I’m in the middle of reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. I’m not precisely loving it; I don’t dislike it, either, but I was expecting to be more wow-ed by it, given how much love it’s received from fans and critics and such. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks trying to put my finger on why I’m not really jazzed by it. I have a theory: I’m not impressed with the villains.
I don’t know about you, but villains are often my favorite parts of any given book/movie/show/play or whatever. I like Othello over Hamlet because I find Iago so damned fascinating and Claudius rather dull. I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Hook, thought Cobra had all the coolest vehicles, and would rather command a Star Destroyer than own the Millennium Falcon. Bad guys – really cool bad guys – make or break a book for me.
So here’s the thing with the Mistborn Trilogy: It is a world where the Dark Lord actually won and, a thousand years later, everybody been’s living under his thumb. When I saw that on the book jacket, I was pretty damned excited. “Oooo!” I thought, “This book oughta have some pretty fantastic bad guys.” Turns out, not really. I mean, the Steel Inquisitors are pretty cool, but they never do anything to get my blood going. They torture some folks with hooks, they execute a bunch of innocent people (by beheading, which seems a bit passe), which is okay, but they never hit me in the guts hard enough to make me either want them dead or think they’re awesome. As for the Lord Ruler himself? Well, turns out he’s mostly just grumpy and tired of people’s crap. His Obligators? They’re fascist bureaucrats, yeah, but they seem to spend most of their time observing marriages and enforcing laws. Unjust laws, yes, but, I don’t know, not evil enough, right? This is a world under a thousand years of darkness, right? Where are my mountains of skulls? Where are my cauldrons of blood on every street corner? Why aren’t I scared of these guys? As for The Well of Ascension, the worst folks get is Straff Venture, and he’s mostly just a callous jerk and cruel father. He’s no Darth Vader.
For me, villains run in two varieties. They either make you hate them so much you need them to get justice or you won’t be able to live in the world anymore or they make you so excited with terror that they’re the most awesome guys in the book. Let me list off some of my favorite villains that fall into either category:
Villains I Love to Hate: The Seanchan (The Wheel of Time), Cersei Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Freys (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Others (from Lost…early seasons), The Bondsmagi (Lies of Locke Lamora), Gollum, Wormtongue and Saruman, Arthur Donovan (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and so on.
Villains I Just Love: Darth Vader, The Forsaken (Wheel of Time), The Nazgul, The Druchii (Warhammer), Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Blofeld (of James Bond fame), Benjamin Linus (from Lost), JR Ewing (Dallas), Dr. Doom, Darkseid, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), and so on and so forth.
The Mistborn Trilogy, for as cool as the heroes are and for as much fun as Allomancy is, doesn’t have villains that fall into either category for me. This means the heroes are striving and fighting and struggling against enemies I find somehow underwhelming or the threats they pose seem abstract or indirect, rather than visceral and horrifying. There is nobody pitching lovable little Bran out a window on page 35. What we’re given is institutionalized cruelty on a social level. This is, of course, every bit as cruel and terrible as pitching a little boy out a window, but it doesn’t always feel that way. It is very easy to disassociate oneself emotionally from the cruelty of social institutions. That is why, after all, so many social institutions are cruel in real life. Sanderson, of course, is making a statement about the cruelty of social institutions; his work is, on some level, meant to be political and religious critique. I can appreciate that, of course, but that still doesn’t engage me.
I need my bad guys to pitch kids out windows on a whim, simple-as.
How can a people who have so much always be trying to get things? Where are they going to put all the things that they want? If their house burns down or is washed away in a storm, how will they carry the things away? Why, if they have so many things, are they so upset when one of the things is taken or goes missing?
I have seen so many starving humans steal small things from rich humans and then get badly punished for it…by humans different than the humans who were stolen from. This makes no sense. Why do those humans care if the rich humans are robbed of the tiny things they shouldn’t need anyway? Why don’t the rich humans, if they are so mad, track down the poor humans and kill them? That would make much more sense. This way is stupid.
Humans always seem to be getting other things to do their jobs for them. They have ‘servants’ who are supposed to bring them food. They have ‘armies’ who are supposed to kill their enemies. They have ‘courts’ who solve their problems. In the Taqar, we solve our own problems. If I am hungry, I kill something and eat it. If there is a gnoll who has angered me, I hit his face until he admits I am in charge. If there is a dispute, I wrestle with the other one until I win or I lose, and that settles that. This way is simpler.
Perhaps the trouble is that there are so many humans and they all live in the same place. The human nomads who live on the Taqar are more like us than their sea-dwelling cousins, though even they are strangely obsessed with owning and controlling things. Perhaps if humans spread out more or had fewer pups, everything would be better. Then, though, a lot of humans would have to die. This usually upsets them. Not always though. Why they cannot leave their dead for the birds and rats is also very confusing. All that trouble to bury or burn perfectly good meat? If they did those things on the Taqar, they would probably starve.
Anyway, the only thing I have is a human sword and a gnoll sling. The sling is more reliable, and I don’t need to worry about it rusting. The sword, though, is useful for killing humans, which I have to do a lot. I am frightening to them, which is the smartest thing about them, and it is useful to kill them from time to time so they know not to trouble me. I carry their skulls around, which is annoying, but I got tired of trying to explain about all the ears I had collected. The skulls do not need explanation. They still say I am a bloodthirsty monster, but they would say that anyway without the skulls, and at least this way they know that if they try and touch me, I will rip off their heads and wear them on my belt. This lets them know where they stand, which is good for all creatures to know.
In some ways, it is unfair that the humans fear me so much. They are far crueller than I am. I do not kill pups, or those bearing their tiny human litters. I do not kill those who have not harmed me. I do not steal from those who have little. I do not destroy things unless I have good reason. How am I the monster, then, when I have seen human armies torch poor farm villages and sell the survivors like they were things? This is cruelty.
I may be a bloodthirsty monster, but at least I am not cruel.
Kiril kacked a guy once with a riot gun. Guy specced-out in full body armor, armed to the teeth, and Kiril kacked him anyway with a gun spits rubber and plastic. Never scanned the protocols on how that was done, affirm? TRACI tells me you can’t do it; I rate her advice priority 1a when it comes to killing. Kiril, though, is different.
Kiril’s Rooskie, or was, anyway–none of us laid our courses much by the Powers that berthed us, affirm? Anyway, he was a lot older than he looked; spent decades on slowships during the last Big War, dreaming of chumps that needed killing. We never ping Kiril on his age. You don’t chat with Kiril, affirm? That’s like making nice with a tiger or something.
Kiril and TRACI have a special bond. Like, a covalent one, affirm? He and the bitch run the same protocols, plot the same courses, spec the same regs. Hard to tell where he stops and TRACI starts, sometimes. Whisper is Kiril’s a Battle-Gen gone loopy; Rooskie Big Shots made him disappear or something after, dunno, he ate a bus full of kid or blew up his mom or some shit.
Anyway, the riot gun. Riot gun is the mass of your thigh, affirm? Metal, ceramics, and plastic construction; pre-loaded, disposable. CAs’ll pass ’em out to their enforcers if the colonists get uppity. Any grade-zero chump with crossed eyes can shoot ’em so long as he’s got hands and a working index finger. They fire tight bunches of rubber shot and ceramic slivers at high intervals. Not specced to kill, affirm? Make you wish you were, though.
We’re on an Op–standard smash and grab, low mortality protocols, dusty little bunker complex on some sandbox sphere. It’s a Chinese facility. We EMP their snoopers from orbit as the pod is inbound, drop a flak on their heads to keep them inside, then hit ’em before they’ve got the perimeter running green. Runs clean. Viper rails the hardpoints to let ’em know where their smooth course lies. Nobody gets shot. My kinda action, affirm?
Kiril, though, is shit-top pissed. Doesn’t cast anything except to ask “These fucks know kung fu?” He asks it six times. You can see what he’s thinking, like it were on beacon.
Kiril’s on what Viv calls ‘The Ride’. It starts when TRACI makes you her bitch; it ends in a pile of corpses. Seen it happen before, but not from the beginning. Just the end, when a guy named Mugoni ran through an airlock with a grenade and a bulkhead cutter. By the time we caught up, there was nobody left in that can in less than ten pieces. You couldn’t float down a single corridor without inhaling some chump’s blood.
Kiril finds his chump. Officer, probably–flat sniffer, peepers like black rocks. He’s running red, affirm? A buncha convicts and social outcasts have pissed on his country’s honor. He’s ready to throw down and Kiril clears him for action, affirm?
“You know kung-fu?” Kiril asks. His console translates into Choppo for the chump. Chump eases himself into some kinda stance. Looks menacing. Looks like the vids.
Kiril puts up his mitts. They fight, but the chump isn’t reading this action top-down, affirm? He thinks they’re having themselves a duel. He thinks this is the vids. They throw for a second or two, lock, then officer chump is thrown down. He rolls to his feet like the ground is rubber, faces Kiril, and that’s when Kiril stuffs the riot gun in the guy’s face and pulls.
Chump ain’t dead, affirm? Riot gun is kinda like a rubber eraser dragged across his face at mach 1–loses his eyes, nose, lips, most of his skin. He’s got plastic splinters stuck in his skull like darts in a board. He starts to scream, that’s when I turn away. I hear Kiril empty all three of the other barrels into the chump. He belays the screams, downgrading to a kind a bubble-bubble.
Kiril crouches over him and whispers. “All those years for kung-fu. What a waste of your fucking time.” We can hear it, clear as day; the comlinks are still live.
When we left, Viv wrote up the report for Barry and left out Kiril’s part. They registered that action anyway (they always do). Action rated Kiril two black marks–violation of mission parameters, misuse of corporate property. Like I cast you before, riot guns aren’t for killing.