Tuesday 29 January 2013

The Final Empire First Impressions

Recently I've been dipping into the Brandon Sanderson book The Final Empire after having it recommended to me, and so far the first hundred pages have been perplexing. It's not a boring book. It's not dull or stupid or atrociously written (though characters do tend to roll their eyes and sigh and smile a little too frequently), but it gets a lot of things wrong.

By all accounts the story picks up as the book goes on, but I still have trouble understanding the success of this series after having read enough to get a good first impression. Granted, I'm not a big fantasy reader, but I'll happily read any genre if it's engaging and well written. On my shelf of favourite books I have everything from romance to horror to sci-fi to Oscar Wilde to Watership Down.

So what's the problem with this book? Well, so far there have been lengthy expository information dumps, one-dimensional characters, and extended action sequences devoid of any purpose or tension. Those aren't what broke it for me though — it was the point where our dashing hero turned into a psychopath.

Obviously this wasn't the intention of the author, and I'd expect plenty of readers were fine with overlooking this point as well, but to me this one early chapter completely removed any sympathy I had for the male lead, and any interest in where his story might go. To set the scene: Kelsier, the suave, intelligent, dashing master of magic from the criminal underworld of Luthadel, is breaking into a noble's mansion in order to get his hands on something he needs. He can control metal with his mind, a bit like a wizard-Magneto, soar silently through the air, manipulate the emotions of others, and presumably do a heck of a lot more things we haven't heard about yet. So how does he go about breaking into this mansion with his repertoire of talents? By brutally murdering the first guard he sees. Then he murders more. And he makes sure they scream so that more people can arrive for him to murder.

Wow. Okay. Already I was starting to question the moral integrity of our hero, but then he makes things even worse by acknowledging his cold-blooded detachment with the caveat: "They served the nobility, therefore they are bad."
Instantly all of my engagement with this story is gone. Either this world is so two-dimensional that anyone with money is unquestionably evil, or Kelsier is a sociopath who thinks he has the right to judge who lives and who dies based on his infinite knowledge of the world. He doesn't even feel bad about it afterwards.

Now you might be saying to me "but it's just a simple fantasy adventure, there's no need to get all serious about it". I'd be willing to give this book a little slack if it were a Young Adult title, but The Final Empire clearly brands itself as a serious fantasy novel. It even references slavery, rape (followed by murder), prostitution, and the physical abuse of a young girl all within the first two chapters! If you're going to start out your novel with hard-hitting themes like that, don't expect me to get on board with your hero when he starts murdering willy-nilly as though he's in a cheesy James Bond movie gunning down wave after wave of Blofeld's henchmen.

This chapter was a crippling blow to my engagement with the story once the action started. The sad part is, it could've easily been avoided if Kelsier was set up as a dark character from the start, or if the caveat for his murdering had been altered. Perhaps the doohickey he was after in the mansion was so important it was worth killing for? Maybe he grits his teeth and struggles through the unpleasant business, knowing (or even just hoping) that it's all for the greater good? Heck, at the very least put him in a situation where he's given no other choice. Kelsier quips at his attackers like an action hero, and actively seeks out more of them to kill after having infiltrated the mansion undetected. Most of his victims were probably just everyday blue-collar guys who couldn't believe their luck when they got the chance at a cushy job guarding some rich noble's mansion. Not everyone can afford to be a high-minded freedom fighter like you Kelsier, not when they have a family to feed. You jerk.

I don't know if I'll carry on reading The Final Empire. I suppose it could redeem itself if we find out Kelsier is indeed a highly damaged, mentally unstable individual whose past traumas have driven him over the edge, but judging by the simplicity of the characterisation so far I'm not holding my breath.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this book, but I feel tricked when the author feeds me conflicting information about the tone of their story and how I'm supposed to feel about the main characters.


  1. Welcome to the wonderful world of grimdark fantasy, where sociopathic characters are common and there is lots of violence against women (and men and children, but mainly women), all of which is accepted by the readership of the genre without question. In fact, the prevalence of that sort of thing is why I mainly stick to fantasy by female writers these days.

    1. I feel like fantasy isn't the genre for me. I always love the *idea* of it, but most stories I read just end up letting me down. The annoying thing about this one was that it struck this bizarre balance between lighthearted, silly, two-dimensional storytelling, and overtly dark themes. It's as though the author just stuck them in there to be edgy.