done well) is the emotional manipulation of the viewer, who is usually given only one interpretation about the plot or characters. Good comes with a capital ‘G’ and the Bad Guys are usually sneering. When I finished Mistborn, my reaction was strangely similar to watching an action flick: satisfaction with resolution of a fast-paced ending and a quickly fading impression of a genre book.
This was my gut feeling, but having no clear detail I could point to, I went looking across the internet for insight into Sanderson’s writing. What I discovered is that he writes a great deal about writing, even to the extent of creating ‘laws’ about how to write well (he explains these as guidelines for self, not necessarily for others). To wit:
Sanderson’s First Law is that “An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” (Post, “Sanderson’s First Law“.
Sanderson’s Second Law is “Limitations > Powers“and the Third Law is that a writer should “Expand what you already have before you add something new.”
Suddenly, my reading experience made sense. I wasn’t particularly engaged in the emotion of the books, but rather the resolution of plotting in a well-realized world. Would Vin join the resistance or wouldn’t she? But because Sanderson operates so consistently along archetypical lines, the conclusion was forgone; what remained was discovering the details getting there. Like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, evil is Destined to Fail, along with Selfishness for Personal Glory. But don’t worry–Selflessness will be Rewarded.
The responses of other enthusiastic readers also made sense in context of story type. Sanderson’s insistence on a well-structured magical system and his process of building it into the story is key for many of his readers. If you note anything in common in Sanderson reviews, it is that readers almost uniformly praise the thoughtful completeness of the magical system. Furthermore, I suspect that is the detail of his world-building also makes his fantasy accessible for a wide variety of readers.
So, specifics. Characters remain iconic. The removed mentor who guides a group. His estranged brother. The orphan with suspiciously strong powers. A book-reading noble who realizes the system is unfair but is unable to act. That said, the detail surrounding each was done well enough that they didn’t feel overly simplified. Vin, the heroine, was by far my favorite character and the most thoroughly fleshed out, but she tested my patience (or more specifically, Sanderson did) with reinforcing her wariness with every action for the first third of the book, and then her evolution from ugly duckling to society swan in the second third.
Plotting was acceptable. A slow start to guarantee through world-building, it started to take better shape when Vin and Kelsier meet. While the plot largely revolves around Vin’s growth, it is also a little bit of a heist-type alliance, which does strange things to the pacing. The heist, for instance, takes months to build as they ‘get people into place,’ which includes inserting Vin into high society. Given the length of time it takes, it is surprising there aren’t more contingency plans for when things start to go wrong (as they do, in almost every instance).
I find myself contemplating my own laws of reading (subject to be broken at any time): #1: Interesting language will keep your reader returning.
#2: Well-developed characters will keep your readers interested even when plotting doesn’t.
There wasn’t a lot of emotional complexity for me in the characterization or the plotting. Language was middle of the road, occasionally soaring, and occasionally bordering on repetitive. Personally, I’ve been reading fantasy long enough that I look for language, characterization and ideas as much as plotting when I’m evaluating books. Honestly, it feels a little mechanical and a little too deliberate–like Sanderson took his magical idea, coupled it with a couple of archetypical myths, padded it with standard genre expectations, and expected accolades. While it may make a blockbuster, it doesn’t quite work–more elliptical-worthy than personal library-worthy.