The Hero of Ages brings Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy to a tidy, sterile conclusion

I've finished reading my first Brandon Sanderson trilogy, and I have thoughts. Where does Mistborn succeed? Where does it fail? And who does Sanderson have to steelpush to get a movie made?
The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson. Image courtesy of Tor Books.
The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson. Image courtesy of Tor Books. /

Brandon Sanderson is a towering name in fantasy literature. He's set records for crowd-funding books on Kickstarter, quickly sells out convention halls, and writes at a furious pace, putting out dozens of novels and pieces of short fiction. When author Robert Jordan passed away before he could finish The Wheel of Time books, Sanderson was asked to complete the series, and did. It may only be a matter of time before we see Sanderson's books adapted for the screen, at which point he could go from being a hugely successful author to a household name.

I'd never read Brandon Sanderson before, so I decided to start with his celebrated Misborn trilogy, which came out between 2006 and 2008. It kicks off with The Final Empire, continues with The Well of Ascension and ends with The Hero of Ages. And after finishing the trilogy, I finally understand a bit of what the fuss is all about.

Mistborn review: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

I'll say what I liked about the book first. Based on this trilogy, I think Sanderson's biggest gift as a storyteller is plotting. Every element of this story — every character, fantasy race, and bit of lore — has a role in its resolution. The plot unwinds and coils back on itself with clockwork precision. Clearly, a lot of planning went into this.

This story take place in a world on the edge of death. In the first book, our hero Vin killed the Lord Ruler, a tyrant who had achieved godlike status by the end of his thousand-year reign. Although he oppressed his people, we learn in The Hero of Ages that the Lord Ruler was doing a lot of good for mankind behind the scenes, working tirelessly to keep at bay an inhuman force called Ruin. Ruin wants to destroy the planet and very nearly does; for the whole of this final book, our characters are smothered with ash falling from the sky while mysterious mists choke the life out of the population. It feels very much like the end times are here.

It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that humanity pulls through, though not without cost. Sanderson accounts for everything in the final run. We learn the source of the ashfalls and why the mists kill some people and spare others. The various magic systems that Sanderson has come up with for this series — Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy — all factor into the big picture. No element of the mythology is wasted. It's very neat work.

I just wish I cared more.

Story as math

Sanderson is very talented at crafting plots that hold up to scrutiny. The worldbuilding and mythology in Mistborn are pristine. What I'm missing as a reader is passion. I'm missing characters with hidden depths. I'm missing mystery, wonder, and meaning. The Mistborn books are meticulously constructed, but emotionally they left me pretty cold, especially this last one.

I think the problem is that Sanderson seems to treat his characters like threads of the plot to be tied up, rather than as people with their own impulses. There's no room for them to surprise us (or him) because they're busy following the predetermined paths Sanderson has laid out for them. When they experience a moment of personal growth, it feels like Sanderson checking off a box, not a character tumbling over the threshold of revelation.

I'll give you an example. For three books now, Vin has been having an identity crisis. She was raised a street urchin, traveling from town to town barely ekeing out an existence from thievery. In the first book, her abilities as a Mistborn — someone able to access the full range of magical abilities offered by Allomancy — win her a spot in the crew working to take down the Lord Ruler. Part of her duties involve impersonating an aristocrat and attending lavish balls where she can spy on the ruling class. That's how she meets Elend, her future husband and the future king of what remains of the Lord Ruler's Final Empire.

Vin likes wearing gowns and dancing at balls, but has trouble reconciling that with her past as a street rat and her vital role as a Mistborn warrior. She's not supposed to enjoy such frivolous things. In The Hero of Ages, she has an epiphany about herself in the middle of yet another ball, and tells her husband the good news. "Elend, I had to realize that I could be both people — the Mistborn of the streets and the woman of the court. I had to acknowledge that the new person I'm becoming is a valid extension of who I am."

This reads like Vin giving a book report on her own personality, delivered in therapy-speak. It rings false to me, because in real life personal growth is messy and incomplete. Too often, Vin and the other characters feel like values plugged into an equation: identity crisis + eureka moment + empowering speech = character growth. It works on paper, but it's not inspiring or exciting, which limits how invested I can become.

Points of view

I think the way I absorb stories is at odds with the way Sanderson likes to tell them. I tend to enjoy stories that leave room for mystery, whether in the plot or in the hearts of the characters. But Sanderson seems to want answers for everything, which I find emotionally unsatisfying.

We can see this literalism at play in the character of Sazed, a member of the beleaguered Terris people who suffered mightily under the Lord Ruler. Sazed is a scholar of religion, but he's been having a crisis of faith ever since his love interest, Tindwyl, died in the second book. In The Hero of Ages, he's determined to cycle through every religion he's ever studied to find out which, if any, hold the "truth" about the universe, dismissing them by the dozens as he finds contradictions in their mythologies.

Late in the book, various characters explain what seemed tediously obvious to me from the beginning: that religions aren't about facts, they're about faith. None of them are going to offer absolute truth, and I was frustrated waiting for Sazed to arrive at a conclusion you'd think that he, as someone who studies this stuff, would have already known for years.

And yet, in the end, Sazed does find the truth. The prophecies that always pop up in these epic fantasy sagas are fulfilled and he becomes the religion he's looking for. I see reflections of Sanderson in Sazed, who only wants to be part of the world if everything in it makes perfect sense. Sanderson has created a world where it does.

This all adds up to a trilogy that's complete, organized, and even entertaining, but which lacks warmth and inspiration. I admire the books their craftsmanship and I liked reading them. But I can't love anything this cold.

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson Mistborn
The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson. Image courtesy of Tor Books. /

Word by word

That said, I'd also like to complain about the craftsmanship for a minute. Like the last two books, the best part of The Hero of Ages is the final stretch, when all of the dominoes Sanderson has carefully set up come tumbling down. Things get especially apocalyptic and abstract this time, which is fun.

But also like the first two books, getting to that final stretch can be an uphill climb. I found the ascent particularly steep here because while I was confident that Sanderson was going to end the story in a way that made sense, I'd basically given up hope that he was going to surprise or delight me. The sections that drag the most take place in the city of Urteau, which secondary characters Marsh and Spook are trying to conquer on behalf of their friend King Elend. Spook goes through a personal transformation, but his story never quite takes off, mainly because he isn't a deep enough character to be worth the ink. Whenever the books pivot away from Vin, my interest flagged a bit.

Unless we're spending time with Oreseur the kandra revolutionary, who was a highlight. I did really like some of the fantasy races Sanderson came up with, including the shape-shifting kandra and the troll-like koloss. Sanderson is great at worldbuilding and I enjoyed learning more about how these creatures live. See, I can be nice.

I also want to say a few words about Sanderson's prose. Overall, it's solid. It gets the job done but generally doesn't aspire to any great poetic heights. And Sanderson has a few stock techniques he returns to a bit too often. For instance, he often uses ellipses to signal reflection. "She knew him so well, however, that she felt a...connection," Vin thinks of Elend at one point. And then there's the way Sanderson likes to stack descriptors. "Finally Vin pulled away, lacerated, rebuffed," he writes in one chapter. And in another chapter told from Elend's perspective: "In this one area, Elend continually felt impotent. Useless."

None of these habits are heinous, but they recur over and over and start to wear after awhile, especially since they crop up no matter who's head we're in at that moment. They can't be written off as an example of the way one particular character speaks or thinks. They're everywhere.

And sometimes I just want to reach out and tweak a sentence, like this one: "The guards spoke of the spring chill, commenting that it seemed colder this year than it had in previous ones." Why does this sentence continue after "colder this year"? Obviously the spring chill is colder this year than "in previous ones." What else could it possibly be colder than? I'm also not a fan of modern quip-speak in a story that supposed to be set in a medieval milieu. "Elend! I'm trying to have a special moment here!" Vin shouts at her husband during a ball. Takes me right out of the mood.

I'm nitpicking pretty hard at this point. I'll end this section by bringing up a complaint people have made before: other than Vin, the Mistborn books have nearly nothing in the way of female characters. Allrianne, Tindwyl and Beldre are introduced in books 2 and 3, and all three are paper-thin characters designed as love interests for the men. The May-December relationship between Allrianne and Breeze relationship is especially odd, trotted out mostly for laughs in the second book and barely there in the third, just hanging out being weird.

Sanderson himself has acknowledged that he fell short in this department, which has me wondering how many of these complaints he addressed in future books. The Mistborn series came out in the mid-2000s, when Sanderson was in his early 30s. They're among the first novels he put out and they feel like it. They're overly concerned with structure to the point of being constricting. They're timid about sex and relationships and the characters are on the shallow side. But all of these problems can be addressed with time and experience, and I wonder how much progress he's made since. Because what's good in Mistborn — the worldbuilding, the imagination, the precision — is worth building upon.

Brandon Sanderson_Photo by Nazrilof (high res)
Brandon Sanderson. Photo by Nazrilof. Image courtesy of Tor Books. /

Why is there no Mistborn movie?

Lastly, I want to talk about Brandon Sanderson's footprint in the wider culture. It feels like it should be bigger than it is. Sanderson has sold millions of books and has a core following of diehard fans. Why hasn't Hollywood come knocking?

Well, there actually is a Mistborn movie in development, but last we heard it was stalled, possibly on account of the Hollywood actors and writers strikes in 2023. Even without the strikes, movies and TV ideas die on the vine all the time. We may eventually see a Brandon Sanderson story adapted for the screen, but it's not a guarantee.

Part of me wonders if Hollywood is holding back because it doesn't know what to do with Sanderson as a commodity. In March of 2023, Wired published a mean-spirited, condescending profile of the author I still can't believe made it past an editor. I guess they felt they could get away with it because they didn't think anyone would bother to defend Sanderson. They were wrong, since it was all the book-loving portions of the internet could talk about for a week.

Might that be how Hollywood power players see Sanderson? As a weird little curiosity they can safely ignore? Does Hollywood not want to adapt Sanderson's stories because it can't figure a way to make his simple characters and Fantasy-with-a-capitol-F worlds appealing to a mainstream audience?

I doubt it, because Brandon Sanderson's books make money and that's ultimately all anyone in Hollywood cares about. I think we will get a Mistborn movie or show eventually, and I'll look forward to it, especially if Sanderson applies some of the lessons I assume he's picked up in the years since writing the trilogy to the screenplays. As much as I groused about the books in this article, they're easy to read and understand, and in their best stretches the pages fly by quickly. That's worth celebrating, even if I have some philosophical misgivings about Sanderson's style. I think I'm dong reading Brandon Sanderson for a while after this, but not done for good.

Next. A first-time Brandon Sanderson reader reviews Mistborn: The Final Empire. A first-time Brandon Sanderson reader reviews Mistborn: The Final Empire. dark

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