The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn: a person born with the ability to burn metals in their stomach to feed super powers. Flying over cities, ripping walls apart, controlling others’ emotions, and turning any metal object into a projectile are all possibilities in Brandon Sanderson’s iconic Mistborn Series. This high-adrenaline series is high on the list of fantasy I often hear recommended to Catholic teens so I’m chiming in with my review this week.
A Very Brief Series Synopsis
In Book 1, Mistborn, you’ll meet Vin, a teenage street Skaa (peasant) with a surprisingly talent: she’s Mistborn. A daring band of rebels led by Kelsier recruit Vin as part of their plan to overthrow the tyrannical Lord Ruler (who has seeming omniscience and omnipotence) and free the Skaa. During the course of the plotting, Vin falls for Elend Venture, a rich noble, who ends up assisting Kelsier’s crew to kill the Lord Ruler. To kill the Lord Ruler, Kelsier voluntarily sacrifices his life to become a hero to inspire the Skaa revolution.
Then in Book 2, The Well of Ascension, Vin, Elend, and the surviving crew struggle to set up a fair government, fight antagonistic nobles, and figure out why the environment is spiraling into chaos around them. Vin eventually releases a great power from the Well of Ascension, thinking she is releasing a power which will save the world. Unfortunately, turns out she unleashed the power of Ruin: one of the two forces on this Dualistic planet.
Finally, in Book 3, The Hero of the Ages, Vin and Elend rush around trying to find a way to defeat Ruin before it destroys the world with earthquakes and volcanic ash. Eventually, they find a way past seemingly insurmountable obstacles to destroy Ruin’s body and mind, allowing Sazed, one of the crew, to balance the power of Ruin with the power of Preservation and remake the world.
A Thrilling Journey
Mistborn is an addictive roller coaster ride of a series. You see plenty of epic battles, duals between powerful Mistborns, truly disturbing villainous monsters, and inspiring heroes. What really makes you like Mistborn is the solid cast of characters who believe in trying to save their world from Ruin no matter what, superhero style. The main characters, Vin and Elend, are actually a likeable, sweet couple who are surprisingly chaste. They even have a subplot of learning to love in a very unselfish and self-giving way. The minor characters are well-developed and memorable also.
Plenty of good themes to point to in this series. One repeated thread is that fighting a losing battle is preferable to sitting by and letting evil conquer. The protagonists in Mistborn understand that dying is not the worst thing; dying is preferable to disloyalty, cowardice, or shirking responsibility. Others includes that self-sacrifice for a greater good is a noble choice, and trusting your friends and being hurt is preferable to never trusting at all.
Grappling with Tough Topics
Book 2, The Well of Ascension tackles some tough topics. Many fantasy novels center around a plot to topple a corrupt government. In The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson takes this one step further to the aftermath. You’re a group of reckless rebels who vanquished an oppressive ruler against impossible odds: but what now? What kind of government do you form? How do you bring democracy to people who have lived under a tyrant for a millennia?
This book was the most interesting to me because it actually forces the reader to think critically about different forms of government. Elend, always the white knight (or now, king) is a well-educated idealist who thinks he has the theory for an ideal government structure. But how does his ideal government hold up to the reality of a war-torn country? Is it better to back down or seize the power by force? There are no easy answers to these and other political questions in The Well of Ascension.
There’s almost no language in Mistborn. Alcohol use is common, but not glorified. Sexual content is fairly low, but there are several mentions in Mistborn about nobles taking Skaa women as their mistresses then killing them to avoid diluting the noble bloodlines. Elend admits to being forced by his father to bed a Skaa woman at the age of 13, but is very guilty about this part of his past. In The Well of Acsension, there is mention that some people assume Vin is Elend’s mistress since they are dating, but that she is actually not.
However, the violence score for this series would very high. Vin, Kelsier, and others engage in frequent and bloody hand to hand combat involving details such as heads being ripped off. There’s also a cast of truly disturbing enemies including Inquisitors with bloody spokes for eyes and Kollosses, which are mutated humans with bloody ripping skin. These villains go around violently slaughtering entire villages of Skaa peasants. They also engage in a really unsettling method of stealing power from Mistborn by pounding spikes through their living bodies.
One downside of Mistborn is the confusing spirituality and theology of Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere.
First, you have what I consider a somewhat anti-religious agenda. In Book 1, Mistborn, you have a paralleling of a Redeemer figure dying for his people, and appearing subsequently to inspire his followers. But (Spoiler), the appearances are a hoax. Kelsier studies other religions and decides he must die heroically to start a revolution. Before dying, he hires a Kandra, a shape changing being who eats someone then mimics their mannerisms. After Kelesier’s heroic death, this Kandra will eat him and appear to his followers for maximum psychological impact in starting the revolution.
EDITED TO ADD: A “Mistborn” fan has informed me that Kelsier’s character arc continues in other Sanderson books in a way that shows Kelsier is an anti-Christ figure of sorts, so that context makes me less concerned about this agenda in “Mistborn.” I plan to read more of the series to verify this.
Dualism is the belief that the world is the result of two opposing forces such as dark and light, good and evil, or some other pair of conflicting powers. This belief is primarily seen in Eastern religions, though has also appeared as the basis for early Christian heresies such as Manichaeism. Dualism is utterly incompatible with the Christian monotheistic worldview, which labels evil as an absence or privation of goodness (God).
Taken by itself, the Mistborn Trilogy seems to be pushing a dualistic worldview. The plots in the second and third books are primarily focused around the conflict between the two opposing forces of Ruin and Preservation. One of the protagonists, Sazed, spends most of The Hero of the Ages going through a crisis of faith rejecting all religions that have ever existed as illogical and false. He eventually finds peace by deciding the true “religion” is a balancing of the two forces. In fact, (SPOILER) the series concludes with Vin sacrificing her life to destroy the mind of Ruin, then Sazed taking over the task of balancing the forces of Ruin and Preservation to shape a better world.
However, further research into other Sanderson books and his fantasy world, the Cosmere, reveals that the seemingly dualistic theology of the planet in Mistborn is misleading. Sanderson’s Cosmere is not actually dualistic, but neither is it Christian in its theological premises. The powers, or gods, in the Cosmere are 16 “shards” of a single destroyed Creator god.
In the end, there is no God in the Christian sense in Mistborn. Sanderson’s Creator has been shattered into 16 forces, which men have assumed, making them demigods of sorts. Sanderson is still working on the series, so only time will tell how he concludes the theological side of his Cosmere.
Conclusions with a little help from C. S. Lewis
Master fantasy writers George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis believed that the purpose of fantasy was to enter another world, learn truths in that world, then bring them back to your own world to help live a good life. Applying this to Mistborn, what truths might your children bring back through the wardrobe, or perhaps in this case through the mists? Well, all the postives I mentioned above: self sacrifice, loyalty, choosing the good even against seemingly insurmountable odds. But on the other hand, they will also have spent quite a lot of time in a rather confusing theological headspace. It’s definitely a tradeoff, and not one I’d recommend except for older, mature teens.
So if you have older, mature teens who really love fantasy and want to read Mistborn, here’s what I’d recommend doing first: make sure your teens are solidly grounded in Catholic theology. Be sure they have the maturity to not be seduced by the mists into applying any of the false theology of the Sanderson universe to our world.
For other great books for Catholic teens, check out my Book Lists!