Months after finishing The Hero of Ages, I still catch myself lost in thought, imagining its characters and scenes or picking my way through aspects of its plot. It is the last volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I’ve written briefly about the first and second), and I think it’s near perfectly done. Rather than going on about everything I like though, I’ll just point out three things that seem especially noteworthy.
First, I loved that each book is complete in itself. In each one, a group of characters has a specific goal that will “solve all the problems of the world” [spoken with portentous voice and reverb] and in each book the characters overcome great difficulty to achieve their goal. Yet in the first pages of both the second and third book it becomes clear that they seriously misunderstood the situation, that their solution wasn’t in fact one, and that it may have even made things worse. This is not however a case of a successful book spawning sequels that undo the work of the earlier resolution of the plot with a twist in order to create more business. Instead, by the end of the last volume, it becomes clear that the characters are learning more about their situation and that incidental chains of events running through the early books are actually essential plot points in the later ones. In a sense, the characters think are in an epic fantasy—“grow up and become the hero who destroys the material embodiment of evil before the forces of good fall”—but by book three it’s clear that they have also (an perhaps more importantly) been participating unwittingly in a mystery novel and a political thriller from the very beginning.
Second, these books are not fantasies of individual victory. Individuals succeed throughout and these small victories are meaningful and exciting. But the story also confronts the reality of their failure, loneliness and death. Characters build relationships with each other only to be separated and forced to operate independently. Alone they make decisions in with little information, hoping that their relationships are trustworthy but without having any reliable ways of discovering if what they are doing helps or even matters. It seems to me that this aspect of the books echoes (but only echoes) the notion of glory in ancient Greek epic. (And in this regard, its seems worth noting that every heroic figure in this book ultimately dies valiantly in battle.)
Finally, this series, although heavily and carefully plotted, does not trod along telling what happens. Instead, it traces its plot, indicating it rather than detailing it. All of the pieces are there. The causal links are clear. The separate lines of action intertwine. (And by the last book, major events are happening in many different locations, each separated from the other and developing independently.) But the full implications of the plot’s complications and complexity are left implicit. Enough information is given to figure out all of the connections and nothing is hidden, but they are not stated directly. As a result, the story leaves room to imagine and explore what happened after you’re done moving through the first telling.
These books have helped me remember what great fantasy novels can be like and I can’t recommend them enough.