Monday, July 16, 2012

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I don't really publish much on this blog these days, do I? And when I do it seems to be mostly book reviews. So not to break that pattern, here's another brief book review:

"The Final Empire" by Brandon Sanderson, subtitled 'Mistborn, Book One' was a book I knew nothing about until browsing my local Waterstones bookshop a few weeks back. It was a book recommended to me by one of those little "I like this book because..." cards with which the staff in the bookshop recommend some books at you. I flicked through the pages of several of these recommended books, and noted down the details of four of them. I then went home, downloaded the Kindle samples of each of the four and read them. On the basis of this, I bought (the actual physical books, in the bookshop) two of them and decided to read this one first (I would have bought the Kindle versions, as they were cheaper, had I not been buying these to take on holiday with me - I didn't really want to leave my Kindle sitting beside a pool while I went in for a dip, but I'll happily leave a paperback book in this manner). So anyway...

The setting of the book, as summarised on the cover, poses the question "What if the Dark Lord won?" and while the book is not intended to be set in the same world as Lord of the Rings, the premise is broadly similar to the situation which might have happened had Frodo failed to destroy the ring and if Sauron had got it and enslaved humanity for a thousand years. I say 'humanity' here as there are no elves, dwarfs, hobbits, orcs, or any other non-human species here. Well, none are apparent for most of the book, at least. So we start with the setting of a world (or at least an Empire, we never see beyond its boundaries) ruled over by an apparently immortal, possibly divine tyrant, who has turned a once green and pleasant land into a grim and murky land where trees and shrubs are brown, colourful flowers don't exist and a ring of volcanoes surrounding the main city in the empire spew ash into the sky constantly. By day there are ashfalls and by night there are mists, which the common people ("skaa") are too scared to go into. Basically, life is hard, death is common, and it has always been thus.

I'll say up front that my favourite kinds of fantasy books are those where the impossible objective is stated early on in the story and then we see, usually with a number of surprises and twists, how the impossible objective is eventually realised. This is one of those kinds of books, so I was inclined to like it from the word go. It isn't really a spoiler for me to reveal they the objective of our rag-tag band of heroes (I also generally prefer novels with a rag-tag band of hereos; much better than muscular warrior types) is to overthrow the tyrant, put someone else in authority, and - if such a thing were possible - to kill the 'Lord Ruler'. As this is a 'Book One' in a series of at least four parts (I don't yet know if part 4 is the conclusion to the series, or if the door remains open for further parts), I wasn't expecting all of this to be achieved in one book and, indeed, this book ends up in a very unexpected way leaving the reader wondering 'where on earth do they go from here?'. But the ending is actually far more satisfying than I was expecting - even 2/3 of the way through this book, I was expecting the book to end with a kind of "And so the war began..." type conclusion. This book doesn't go there, it is so much better than that. 

The book that this book reminded me most of is "Tigana" by Guy Gavriel Kay, and considering that this book measures up to Tigana in a rather favourable light, and that Tigana remains my all time favourite book of all time (!), I'd have to rank this book as one of the best I've ever read. OK, there are a few minor things wrong with it (some sections are too long; the narrative feels slightly odd on the rare occasions that it is not written from the point of view of one of the two main characters), but on the whole this is a world which it is a joy to lose yourself in, with characters you can believe in, and a plot that you actually care about. When I reached the end of this book I was on holiday and was really quite annoyed that I couldn't instantly download the next installment to my Kindle and keep reading. For what its worth, the other two books that this reminded me of were "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe - I know some people rate this as one of the greatest fantasy novels ever, and exploring the strange world of The Final Empire is much like finding out about the world in Wolfe's books - also there were some similarities in this to the Belgariad by David Eddings, but generally in ways which made me think 'this is better than the Belgariad because...'.

I could go into details about how magic works in this book/world, but I won't because it is much more fun to find out about it as you go along. I have to say that the way some of the magic usage is described in fight scenes does get a little bit of a drag, but that is a very minor niggle with an otherwise fascinating new take on how magic might work in a fantasy realm. In that respect (unnecessary descriptions of how magic works), this book also reminded me of "Master of the five magics" by Lyndon Hardy, which I read back in the 80s, but The Final Empire is so far above that book that the comparison is hardly fair.

Basically, if you like 'high' fantasy novels where a bunch of rag-tag heroes set out to overthrow an oppressive ruler, then you'll absolutely love this novel.

Best book I've read this year. Possibly the best I've read this century (hmmm, does it trump GGK's "Under Heaven"? I'm not sure, but they're in the same league). Certainly the most involving fantasy world I've lost myself in for a long time. Highly recommended.

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