The Mistborn Trilogy — Brandon Sanderson

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.

Re: race.

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.

Re: gender.

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.


  1. says

    Thank you! My husband went gaga over this series and begged me to read it, I honestly didn’t make it far into the second book before giving up. The allomancy bit was intriguing, the first books plot had some nice turns, but Vin rubbed me wrong from the start and it never let up. The whole book just annoyed me and I could never really put my finger on a specific reason, it just DID.

    I’m half-heartedly looking forward to reading Sandersons ending to the wheel of time series, if only to have that cursed series behind me! (I started reading it when I was 10, I’m nearly 24 now!) But I don’t have high-hopes for him doing any better job than RJ did.

  2. SDM says

    Unrelated comment is unrelated, but every time I see your fine reviews and discussions I think, where is Lynn Flewelling? Are you going to feature her books sometime? Maybe you know them? If not you should really check them out, and now’s a good time since her latest is coming out on May 25th. I have a somewhat unreasonable love for her books, with their complicated characters, strong women, and what may be my favorite fictional love story (two men, and beautifully done).

    • Maria says

      I’m actually kinda fail — I have an interview with Flewelling I’ve been a flake about posting (I blame school and other stressors). 😛

      I really enjoy her stuff, like how accessible she is to fans, but just haven’t read anything by her in the last year or so.

  3. SDM says

    Oh, nice. I’ll look forward to seeing the interview! Maybe when the new book comes out would be a good time…

  4. says

    Yeah, the women in this series are so problematic. I did enjoy having my mind blown by a number of trilogy-spanning plot twists. I didn’t enjoy the weird inexplicable sexism, the “whoa my husband is suddenly even more powerful than me,” as well as the whole explanation of Terrisman.

    Great pacing though, I wish he’d sort out his weird isms.

    • Maria says

      Heh, if wishes were horses, we’d all be anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonialists rock stars. With glitter.

  5. Maria says

    I think his reflections on Dumbledore and conservativism are interesting, and reading about his ideas on religion re: Sazed does clarify that part of the characterization for me. Buuuuuuuuut I still think it’s “easy” or “lazy” writing to have a character’s spiritual trajectory so map out onto your own beliefs re: monotheism, which is unfortunate since it’d’ve been nice to NOT be ambivalent about a scholar saving the day.

    On Vin and gender:

  6. says

    I’ve greatly enjoyed all of Sanderson’s books I’ve read (which is every published one except the new WoT stuff and Elantris) and as much as it sucks to have the flaws in his work that I didn’t want to see before pointed out, it’s downright heartbreaking to read his blog post about Dumbledore and some of the things he says in it (as much as it’s not absolutely, completely terrible all the way through, and there are a few reasonable statements within).

    “…risk becoming the prejudiced bigots the other side already thinks that we are.”? Brandon, there’s nothing to become. You are precisely that, right now.

    • Maria says

      Yeah, what made that post weird for me was how early Card it sounded… you know, back when Card tried to NOT sound completely batshit? I think Sanderson’s got a lot of potential as a writer (some of what I’m pointing out is early writer shit, y’know?) but I’m thinking that if he’s convinced of the rightness of his views, he’s not going to challenge himself to actually get better at writing characters experiencing oppression, the impact of institutionalized oppression, or complicated gender roles.

      I mean, he’s suggesting that you might want to try the wacky idea of someone experiencing oppression because of a disability! Omg seriously?

  7. EMB says

    While I agree Sanderson seems to have some trouble writing female characters, many of the things you mention didn’t bother me too much (e.g. presumably the power of preservation was rather useful in the “creepy genetics” and I’m generally willing to give a pass on the whole patriarchal society thing unless there’s explicit mention of effective medicine and contraception (magical or otherwise) in the world).

    I also really didn’t get an “she intuits instead of thinking” vibe; yes, she has her special messiah powers and makes some silly mistakes, but there are also several huge plot points that involve her figuring something out.

    On the other hand, I was certainly somewhat pissed off by the reason given for a decision Vin makes at the very very end of the series…

  8. Maria says

    Re: the power of preservation: The thing is, the genetics he’s describing aren’t biologically sound. Race isn’t a biological reality — it’s a social/cultural/institutional one. On a base level, the genetic differences he describes shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

    Re: the effective medicine and contraception/patriarchy point: I don’t see how your point connects to mine about it not making sense that there aren’t more prominent women in positions of power? I’m talking about mentioning the kinds of stereotypes Vin would’ve grown up hearing about everyday. I don’t have a problem with there being a patriarchal soc., I have a problem with it being a “no duh, no details” framework.

    About the intuiting: What plot points are you referring to? The ones about metal not changing and particular areas being hidden from Ruin? I didn’t see that as being a huge accomplishment since AFAIR those were heavily, heavily broadcast and hinted at by the writer of the inscriptions, and because she spent so much of the novels just “getting” how to use her powers with minimal training, even to the point that she acknowledges herself that she doesn’t “think” about burning, she just does it. It honestly made me think about Elora Danaan’s character in the novels following Willow, where she saves the world and is supposed to be smart, but she really just does what “feels” right instead of logicking her way in or out of trouble. Plus, she’s the best at nearly everything she tries because she can “feel” how the whatever it is is supposed to be.

    Haha which decision? They ALL irritated me.

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