Spoileres Below. As the saying goes, ‘unasked for critique smells like three-day-old-fish.’ It’s easy for a reviewer to point out mistakes, but it’s HARD for an author to avoid those mistakes. I’m writing this review in good faith, as one author reviewing another’s book, trying to balance positives with negatives.
I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. Mistborn Era 2 is my favorite of Sanderson’s works. This review will be for this novel as well as this sub-series in general.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Sanderson’s Mega Fans. Like, seriously. This is a super-Cosmere book, and you need to read Mistborn Era 1, Mistborn Era 2, The Emperor’s Soul, White Sand (I think), Stormlight + the novellas. There might be more, but I’m missing them. (I haven’t read Warbreaker.)
- Fantasy Western
- Doomsday Thriller
IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
This book, and series, was fun. It had a strong western pulp vibe, where a cowboy hero must save the day in a lawless desolate land. I loved the characters, and side characters. I liked that it extrapolated upon the Mistborn magic system, using it in a limited, new way. It was an overall good story.
Brandon Sanderson is an excellent storyteller. On a prose level, the story is very well written. Sanderson isn’t an author who uses artful, ‘pretty’ prose style. Instead, his books are written to make the reader vanish into the text, suspending disbelief masterfully. The setting is beautifully created, and reinforced at every turn.
But this wasn’t perfect. If I have a complaint, this book seemed a bit too obvious. The novel’s twists and turns could be predicted. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it means the author properly foreshadowed the ending. But in this case, there really wasn’t any unexpected last minute twists, taking a a fair bit of tension out of the story. Additionally, I thought the plotline of ‘Wayne and Wax vs Dopplegangers’ felt out of place.
Overall, I give this book’s Emotional Resonance: (3.5/5 Stars)
I give this series (4/5 Stars)
Note: I default to giving 3 stars to good books. 3 stars for me is probably closer to 4 stars for someone else.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I like reading Sanderson books. I’m not really a fan, though. I haven’t read all his books, and I don’t like all of them.
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
A fantasy nuclear bomb is discovered, and an evil god is intent on blowing it up in Wax’s hometown. He must do everything in his power to stop it, using help from allies new and old, some coming from unexpected new planets.
This book was executed very well, but like I said above, it was executed upon in an obvious way. There’s a saying in storytelling circles: when you are trying to write a narrative twist, discard the first twist you come up with. The reason for this is because the first twist an author comes with is often obvious to the author, it’s probably obvious to the reader too. As a result, the ‘twist’ isn’t much of a twist. So the author should discard the first twist they think up, and come up with a second twist.
The twist in this novel is that Wayne dies in the twist ending. When concepting this novel, having a hero die in a twist ending is relatively common. However, the problem is that the narrative in this novel broadcasted Wayne’s death a bit too much. The concept of the twist was fine, the execution upon the concept didn’t work. I saw the twist coming, and it ruined my sense of tension. More on this in the next section.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
I liked, but didn’t love Wax throughout this series. I think Wax was a bit boring in book 4; simply put, his personal growth arc ended in an earlier book when he resolved his emotional trauma associated with his ex-wife. The narrative tried to reboot his character arc with a new arc about ‘Wax vs God,’ but I-as-a-reader never became emotionally invested in Wax’s antitheist plotline. This is bad. I love reading books about religion, and people losing faith in god. I am an easy sell for plotlines involving religion. So if I don’t like Wax’s antitheist plot-arc, chances are no one else will either.
I find Wayne to be a joy to read about. He’s one of my favorite chaos monkey’s to read. I was a bit sad that he died, but it was clear by the end of this novel that he had no more character-growth to go through so the author cashing that check at this point seemed like a good use of narrative resources for the sake of the Cosmere as a whole.
I loved Steris. She was a fun character, and absolutely unique. She took her propensity for planning for everything and used it to save the day. The nerd got to save the day by being a nerd, not by pretending to be an extrovert. A+++ character.
I don’t have much to say about any of the other characters. I enjoyed the return of Shai and Kelsier, and the introduction of new worldhoppers. Marasi’s lovelife was an interesting turn of events, and I liked how it ended. I especially liked how Wayne left his wealth to the people he’d wronged in life, and got a statue with changeable hats. And finally, Harmony. For this series up until now, I didn’t really get Harmony, and why he was so hands-off. I finally understand him. He shouldn’t be called Harmony, he should be called Stagnation. Sazed ruins things by preserving them.
But, overall, book 4 wasn’t a very character-forward novel. Some of Sanderson’s books do more than others to really dig in deep into a character and find out more about them. The Stormlight books do a very good job of this, as an example. I can’t say the same for this series. That’s not a sin; there’s a place for plot-forward books.
I do have one ‘flaw’ with the story, though. I just don’t get this god’s motivations, they seem counterproductive. If he’s supposed to exemplify autonomy, why then does he give other people power? Doesn’t sharing power with other people make those people dependent on him? Nothing about that seems ‘Autonomy’ to me.
A true god of autonomy would encourage other people to be independent, even if it means they be independent from the god of autonomy himself. Case-in-point, at the end of this book Autonomy leaves a message saying that he is pleased that the people of Elendel defeated the nuclear bomb and he’ll no longer attempt to slaughter them. Autonomy found this pleasing, because by defeating the bomb they display autonomy from him.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
I thought the book was fast paced. My suspension of disbelief was maintained throughout, and I read it over the course of about two days. However, I wanted it to slow down a little. This was the last book in the series; I would have liked if it stopped to smell the roses a little more.
I’m going to examine this book using the 5 act format.
- Act 1: The Status Quo
- In the Status Quo section, we are re-introduced to the heroes. Marasi and Wayne are now partners. Wax is happily married to Steris, and they have a young son. Wax is a politician, and we see him and Steris team up to unsuccessfully try to pass legislation. They fail to pass it because the Set stops them.
- Wayne and Marasi uncover a secret group of Set criminals, who are using hemalurgic spikes to smuggle weapons.
- These Set schemes serve as the Inciting Incident, triggering Act 2
- Act 2: Challenge to the Status Quo
- In this section, the heroes go on the trail of the Set, teaming up to uncover the latest scheme the Set have come up with.
- We’re re-introduced to the mask-wearing foreigners.
- They recieve a piece of Trellium metal from a defeated Set criminal. They do MAD SCIENCE!!! with the trellium, combining it with Harmonium, and discover the fact that it explodes violently.
- This explosion triggers the end of Act 3. We now know the stakes; the Set have the potential to build a city-destroying bomb. This has to be stopped at all costs.
- Act 3: The Turning Point
- This is the bulk of the story, where the characters go on adventures, sleuthing through Elendel and beyond.
- It begins with the revelation that the Set have the capacity to build a bomb, and this act ends with the initial confrontation between Wax and Telsin.
- Act 4: Escalation of the Challenge
- The heroes attack the Set’s base in Bilming, hoping to defuse the Harmonium/Trellium bomb before it is too late.
- The attack fails, with the reveal that the missile being built in Bilming was a fake all along. The bomb is being sent by boat.
- Act 5: Climax and Confusion
- The heroes return to Elendel, board the ship, and defuse the bomb. Wayne dies in the process. Steris uses her planning superpower to save the city.
- There’s a pleasant denouement afterwards, where the heroes mourn Wayne.
I think this book was well structured. The book’s biggest ‘flaw’ is that the book is more slowly, deliberately paced in the first two acts, and much faster in the final three. I think the book would have been better off if the characterization which occurred in the first two acts was spread more evenly throughout the whole book.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
More about Wayne. The narrative used his death as a twist ending, in an attempt to provide the reader with an emotional gut-punch to wrap up the series. Unfortunately, it didn’t work (at least for me). The reason why is because the narrative broadcasted his death too much, by resolving his plotlines with a) the orphans b) his tragic backstory causing uncureable guilt and c) Me’Laan dumping him. Because Wayne was able to come to a conclusion with the orphans/the backstory/Me’Laan before his death, his death felt less impactful. The tension suffered as a result because I knew he was going to die due to how obvious it was.
This book would have been better if his death hurt. Imagine the pain the narrative would inflict upon the reader if, as an example, Wayne proposed to Me’Laan and they were engaged to get married. And then he died, before he got married. And then Me’Laan was there at the end of the novel, at the funeral, crying. That would have hurt to read. And that pain would have been great. It would have been one of the most emotionally evocative moments of the entire Cosmere.
In short, Sanderson pulled his punches. Sanderson isn’t a grimdark author; perhaps he considered making Wayne’s death more emotionally evocative, and decided to pull back on the emotional pain for the sake of making the book more family friendly. I don’t know what he was thinking when he wrote this, but I do understand that he has a brand to protect at this point.
Anyway, going back to tension. The narrative was a bit too obvious planting ‘Wayne’s going to die’ flags, at least for me. As a result, the tension suffered. I knew no one was in any danger until the end of the story, because Wayne was going to die performing a ‘Heroic Last Stand.’
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
I’ve nothing really to say. This is a Sanderson book. If you’ve read a couple of his books, you pretty much know what his authorial style is like.
Theme wise, I had a love-hate relationship with the doppleganger theme. Basically, Wax and Wayne were confronted with ‘evil’ versions of themselves. Functionally from a narrative perspective, the heroes fighting evil dopplegangers served the purpose of making the heroes confront the flaws in their own characters. In concept, this theme makes sense. Wayne in particular has a dark past, so making him confront his past in anthropomorphized form is good. By beating his dark copy, he proves he’s risen above his dark past.
In execution, this doppleganger plotline didn’t work. It felt cringe to me. Having Wayne and Fake-Wayne on screen together just struck me as being cringe. Like I said above, I like Wayne as a chaos monkey; however, two Waynes was too much chaos monkey energy going on at one time. I feel as though Wayne could have made resolutions for his dark past in another way.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
The setting is the same as the other Mistborn Era 2 books, for better and for worse. The concept of this series is ‘what if the Mistborn world progressed in technology from the feudal age until it reached the 1800’s?’ The series’ genres are cowboy mysteries, using guns and mistborn magic to bring the law to Elendel and the Roughs. It’s a fantastic use of genre and setting, where the heroes must prevent train robberies like a cowboy cop. I’m not really a fan of westerns, but I admit this played with the tropes well.
I have a complaint about this series. Going back to my complaint about Wax’s character arc above, Wax’s crisis of faith didn’t really work. He starts the book in a crisis of faith, and then gradually regains that faith. I don’t think that worked. At the end of this book, Kelsier admits that he doesn’t trust divine Sazed. Sazed is transforming from Harmony into Discord. That should be an astonishing revelation, an admission that a god is fallible, and it should trigger a crisis of faith.
I think Wax’s ‘crisis of faith’ plotline would have evoked more emotions in the reader if Kelsier’s revelation occurred at the beginning of the book. Wax and Harmony would have a falling out when Wax learns of this revelation. Eventually Wax chooses to put his faith in Harmony at the end as an actual show of faith, despite knowing that Harmony is fallible. That would be a true leap of faith, trusting in a fallible god.
On a related note, I find the gods in this series a bit lame. None of the gods feel numinous or mystical; they feel like rational human beings with superpowers. Going back to what I said above, I like stories about gods and religion; I should like these characters. But I don’t. I don’t know how to fix this; I think this is a personal taste sort of thing.
I enjoyed the audiobook. Michael Kramer was the narrator, and he always does a reliable job.
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- Don’t pull your emotional punches. If your protagonist dies after 4 novels, let me be sad. Pain is cathartic for the reader. I wasn’t sad here, and I felt no catharsis.
- Wayne died in this book. Before he died, he resolved all his major plotlines and he also repeatedly stated that he felt unfixable guilt over the people he killed. Because Wayne both resolved those plotlines, as well as had unfixable trauma over his past, his death felt… empty, I guess.
- There is a trope that sad, traumatized people die. Writers sometimes use this trope as a way of telling the reader “It’s okay that this character died. They were damaged, and were never going to get better.” That happened here. Authors use the trope as a way of giving permission to the reader to not grieve. I don’t really like the trope.
- Additionally, Wayne had no lose threads going on before his death. If Wayne did have a few lose threads, his death would have left an unresolved feeling in the mind of the reader. That unresolved, niggling feeling would be more emotionally evocative for the reader.
- I like gods to be numinous, and mysterious.
I enjoyed this. This was a good work of popcorn fiction, bringing back beloved characters from prior mistborn books, as well as a few cosmerenauts. This was a good place to end the series, and good setting up the broadening of the Cosmere as a whole. The pieces are starting to come together, and I’m curious as to where this is all going.
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
- ‘Shadows of Self’ by Brandon Sanderson
- ‘The Bands of Morning’ by Brandon Sanderson
- ‘Oathbringer’ Book Review
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