Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Whose Hero Is It, Anyway?

The Mistborn TrilogyA few months ago, I wrote about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first novel in a trilogy. I noted that the series got off to a bang with an epigraph from someone nervous about their role as the prophesied “Hero of Ages,” and then showed a powerful magician named Kelsier encouraging slaves to rebel against their masters. The book then followed Kelsier to the capital of the “Final Empire,” detailing his plans to overthrow the regime, and his allusions to more secretive plans, such as assassinating a thousand-year-old despot, the “Lord Ruler.” Sounds pretty heroic to me.

But, I found to my pleasant surprise, Kelsier is by no means the main character of the book. That honor could just as well fall to Vin, Kelsier's new protege from the streets. Getting one expectation—oh, this book is about Kelsier the prophesied hero!—and quite a different result—never mind, it's about Vin who develops from a distrustful criminal into a powerful magician, capable of love!—is very often the sign of a well-written book.

Sanderson agrees with me. In an essay I'll discuss more later, he writes, “I’ve often said that good writing defies expectations. (Or, more accurately, breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn’t know you wanted.)” In challenging my expectation of who the protagonist was, Mistborn succeeded. Over the course of the trilogy, however, a lot more bait-and-switches emerged, beyond just the identity of the Hero of Ages. The series provides another warning about judging a book by its cover. Literally. [note: this post contains major spoilers about the entire trilogy]

The book description hints at two main concepts motivating this book, which Sanderson has mentioned on his (highly recommended) blog. One of them is the “greatest heist in history”; Kelsier, a “brilliant thief and natural leader” tries to pull off “the ultimate caper,” with Vin and a gang of other, more specialized magicians in tow. I'm not a big fan of crime stories myself, but to the extent that I understand the concept, Mistborn certainly succeeds in being true to this description. The attempt to overthrow the Lord Ruler—and some of Kelsier's more secretive plans—last the entire book, with crime and subterfuge aplenty.

On the other hand, the description begins with this question: “Brandon Sanderson, fantasy's newest master tale spinner, author of the acclaimed debut Elantris, dares to turn a genre on its head by asking a simple question: What if the hero of prophecy fails? What kind of world results when the Dark Lord is in charge?” Now, I'm not a complete expert on Dark Lords and heroes of prophecy, but as far as I could tell, the latter are usually called upon to defeat the former. With the Lord Ruler complacently enthroned, Kelsier causing trouble, and every chapter beginning in the voice of the uncertain hero, I assumed we were on track for Kelsier, the Hero of Ages, to fail in the assassination attempt.

Well, Kelsier actually did fail to assassinate the Lord Ruler.

He also was not the Hero of Ages.

About halfway through Mistborn, the protagonists find what they believe to be the Lord Ruler's diary from the good old days—back when he was trying to save the world, not destroy it. The diary—which also turns out to be the source of the epigraphs—details the young hero's thoughts about everything from his own self-doubts to annoying packmen. Readers come to realize that, instead of releasing the power stored at the “Well of Ascension” as he was meant to, the Lord Ruler instead took on the power for himself, and has ruled with an iron fist ever since. I'm not sure whether I was supposed to realize that all the epigrams were set before the present of the novel sometime earlier than I did. But unlike the pleasant surprise of “oh, this story is actually about Vin after all!” it was more of a confusing “Oh...this isn't Kelsier...okay, then.”

Sanderson wrote an essay that discusses Mistborn (which he describes as a “postmodern fantasy epic”) in the larger context of fantasy. He says that he could pitch the book in one sentence: “The hero failed; this is a thousand years later.” Indeed, but that was not at all clear to me for a good chunk of Mistborn. I think this is a weakness in the book (or my reading ability, I'm not sure).

The fact that he considers it a postmodern work also raises some big red flags for me. I should disclaim that unlike many contributors to this site, I'm not coming from a “literary” background. Indeed, I have an instinctive distrust of Literature with a capital L—I'll take happy endings over nihilistic open-endedness any day. Obviously, I hadn't read the essay before reading the book—if I had, I might not have risked it.

So while both of us appreciate twists on our expectations, there is a difference between clever twists and less clever ones. I thought that Mistborn walked both sides of that line—halfway through the first novel. The pattern just continued.

Kelsier dies near the end of Mistborn. Vin, however, is able to succeed where he failed. She realizes that the Lord Ruler is not the writer of the journal—instead, he was a jealous packman, who killed the writer before visiting the magical well and taking the power for himself (instead of releasing it like the prophecies instructed). Sanderson calls this secret identity his “favorite secret in the novel.” I'm inclined to agree. Another brilliant twist.

The Well of AscensionThen comes book two, The Well of Ascension.

Sanderson admits that he “wrote book one of Mistborn to stand on its own, yet lead into potential sequels.” Excise an ominous dying message from the Lord Ruler, and the first book is very independent. Sure, the hero isn't coming, but Vin has defeated the tyrant, gotten a boyfriend, and even picked up some closure about a family tragedy. She's in pretty good shape. In book two, however, she and her boyfriend-turned-husband (Elend, the new king) struggle to consolidate power while the natural world grows ever more threatening.

I found the familiar main characters' inner monologues to be relatively tiresome in book two, preferring the viewpoint of a newly introduced character--Zane, Elend's half-brother and a magician in his own right. He tempts Vin with the possibilities of a different life, while trying to shut up a hallucinatory voice in the back of his head. Like book one, book two also features epigraphs from an original contemporary of the Lord Ruler. But it's not him, and it's not even the guy from book one.
Instead, it's a completely new voice, Kwaan, who's interpreting the prophecies that the would-be hero is trying to fulfill. Kwaan realizes that the prophecies are being altered by a nefarious force, and that they should not be fulfilled after all. So he orders the packman to kill the would-be hero and claim the power for himself. Which means that the great secret of book one was, rather than a character suddenly choosing to break the conventions of fantasy, just planned behind the scenes by a third party all along.

For me, this is another anticlimax, and cheapens book one.

The FireThis isn't the first time I've seen an ineffective “sequel [that] explores what was going on behind the scenes in hidden depths.” Katherine Neville's The Fire, the sequel to The Eight, came to mind. In order to have the children of the first book's characters get up to even more adventures than their parents, Neville had to retroactively invent an even more secretive layer of possibilities for the Montglane Service (an artifact important in both books). Now that I think about it, the Ender's Game prequels strain the limits of “they were planning it all that far back? Really?” incredulity too. (Orson Scott Card's review is quoted on the front of the third Mistborn book. Go figure.)

Meanwhile, the present-day characters are realizing that the prophecies regarding the Hero of Ages actually feature a gender-neutral pronoun. Vin, who is by this time definitely the protagonist of the trilogy, seems to fit the bill. Unfortunately, she does not hear that the prophecies were falsified quickly enough. So after rediscovering the well for herself, she sets the power free and almost gets Elend killed in the process. (He gets better.)

The Hero of AgesIn book three, The Hero of Ages, the characters try to fend off the apocalypse. The systems of magic Sanderson prides himself on creating logical rules for are overshadowed by the forces of “Ruin” and “Preservation,” locked in conflict. It is Ruin that altered the prophecies to get itself released from the well, and Preservation who tries to prevent it. So Kelsier's ideas about how to kill the Lord Ruler from book one? Zane's voice from book two? Probably Ruin working behind the scenes all along. Instead of the way I wanted my expectations fulfilled, Sanderson keeps dumping the problems on higher and higher levels, eventually chalking things up to “Adonalsium,” which apparently ties into his novels set on other worlds in the same universe. Again, it strikes me as more sloppy than clever.

There's yet another epigraph writer who—spoiler alert—claims to be the Hero of Ages! This writer is able to provide some information dump about the magical backstory, which is perhaps not the most elegant solution, but ultimately turns out to make sense once we find out what text the epigrams come from.

Nevertheless, there are still lots of “Whoa!” moments as we learn, in the narrative itself, more of the magical backstory, and the book definitely held my attention. The threat of apocalypse grows ever stronger, and, in the second-to-last chapter, Elend gets killed.

Vin, the protagonist of the trilogy, dies on the next page.

And it turns out she wasn't actually the Hero of Ages either.

There are, I assume, a lot of directions Sanderson could have taken the book. The end of the world was already looking likely. There was presumably room for an open-ended “ending,” or just something far too confusing for me to grasp. With two main characters dead, there was no shortage of ways he could disappoint me.

But I've come to realize that character, even prominent character, death won't spoil a book or series for me if the thematic conclusions are strong enough. Sanderson went with “none of the above,” and over the remaining nine pages, unfolds something moving and spectacular.

It might be hypocritical of me to judge each book in the trilogy on its own merits. I appreciate books one and two more when I read the Lord Ruler's secret identity and the voice inside Zane's head as unique parts of their characterizations, not just vague forces stringing the characters along and giving them ten pages at the end to actually do autonomous things. Even Vin realizes that “Ruin couldn't have spoken each and every time” something occurs that's similar to Ruin's known activities. I prefer to enjoy each book separately, realizing that some of Sanderson's broken expectations were not what I wanted. Others of them, however, were, and the overall effect blew me away.