Setting Study: Mistborn’s The Final Empire

The second novel of Brandon Sanderson’s career, The Final Empire, is a high fantasy book taking place in the titular Final Empire, led by the tyrannous, immortal Lord Ruler. Rebellions of the past have always failed, but rebellions of the past never had Kelsier, Vin, or their team of Mistings and Mistborn.

As usual, these setting studies offer a summary of the many different facets of world-building for those who like to learn about magic systems but don’t have the time or inclination to read this particular series. Additionally, it will at least serve as a setting review. My next rapid book review won’t come until the first week of March, because I wanted to do all of the romance books at once, so my spoiler-free review of Mistborn will be tacked on then. But I find it fascinating how various setting elements can work with one another, and so I will be considering how well the specifics of world-building interact with each other, from its magic system to class divisions to the different cultures. Warning: spoilers abound for The Final Empire (Mistborn #1).

Particulars of the Final Empire

The history of the setting can be divided between what existed before the Lord Ruler’s rise to power and what existed after he united the various lands. What is known about the before is minimal, what few records were saved by people known as Terrismen, who I shall discus a little further below. The Lord Ruler has been in charge for the last thousand years, adjusting the way he rules his empire until he found a way that made the most productive in-fighting. The empire is divided into multiple dominances, although anyone who is anyone lives in the Central Dominance; specifically, Luthadel, the capital. For those who like to reference maps, fear not; my copy, at least, had two: one of Luthadel, and one denoting the dominances of the empire.

Climate

A nicely added touch to the setting is the climate. It explores a presumably post-volcanic eruption, one big enough to affect the entire empire. Frequently, one of the main characters, Vin, is confused at the mention of green plants and colorful flowers; constant “ashfalls” leave everything gray and dreary. The amount of soot one is exposed to–how free of it one’s buildings are, or how clean one’s clothing is–offers one visual distinction between the classes. The soot can also be used as erasure art, clearing it away to make pictures.

A second setting element would be the mists. Their origins, like so much else, remains a mystery at the end of the first book, but hidden within them are creatures called mistwraiths. They are eerie creatures that absorb the bones of the dead, grabbing random features of the dead creature. It might have the body of a horse and the arm of a person. Frequently, they have an overabundance of arms and legs. From mistwraiths can form kandra, though how it’s done is left unclear at the end of the first book.

A Rigid Power Structure

Society is divided into two groups: nobility and “skaa,” the latter of which is the peasant population. Whether or not the skaa are a completely different breed of human winds up being something of a philosophical debate. As a result of their supposed differences, skaa are treated terribly, underfed, overworked, and subject to the whims of nobility. They can be murdered with impunity, and the women can be taken to bed by any nobleman so long as they are killed afterwards to prevent bastard children. I have a hard time believing that the noblewomen–several of whom seemed to enjoy a good power trip even more than the men–did not partake in the latter as well, although the regulations for such interactions were never mentioned.

In reality, the only notable difference between skaa and nobility is that allomancy, one of the magic systems, is only in the genetics of the latter. I’ll get more into the specifics of allomancy in my discussion of the magic system below, but essentially, only nobility are capable of having magic. This is why having bastard children is such a danger: for skaa women to mother an allomancer is to give the skaa population a leg-up in any rebellion.

The politics of the power structure does get a little more intricate, of course. Most skaa are not well-off, but some are more fortunate than others. Those who offer their services to the Final Empire, primarily through service to the Garrison, are considered traitors by regular skaa but don’t seem to be the subject of constant, sudden beatings and are presumably at fed a little better. There are Terrismen, too. Terris used to be one of the many countries that populated the now-empire, and its people have been nearly eradicated because of the Lord Ruler’s ire. Those who remain are little better than skaa, serving as stewards.

As for the nobility, the financial status gives credence and power to specific families. Those who can afford to have an estate in Luthadel are considered the most powerful. Yet their dealings are checked by an entity called the Ministry, of which there are four branches, or “cantons.” They serve as the back-bone of the policing force, and ensure that deals made between Houses are honored. Presumably, this makes sure that even the nobility don’t get too big for their britches and try some rebellions of their own, although from what I understand, the Ministry recruits from the younger sons of noble Houses.

The whole point of the infrastructure is to keep everyone too gloomy for rebellions, but as will be made abundantly clear throughout, there will always be room for hope, and where there is hope, there is always the risk of rebellion.

Class Distinctions

Obviously, with such distinctive class divides, the ways of life for both are vastly different. Skaa live in crowded, broken-down houses. They don’t get money for their work, but rather “food tokens” to pay for meals. Who pays for their clothes or their housing isn’t explicitly stated; one must assume their employer does. Their clothing is obviously soot-stained and threadbare, the houses are crowded, and the food lacks any real nutrition. “Baywraps,” which are just boiled barley and vegetables put on flatbread, is most often mentioned.

While there is only one language spoken in the book, I do want to add that there is a near-unintelligble dialect for the poorer skaa. It’s exciting, because various dialects aren’t usually considered for a fantasy world, and I have to say, the dialect itself is so difficult to understand it may as well be another language entirely. It’s street slang spoken in Luthadel, mostly by a character named Spook. Why Vin doesn’t understand it when she ran with thieving crews in Luthadel–why the thieving crews didn’t speak it, either–isn’t clear, so who exactly speaks the language is unspecified, but at least it’s considered.

The nobility, by contrast, live their lives in excess. Their dresses and suits are expected to stay free from soot. There is music, dancing, and reading. Every night, one of the noble families throws a ball. Of course, the balls are also a place for constant political maneuvering. The women, at least, are usually wrapped up in some scheme or another. The more powerful Houses use the women of the lesser Houses, and the women of the lesser Houses are supposed to be proud at being used at all. Who is writing any books, or playing music for the balls, or making any artwork at all is never really clear. It’s obviously not the skaa, so one must assume the nobility are doing it in their spare time.

Allomancy and Feruchemy

Both magic systems are entirely reliant on metalwork. Allomancers ingest a certain metal to “burn” it, giving them specific abilities. Feruchemists, on the other hand, wear these metals and store specific things within them.

The eight known metals for allomancy are divided into four separate categories, with the pairs serving as opposites of each other. One “pushes” while the other “pulls.” Furthermore, of the four pairings, two act externally on an environment while the other two pairs have an internal effect on people. For an example of the former, iron “pushes” the user away from a metal source and steel “pulls” the user towards a metal source. This allows for some cool visuals of characters “flying” like magnets through spaces. For an example of the latter, copper “pulls,” creating a cloud that protects allomancers from its opposite, bronze, a “pushing” metal that allows people to see allomantic pulses.

Mistborns are nobility who can burn any of the allomantic metals and use them. All at once, even, if they so choose. Mistings, on the other hand, can only burn one metal. It’s easy to see the logic in how the internal metals are separated. The external ones are more entangled. Vin and Kelsier both use iron and steel with an easy interchangeability that allows them to move quickly and unpredictably. How someone who could only burn iron might use their powers is something that isn’t explained well. Even less distinctive, perhaps, is that of brass and zinc. Brass allows an Misting to soothe emotions while zinc enables another Misting to riot them. But with how entangled emotions can get, it’s hard to really quantify how a brass-burning Misting might really do anything of note, or a zinc-burner either.

The Feruchemist Keepers

Feruchemy is bound solely to the Terris people. The same metals are used by feruchemists, but rather than burn them, they use the metals to store things. Iron stores physical weight (muscle) and steel stores speed. Copper stores memories whereas bronze stores energy (like the caffeine kind). Whereas allomancers are limited in how much metal they have stored–they only have the specific abilities until they’ve burned up the metals they’ve ingested–feruchemists have far less limitations. So long as they’ve stored enough to support it, feruchemists can be far stronger than allomancers.

The drawback is that storing these abilities require thinking ahead and, at least for some of the metals, putting oneself in a state of weakness to harvest the abilities and store them for later. To store youthfulness, one must spend a certain amount of time in an old body. To store wakefulness, one must spend time exhausted. The biggest feruchemy ability mentioned in the book is that of storing memories. There are Terris “Keepers” who store and preserve memories, passing them down so they are not forgotten. It is thanks to Sazed, one of the gang, that we learn of a plethora of religions that used to exist before the Lord Ruler, several of whom persevered surprisingly long into his reign out of that pesky thing called hope.

The Hidden Talents of the Dreaded Lord Ruler

The magical capabilities of the Lord Ruler far outstrip any other character in the book. He is said to have a sliver of the power of the gods and it is believed that he is impossible to kill. In addition to his immortality, he’s shown to have such a strong Soothing ability that he can make the whole population of Luthadel feel depressed and hopeless, and he even claims to have shrugged off a beheading. We are shown a complete disregard for spears being buried in his chest, but the beheading stretches credulity, and one might wonder if that is just rumor intentionally spread to make rebellions feel even more hopeless.

It’s revealed that the main source of the Lord Ruler’s power is that he is a Terrisman, but, further, he can use allomancy. Burning regular metals provides a finite source of ability, but burning feruchemist metals allows for a vastly larger pool of power. The only real limitation is that, same with feruchemy, the stored metals can only be used by the person who stored it. Because he’s had a thousand years to do so, the Lord Ruler has quite a lot stored up, allowing him to be the dangerous figure he was implied to be.

Conclusion

Sanderson was able to create a unique fantasy setting that only walked the line of what could be considered “traditional.” The concept of the nobility was not particularly inspired, but burning metals certainly made up for it, and the specifics of the climate added a nice flair that would have been easy to downplay or forget altogether. However, the magic system especially could have used some more definition, especially in regards to the extent of the Lord Ruler’s power. Because he fell in the span of a single book, it makes one question if Keslier’s and Vin’s group truly was the only one that could have defeated the antagonist. There is little that is unique about their group that could not, by happenstance, have been found in rebellions earlier in the Lord Ruler’s reign. Beyond that, though, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the various, minute details of the setting interacted with one another.


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