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Mistborn impressed with the way Brandon Sanderson explored the roles that beliefs and legends play in shaping the destiny of nations, while at the same time showing an awareness of exactly how easily such heroic figures and the noble movements they inspire can take a U-turn into evil.

Mistborn's protagonist, Kelsier, understood that in order to have a hope of success in overthrowing (or even presenting a challenge to) the reign of the nearly omnipotent Lord Ruler, he would need to build an entirely new legend around himself, to the risk of alienating his closest companions, and then play that role out to its inevitable end. I suppose it's the sort of grandiose gesture you'd only get away with in an epic fantasy novel, or a religion. But this, I think, was Sanderson's point: that a legend's power is not in how closely it mirrors reality but in how it presents an oppressed people with a sense of hope, and throws in a few brave sacrifices to close the sale. Yet there is always that ever-present dark side. The Lord Ruler himself was once such a hero, ridding the land of a menace known only as the Deepness. How can one who saves the world go on to become its most fearful tyrant? Is it just all down to the old saw about how power corrupts? Or is there more to be said?

For much of its length, The Well of Ascension shifts thematic gears. It concentrates less on heroic legendry and more on the brutal, practical realities of leadership. With its marriage of spectacle and suspense, compassion without bathos, action, pageantry, and canny observations about the perils and responsibilities of power, the value and the naivety of trust, and how the best way to confront harsh truths may not always be the way that gratifies one's ideals, this book is a knock-it-out-of-the-park home run for Sanderson with bases loaded. The man is at the top of the field and the top of his game with this one.

With the Lord Ruler vanquished by Vin, the street thief turned powerful Mistborn, governance of what was once the Final Empire has fallen to Elend Venture, the bookish idealist whose compassion for the downtrodden skaa peasant class and devotion to such ahead-of-their-time concepts as equality and justice makes him a rather unorthodox nobleman. Elend's egalitarian approach to his reign as king is threatened not only from within — by the bickering members of an elected assembly created by Elend, few of whom take him seriously — but from the army that has just camped outside the city walls, led by Elend's megalomaniac father Lord Straff Venture. The city of Luthadel is poorly defended. But what ultimately holds Straff at bay is the approach of a second army, led by one of his rivals, the blustery Lord Ashweather Cett. Before long, a third army approaches, this one consisting of the fearsome, bestial koloss, bloodthirsty trollish mutants created by the Lord Ruler to sow terror wherever he needed to control and subjugate an unruly people.

Though Elend shows more than ample courage by risking riding into Straff's camp to parley, it is not enough for the assembly, who depose Elend, ironically, through a law the young king wrote himself. Now there's a growing tension in the air as everyone waits to see what the outcome of events will be. Will the city be handed over to Cett or Straff? Will one of the invading armies attack and weaken the other, or will the koloss savage them both? Or will one invader allow the other to invest the city, and then move in once both they and the city are weakened? And what of other matters, such as the fact the omnipresent mists that blanket the land at night seem to have more of a sense of purpose, and are causing sickness and death in a way that can only be called deliberate? And if, as some begin to suspect, these mists are a manifestation of the Deepness thought to have been vanquished ages ago, could it be the late Lord Ruler was not the Hero of Ages after all? Is that hero still due to arrive? Could it be Vin, or someone else?

Because we have come to care for these characters so much, the story's inevitable spiral toward disaster gives us a personal stake. And Sanderson keeps more than one surprise up his sleeve despite this sense of inevitability, helpfully subverting such well-worn fantasy clichés as the "one," the savior archetype destined to deliver us. Even the element of the tale that most risks getting too sentimental — Elend's and Vin's mutual fear that events are pulling their relationship apart — manages to steer clear of excess, enhancing our sympathy for our beleaguered heroes. Sanderson makes some of his villains sympathetic as well — such as Zane, Elend's half-brother and a Mistborn himself, working for (and against) Straff — by letting us in on their very human weaknesses.

This counts for a lot, because what Sanderson is writing with this trilogy — and arguably, what he has spent his career to date writing — are superhero stories. Sanderson's antecedents as a storyteller are as much Siegel & Schuster, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as they are Tolkien, Howard, Jordan, and anyone else he claims as an influence. Like Elantris before it, the Mistborn trilogy is about a special class of people with incredible superpowers (Vin flies through the air, runs faster than a speeding locomotive, and leaps tall buildings at a single bound) who are called upon to defend regular folks from the forces of evil. Sanderson gets away with it by combining comic book tropes with an inventive system of magic involving metals and their alloys. But in the end, they're superhero stories all the same. Just damned exciting ones.

The Mistborn trilogy is thinking-fans' escapism. The Well of Ascension plays around with formula, gives us a strong cast to whom we develop a real emotional connection, allows for plenty of cud-chewing on the subject of political conflict in times of crisis, and climaxes in some stupendous action spectacle and a lead-in to the final volume that manages to raise the stakes even higher. It delivers everything epic fantasy should.

Followed by The Hero of Ages.