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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Review: The Final Empire...or maybe a sort of rant too

Mistborn: The Final Empire - Brandon Sanderson

Triggered by a status update I made a few hours ago, although I meander around the topic significantly here, looking over this in retrospect.


I've written like 3 different reviews in the past and torn them all down.

Does anyone else get that experience? Sometimes you read a book, you write a review, you talk about it with other people...but even then there's something sort of nagging inside, but it doesn't fit with the perception of the book you've set for yourself so you push it away.

Odd how that works when the nagging feeling drags on foryears.

Or...hmm, let me put it this way. Does it ever feel like the way you read books is totally wrong, to the point that whatever method of reading and thinking about a book you use at the present moment needs to be broken down and replaced with something new?

Revisiting Mistborn, I think I've finally discovered what bothers me about it. It's the female characters.

I try to be super vigilant about female characters in fiction, but sometimes if I read enough cliche, archetypal works in a row, I start to accept it as completely normal and stop complaining about it in my head.

I think I first realized this when I started watching Chinese dramas about a year and a half ago. (Just bear with me here.) I love Chinese drama, but I've yet to find a work that doesn't use its female characters as supporting props for male characters. It is so explicit and in-your-face that it's virtually impossible to ignore, which brought to surface the problem that's been bugging me for a long time.

I find the same pattern in Mistborn. Female characters exist mainly to support male characters. Vin's first job is to help Kelsier, then when (view spoiler) it switches to Elend. Tindwyl's(?) sole purpose is to educate Elend and make him into a king--no story arc of her own, no emotional development, nothing. I never felt it for Vin either--that she ever got to be a hero on her own, on her own terms, realize who she was as an individual. This story can be viewed quite clearly in the context of girls working to glorify and develop the guys.

(I do feel that Vin is a sympathetic character for the most part; Sanderson at least gives her a personality, although it is unavoidably inconsistent when, again, it comes to interacting with male characters.)

This is especially weird, as Mistborn follows the pattern of the monomyth. Unfortunately, most female-centric monomyths fall into this pattern. The protagonist is a girl, but at the end of the day, it's still a story about some random guy that gets dragged into the mess, or multiple guys. Or a guy with an Agenda, like Kelsier. Or the girl's relationship with said guy(s).

Why then, you ask, did this torture you for years?

Well, part of it is that it's just so accepted. It's a template. It's a default authors fall back on when they have nowhere to go. So when I first reviewed Mistborn, I had no idea how to properly explain how I felt about it. I mean, yeah, Vin going all starry-eyed at Elend despite the fact that it's extremely unrealistic for her character to do so annoyed me to no end, but it seemed like a side complaint at the time, a blip in an otherwise very well-written story.

There's a problem with this, though. Aside from being an insulting representation of women, basically making their internal lives fucking disappear and all, it's predictable. It's a default. It's a cop-out route. It is terrible storytelling. There is just no legitimate artistic (or moral, evidently) basis or justification for this trend of female characters. Because sexism is often subconsciously internalized, I can deal with it if the story is still entertaining. Some of my favorite authors don't write the best female characters (mostly ones from the past, for obvious reasons). I even count Sanderson as one of my favorite authors (although I wouldn't call his works sexist per se, just that he's regurgitating quite a few stereotypes that the vast majority of authors fall into anyway).

Breaking gender roles, to me, is as much about interesting storytelling as it is about making men and women equal. A story's unpredictability relies largely on its ability to question the reader's assumptions. Thus, having characters (and I say this for BOTH male and female characters) break gender stereotypes makes for much, much more dynamic reading. We're surprised. We have our expectations overturned. We come away from the story with a much more humanized view of the world.

Following the same old gender-ed setups, on the other hand, is extremely boring. It's kind of painful to read a story where you can tell from the get-go that nothing will ever change, that specific characters will never acquire any depth, that certain plot arcs will resolve exactly the way you predict it will. I've found that writers who struggle with breaking the gender shoebox will also struggle to break the other storytelling shoeboxes--the ones of plot, world-building, and any other aspects with the potential to surprise. If you aren't imaginative enough to write women as real, fully fleshed out people, then it's hard to be imaginative enough to weave an overall story that leaves a lasting impression.

And really, it's the same thing in Mistborn. I did actually enjoy reading it very much, but the overall impression I take away is the feeling of a very woodenly developed story. It's fun to read, but it's easy to tell that Sanderson relies on some very cliche archetypes and habits without even trying to subvert them.

One thing I can say is that Sanderson does get much better than this--I think Warbreaker, The Emperor's Soul, and The Rithmatist are pretty good with not getting stuck in patterns. So I commend him for working on that.

I just hope that one day, genre fiction will pull itself out of this trend of having female-centric stories still inevitably revolve around male characters. Again: not just because it's insulting, but also because it is boring.