In Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, the most complicated thing is the innovative system of magic. This system is based around the ingestion of particular metals, the “burning” of which gives you particular powers. Being able to use this ability is genetic. This concern with genetics and survival is an underlying and creepy theme of this series. Anyways, to be an Allomancer, you have to Snap — experience a trauma so deep your body reflexively tries to save itself by doing whatever it can. Also, some people are like super-Allomancers — they can burn EVERY metal, not just one. These people are Mistborn.
Now, the plot. The Lord Ruler’s been the boss of everything for like ever, and the skaa are getting antsy. Who wouldn’t, after years of systemic rape and oppression? Each time they’ve rebelled, they’ve been soundly squashed by the Inquisitors (the Lord Ruler’s priestly caste, with a strange magic all their own) or the koloss (troll-like creatures infinitely stronger than a human). Also, they generally lack the proper training. Kelsier, however, has got a mission. He’s something unheard of: a skaa Mistborn. He and his crew, made of nobility, skaa, and half-skaas, are taking on the system.
Let me explain first what I liked about this book. It’s got a lot of action, some intriguing characters, and a fascinating system of magic. Each character is a charmer, and the dialogue is generally on point. I never laughed out loud, but I also couldn’t step away easily from its fast-paced action. Plus, it turns out that the Lord Ruler might’ve been secretly protecting the world. Turns out all that racism and oppression wasn’t just for shits and giggles — it was actually about averting the Apocalypse.
Truly, he was an unsung hero (of ages).
Now Vin’s got to figure out WTF he was doing, so that a NEW hero (of ages) can save everything. As the mists rise and the sky continues to blacken with volcanic ash, she’s got to figure out the Lord Ruler’s cryptic legacy, and discover a way to harness the powers of Ruin and Preservation in order to protect all she holds dear.
Now… let me say what I didn’t like. I am totally going to need a list for this part.
1. Sanderson cannot write a good female character. There. I said it. Vin (who MIGHT be the Hero of the Ages) has no female friends. None. Zilch. Nada. Zero. She’s the awesomest Mistborn EVER until her husband turns out to be even more awesome than her. She intuits instead of thinking. She’s a hero because of what she IS (a street urchin, intuitively powerful, etc) instead of what she DOES. I really wanted to love Vin, but it’s really hard to slough through an entire trilogy with the point that she’s not a thinker, she’s not an analyzer, etc., being rammed home. Tindwyl is a great leader and shaper of men, but all she can think to talk about with Vin is Vin’s relationship to her husband. Allriane is just dumb. However, it’s in reference to Allriane’s dislike of other women as competition that we finally realize why this book is so FAIL at handling its female characters — when they’re all on stage together, their relationship is coded as adversarial. I also think that there’s a kind of casual misogyny present as well — all the noblewomen are “puffs,” for example, catty ditzes unable to grasp the full extent of Vin’s awesomeness. None of Elend’s old friends or any male members of the nobility are described this derogatorily.
2. Sanderson didn’t seem to think through his society very well.
He mentions once or twice that there are stereotypes associated with the skaa, which is a raced and classed category of identity ruthlessly policed by the Lord Ruler. These stereotypes should be gendered, particularly because of the atrocities experienced by skaa women. Not only that, but these stereotypes should impact what’s seen as appropriate labor. So, when all the skaa are trying to rule themselves and manage their own farms? It shouldn’t just be a boys’ club of farmers and workers. Women should be a presence in the fields as well. In fact, women should be included in the skaa armies — not to quibble over pain or whatever, but if my daughter was killed over having been raped by a lord? I’d be hosting revolutionary tea parties on the balcony. Having only men be in the army — and treating violence as experienced by women as only motivating men — is incredibly, incredibly problematic. Shit, even Mare, Kelsier’s dead skaa wife who inspires him to revolt, fits into this category.
This actually builds on my point about race and my earlier point about Vin. We know that there are lady Allomancers. In fact, Shan, one of Vin’s competitors, and Allriane, who joins the crew in The Well of Ascension, have Allomantic powers. If this is the case, then where the heck are all the ladies? They’re not present as members of the crew (besides Vin the exceptional female) and they’re not present in the army, as political influences, etc. They’re just not there. More importantly, they’re not there and what few are around are not talking to each other. Vin, Allriane, and Tindwyl never talk to each other about anything other than the men in their life… or clothes. Even after Allriane semi-joins the crew, she does primarily as one of the characters’ girlfriends, and another character’s daughter, and does not herself offer input on plans or even the whole OMG END OF THE WORLD thing in general. Right. If Allomancy’s not a gendered gift, and skaa women are little more than animals, and there’s no particular legislation keeping women out of power, chicks should be every damn where. They should be working in the fields, active in politcs, blasting shit in combat, manipulating your feelings in negotiations, training with the skaa army, and all around rocking the casbah. If they’re NOT, then as an author you need to reference why, even if it’s just to be all GEEZ EVERYONE KNOWS WOMEN ALLOMANCERS NEED ALL THEIR IRON FOR THEIR OVARIES or some ish. Otherwise it starts to feel like you as the author consider Westernized notions of gender difference a natural law, like gravity, which is so WTF I think my nose is bleeding. Just sayin’.
Re: regional accents.
One of the major characters in the third book grew up speaking a specific street slang. He’s the only character to speak it EVER and no one can understand him when he uses it. That’s… not how regional dialects work. Like… seriously? As the other characters span the country, no one else speaks the same way Spook does? Or, shit, a way different from Vin or Elend? :head desk: I mean, I understand that Cockney has its own grammar and that a lot of it’s about worldplay, but even then… OTHER PEOPLE SPEAK COCKNEY. You can’t have a dialect of just one!
3. WTF is the creepy shit about genetics doing all over the damn place? The skaa (short, dark-haired, overly fertile) and the nobility (tall, finer-featured, less fertile, but more intelligent) were each originally separate species, but they’ve interbred to the point that they’re now pretty much the same. Now, I couldn’t tell whether this meant that Sanderson’s people are all mixed? Except that everyone’s described as pale, except for one woman who’s tan? And she’s a MEAN GIRL? And don’t get me started on the breeding program for the Terrismen, who are breed to be the perfect servant, and whose men are made into eunuchs. Guess what? You can breed personality traits into or out of race. You learn something new everyday.
I want to like Sanderson. I really, really do. But between this and Warbreaker I’m starting to suspect he’s got some weird gender issues going on. Unfortunately, this might make him the perfect heir for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, since everywhere I look Robert Jordan’s got some weird gender shit going on. Abby Goldsmith’s edited article here includes more examples of this, as does the section on email rebuttals.