World Building

Historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, especially epic fantasy, have to create believable worlds--emotional, intellectual, physical realities inhabited by characters who live and breath their cultural imperatives as much as we do ours. True world building gives an author a taste of being God, and it’s a daunting task. It’s even more so when an author deliberately chooses to avoid things too obviously drawn from human history.

Too much epic fantasy over the decades has been derivative of J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Sorry, no elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, necromancers, wargs, orcs, or giant spiders here. Furthermore, epic fantasy has tended to draw too heavily from some sort of romanticized medievalism. Umberto Eco has discussed this sort of thing, calling them “medievalisms”. 

(At least with G. R. R. Martin, the brutal 15th century is not romanticized, nor can I pick and name the sources he’s used for his work. I could do that with Guy Gavriel Kay’s TIGANA--and I loved that book.) 

Not here. Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN series never once made me think of the Middle Ages. At most, I got vague images of much more modern history--18th century Atlantic slavery, Czarist Russia, or North American utopianism with a touch of egalitarian tyranny, Soviet or religious doesn’t really matter.

The physical world of Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN series is unnamed, is Earth-like, but is manifestly NOT Earth. Ashmounts spew their grey-white and later black ash into the atmosphere, the particulate matter producing red suns in the sky. The ash rains down upon people, plants, animals, and land, leaving it dirty and grim. Unlike volcanic ash on Earth, this ash does not replenish the soil. In fact, it leaves the plants stunted and brown. Pretty, ornamental plants only exist in nobles's gardens. Flowers are nonexistent, but alleged to have existed once, before the Lord Ruler. They seem more like a fairytale than a reality. 

Then there are the mists. They roll out at night, and the legends about they terrify the skaa. Within the mists are creatures of the night called mistwraiths, who form their skeletons from the creatures they consume. The mistwraiths are a non-sentient species related to a sentient species called the kandra, who take their form from the bones they consume and who serve humans via Contracts. It violates the First Contract to break a Contract with a master.

There are also koloss. They are a red-eyed, semi-sentient species whose bodies continue to grow even though their skin does not. Baggy skinned in youth, ripped up in old age. This assumes they get that far--twelve or thirteen feet tall--because they kill each other at the least urging.

The human society of the Final Empire is divided between the nobility and the skaa with the Lord Ruler and his government at the top. The Lord Ruler is believed to be a god, so technically, the Final Empire is a theocracy with a tightly controlled aristocracy with numerous privileges and frivolities and a completely subservient serf population that does most of the work. The instruments of control are obligators who enforce every law and contract and the Steel Inquisitors who track down the traitors and heretics. In this world, the two are synonymous. The Lord Ruler ascended to power a thousand years ago and looks set to go another thousand.

Before the Ascension, there were many human cultural groups. They’ve mostly been obliterated by the Lord Ruler and his Inquisitors. One group that has not, but has suffered persecution is the Terris people. They, their religion, and their Feruchemical abilities have not been snuffed out despite the best efforts of the Lord Ruler. The Keepers have been driven underground, but they are the means of remembering all the knowledge of the world. Those who are not hidden or displaced are eunuchs who serve noble houses as Stewards. It’s very fashionable in this world to have a Terris Steward.

This setup by itself could provide an interesting arena for character engagement and advancement in a fantasy novel. Sanderson’s not done. He provides a rock solid system of magic called Allomancy. It’s a nod to alchemy in its use of metals. An Allomancer “burns” a metal, such as pewter or tin, to fuel increased strength or heightened senses. An Allomancer who can only burn one metal is a Misting; one who can burn all the metals, Mistborn

The first rule of Allomancy--and by extension plot and characterization in these novels--is consequence. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

The Terris people have a complementary magical system--Feruchemy. It works with the same metals as Allomancy, but the metals are worn not ingested. Specific metals, such as copper, are formed into “metalmind” for the storage of specific kinds of energy. Knowledge is stored in copper; strength, in pewter. Again, the first law is consequence. If a Terrisman fills his pewtermind with his strength, he will be weak for a period of time afterward. 

Allomancy is a genetic inheritance of the Final Empire’s nobility. Whilst there can be interaction between these two sections of the Final Empire’s society--employment, ownership, and crime--it is illegal for there to be sexual congress unless the female skaa lover is killed the next day. Not everybody is law abiding--a nice touch of reality, that. Skaa who are Mistings, or more rarely, Mistborn, have illegal noble blood. If they survive, they end up on the margins of society, in criminal societies.

And this is where we begin in the first novel of the MISTBORN series--with the pulling together of a thieving crew by the great Kelsier, master thief and Survivor of the Pits of Hathsin. This fantasy series begins as a crime novel with the greatest score in the Final Empire as the goal of the crew. They’re going to steal the Lord Ruler’s atium, greatest of the Allomantic metals and worth a planet’s ransom, right out from the Lord Ruler’s palace. Got to admit, Kelsier’s got guts and charisma and, of course, a hidden agenda. His thieving scheme turns into a skaa revolution aided and abetted by an idealistic young nobleman, Elend Venture, who falls for the female member, Vin, of the crew. 

What happens when a criminal crew becomes a government? Can they govern? The answer is they do manage it. Everybody and everything changes, but only within their own nature’s flexibility. These are novels of transformation, each transformation being a consequence of thoughts and actions. One action of Vin’s unleashes a catastrophic power into the world that may destroy the New Empire--or not, as the new administration learns that everything has its place and its own power.

An original, well built world is a great treat for a reader. It’s a tapestry in which we can read a great story woven by great characters. It’s an alien world, ordered with magical systems, but one in which we can imagine ourselves. At the same time, we are challenged by hard questions, same as the characters are. Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here? What have we wrought? What are the consequences? 

 Copyright KG Whitehurst