The premise of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson is simple but instantly engaging: what if the dark lord won? The novel takes place a fantasy world when the main villain, an evil and powerful magican, holds dominion over the world. The Lord Ruler is a distant figure, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings and Voldermort in the early Harry Potter novels, but is ever present in the society he holds dominion over.
Despite the familiar setting of a medieval-ish society, the world-building was interesting and original. Magical power in the Final Empire comes from burning metals. People with these abilities, known as Allomancers, consume small amounts of metals such as iron, tin, copper and steel, and can then use their alchemical power to move objects, enhance their vision or do other magical things. It was a struggle to keep all the different metals and their effects straight in my head, but this didn’t distract me too much from the story and Sanderson is able to explain the world without bashing the reader over the head with the details. There are other bizarre and interesting creatures in the novel. Such as the terrifying Steel Inquisitors, creatures whose supernatural power seems to derive from the metal spikes driven through their eyes.
The politics of the world are more interesting than the fantasy. The story of the novel follows a plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler and the world it is set in felt like a believable society where people live under the constant oppression of an authoritarian ruler and his enforcers. the political and economics of the world is relatively simple, but I was still able to believe this a functioning society.
Similarities to the Russian Revolution
The story of the revolution against the Lord Ruler and the plot the protagonists set in motion is the most interesting and engaging thing about this novel. The world of the book felt like Tsarist Russia before the February Revolution. The all-powerful leader is unpopular and abuses his powers. He has to go, but who can replace him? How can they make it happen?
The majority of the plot takes place inside the resistance movement, which also felt like a believable operation to install a revolution, albeit a plot aided by magic. One of the truths of authoritarian tyrants we know from our world is that people will resist. There will be plots to fight back, no matter how hopeless things look.
The story unfolds in an original and interesting way. Through several scenes written in the first person, we get the story of the Lord Ruler and how he became who he is. It is interesting that the back story of The Final Empire is Lord Ruler going on the archetypal fantasy hero's journey: being born the son of a blacksmith and then rising to be a great hero, defeating a terrible evil to fulfil a prophecy. The twist is that the Lord Ruler becoming a tyrant afterwards, but a benevolent ruler. Towards the end of the novel, I expected there to be a twist as to the Lord Ruler’s identity, which is kept secret from the reader. There is a slight twist in this regard, but I expected more.
The protagonist and leader of the plot against the Lord Ruler, Kelsier, is a good hero but a little generic. What is original about the story is that Kelsier dies during the middle of the novel and goes on to become a symbol of revolution, achieving more in death then he did in life like many larger than life icons of revolution such as Che Guevara.
What happens after the Revolution?
The other characters were interesting, especially the other protagonist a woman named Vin who has a more complex journey as she learns Allomancey while also learning to trust others. The novel also made me have sympathy for the few noble characters, the people around the Lord Ruler who despise him but also profit from his regime. This made the story more complex than a straight forward good guys and bad guys morality story.
The ending of the book was satisfying. The Lord Ruler is killed and his regime is overthrown. Although there are still many Steel Inquisitors in the world with a great deal of power. Overthrowing the ruler is only the first stop of a revolution; now the leaders of the coup have to tackle the social and political problems of the land.
What will happen when the revolutionaries govern? Will it be like the Russian Revolution? A brief movement of hope for a better world before descending into terror. Will the story of life after the Lord Ruler be as complex as real-world revolutions? I’ll have to read the other books in the Mistborn series to find out, however, as a novel that describes the first mile on the road of revolution, this book was a captivating read.