In any discussion about the problems of power, its abuse is invariably the first point raised. For abuse of power is not only often obvious and blatant, it is easily agitated against given that most of us imagine ourselves above such failings. We believe that we possess the strength of character to avoid temptation. However, there's arguably a more pervasive problem with power; its use in general.
Like a boulder plunged into a pond, the deployment of power, no matter how good-intentioned, creates a ripple effect which sets into motion consequences the actor never intended, much less envisioned. In other words, just as much harm can come from doing good as doing ill, provided that the doer of good has not carefully considered his actions. This nuanced and important lesson pervades the final two instalments of the exciting if long-winded Mistborn Trilogy. It is a lesson learned much to the cost of its characters.
In The Well of Ascension, the trilogy's second volume, two years have elapsed since the death of the Lord Ruler, the iron-fisted demigod who used violence and death to maintain peace in his ash-laden realm. But instead of the peace and harmony anticipated by his overthrowers, the Lord Ruler's fall has created chaos in the Final Empire. Predicated on a strict, authoritarian hierarchy, the imperium, in place for a thousand years, is, without its godhead, a crumbling edifice, the continuing deterioration of which has overwhelmed the efforts of the rebels to bring about the changes their insurgency promised. Despite their best efforts to institute a constitutional monarchy, injustice, rebellion and destitution abound. For such a harsh and omnipotent state cannot be so easily swept away. And in the meantime, without the harsh but ubiquitous agents of the Lord Ruler to keep the state running, anarchy and confusion are the immediate results of Kelsier's revolution.
But hope remains. If Vin, the one-time street urchin turned hero, can find the Well of Ascension, a fabled but ultimately mysterious source of power, perhaps the land can be saved from the increasingly burdensome heaps of ash that are destroying what remains of the Final Empire's cropland. Perhaps it can be a demonstration of the good that the new regime intends to bring to the people. Perhaps it can save a dying world from its apparently inevitable collapse. Of course, such legends have a habit of being too good to be true.
In The Hero of Ages, which flows on directly from The Well of Ascension, the apocalypse has truly drawn nigh. Since the Lord Ruler's death, the everpresent mists, which have characterized the land for a thousand years, have grown bolder, consuming those brave souls who dare to venture into its nighttime embrace. Many return from the mists, but some are changed in ways they cannot understand. Might the mists have a purpose? Might they too be an enemy of the beleaguered people of the Final Empire? Or is this just another sign that all things are moving towards a final, climactic confrontation between the forces of creation and destruction?
While the Final Empire's new regime scrambles to extend its protection to the most far flung regions of the kingdom, a new power is on the loose, a power that seeks to fulfil an ancient bargain, a power that wants nothing more than to bury in ash those stubborn humans who've refused to go down with their empire. It's all too much for the band of one-time rebels. Attacked on all fronts, by nightmares, by gods, by the very environment that once sheltered them, events are overtaking them, backing them into a corner from which there is no escape. Ruin will have his day. But for the slim hopes of an ancient prophecy, doom is certain.
Though they lack the excitement and originality of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages bring the Mistborn Trilogy to a satisfying and apocalyptic conclusion. To replace the rebellious, conspiratorial energy that electrified the first volume, Mr. Sanderson taps into that most existential of human fears, the end of the world, riding this nihilistic wave to a most pleasing if cartoonish conclusion. Throughout, the author has demonstrated a consistent capacity to evolve his characters. More importantly, he allows them to err, to be fooled, to act wrongly, selfishly. In other words, to act human. And it is this humanity which helps to counteract Mr. Sanderson's tendency to rely too heavily on cliche.
The plot here leaves room for both praise and criticism. The former stems from Mr. Sanderson's courageous willingness to dig deeply into his themes. Throughout, while his heroes stereotypically bttle against overwhelming odds, he unflinchingly deconstructs the origins and the utility of religion, truth, destiny and power. His is not the only work of fantasy to raise such complex subjects, but the extent to which he treats them with the gravitas they deserve elevates Mistborn well above the crowd.
The latter stems from numerous sources. The author's over-reliance on Deus Ex Machina is troubling. For a series based on the notions of personal choice, Mistborn's conclusion smacks far too much of predetermination for comfort. More over, Mr. Sanderson's decision, to use epitaphs to relate the exposition of his mythology proves to be tiresome. The technique has some initial charm, but it eventually suggests an inability to gradually reveal the backstory through conventional methods, such as having the characters discover fundamental truths on their own. Worse yet, Mr. Sanderson does a poor job concealing his reveals. This wouldn't be a problem if the author's intent wasn't so clearly to shock and amaze his readers with clever twists at the key moments of the series. Poorly concealing the fates and roles of his characters ensures that the attentive reader is both unsurprised and unexcited by Mistborn's primary revelations.
Notwithstanding its warts, Mistborn is an entertaining trilogy with a vivid world, an imaginative magic system, an interesting mythology and compelling characters. The extent to which the author reveals his hand too early can be forgiven when the rewards are so rich. The most pleasing of these is the series' main character. Vin is a wonderful heroine, a battered angel with broken wings. Her story, along with the author's capacity to express her humanity, her doubts in the face of her superhuman nature, causes her to stand out amongst a sea of similar creations. The series, for all its virtues, would have collapsed under its own portentous weight without Vin's sardonic energy.
A worthy and memorable conclusion to what The Final Empire so magnificently launched. (3/5 Stars)