I finally finished The Hero of Ages last night (reading on my husband’s Nook), and with it Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. The book finally becomes gripping in the last two hundred or so pages (the fact that it took so long is one of the common complaints I see among reader reviews at amazon.com).
Many novels build up a conflict that seems it will be very hard to resolve satisfactorily, and many of them fail at it, even though I like the books very much for other reasons. (Some of Jan Karon’s and Dean Koontz’s books come to mind.) As complex and far-reaching a conflict as Sanderson has created in his Mistborn trilogy – an end-of-the-world scenario with godlike forces at work (the more powerful of which is malevolent) presents a particularly difficult challenge for an author to resolve.
My immediate impression upon reading the ending was that Sanderson had done a very good job. Even the most surprising aspects fit in logically with clues placed throughout the trilogy – things that didn’t make much sense at the time but obviously were laying the groundwork for the finale. Nearly all loose ends are tied up (though readers do find themselves asking what happened to a character called Marsh), and the final events are literally world-changing. Whatever else it is, the ending is certainly not anticlimactic.
If anything, it changes too much. None of the major characters from the first book are left alive (well, unless you count Sazed, and he’s hardly the same person anymore). Nearly everything that makes up the physical and social environment in which people lived has changed drastically – I wondered if the metal-based magics (Allomancy and Feruchemy) that play such a large role in the trilogy would still exist. (Apparently so – a character called Spook is told that he is now a Mistborn, meaning that he has full allomantic powers.)
I suppose a book with an end-of-the-world scenario has few options. Once the final cataclysms begin, the only possibilities left are extinction or divine renewal (unless you count postponing the end a little while longer to count as a future). [I suppose a sci-fi book could add other possibilities, such as escaping to another galaxy or even an alternate universe, but Sanderson’s Mistborn world did not include such concepts.]
Reading through various reader reviews, I find it somewhat amusing that some people complain about Sanderson injecting too much religion into this final book. (I do agree that he overdid it with so many chapters on Sazed’s loss of faith and disillusionment with religion.) I found the questions about truth and faith to be some of the most interesting in the book, and hoped for some thought-provoking answers.
In terms of themes, I found the first book of the series to be primarily about hope. As hopeless as the rebels’ situation seemed, as impossible the odds of overthrowing the godlike Lord Ruler, their leader Kelsier inspired them to hope anyway. And somehow, they won.
The second book was more about trust. Vin and Elend had to choose whether or not to trust each other (or themselves). Elend had to try to earn the trust of the people he ruled (they ended up voting for someone else). There were always questions of whom to trust, and examples of the consequences of trusting the wrong people.
This final book is about truth and faith. Since somewhere in the second book, people were discovering that much of what they thought to be truth was not. In part, this was due to the efforts of the character/force known as Ruin, who turned out to be able to change the written word, unless it had been etched in metal. Then there is Sazed, who once studied and taught religion but lost all faith when the woman he loves died.
Sazed studies every one of the hundreds of religion once known in their world, and finds that every one is full of errors and internal inconsistencies. Having struggled with doubts about my faith for decades, I can certainly identify with Sazed’s struggle to find religious truth that he can verify. Finally, he comes to the conclusion that belief comes because one wants to believe, not because of being convinced that something is true.
I can see some truth in that – people who don’t want to believe, and to commit themselves to the consequences of believing, do not develop faith despite mountains of evidence. People who want to believe do so without a great deal of evidence. But all that ignores the question of the content of one’s belief, and whether it is true. Is Sanderson suggesting that having faith is in itself the answer, regardless of what one has faith in? Does it not matter whether one believes in a god or love and justice or of power and caprice?
At the very end, Sazed concludes that none of there religions were the truth, but all contained some truth. In his Mistborn world, where many of the religions focused more on knowledge or particular activities than on moral concepts, that might be true. And to the extent that a religion includes not just the concepts behind it but how they are embodied in the activities and teaching of its (fallible human) followers, I would say it is true in our world also.
But that leaves unanswered the question of how one knows what is true and what isn’t. However, that’s a very big question to which lots of people have offered answers, usually answers that satisfy only like-minded people. It’s not a question Sanderson attempts to answer, as far as I can tell, so I can’t complain because he doesn’t provide one.
Sanderson has apparently said that the conflict in the series is not being good and evil, as in so many fantasy novels. Some readers question that, as the conflict between Preservation and Ruin certainly appears to be between good and evil. Preservation is on the side of the good characters, Ruin is trying to kill off everyone, good or bad, and gloats about the fact that he can manage to make the good people work for his purpose as well as the bad ones.
The ending does not fully explore the relationship between the two forces, though it makes it clear that they need to be joined rather than opposing forces. Over and over it was explained throughout the book that Preservation could not create, only keep things as they were. Ruin is the force of change, and change is required for life to begin and develop. Sanderson makes some good points (implicitly rather than explicitly for the most part) about the importance of change and our need to accept it as part of life.