Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book Review: The Final Empire - Brandon Sanderson

The Good: new play on old favourites, inventive magic system, stand-out female protagonist.

The Bad: A lull in pace toward between the beginning & middle, and there’s only so many times you can read ‘Vin pushed/pulled on her metals’...

The Ugly Truth: An impressive tome of high fantasy with all the usual tropes and suspects turned on their heads to make for a truly original and enjoyable (if at times effort-centric) read.

For Those That Like: Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ novels (and not just because Sanderson finished the series), Tolkien-esque universes, good vs evil, novels with a young adult feel to them, stories about the ‘coming of age’, anime/manga fight scenes, and ‘a greater purpose’.

Ash blackens the sky.

Blood stains the land.

Evil rules the age.

For a thousand years a dark lord has ruled the Final Empire with an iron fist. The common people are forced into slavery, toiling to clear the ash fields as volcanoes choke the sky. The aristocracy live to their whims, throwing glamorous balls amidst games of power play, safe in the knowledge that the Inquisitors and metal-magic Allomancers crush any threat to the status quo.

 The Allomancers are key to the Lord Ruler’s reign, and by way of approved marriages, the powers of allomancy are contained within the aristocracy.

Yet rumour surfaces of a man who survived the Lord Ruler’s judgement. Together with an underground faction of criminals he plans to pull off the greatest heist the world has ever known.

But to do it, the crew are going to need insiders, willing-to-die recruits, a fortune’s worth of luck… and the power of allomancy.

Brandon Sanderson is a household name in the fantasy genre. Rising to the challenge of finishing Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series, he further launched himself into the fray with his acclaimed ‘Elantris’ follows by the renowned ‘Mistborn’ series. ‘The Final Empire’ is the first novel in this series and with a title that promises epic-ness from the get-go its certain to catch your eye on the book shelf.

‘The Final Empire’ boasts a return to the usual fantasy tropes with a difference – the forces of good lost the war and evil rules unchained. Sanderson carries this trend throughout, subverting stereotypes wherever possible, making for some pretty big plot twists. There’s a sense of ‘something greater at play’ running throughout, meaning that every time our heroes scale the mountain that is their mission, they soon find themselves at the edge of a precipice.

The story in concept sounds like something we’ve all read before. Dark lord vs band of underdogs. Looking at the bare bones of ‘The Final Empire’ this is true, but it’s the subtle differences that count here. Evil here has its purpose and motive, a refreshing change from the usual ‘wants to see the world burn / fancies a legion of minions / you stole my lunch from the office fridge and now you shall feel my wrath’.

The cast of underdogs include our leading lady Vin – a Skaa thief with untold powers, the save-the-day mastermind hero Kelsier, his downtrodden brother Marsh, the aptly named soldier Ham, Breeze the master of social manipulations, and Elena the noble romanticist long overdue a rude awakening to reality. Each character goes through their personal journey and development arc. Vin does a standout job of being a remarkable female protagonist, showing true character growth whilst sticking true to her roots. Is she a Mary Sue? I haven’t decided yet, but it’s a nice change to have a female wear the trousers in the story, kicking ass and taking names.

Sanderson is known for his unique magic systems, and whilst I won’t discuss this in too much detail as other reviews have already done so, let me just say a few things. 1. Allomancy is a nice change from the usual spellbook of fireballs and demonic conjurings, but there’s only so many times I could read the words ‘Vin pushed/pulled on her metals’ before I skipped sentences. 2. Each reader to their own, whilst I don’t mind magic systems being explained to me, this did detract from the pace of the story at times. 3. If you’re a fan of anime/manga style fight sequences this book is for you, and it would also make for a fantastic video game.

Normally I stay well clear of books surrounded by hype and I’m glad that I did with this. By waiting for the series to be released as a whole I was able to storm through the books in record time, so stay tuned for a further two reviews.

My take on ‘The Final Empire’? Whilst a lot of popularity surrounds the series and Sanderson himself, the story holds its own and lives up to its reputation. From the pitch I was expecting something darker, but this YA/coming-of-age tale is charmingly inventive and strives to do everything a little bit differently. It might not be the genre-changing titan that you’d expect but it’s a page-turner well deserving of its shelf-space.

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