Re-Post — Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

Re-post review #2 with more commentary at the end.


Misborn is Campbell-nominee Sanderson’s second novel, and the first in an unknown-length series in the Final Empire. Basic premise: A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero emerged to save the world from ‘The Deepness’ — he did so, then proceeded to take over the world and be a jerk to everyone. The ‘skaa’ peoples were enslaved (note the extra vowel. According to EU Star Wars Corrolary #1, it means they’re all clones. It also means they are not in fact a whole race delineated by their taste in music.) and the Epic Hero turned Lord Ruler sets up shop as absolute dictator with rival noble families serving as his aristocracy.

Mistborn follows street-urchin turned Magic Wuxia asskicker Vin and Charming Rogue Revolutionary Kelsier as they fight against the Lord Ruler and his creepy-as-hell Steel Inquisitors, Terminator-like folks with steel spikes through their eyes.

The magic system of Allomancy is one of Mistborn‘s strengths. Allomancers come in two types — Mistings and Mistborn. Allomancers can burn metals in their system to invoke several different abilities. One enhances physical abilities, one enhances senses, others let Allomancers push and pull on metals (to achieve wuxia-esque jumpy mobility), and so on. Mistings can only burn one metal, while Allomancers can burn all 10. Guess which type our heroes are? The multi-metal-burning, wuxia-style jumping around no-metal-blade using types, of course!

It’s a solid ride, with well-realized characters and one of the more believable romances that still uses standby tale types. I got all the way to the end before realizing that there are only a handful of female characters in the novel with speaking parts.

Please pardon this digression while I rant:

ATTENTION, AUTHORS! — Just because (one of) your lead character(s) is male/female, doesn’t mean you can then get away with having (almost) no other relevant/prevalent male/female characters in the novel! Aside from Vin, there are about 4 important female characters in the novel, 2 of which are already dead, and one of whom serves no more purpose than to be a gossip.

This example brings up a piece of folk wisdom regarding gender representation. There’s a saying which holds that a small proportion of women in a mixed gender group will seem only slightly imbalanced, and a group with 40% of women will seem women-heavy to many. This brings us back to the default-ness of the male gender in many/most societies, and our lingering biases in how people react to women taking action, taking charge, or taking center stage. Many/most geek cultures have been traditionally male-dominated, while some geek cultures have traditionally been female-dominated (fan fiction writers, especially slash fan-fiction communities).

As the demographics change, with a larger number and larger proportion of women in many geek cultures, geek culture must deal with this unconscious bias, as well as the fallacies of tokenism and the valorization/objectification of the beloved minority. Companies/cultural producers take advantage of the demographic, putting attractive geeky women in positions as hosts/objects of fandom, e.g. Blair Butler in G4TV’s Fresh Ink series about comic books. On one hand, it’s good to see women as well as men in positions of note within geek communities, as cultural producers, consumers, or critics. On the other hand, it’s important to look behind the surface and ask questions about intent, motivation, bias and market forces. A female possible host may be just as knowledgeable about the subject as a male possible host, but by selecting the female host, the producers/network/etc. is both giving a woman the chance to exert agency/power in the culture, to give a different perspective, but they are also likely making that decision to further their own profit agendas by playing to demographics. None of these decisions are simple or without nuance.

In closing, I’m glad that Sanderson chose to portray a complex, fleshed-out female lead, but I’m unhappy that in exchange for that one well-developed character, he seems to have neglected to populate his story with more than a tiny handful of other female characters of note.

4 thoughts on “Re-Post — Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

  1. So, are you saying female hosts for things like you mentioned represent are an attempt to broaden demographic for “geek” things to women?

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you there. To me, it’s more like they realized money can be made on geek stuff, most geeks are dudes, so, “Hey, let’s get a hot chick to host it.”

    You can’t tell me that most geeks won’t watch something even vaguely geek related or even geek related that sucks simply because there’s a hot chick.

    Hell, that’s how Charmed managed to run for as long as it did. Once they added Seven of Nine Star Trek: Voyager managed to eek out several more seasons.

    To me, your complaint about the novel isn’t so much a geek issue, as it’s just a bad writing issue.

    But it’s still an insightful review, like everything else you have up.

    -Chad Eagleton

  2. Oh, I certainly agree that the fact that putting an attractive woman in as a host is at least partially because sex sells. I wanted to also look at another side of the issue, in that by putting women in those positions as sex symbols, they also (possibly unintentionally) provide opportunities for different voices to emerge in the culture.

    One of the ways to open up a community to under-represented demographics is to provide a person/way for identification. By bringing attention to several female celebrities in the geek community, women who might otherwise be ostracized or avoid the community might seek it out or embrace it more readily. Plus, adding female perspectives to a male-dominated community helps balance the discourse, just as adding the perspectives of geeks of color and geeks from around the world would/will/does.

    I agree that Sanderson’s choice is a writing-specific issue, but since it opened up a similar issue on the subcultural level, I wanted to meditate on it as well.

    Thanks for your comments, and I hope to have your input as the blog continues.

  3. I don’t think different voices will emerge until women are portrayed in a different way. I follow the notion that having more female characters will probably make women give something like Sci-Fi, let’s say, a chance they normally wouldn’t have given it before.

    However, to me I still feel that until women are portrayed different that’s not going to happen on a large scale. Let’s take this another route. Before blaxploitation (or soul cinema if you want to be more PC), if there was a movie with an Africa American role, chances are he/she was either a slave, a servant, or a shoeshine boy. That didn’t make African American’s go see movies.

    But, and lambast them all you will, as soon as things like Coffy or Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song came out African American’s went to the movies. Because for the first time they were seeing their own people portrayed in a more positive light as asskickers, as dudes who got the girl, as the man on the street who knew what was going down, as the guy who wouldn’t be oppressed anymore.

    I don’t think a chick as a sex symbol is going to draw vast amounts of girls in. If anything I think it’s off putting. Sure, if may get geek chicks to watch it, but…

    This is probably going to devolve into a Battlestar Gallactica battle, but to use that for a bit. It’s probably the sci-fi show I can think of with more female characters (at least who weren’t glorified waitresses, phone operators) than any other.

    The only sci-fi Maria has ever liked was Star Wars and Farscape (I had to twist her arm to get her to watch Farscape and once she gave it a chance she was glad). Initially, she really liked Battlestar. There were chicks! Starbuck was a little butch and badass and did her own thing. Now, and admittedly we’ve stopped watching it, she hates it. You can see Starbuck’s metaphorical penis systematically removed through story arcs, you can see her hair get longer, her arms get smaller, her swagger disappear, and ultimately her become sexier and really just want to be held.

    Most points of conflict for men in the show come from those damned women.

    Or another way to put it, to me, it’s like trying to sell women dish soap by showing a implant model covered in suds.

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