Fear is the mind killer, so burn brass

I recently read two books back-to-back and ended up comparing them the way you do when things are sort of similar and still fresh in your mind.

I first read Frank Herbert’s Dune. Somehow — or rather, intentionally to make it easier to sell posthumous related-media — the brand of the author has gotten ingrained in the culture enough that it takes quite a lot of effort to state the title or franchise any other way.

It is an amazing work of science fiction, but shares as many elements and tropes with fantasy that when I next read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, I kept drawing parallels.

 Mistborn isn’t a classic of fantasy, but the magic system is extremely well done. Ingesting different metals to fuel specific, narrow supernatural powers is new, and they all get creatively used throughout the book. Much more than the supernatural mechanisms of Dune, it makes sense.

But Dune is one of the best selling and most influential sci-fis of all time, and it deserves it because of all the little things it does better than similar works. The ecology is worked out and made understandable, which is important considering how central the global desert environment is to the story. Mistborn is set in a dystopian world where it rains ash and almost nothing will grow, either, but despite having several characters who farm, we don’t really learn much about the world except that it’s harder to grow stuff and things are dirty and dreary.

Herbert is especially good at using the epigraphs before each chapter to world build and simultaneously feed the reader confusing information about the direction of the plot, because they come from books written after the events of the novel, but it takes a while to be sure how such-and-such title relates to characters we’ve already met or it confuses us because we can’t see how they’re going to get from a current predicament to having history books or poetry written about them.

Sanderson does the epigraph thing, but it’s just the diary of one person, and the worst sin is that he makes the physical diary intersect with the plot despite there being no good reason why that diary, with its secrets that could ruin the powerful primary antagonist, still exists at all 1,000 years after its composition when everything else relating to it has been destroyed and the book has been in the antagonist’s hands all that time.

Neither book has characters that feel like real people, but in Dune, that seems like a stylistic choice, because it’s closer to a legendary tale than a proper novel in that way. For Mistborn, there were all kinds of little humanizing moments throughout, but non-viewpoint characters seemed to exist to move the plot forward and not much beyond that.

Finally, both books ended weakly, but in totally different ways that I assume are due more for publishing reasons than anything else. Dune is brilliantly paced all the way through, building tension until the worst happens, giving the reader hope when our protagonists start to rebuild and work toward achieving their revenge. Then in the last fifth of the book or so, there’s a narrative fastforward that seems to pack another novel’s worth of events into it, and otherwise important characters get introduced and removed, or both with only a few pages in-between. I can’t mourn the loss of an infant if I just heard about his birth the previous chapter, and it’s hard for me to feel much about a momentous confrontation when the primary antagonist gets killed by a new, magical person with undefined powers, and the Big Bad shows up and is dispatched without accomplishing anything to make that victory feel earned or worthwhile.

But Dune came out in 1965, and its first sequel took another four years, so it’s possible Herbert wasn’t sure he’d have a big enough hit to ever get to tell more stories in the universe and wanted to wrap up his story as introduced rather than dropping a possibly never-answered cliffhanger on all his readers. That’s certainly a better way to handle it given those uncertainties, although in terms of getting an obsessive cult following, letting readers obsess over their own possible solutions to your unsolved mysteries ain’t a bad way to go either.

Mistborn has the problem of finishing, then going on a bit more to set up the next book better. The Final Empire was published in 2006 and its first sequel came out about a year later. The whole final act is full of ‘Really?’ moments, including a couple of very bad dei ex machina.

Reading about where the story was going next, it makes sense that Sanderson had to resolve a few things in his first book before moving the plot to other concerns, so as a series The Final Empire had to do go on and remove obstacles even as an anti-climax so it wouldn’t trip up the focus of the next one, but as a novel, it really hurt the impact of what was a surprising and subversive climax (and proper finishing point).

Both are worth reading, and if Mistborn suffers in comparison to Dune, that’s only because almost everything does. However, the one frustrating thing about Dune that will stay with me in a way the other won’t is getting a conclusion that was logical and proper, but happened much too quickly. If it had been actively bad, I could use my self-editing to lop off the extra bit. If it was purely mysterious, I could answer it for myself in the most satisfying way. Instead, I got the abridged version, so I got all of the calories with none of the taste.

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