A thousand years ago, a hero whose coming was long prophesied set out to save the world from the Deepness, a force of ultimate evil. He went on a quest to the mythical Well of Ascension, the power of which would allow him to save the world from oblivion. He failed. Whilst he banished the Deepness, he was corrupted by his power and became the immortal Lord Ruler. He went on to conquer the world.
The Final Empire now spans most of the world. The majority of the people are slave-workers known as skaa, whilst a privileged few, the nobles (the descendants of the Lord Ruler's allies and cronies who helped him achieve power), rule in indolent luxury. The Lord Ruler's will is enforced by his obligators and the horrifying Steel Inquisitors, and all opposition to his rule is crushed without mercy.
In the Empire's capital, Luthadel, a man named Kelsier and his criminal crew is planning the ultimate heist. The prize is the rule of the Final Empire itself. To put together the operation he requires powerful and skilled allies and hires Vin, a young girl who has just started exhibiting the powers of the Mistborn, someone who can wield all the powers of Allomancy. Allomancers 'burn' metals to release magical powers. Most Allomancers can only control one metal, but Mistborn can wield all ten, and are formidable opponents. Vin's job is to infiltrate the nobility and gather intelligence on the opposition that is waiting for them, but soon gets in over her head.
The Final Empire is the first book in the Mistborn Trilogy. Prior to this series, Sanderson had won some acclaim with his promising debut, the single-volume novel Elantris, but Mistborn saw a marked improvement in his critical reception and led to him being offered the job of finishing the last Wheel of Time book following Robert Jordan's death.
The Final Empire was published in 2006, around the same time as Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora and Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself. Whilst in Europe the book attracted little attention - its first British edition isn't out until the end of this year - in the USA it was compared favourably with those other high-profile debuts. There are some interesting similarities with Lynch, as The Final Empire is also a 'heist' or 'caper' novel with a band of criminals out to pull a con, although in this book the con is a much bigger and more epic in scope. Direct comparisons between the two books beyond that are unfair, as their targets are very different, but broadly speaking The Final Empire is not as funny but is a bit more cohesive and focused on its central plot.
Amongst Sanderson's strengths are a finely-tuned magic system, which is logically and rationally explored. The notion of something eating metals (or, more often, drinking metal-specked liquids) is a bit weird at first, but it works quite well and some of the Mistborn abilities are quite impressive. The laws of ballistics are cleverly invoked to show how a Mistborn can, for example, 'fly' from one place or another by simply repelling or attracting themselves towards metal objects. Character-wise, the book is also strong. Vin is a decent lead protagonist, although her somewhat brooding and paranoid emo-ness at the start of the book is a bit difficult to get used to. Her character evolution over the course of the book and her graduation to the level of Total Badass is perhaps predictable, but nonetheless well-handed. Kelsier and Sazed are also strong protagonists, and the subtle way that Sanderson builds up the character of the Lord Ruler is very clever. However, Elend is a bit of a bland non-entity at this stage, and the other members of Vin and Kelsier's crew tend to blur into a morass of similarly well-meaning-but-decent do-gooders.
The story develops nicely and there's a very nice and clever twist in the ending. In fact, The Final Empire is almost a stand-alone novel, with only a solitary line of dialogue near the end opening the way for the sequels.
The Final Empire (****) is a strong and worthy addition to the ranks of the 'New Fantasy' movement. The writing is fresh and enjoyable and the setting impressively-realised. The novel is available now in the USA and will be published by Gollancz in the UK on 1 October 2009.