The Magic of the Mistborn Trilogy: Simple Yet Versatile
Welcome to Part 1 of Why I Love the Mistborn Trilogy
It’s time to confess, I love Brandon Sanderson’s fiction.
I’m sure this comes as a shock to many of you… a few of you… maybe.
Scandalous revelations aside, Sanderson has been one of my favorite authors for nearly a decade now, and I think it’s high time we took a closer look at some of his work. This post will be the first in a series I have creatively titled Why I Love The Mistborn Trilogy. Over time we will look at all the elements, quirks, and twists I love so dearly in those books.
Full disclosure: this series will focus only on the original Mistborn Trilogy and the magic they contain.
Seriously, you shouldn’t be surprised at this point.
The Magic is Simple Yet Versatile
This might seem like a basic concept to fall in love with. Honestly, simplicity such as this is something many magic systems, mine included, struggle to achieve. As soon as my brain gets churning, the complexity of things tends to explode.
Developing a such a simple system takes talent, creativity, and restraint. And that’s only part of it.
Not only is does every metal possess a distinctive and unique effect, each power also possesses plenty flexibility in their use. This allows Sanderson, the characters, and the readers to be creative and explore possibilities without deviating at all from the table.
This makes the magic powerful
When I say “powerful” I mean this system has the strength to stand on its own and irrevocably capture the reader’s attention and imagination. This is true for all three, yes three, of the systems present in the Mistborn Trilogy.
Alloymancy, Feruchemy, or Hemalurgy all share the same metals, resulting in three systems each with sixteen unique effects for each of them (more if you count the god metals). By designing the system this way, Sanderson limited the size of the magic to something manageable for him to use and for the readers to follow.
I know a system with forty-eight different effects sounds far from simple. This could be a problem, but Sanderson novels are two to three times the size of most books and he did an outstanding job spreading the learning curve across the entire series.
In fact, The Final Empire focuses on Alloymancy (with a few spoilerific exceptions) and primarily displays Atium and the eight basic metals (steel, iron, pewter, tin, zinc, brass, copper, and bronze). A few others are introduced but receive little “page time”.
In the wrong hands, this still could have proven too much for a reader to easily follow, but because each power is specific and easy to conceptualize, it becomes more gripping than off-putting.
As simple as the powers are, each also possesses a vast array of special twists and manipulations the characters could implement for variety and utility.
The Coinshot, for example, can “burn” steel to push metal away from themselves. This basic concept allows everything from using coins as deadly projectiles, launching themselves through the air in great arcs, and deflecting metal weaponry.
Pulling off this balance of simplicity with variability is hard to manage.
Make things too simple and the magic will become a bland technique your characters perform as needed for the plot.
Add too much variety and variability, you run the risk of building a system without limitations, thus creating a potential for overpowered characters and plot holes
Here’s the good news: Sanderson did it, and you can too.
Next time you sit down to build a magic system, focus on keeping the scope small and easy to understand. Once it’s all in place, explore the individual pieces to find how they can be moved and twisted about.
Who knows what special alloy of magic you might end up with as a result.