Thursday, April 16, 2009


Mistborn: The Final Empire is a 2006 fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson. It is part of the Mistborn trilogy, but is a complete story on its own (although not everything is wrapped tidily at the end) and can be read as such. In the Mistborn world, an immortal tyrant has ruled the empire for a thousand years. Now, a group of thieves and magic users undertake a plot to overthrow him.

Mistborn’s magic system is refreshingly novel. Most magic users have access to one of eight special abilities, which they activate by ingesting trace amounts of the appropriate metal. The more powerful Mistborn have access to all eight metal-based abilities, plus more, making them in essence a poor man’s hybrid of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. Mistborn’s main character is Vin, a sixteen year old petty thief who has just discovered that she is a Mistborn, and who has joined this conspiracy to overthrow the empire.

Most of Sanderson’s supporting cast has been drawn from the bin of generic, flat, cookie-cutter fantasy characters. His treatment of Vin, though, makes us wonder what he was thinking. Particularly early on, both Sanderson as the narrator and his characters point out repeatedly that she is timid and has low self-confidence. But Sanderson doesn’t write her that way – Vin is headstrong, stubborn, nosy, fussy and sarcastic. This is not the only time that what the characters do and what the narrator says about them do not agree. Either way, Vin isn’t a particularly interesting or likeable character.

Sanderson’s writing keeps him from getting the most out of his story, which is a shame because the magic is interesting and the plot is perfectly good. The story develops slowly. Sanderson spends the first 150 pages of the novel belaboring the magic system and having his characters speak in stiff, expository history-lesson paragraphs, almost as though he were writing this so it could be followed by small children. At 530 pages, Mistborn is at least 100 pages too long, and it’s often tough to get through.

Mistborn does get it together over the last 100 pages and has a genuinely solid and reasonably satisfactory climax. There are flashes of brilliance here, but it may be too little, too late to persuade readers to read the sequels.

In On Writing, Stephen King said, “The adverb is not your friend.” But the adverb is Sanderson’s very good friend indeed. He flings them liberally, distractingly, throughout the novel, and not only are there too many, he often makes some jarringly curious choices. And Sanderson’s dialogue throughout the novel is wooden and clunky – bad to a degree one typically finds only in world-building genre fiction like this.

Sanderson has done a good job constructing his world and his magic system, but he’s done a terrible job actually telling the story, making Mistborn: The Final Empire a frustrating and disappointing work.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

NATIVE SON by Richard Wright

Native Son is a 1940 novel (and an accepted classic) on race relations by Richard Wright. It is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in a Chicago ghetto in the 1930s. Bigger’s violent temper, combined with his anger and frustration at his social situation, leads him down a murderous and self-destructive path.

What Wright does exceedingly well is capture Bigger’s feelings and emotions. Wright communicates very effectively what it means to be an angry black man in a time of racial inequality and social injustice.

Wright’s overall message is that Bigger’s violent behavior, while indefensible, is largely due to the fact of racial inequality and social injustice. It is, to a very great extent, inevitable – Bigger’s destiny. For the purposes of communicating this message, Wright writes Bigger inconsistently. Bigger is aware of his thoughts, even his self-conscious, to an unrealistic degree, and he gives the reader many articulate internal monologues and page after page of introspection. Yet Bigger struggles to express himself to others coherently, even on a very basic level.

Many events and conversations in Native Son are contrived (and how inconvenient for Bigger that he gets into all this trouble his first day on the job). The presence of so many contrived happenings clearly indicates that for Wright, the story is secondary to the message, and is so to the point where the reader may well wonder why he didn’t write a nonfiction book on the subject instead.

When Wright feels that he has not communicated his message through conventional literary means such as a character’s actions and conversations, he plainly explains it (or makes a character explain it) to make sure the reader doesn’t miss it. Thusly we get, on top of these conversations and actions, passages like “The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared.” and “‘I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while.’”

The novel’s third act drags considerably, as the reader is subjected to a barrage of ideological conversations and monologues. Additionally, many characters are one-dimensional caricatures. In communicating his message on relationship between social conditions and violence, Wright also puts in a good word for communism and a bad word for Christianity.

Many editions of Native Son are prefaced by Wright’s essay How “Bigger” Was Born, wherein Wright explains his purpose and motivation for writing the novel. Yet knowing what Wright was up to may keep many new readers from investing in the character.

Without saying that Wright’s message’s time has passed (I certainly do not mean to imply that racism in America has been eradicated; it certainly has not), at the risk of criticizing an accepted classic on race relations, here is the conclusion of the matter: as a social commentary, Native Son is fantastic and important, but as a novel, it has a lot of problems.

RECOMMENDED as an important part of American history