Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

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Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages

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Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

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Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Final Empire

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Sanderson puts an impressive new coat of paint on your typical tale about saving the world. Sometimes he even hints at subversion or deviation. Then again, I must be just a hopeful person dying for a good story. They’re not hard to find, and I constantly find seeds of them in bad or decent stories. At some point, though, I worry that I might be just digging to deep hoping to find dinosaur bones in shallow grounds.

The book isn’t bad, but it’s hard to reconcile the unique backdrop with its horribly ordinary structure. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you know how the story goes. A mentor meets a complete nobody. He helps that nobody discover their hidden powers and it turns out this nobody was actually way more powerful than the rest. A crew of good-natured rebels do some jobs all building up to the revolution that’s only missing some Rage Against the Machine

Mistborn is as cookie-cutter as you can get, yet it’s fun. It avoids nearly every bad trope of fantasy. While not injecting anything too subversive, Sanderson writes with enough energy. By trimming the fat, he managed to write a fun fantasy romp that despite stretching to 600 pages never actually loses steam.

Praising a book for what it doesn’t have feels weird. A good book should be defined by what it makes special. I can praise Sanderson for not writing in a bloated way, for not relying so much on worldbuilding but does that sound tempting? Great works don’t earn their position because they weren’t bad, but because they’re good in a unique way. Bad books fail in many departments. Good books are successful in a very specific thing.

Sanderson’s strength isn’t special, but it’s a rarity in modern fantasy. Despite being praised for worldbuilding and a ‘developed magic system’, the novel doesn’t actually rely on these. The magic system only adds some flash to the combat scenes and the worldbuilding is focused on concepts, not details.

His worldbuilding is strange. The commonly praised method of worldbuilding in fantasy is horrible. We’ve seen in that popular disaster by George R. R. Martin. Pile a lot of details, and all you do is bore the audience. Just because a detail exists doesn’t mean it’s important. Even non-fiction books which should be about facts choose which to present. What was Stalin’s preferred method of eating potatoes is most likely irrelevant in a general history of USSR.

So Sanderson avoids piling on these details. He mentions that a lot of great houses exist, but he never provides of a list of them. He drops some names only to show they exist, but the story is focused around one or two or three. This deliberate refusal keeps the reader’s mind on the story, rather than memorizing all the great houses. Imagine how more energetic Game of Thrones would’ve been if Martin trimmed his fat.

He uses this technique often. Names of cities and of people appear, but they always exist only to inform the reader that the world is big. Sanderson avoids writing an entire encyclopedia of his world in the novel. In the end, you will only know the basics about Luthendel, where the Terrisman live and that’s it. By teasing the reader about the parts that aren’t too relevant to the story, Sanderson makes his world feel actually big and makes you wonder what other stories can take place.

As for his magic system, it’s definitely meant for an RPG game rather than a novel. Sanderson is always on the brink of telling you how much mana points the magicians have left. His deviation don’t mean much, since they’re never explored conceptually. The magic is biological in nature, which makes for an inaccessible class of wizards. We see a little of how their culture exists, but not enough. Changing it from mana to consumed metal is a cool aesthetic and it does affect the world’s relationship with metal, but again we don’t see it enough. In a world where metal is both a source of strength and a weak point for a powerful class, how does it affect people’s view of metal and their relationship with it? Mistings aren’t obscure. Metals are integral to humanity, so integral we don’t question out relationship.

At least his system isn’t overly complex. As a way to dress up action scenes and make them more fun, it’s good. The brevity is integral to the action scenes. They consist of set-pieces that connect instead of a blow-by-blow account that’s hard to follow unless you’re a WWE fanatic. He mines the technique of pulling and pushing steel objects for some cool scenes, but they display the weakness of action scenes in novels. Action gains its strength from the visual. Seeing a person getting hit is more affecting than reading “A fist hit a person”. While there’s thrill to hear about a tornado of metal objects, it sounds more like the cure for Hollywood’s sorry state of action movies.

What Sanderson does get right – and what’s pretty confusing – is his characters. There are some archetypes, but they’re distinct. One of the most arresting scenes is between Elend and Vin-as-Valette, and that’s solely because each has subtle speech patterns. The dialogues are engrossing because they feel so real. Breeze and Ham and Kelsier may not be deep, but even the dialogue between Breeze and Kelsier is different. Both are arrogant, but Sanderson lets snobbishness into Breeze’s speech whereas Kelsier talks like he believes himself to be a rock star.

This is why the book works, despite not containing anything extraordinary. It avoids all the flaws of a typical Fantasy novel, but its live characters make its adventure fun. How similar the structure to Star Wars is irrelevant when the characters are completely different but the novel has that same focused narrative. Mistborn isn’t amazing, but it’s something we need – a Fantasy story about saving the world with entertaining characters that’s actually fun.

2.5 mistings out of 5