You know what? I’m getting tired about listening to myself talk about how to fix video games. I’m going to talk about caper stories.
Actually, I want to talk about a specific one! Mistborn!
I swear to god it’s not generic fantasy!
When people pitch the book to new readers everyone typically says the same thing: “Imagine Ocean’s Eleven with magic!” Then people invariably ask which version of Ocean’s Eleven the speaker is referring to and the whole thing degrades considerably.
Mistborn is a story written by Brandon Sanderson; yes that Brandon Sanderson, the one who saved Wheel of Time. The story takes place in a hypothetical fantasy world where… well the wrong person won the final battle. As a result an evil empire has dominated the entire planet for all of known history kidnapping and murdering anyone with a magical talent known as Allomancy and maintaining a population of destitute people.
Allomancy is one of three types of magic in the franchise. It allows a person (called a misting) to consume a single type of metal and thus gain a new or unique powers for a time. People who can use all metals are called mistborn. Hence the title.
The story is about a team of criminals who basically band together to overthrow this evil empire via a very elaborate con job. That’s right, they want to con the great evil lord into defeat. Work that one out.
There are a couple of reasons why this book and by proxy the entire trilogy (and subsequent novels) stands out for me.
The thing is… I don’t really ever see this kind of thought ever put into magic anymore. And it’s nice. Allomancy has a series of clearly defined rules and limitations as to how it is used and works. Despite the fact that, yes; magic by its very nature cannot be finitely understood, having a concrete basis for readers to follow puts a system in place and it shows confidence in the writer to not use it as a crutch. It isn’t a simple means to explain how something works or achieve resolution; it’s a tool to be used by both heroes and villains that simply exists like any other plot element.
I think this is one of the major problems with low magic fantasy settings. Because there isn’t a strong magical presence it’s a foreign thing that isn’t catalogued or understood. It’s often referred to as “soft” magic in that magic itself is simply a means to justify strange things. It is as versatile as the author needs simply because he does not adequately define it. While that’s good for setting the mood and making magic mysterious, it is now commonplace and I find myself longing for a book series that dares to have hard and fast rules when it comes to their magic system. Mistborn and its subsequent books fill that need.
But the most distinct part, for me at least, with this story is the idea of a caper story set in a fantasy world. In fact I want to see more high fantasy caper stories! I don’t think Sanderson has done enough with the concept for him to really hold any exclusivity on it. There’s something about a group of protagonists with diverse personalities attempting theft that adds a relatable touch to the fantasy genre. By dispensing with high-minded ideals the set pieces can become remarkably fantastic. A bar of gold is one thing, stealing the legendary sword of time from the chambers of infinite evil has more resonance. Ever since low magic fantasy has come tin
Albeit a bit sillier as well.
And so too does this work exist.