Magic Systems – Mistborn

My favourite part of any sci-fi or fantasy novel is the world building the author does, and in fantasy novels where magic is considered the norm nothing makes me happier than a well thought out and interesting magic system.  The rules of a worlds magic provide so much for a story, they give you potential foreshadowing of future plot points as well as a better look at the cultural and political situation the world is in.  Brandon Sanderson is a master at this, and nowhere is this more evident than in his Mistborn Trilogy.  Quick warning, I’m focussing mainly on the first book to try and minimise spoilers but cannot guarantee this is 100% spoiler free.

Setting a Cultural and Political Environment

In the first novel, The Final Empire, it is set up that these powers didn’t develop from nothing and the belief is that the Lord Ruler, the antagonist of the book, actually introduced it to the nobility in Luthadel.  This actually immediately sets up for us a look at some key political plot points in giving us a glance at the way the nobility and skaa, the lower classes, view the Lord Ruler.  They have deified him and believe him to be an aspect of God.  This is a terrifying concept, on the front cover of my physical copy of this book is the quote “What if the Dark Lord won?” and the idea of being in a world where you have no control over your situation in life and are ruled by someone who thinks themselves God sets a dark undertone to the rest of the novel.

This is then furthered when you begin to learn more about the magic system, allomancy, and the power that this Lord Ruler actually has.  Among allomancers there are two sets of people best summed up by the character Kelsier as he explains the system to our protagonist Vin:

“Mistings only have access to one Allomantic skill…if you have access to at least two of the eight, then you have access to the rest of them…you either get one skill or you get them all.”

‘The Final Empire’, Brandon Sanderson page 60-61

Mistings are the most common allomancers but of course what fantasy novel would focus on them when the titular Mistborns also exist.  Powerful beings able to use all the available powers, Mistborns are rare and actually considered to be flights of fantasy by the skaa.  They are the subject of fear and legend and clearly the Lord Ruler himself being God-like also has these powers including the ability to manipulate emotions, enhance your senses and increase your strength.

In terms of the culture, allomancy is considered the boon of the nobility with very few skaa workers having the skill and almost none being Mistborn.  This means that it is almost impossible for anyone to better themselves and also leaves poor Vin in complete culture shock as she has to go from living a nomadic life and working with gangs to a world of balls, etiquette and gossip.

What am I doing? she thought frantically.  She could challenge mist and Allomancy, thieves and burglaries, mist-wraiths and beatings.  Yet, facing these noblemen and their ladies…this terrified her”

‘The Final Empire’, Brandon Sanderson page 218-219

Allomancy and Metal

Of course, the really interesting aspects of allomancy come into play when you look at the way allomancers use their powers and how metals come into play.  When Vin first meets Kelsier he hands her a vial of alcohol that contains bits of the eight basic metals.  This is actually one of my favourite scenes as we see Vin’s intelligence at play as she makes him swirl the contents and drink first before she’ll even take a sip.  This is an allomantic vial and the source of the allomancers power.  Up until this point, Vin has only been getting trace amounts through the water in Luthadel and so finds her powers limited and requiring a lot of time to regenerate.  Taking that first vial though, it’s like she suddenly has an unlimited source and quickly begins to grasp some of the basics.

What is really awesome here is that the eight basic metals when examined further tend to be four pairs with a base metal and its alloy.  Each alloy essentially does the opposite of its base counterpart i.e. bronze lets you seek allomancers while copper hides it’s use and iron pulls you towards metal while steel pushes you away from it.  The iron and steel powers might be some of my favourites, especially with their descriptions in the book as Kelsier and Vin travel through the mists that cover the land.

Using coins and other sources of metal they push themselves away from lighter metals and pull themselves towards heavier metals all based on their own weight.  This gives the illusion that they have the ability to fly and when paired with Mistborn cloaks, cloaks made of dark grey ribbons of cloth, you get both an eerie feel to their travel as well as something quite awe inspiring to visualise.

“Vin pushed against the coin and threw herself into the mist.  She flew away from earth and stone, soaring through the dark currents of the sky, wind fluttering her cloak.”

‘The Final Empire’, Brandon Sanderson page 171

The freedom she feels using these powers and the comfort she feels hiding in the mists truly makes me feel for Vin and the struggles she has been through.  Her growth through the first book especially, and her full progression through the trilogy, feels earned through her own hard work.  The fact we are actually introduced to the magic system alongside Vin helps naturally ease you into the plot while giving you a reason to stay invested in the rules of magic.

Overall, the way the magic system of Mistborn shows the cultural and political dissonance of the world while giving us some beautifully written magic scenes is a magic all of its own.  Brandon Sanderson’s talent for setting boundaries that the plot needs to fit within while also giving his main character’s ways to grow and learn more about the world is why these books are ones I’ll happily go back to again and again.

Leanne Gallacher

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