This post, about the heroine Vin from the book Mistborn, contains minor spoilers for the series. However, it’s written so as to avoid spoiling anything that wouldn’t be on the back of the book, or a sensitively-written book review…but if you plan on ever reading the series, you should probably skip this post.
Mistborn books are classified as a “fantasy” series, which is the same genre that A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) and Lord of the Rings have. It’s under this presumption that I want to consider Mistborn, and in particular its protagonist, Vin. Mistborn certainly appears at first glance to be an epic fantasy – it has lords, houses, noblemen and peasants, land wars and racism, slaves, and medieval weapons, with a mysterious and revered magic system, a foreign land with just-short-of-Earth-like properties, and peculiar names. All of these are staples of the genre, but that all said, Vin (and Mistborn as a whole) goes on to defy the very nature of the genre, and in very interesting ways.
In order to consider these differences in a valuable way, let’s take a look at Mistborn through a postmodernist lens. Postmodernism rose as a direct response to “modern” literature as a formulaic, regimented, and specific science, challenging its tropes, inter-media ruleset, and trends. Modernism focuses on a respect, admiration, and sometimes sense of loss around tradition and ‘older’ art. In simpler terms, modernism is a slightly cynical view of modern art as imperfect, while calling to nostalgically remember history and older art techniques, which in effect created a dry traditionalism in modernist literature. Postmodernism, meanwhile, celebrated the “collapse” of traditional art and norms, reveling in unusual combinations, rule-twists, new systems of belief, and art (or literature) viewed from outside the scope of its medium’s history and technique.
Postmodernism calls to attention genre-blending, inter-text reference (rather than references on ‘real life’), and the distinction between “high” and “low” culture – between high class art and low-brow art, especially when the two overlap. Postmodernism likes to point out the irony in how past works have influenced modern works, with a tongue-in-cheek twist rather than reverence. Lastly, postmodernism appreciates literature that claims something is true not when measured against an external set of laws, but its own internal rules and criteria, established in that literature.
How do any of these apply to a fantasy book, or specifically Mistborn? First, let’s just talk about magic – for example, the magic in Harry Potter is plainly impossible, and for the most part, none of the rules established in that series could be guessed based on rules in real life. That said, magic in Harry Potter isn’t arbitrary, and is entirely consistent with its own rules, whether the reader is immediately able to discern those rules or not. Technology doesn’t work if there’s a lot of magic nearby, and spells are easier to cast with a wand and an incantation.
In Mistborn, the common people and peasantry (called skaa) rarely believe in the local magic system, called Allomancy. This isn’t helped by the fact that only the nobility has Allomantic powers (supposedly), and the nobility are said to be descendants of the Lord Ruler and his closest friends when he took the throne. The Lord Ruler is the god-emperor of the world, has ruled for over a thousand years. He is affectionately referred to as the Sliver of Infinity, the Father, and God.
Despite these superstitions, Allomancy is incredibly scientific – in fact, it’s basically a reinvention of chemistry, with a healthy dose of metallurgy on the side. I’ll keep this short, but the gist is, an Allomancer can swallow a specific metal or alloy (with exact percentages), then ‘burn’ that metal in their stomach to consume it as fuel and unlock a special power.
Yeah, you read that right.
Different metals and alloys produce different powers. Some allow the Allomancer to become stronger and tougher while decreasing fatigue (that’s Pewter), while others increase the Allomancer’s senses (that’s Tin). Iron and Steel let the Allomancer “push” and “pull” on metals in their environment, respectively, where the metal in question either hurtles itself toward the Allomancer or flies away. Any Allomancer can only burn one metal based on their genetics, with the notable exception of Mistborn, who can burn all Allomantic metals.
Having a logical magic system isn’t all that unusual, though it’s certainly worth pointing out in a postmodernist lens. That said, every angle of Mistborn’s world follows suit to rules in a very scientific nature, despite Mistborn’s science being radically different from our own. In the opening pages of the book, the world is described as barren and brown. Ash literally rains from the sky, spewed from huge ‘ashmounts.’ The sky is red. There are no green plants. Though all of these seem arbitrary (and bleak), each and every one has a completely logical explanation by the end of the series, which a smart reader could discern just from noting the world’s rules and drawing sensible conclusions. Even outside of obeying rules, Mistborn exemplifies postmodern critique. (Spoilers below)
Legends exposit that there was once a terrible evil, called the Deepness, that threatened to swallow the world, but a hero (of famous and legendary feat) rose up to defeat the Deepness. After uniting their kingdom and recruiting a band of unique and skilled sidekicks, this hero embarked on an epic journey to stop the Deepness once and for all, restoring peace to the land.
He failed. As a result, the Lord Ruler controlled the world for a thousand years.
This takes the formula of epic fantasy (and quite a few other genres as well) and turns it on its head; what would happen if the hero failed?
So where does Vin fall into all of this? Vin is skaa, a peasant, and a thief in a skaa crew. She’s a teenager, scrawny, and without a family (her half-brother abandoned her, a fact which she uses frequently to stay motivated to survive), who’s only really staying with her thieving crew to keep off of the streets, despite the constant beatings and neglect she receives from the crew-leader. As expected, Vin doesn’t stay in this position for long – when her crew-leader tries to scam the church (which worships the Lord Ruler, so naturally doubles as government), his plan almost fails, until Vin uses her mystical power to convince the church to fall for his trap. This power (now discovered) turns out to be Allomancy, which Vin was instinctively activating using trace amounts of metals from her silverware.
Allomancers who are also skaa are both incredibly rare and actively hunted by the Lord Ruler for execution. Vin is found by a team of Allomancer-skaa before the church hunts her down, and is recruited to their team, led by an enigmatic man named Kelsier. Kelsier is the only known living Mistborn skaa…until they discover that Vin has instinctively burned not one, but two metals, making her Mistborn too.
Mistborn (the book) follows Vin as she rises to her power and helps Kelsier’s team on the impossible mission to remove the Lord Ruler from his position of power – to dethrone God, effectively. During this, Vin practices and is found to be a natural with Allomantic powers, out-maneuvering even Kelsier with greater and greater ease. This is especially surprising to the characters in Mistborn because of Vin’s small frame and low weight; physical metals can’t increase an Allomancer’s weight, only use it to accomplish other tasks like ‘pushing’ on metal. If two Allomancers both push on each other’s belt buckle, for example, the heavier Allomancer will stay in place, while the lighter one will go flying backwards. For Vin (almost always guaranteed to be the smallest Allomancer in any confrontation) to be so skilled with Allomancy that she can beat Allomancers twice her age, with double her years of practice and double her weight, is unprecedented.
As Vin grows stronger and more cognizant of the world around her, she brings the reader with her to re-observe her world and learn its inner workings. Her nativity, and the skaa’s collective penchant for campfire stories and gossip, lend the reader to make certain assumptions about the world, while Vin’s growth in prominence allows her to learn new truths that illuminate the reader at the same time. This is an ongoing process throughout the series, and it invites the reader to ask the same questions that Vin should be asking. When a character does something unlike themselves, or when an event happens that appears to contradict the rules the book has set up, Vin and the reader should (and do) notice this at the same time and in the same way. Likewise, when Vin solves a ‘riddle’ and figures out a plot twist in the story or secret from clues she’d been trying to put together, the book waits a few pages before spilling the beans, and inevitably, the reader comes to the same conclusion just before Vin shows what she knows.
These twists play on tropes of fictional narrative literature as a medium, using techniques that readers have come to expect and dismiss as integral aspects of the story, and they are a large part of how Vin thrives through a postmodern lens. If a character like Vin suffered a traumatic loss at a young age, then heard voices of their lost person in their internal monologue (which helped explain their character, motivation, and thoughts to the reader), readers would accept this addition with little reservation as a narrative tool…despite the fact that the story would be blatantly saying that the protagonist is hearing voices in her head, something which normally constitutes schizophrenia or some form of insanity. Alternatively, if historians in a fantasy book talked about events up to a thousand years ago with the exact same government structure, social norms, technology, and land structure, readers would barely notice, as that’s a given in fantasy books…despite the fact that things like epic heroes and a powerful magic system would realistically speed up technological development, not prevent it entirely. Both of these examples and more are integral to the story and Vin’s arc – she notices these abnormalities as little as the reader does, albeit for different reasons, which perfectly sets up the twists and progression in her journey as a heroine.