Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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The Hero of Ages
Book 03, The Mistborn Trilogy
by Brandon Sanderson

A book review by Steven Wu
May 01, 2009

Rating: 8 (of 10)

Brandon Sanderson's Hero of Ages marks the culmination of the remarkable worldbuilding that has been the hallmark of his Mistborn trilogy. The end of the world is nigh, as the great evil unleashed by Vin at the end of The Well of Ascension begins (literally) raining fire and brimstone upon the land. Desperate for a solution, Vin, Elend, and their allies begin to follow a series of hints left behind by their erstwhile foe, the Lord Ruler.

The Mistborn trilogy is, at heart, an ecological mystery: what is wrong with the world, and how can it be fixed? The Hero of Ages provides a satisfying answer to that conundrum. The ending of the series has all the requisite fireworks and revelations, yet everything fits together seamlessly, and there is very little of the backfilling that has marred the conclusions of other epic fantasies. Sanderson is a master at sowing mundane facts that, at just the right moment, take on a surprising but sensible new importance.

Here's another, longer way to put it. Sanderson clearly knew at the outset how he wanted this trilogy to end. And that foreknowledge is reflected in his worldbuilding, each aspect of which works at several levels. At the first level, Sanderson's initial explanations establish the basic facts of his world, and those facts quickly become part of the assumed background. At the second level, the characters uncover the secret histories or unplumbed depths of various aspects of their world -- facts that were hidden from them primarily by the Lord Ruler, but also by negligence or their own stupidity. And at the third level, Sanderson reveals that some of the very same facts that have become part of the series' mundane background in fact have earth-shattering cosmic significance.

What is so satisfying about this worldbuilding is its vertical and horizontal consistency. The basic facts themselves do not change up-and-down all three levels (that's the vertical aspect). For example, Sanderson introduces the Steel Inquisitors early and explains their place in the Lord Ruler's bureaucracy. He then explains the persistent mystery of how they achieved their powers. And finally he reveals how the Steel Inquisitors fit into the larger struggle that ends the series. At all three levels, the Steel Inquisitors themselves never change -- they're always the same homicidal, physically impossible Allomancers that they were from the opening pages of the first book. It's only our understanding of their familiar (if terrifying) features that unfurls.

At the same time, there's the horizontal consistency -- the way in which seemingly familiar features of the Mistborn world make novel yet logical connections with other features. Again, the key here is that the basic facts never change in themselves. It's only the ways in which they interlock that surprise. (The missing atium cache is a good example, though I can't explain it without spoiling much of the plot.)

I'm spending a lot of time extolling the worldbuilding here because I want to emphasize just how masterly it is: internally consistent, never ad hoc, yet reliably interesting. And the way that Sanderson holds it all together is even more impressive given the enormous stretch that he takes at the very end. I can see why he was chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series -- and I can see why he'd be good at it.

What keeps The Hero of Ages from being a classic is its middling character development and errant plotting. The book ends in a significant bloodbath, but I felt no twinge at seeing the dead bodies -- not a good sign. And the story is spread so thin by the end (the protagonists are occupying two different cities, plus there's Sazed ,and TenSoon, and news from Luthandel, and Marsh, and...and...) that it feels scattershot, even perfunctory, despite the book's length. What's left is akin to a miniature model of a city: intricately constructed, with an organic unity, but not alive.

Copyright © 2009 Steven Wu

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