Every now and then, it’s satisfying to pick up a good ol’ doorstopper. This saga of an underground rebellion against an evil overlord certainly qualifies, and it has a number of things going for it. For one thing, it has a well-developed and plausible system of magic, with specific powers tied to the use of certain metals. Several of the powers are showy, making for some fun action scenes, but Sanderson maintains a good balance between action and plot development. He also has created an interesting character in Kelsier, the leader of the rebellion. Kelsier’s motives for stirring up revolution are varied and, I think, fairly realistic. He wants to help the downtrodden common people, yes, but he also loves attention and adulation – and he nurses a personal and vitriolic grudge against the nobility. He’s confident – sometimes overconfident – and charismatic. I thought he was an interesting and believable leader.
Unfortunately, not all Sanderson’s characters are as developed. His main character, Vin, a sixteen-year-old street urchin, is likable, though she’s less interesting than Kelsier. And the rest of the characters are painted in broad strokes – one or two characteristic traits each, and no complexity. There’s also a rather disappointing lack of complexity in the development of the culture and political system of the society. The society’s politics is important to the plot, but its details remain undeveloped throughout the book. And unfortunately, at its most basic, Sanderson’s writing just isn’t that great. He can put together an acceptable sentence, but there’s nothing vibrant or compelling about his writing. The plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I wasn’t thrilled by the prose.
The book was a mixed bag morally as well. It has the basics right, of course – mass enslavement is evil, trust and respect are good. Attempting to overthrow the evil empire and bring freedom to the common people is an admirable goal. There’s a bit of ambiguity about the ‘careers’ of Kelsier’s initial band of recruits – they’re essentially professional robbers (assumedly robbing mostly from the nobility), and not particularly principled. Kelsier starts out the book willing to kill people from the noble houses indiscriminately and in service of his own ends, an attitude that does not seem particularly frowned upon by the author, though by the end Vin has convinced him to reconsider.
There’s a secondary character in the story who is a student of religions and occasionally attempts to introduce the other characters to religions which may appeal to them. When Vin asks him which religion he himself subscribes to, he replies with typical postmodern sentiment that all religions contain truth equally and that he accepts the truth in all of them. The follow-up question is obvious: if all religions contain truth, then what truth is there in the religion invented and imposed by the evil overlord, which falsely claims his own deity and involves the torture and murder of anyone who dares oppose him? But of course Vin doesn’t ask, and Sanderson doesn’t attempt an answer.
Content warning: The book is pretty clean, though there is occasional bad language and a few violent bits.