Friday, March 31, 2017

#CBR9 Review #4-6: The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

Including: Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages

A back-to-back read through of the three novels in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (as a part of a bigger series and world created by the author). This trilogy presents a world with many of the seeming aspects of what would be considered “high fantasy”, but without as much of the convolution and excessiveness what sometimes comes with those types of epics. That is not to say that there aren’t many characters (there are, but it’s a good amount), or that the world itself that is created feels too small or not real enough, but everything seems to fall into place very nicely and is followed without much difficulty or needing to go back and re-study any events, locations, or characters. It may have also helped that I pounded through these three novels back to back, but still! There is enough mysticism and magic to make it interesting, but also a set of logic and rules to the magic which makes things not feel too fanciful (save for maybe an incident or item here and there).

But what is it about? Mistborn begins with a young girl named Vin, who is living as a street urchin within a city of the Final Empire. This land is governed by a man known as the “Lord Ruler”, who has ruled for over a thousand years, and is basically a god of this land who orchestrates almost everything. There is an intense class-divide between the nobility and the common folk (known as the “Skaa”), many of whom work on plantations and are severely mistreated by noble overlords. Vin herself is skaa, but she is recruited to a team of skaa/half-nobles, etc, (led by a charismatic man named Kelsier, who I 100% pictured as Oscar Isaac, and you can fight me about it, I picture almost every lead male as Oscar Isaac nowadays) that have a plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler who has been acting as a tyrant over the land for centuries. Nothing goes without him knowing or approving, and in fact, the people and technology have hardly progressed at all over the course of the Lord Ruler’s rule, which is part of his overall plan, no doubt. There is a prophecy about a “Hero of Ages” one day taking over and saving the world from a deep, dark power within it, and this band of misfits thinks they can get the ball rolling to overthrow the current government. Oh, and of course, it doesn’t hurt that a lot of the members on the team are known as “Mistings” who each have a certain ability when they ingest and “burn” a particular type of metal in their stomach. All, of course, except for Vin and Kelsier, who are able to use all types of metals for all the available abilities; they are therefore known as “Mistborn”. These Mistborn are decedents of the nobility, and as such, many of the nobility in the Finale Empire also possess these talents. In any case, this first novel follows Kelsier and his crew as they try to overthrow the empire, as well as Vin while she comes to learn of her new skills through Kelsier’s mentorship.

Spoilers ahead, for the novels following Mistborn, though they will be minor:

The second novel, The Well of Ascension, therefore, follows the aftermath of the first book. Vin continuing to get stronger and more skilled than many other Mistborns (she is apparently very small and doesn’t seem very intimidating and yet, is one of the most powerful members of the crew). After the first novel, there is a lot of uncertainty about what happens now, and many other nobles and families want to gain power for themselves. After one battle, the crew must prepare for war, but now they have gained some noble allies (including a gentle love interest for miss Vin, named Elend).

As these battles and the uncertainty of who is to rule continues, more damage can be seen being done in the world, as the Lord Ruler’s power and specific controls over things (some of them positive to keep the world running) start falling short, and we come to learn of a greater, more threatening power that may in fact cause the end of the entire Final Empire. The third novel, The Hero of Ages, thereby focuses on the group of characters as they try to learn about and defeat this new and elusive power that they didn’t even realize they had set free during the course of their other plans.

What is great about these novels, is the thought that went into the overall plot; it doesn’t have too many odd deviations, and there is some trickery but it never feels like a boasting, “haha! You were FOOLED!” being aimed at the audience (*side-eyes the writers of ‘Sherlock’ as they jack off to their own cleverness at writing*). There are twists and surprises, but for the most part everything seems to make sense, or at least have some kind of reason behind it. This is also largely due to Sanderson developing rules and logic to his “magic” as presented in the form of Allomancy and burning metals in the body. There are things that can and cannot be done, as well as extensions of these powers still being learned, yet still following particular rules and having limits.

Another positive about this series is that the characters do feel like real people who are all different and have strengths and flaws. However, some of them seem to progress and grow more than others, while some seem to stay the same to the point where they are almost caricatures of themselves. The strongest characters, however, are three of the main ones, in Vin, Elend, and a terrisman named Sazed, all of whom confront and deal with internal conflicts, and have different layers inherent in them, as derived from their very diverse upbringings and history. For instance, Elend is forced to change his nature based on the situations he is placed into, and Vin who has grown up to be hard and untrusting comes to find trust and also to accept a feminine side to herself which she had previously seen as perhaps a bit frivolous. That is a great thing about Vin, in that she is somewhat of your more “masculine” and stoic female hero, hardened by life, yet she still indulges in more typically “feminine” things which a lot of female heros will shirk or shy away from. And not to mention that Elend and Vin are essentially placed on the same level of power and importance with one another, each trusting the other to do what they think to be the right thing, which is great to see in relationships being presented for people, as it really creates a great sense of equality and not one partner domineering over the other (something that I sometimes find to be lacking in a lot of fictional relationships today, which… I don’t know, maybe doesn’t always send the right message?). I mean, the only thing I could maybe disparage about the main characters is that they perhaps take to things a little too easily (they are extra strong, extra good at learning their skills without really having to try much, etc etc) which can sometimes get annoying in characters today, but here it didn’t really detract that much for it to be a big issue for me (unlike my reaction to Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, where it actually got on my nerves after a while).

I did worry, however about one thing in regards to Vin… SPOILER WARNING!!

That is, when the crew is learning about the Lord Ruler, they believe they are reading his story, but the one prophesized to be the savior actually had his place taken by someone else at the last second. After spending so much time watching Vin’s journey into being a hero, I was scared for a hot minute that as a parallel to the Lord Ruler’s story, someone else was going to swoop in and take her place and glory. Ie, some man was going to take this lady-hero’s heroic moment (possibly Elend or another minor character, Spook, who had a pretty interesting arc in the third novel). But all was good. I mean… there is some stuff with Sazed at the end, but we all know that Vin is the star here, hence her position on the front of the novels.


Overall, I very much enjoyed this Mistborn trilogy, and would definitely be interested in reading more from Brandon Sanderson’s series. Though I maybe just need a little break in-between with something else before I jump back in. (I’d hate to grow tired of it, after all, which I find sometimes happens when I keep reading the same series back-to-back for too long). Definitely worth a read, if you haven’t picked these ones up already!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Soft Heroes are the True Heroes and I Will Fight for Them

People who hate on "soft" heroes in movies/series are the worst. You know the ones: the people (particularly men) who watch an action or adventure movie but complain that Frodo Baggins is too "girly" or Luke Skywalker is too "winy and weak". There is a preference and trend in action movies for the hero to be super stoic (with some exceptions: ie, Deadpool), super macho, and hyper-masculine. They have no fear and are therefore seen as brave and heroic. But I would argue that being fearless is not true bravery: bravery is when you act and go through with things despite your fear. How can you be brave if you are never afraid and are always confident that you will win or make it to the other side? Being uncertain, but still choosing to act and do the right thing is what makes someone brave. And it is for this reason, that I absolutely adore the "softer" heroes that so often get put down in favor of your more typical macho hero, because these are the ones that show true compassion and seem more human and relatable at the end of the day. I mean, the literal point of the character of Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon is that he is small and not as adept as the other Vikings, and yet he is the hero because of his ability to think outside the box and form connections with the dragons, rather than running in guns blazing: heroism comes in many forms, and can be achieved in many ways, not just by punching your way through a problem. 

I lost my mind at this point of the movie, I am WEAK and it's BEAUTIFUL.

Hey, don't get me wrong, I love the big burly action man in a lot of things too. The Fast and the Furious series is one of my favourite action franchises, but if I'm being honest with myself, I connect more to the gentler type of hero in most things. And so, here is my ode to the soft action hero. The true heroes. Let's take a look:

Just a couple of guys... being dudes... amiright?
What are the biggest complaints that you hear about Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings trilogy? That they are too small, weak, they need help to finish their task, are too girly (or in some cases you hear the words "pansy" or "gay" thrown around like insults). They are not the typical heroes, but is that not the point of their characters? Frodo is chosen to carry the ring because he is just any other guy: "I will take the ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way." He is willing to take it, even though he is not experienced, and he is chosen by the fellowship simply because he is unassuming in stature but big in heart. The others choose to help him, and in the end we see that this story is not about being the biggest and strongest person in order to fulfill the task, but by being willing, and by joining together with others. Is this story not about brothers in war? When Frodo needs Sam to help him at the end, this shows us that sometimes we need others and together we can find strength. We all hate that guy on the sports team who seems to forget his teammates are there, so why would be scorn a hero who does the same or doesn't admit when they might need a hand? People always say that there is a bravery in asking for help in this world that tells us to just saddle up and do things without complaining (particularly when it comes to mental health), so I like seeing this reflected in our stories and in our heroes as well. Not to mention that Sam and Frodo are two grown men who are shown being affectionate, hugging, and clearly loving each other without throwing in some kind of "no homo" or "just a couple of bros" phrase? This shouldn't be so astounding and yet, it is. (Because masculinity is fragile when it comes to showing affection for your bros, didn't you know that that's obviously gay? *cue the eyeroll*)

My friend told me I was Luke Skywalker. True.
What are the biggest complaints we hear about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars? He is whiny (which, admittedly, he is a little bit, but aren't we all?), he's too emotional (like his father before him?), he is--once again-- seen as weak. But that's the beauty of Luke Skywalker: he connects with people, and people love him. He's a great guy who wants to do the right thing, and when faced with his father at the end, he continues to appeal to him and forgive him throughout their interactions, despite that fact that they are physically engaged in a fight. We often see the hero do a quick little "you don't have to do this" speech and then give up, but Luke doesn't: he continues to tell his father that he doesn't want to hurt him, that he understands. And it's because of this, that he effectively saves everyone, as his father ultimately comes to perform the final act of destruction in the Empire. Why do emotions and compassion have to be considered weaknesses, when the reality is that they can lead us to connecting with and understanding those who oppose us? 

Those are just two examples for now, but there are even a few modern heroes that appear to be the super macho and hyper-masculine type, yet still manage to shows signs of this softness that I want to see more of. Matt Murdock may be considered "the man without fear" in Daredevil, but in the Netflix series, we see him straight up crying because he's in a fight with his best friend. How often do you see things like that in action stories? Steve Rogers may go through a huge physical transformation in Captain America, but once again, his character was chosen to become Captain America not because of his stoicism, but because of his heart and want to do the right thing, despite that fact that he may not be able to do it; it's truly something when someone is willing to get into a fight for someone's honor when they know they will probably lose. Because really, is it brave or just machoism when a guy gets into a fight that he knows he will win and can therefore show off his skills in? Steve Rogers continues to be himself, even after his transformation, choosing to let himself get hurt by his best friend, in the chance that he may find his way back to his mind. That part of The Winter Soldier messed me up, y'all. And you KNOW that in The First Avenger, even if he was still "Little Steve" and hadn't gone through the transformation, the second he heard Bucky was captured, he would have walked to Austria to save him without any special enhancement. That's the kind of guy he is. That's why I love him.

I've been speaking so far about this trend of looking down on the gentler male heroes, but don't think this action hero trend doesn't extend to women as well: in most cases, in order to be a female hero, the woman has to shirk most aspects of femininity and also be seen as "hard" and unemotional. You've heard the joke about how a lot of dystopian YA books nowadays focus on a girl who "punches things and changes the world?" Yeah. I'm talking about that. You want examples? I got your examples:
- Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is the epitome of stoicism, mistrust in emotion, and dislike of the feminine. Okay, so the big dresses she has to wear for the pageantry of the Hunger Games she partially dislikes because they are impractical, but still, there is a distancing from typical femininity which makes her accepted and presented as the action hero. 
- Tris in the Divergent series (not unlike Steve Rogers) is small and unassuming, but has to learn to become hard and fight in order to become the hero of her own tale. 
- Natasha Romanoff shows a bit of vulnerability while being captured by scary men at the beginning of The Avengers, but this is all an act to get information. She drops this persona like the flip of a switch and just uses it for manipulation. Because she'd never really be afraid of a bunch of men, right? Because tough women never experience that feeling, hahaHA!
- Alice in the Resident Evil franchise, as well as Selene in the Underworld series are hardly characters: they are machines made for punching and kicking, all while looking sexy doing it. 

In fact, I have a hard time thinking of a lot of examples of female action characters or heroes who don't just use femininity or do "girly" things as a part of an act or costume. One that does come to mind, however, is Isabelle Lightwood in Shadowhunters (the show, not the books it's based off, as that's a whole other can of worms), who chooses to dress sexy and in heels, stating that anything a Shadowhunter can do, she can do in heels. And that's great --yet also impractical and I'm scared for her ankles-- but there is still this feeling that the femininity is being weaponized in a sense, and not just there because, well, she's a girl who likes these things. Your sharp eyeliner and lipstick doesn't have to be warpaint, your heels don't have to stab men, and your thighs don't need to crush men's skulls. We don't need to twist the things that we like that are seen as feminine into hard, violent metaphors in order for them to be respected, or for us to be respected for liking them. I wear lipstick because I look good in it, you fools!

The one female protagonist in an action series that I can think of is Buffy Summers, who is unapologetically girly because she wants to be, and this is not seen as softness or weakness, and is also not turned into a weapon. Also, shoutout to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, who may not not be an "action hero" but is also girl, soft, and emotional, but also strong in her own way. She works her butt off to get into law school and fights to be respected despite her image, but never compromises or tones herself down in any way in order to fit in. She is a true icon. 

Or as Sarah Michelle Geller's character in Scooby Doo says, "I love being a girl".

I guess what I'm really getting at here with everything, is a question as to why everything has to be so hard and unemotional, in order to be considered strong. I personally think that our emotions and our ability to feel, express, and deal with them give us strength. Stop punching your way through all of life's problems. Sure, muscles and physical ability can help to be a hero in some situations, but that is not all that makes one. 

And so I want to leave off talking about one of my favourite protagonists/heroes that I've seen in recent years. One that many may consider to be too soft and not good enough to be a real hero. And that is Finn from the new Star Wars trilogy/The Force Awakens. I recently told some people that my favourite of all the Star Wars films was Episode 7, and they were confused. Among a few other reasons I listed, one of the biggest things that made that film for me was the character of Finn: Finn is a true hero, a breath of fresh air, and a ball of sunshine, all rolled into one. And yet, I feel like his character is not loved or appreciated as much as it could be. Frontrunners for favourite characters in that film were Rey, BB-8, and I've even had a lot of my friends thirsting over Kylo Ren (y'all, really? Oscar Isaac is RIGHT THERE!). But Finn? He's not up there. Don't get me wrong, I adore Rey and Poe and BB-8 and all the other characters, but there is something really special about Finn. And yet what I often hear about him is that he's too goofy, doesn't know what he's doing, complains that "there are no black storm troopers" (which... is the absolute dumbest thing people had issues with, I swear), freaks out at things and gets emotional too easily, etc etc. But these are a lot of the reasons why I love him and think he really is a hero for this franchise, and just in general.

Faced by an old friend calling him a traitor, he doesn't back down.
"But why, Lisa? Why do you think these things?" Ummm, have you SEEN my sweet precious angel, Finn? Is that not reason enough? Oh, you want some real discussion. Okay, well let's begin with the first thing, and that is that he is raised from childhood to be a mindless drone who follows orders and kills. He is not given the option to be afraid because he is supposed to just do what he is told and that is that. Yet, he defects from the First Order, because he doesn't like what he sees. He becomes a traitor to those he grew up with, and risks everything trying to get out. He is terrified, but does it anyway. Even later in the film, Han Solo asks him is he's ready for something, and he says, "Hello no." But is he going to do it anyways? Of course he is. Because he is BRAVE, and does what he needs to despite his fears. Do you think he could have ever admit that as a Storm Trooper? No way, he would have been told to not admit any fear or weakness, and to just do as commanded. Do you know how hard it would be to go against everything you've been trained and essentially wired to do since birth? It would be extremely difficult, and yet, here Finn is, doing just that. 

Furthermore, you would think that being raised as a Storm Trooper for the First Order, he would have to have a certain emotional distance between himself and his comrades, growing up in an environment where they are basically soldiers who could die at any minute. And yet, the death of a friend at the beginning seriously affects him. He let's it touch him and shape his next move. He grows attached to new people in his life in an instant, despite this probably being counterintuitive in the world he grew up in. He loves Rey and Poe, and is devastated when he loses his new friend who gave him a real name, as well as the girl who was taken by those he so badly wanted to run away from at the beginning. He is a friend first, and is there for the people he cares about, without thinking twice. Is it scary to let yourself connect so deeply to people so quickly, especially given the climate of the world at the time they live? Absolutely. But he does it anyways. Additionally, similarly to Frodo, Finn often has no idea what he is doing, but he steps up to the plate anyways. Because he knows someone has to do something, so why not him? We can't just let things slide and say that it's someone else's problem because we are scared or confused. We may need help with things, but that doesn't mean we should just walk away for someone else to clean up the mess. 

"Keep it, it suits you..."

Finally, there is a lightness to Finn's personality that you don't often see with other action heroes or protagonists. Everyone who is near him falls in love with him, and he exudes light. Also, he is goofy and funny, but in a seemingly more genuine way that is really connected to his emotions, rather than to a "comedy for dominance" stance. Now you probably wonder what I mean by that. Think of Deadpool, a character that I love who is deeply flawed but also very funny. Yet, the way he expresses humour is very different from the humour we get from Finn, whose lightness comes more from his emotions and true reactions to things. Deadpool's comedy is blatant and crafted in a way that makes him the funniest, snarkiest guy in the room (in the movie, especially). You also see that with other heroes and their deadpan or sassy comments: it's a power move. The assertion that "I'm cleverer and funnier and wittier than you are". And while I love funny people and humour in a lot of these movies (because not everything has to be so serious all the time), the presentation of Finn in a manner of being a genuine goofball is not only gentler, but also refreshing. It's a serious world with serious issues, but there can still be some light found in it. 

Consequently, I love Finn, and I wish we had more heroes like him. And I hear you wondering, "but Lisa, does any of this really matter what we see in movies and stories?" Well, probably not. But I can't help but think about the fact that with these depictions, there is this idea that you can't be heroic or idolized without being a big, muscly man who doesn't show his emotions. But where in our world do these situations really come into play? There are other ways to be heroes, which involves being compassionate, doing things despite being afraid, and standing up for what is right regardless of our physical abilities. And there is nothing inherently wrong with femininity and compassion, so why are these things being seen as weaknesses, or things that we need to get rid of in order to be strong? Why are we calling people weak and lame when they are getting the job done, just because they don't fulfill some prescribed notion of manhood and what makes a hero? Isn't the phrase, "not all heroes wear capes?" I don't know, guys I'm just tired of people taking a dump on the people and characters who are gentle, yet show you can still be strong in other ways. There's a beauty in that, and I think the world needs more of it these days.