Mistborn Era 2 in Retrospect

Alex Kingsley

If you’re at all connected to the SFF world, you’ve probably heard that Brandon Sanderson just released The Lost Metal, which concludes the Mistborn Era 2 series, part of his fictional universe called the Cosmere. So what is the Cosmere, why does it have so many die-hard fans, and why is The Lost Metal worth a whole series-retrospective essay?

The Cosmere refers to the shared universe in which a number of Sanderson novels take place. However, most of the series takes place on different planets in the Cosmere with entirely different environments, cultures, magic, and gods called “shards”; the characters are mostly unaware of their interstellar neighbors. The magic system on each planet of the Cosmere is distinct, but as each series goes on, it becomes clear that all of these individual magic systems are based around the same underlying rules, similar to how Earth has a different environment than Mars, but the core rules of physics still apply. Once characters gain the ability to “planet-hop,” the worlds start to bleed into each other. The effect is an expansive universe unlike any other fantasy series — many worlds and types of magic interconnected with overlapping characters, concepts and gods, making for a choose-your-own-adventure reading experience à la Discworld

If you’re going to read Sanderson, there are just some things you’re going to have to make peace with: names that are absolutely ridiculous (the protagonist of Mistborn Era 2 is named Waxillium Ladrian and that fact keeps me up at night) and prose that isn’t literary but gets the job done. What you get in return for accepting all of this is an incredibly intricate magic system that is, for lack of a better word, super fun. Every Sanderson book gives you the distinct feeling it was written by a chemistry major (it was.) The magic systems in the Cosmere often have a basis in real science, which means on occasion the story pauses for an in-depth discussion of actual particle physics, or an explanation of emulsifiers. To some readers this technical detail may feel overly technical, but for readers like me who want to know exactly what the stakes are and how the magic works, it provides a setting where I feel completely grounded in the world. 

The Mistborn series in particular is built around a unique idea. Sanderson asks: what if we gave this world a magic system, and saw how that magic evolves over the course of history? Think Avatar: The Last Airbender and the way the world changes in Legend of Korra. The original trilogy feels very much like a standard epic fantasy world— there are kings and lords and horses and peasants and castles. There’s also a magic system called allomancy, based around metals and their alloys.  Fast-forward four hundred years, and you get the steampunk-western setting that serves as the backdrop for Mistborn Era 2 — the same magic, now with four hundred years of research and technological development behind it. By the second series, characters that were “just some guy” in the first series are now figures of mythology and legend. Just like the “Industrial Revolution” branch of the Discworld series sees the fictionalized invention of contemporary concepts like postage stamps, paper money, and rail systems, Mistborn Era 2 takes a world we saw in its dark ages and incrementally introduces electricity, gunpowder, and cameras to it. The effect is a kind of Brechtian alienation— we see a world that looks in many ways like the United States of the early twentieth century, except the usage of allomancy has developed alongside technology. The result? Intentionally or not, Brandon Sanderson has produced a scathing critique of capitalism.  

(Please note that the following contains minor spoilers for Mistborn Era 2.)

Every “shard” that rules over a planet in the Cosmere represents a different concept. Mistborn takes place on the planet of Scadrial, where there are two shards — Preservation and Ruin. Together, as one person, they are a dual god called Harmony. In The Lost Metal, Harmony is challenged by a new shard looking to take over the planet: Autonomy, god of rugged individualism. Sanderson may as well have made the antagonist of this story Ayn Rand. Worshippers of Autonomy strive to prove themselves to their patron god. In theory this should “breed innovation” (as many capitalists will be quick to tell you), but, instead, Autonomy’s followers end up copying each other in hopes of simply being the best. This supernatural plotline works perfectly in line with the industrial revolution happening in the capital city of Elendel: we see businesses built around the monetization of allomancy, political corruption reminiscent of the United State’s Gilded Age, the rise of imperialism as the people of the Elendel Basin discover indigenous groups, and most notably, the rapid development of weaponry. As the people of Elendel grapple with the ethical quandaries that come alongside technological development, the gods of the Scadrial have a similar conflict on a cosmic level. 

In a genre dominated by white cishet protagonists, it’s nice to see Sanderson show some care in the way he includes underrepresented groups. For instance, I was surprised but delighted to find a lesbian wedding is a minor plot point in The Lost Metal. When the discovery of a fictional indigenous group was introduced as a plotpoint in The Bands of Mourning, I was worried things would take a turn for the imperialist. As it turned out, Sanderson avoided a lot of the tropes of fictionalizing a native people by depicting a well-developed culture without “othering” or exoticizing them. This is not to say he is beyond reproach in this respect, just to note that the depiction didn’t fall into typical white savior tropes. The most glowing example of good representation is Steris, an autistic protagonist in Era 2. Every autistic Sanderson fan I know is in love with Steris Ladrian. At first portrayed as cold and calculating, Steris is slowly revealed to struggle in her interactions with other people, masking her social discomfort with aloofness. She compensates for her anxiety with constant planning, listing, and budgeting. As the series goes on, Steris’ idiosyncrasies become crucial to the larger plot. Essentially, her autism becomes a strength that saves lives. 

 One drawback to Mistborn Era 2 is the prevalence of the police. The police in the fictional city of Elendel do not have the same history of racial violence as the police in the US. That being said, much of the aesthetics of Elendel do resemble US cities in the early twentieth century, and the political plotlines seem to nod to the US Gilded Age, so it’s not a far leap to connect Elendel’s constabulary to the US police force. Ultimately the constabulary is not completely a force of good in the series — there is nuance. It just makes it difficult to root for protagonist Marasi, well-developed character that she is, when you know that she’s a cop in a country that’s sort-of-but-not-quite America. 

The Lost Metal does avoid the common pitfall of many detective and police novels that frame perpetrators as a force of evil and cops as a force of good, which furthers the narrative that police are always justified.

“Nearly every man I’ve had to shoot?” Wax says to Wayne, “He had a story like yours…But if you create a world where fewer boys grow up alone…well, maybe you’ll have fewer [criminals] to face in the future.”

This is not just a story about good guys fighting bad guys. It acknowledges the systemic issues that lead to unrest, which in turn leads to crime, and advocates for addressing those systemic issues. At another point, Marasi reflects:

Lock a man in prison, and you might stop him from committing crimes. Teach a man to respect himself and his community, and you stopped everyone he might have taught, recruited, or bullied.

Essentially, she is advocating for reformative justice, a surprisingly anti-incarceration take from a police officer. Sanderson does not shy away from the nuance of the criminal justice system in his fictional world, and in doing so, asks the audience to reflect on the criminal justice system in our own.  If you’ve considered leaping in the Cosmere, Mistborn is an excellent place to start, especially now that it’s got two completed series under its umbrella. Just be prepared to meet characters with names that are, unfortunately, very, very silly.

Alex Kingsley is a writer and game designer currently based in Madrid. They are a cofounder of the new media company Strong Branch Productions, and the creator of sci-fi comedy podcast The Stench of Adventure. Their fiction has appeared in Radon Journal, Sci-Fi LampoonStrangely Funny, and more. Their SFF-related non-fiction has appeared in Interstellar Flight Magazine and ASPEC Journal. Their games can be downloaded pay-what-you-will at alexyquest.itch.io. Find them on Twitter @alexyquest.

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This article was an unsolicited pitch; the author and editors are acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Alex Skopic. ARB did not arrange review copies for this piece.

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