OSC’s heirs: The Runelords and Mistborn series

If you are the type of reader who enjoys the Mormon-tinged/themed elements in the speculative fiction of Orson Scott Card, the best two post-OSC series to read right now are David Farland’s Runelords quartet* and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

I would love to read some in-depth explorations of both of these works (and maybe even write it), but in the interest of sparking some discussion and hopefully getting more Mormons to read these books, I thought I’d post a few things. These are sort of spoilers, but not really.

But before I get to the Mormon elements — these books are very much part of the current trend in high fantasy (one that OSC has championed, actually) for magic systems that are robust, bounded and physical) where the magic has a cost and a physics (albeit metaphysical ones), where heroes make major mistakes out of pride or ignorance or immaturity, where the enemies aren’t wholly evil, where deception is a major aspect to the plot, where decision making and leadership is just as important as physical/magical prowess.  They both also have some killer action scenes, and their magic systems are quite cool.

1. Both feature voices from the dust e.g. ancient records (one even written on metal plates) that help the protagonists defeat their enemies. But that also require a certain amount of interpretation, a likening of the records to themselves.

2. Both works have a certain conservation of good and evil — an opposition in all things approach. And a metaphysics that places a huge emphasis creation, and creation using the matter at hand.

3. Both have some fascinating things to say about leadership, and I think a particularly Mormon exploration of leadership — how one inspires people in spite of ones own failings, how one reaches people who aren’t ready for change, how one keeps from becoming a zealot, how one saves as many as possible with limited resources and time, etc.

4. Both have Holy Ghost like moments where the protagonists struggle to tune in to what the supernatural (or more like hypernatural or natural-but-more-refined) forces on their side. This leads to some lovely scenes — there is a baptism-like scene in the secone Runelords book that’s just amazing.

5. Both place a huge emphasis on couples as the main protagonists. And both feature strong female characters and sensitive male characters. I’ll make no claims that these are feminist works. But the nature of the relationships and the strengths of the female leads, in particular, seem to be very much in a Joseph Smith/Emma or Alvin Maker/Peggy mold. Indeed, Iome and Gaborn in Runelords and Vin and Elend in Mistborn come across (and I don’t mean this in an insulting way) as quite similar to many of the young, well-educated, cosmopolitan American Mormon couples I know. Granted these books feature extreme situations, but there’s a whiff of the Mormon couples who have succeeded in the American meritocracy, I think.

6. Runelords features a very interesting political-social-religious philosophy that’s centered around the family.

7. Mistborn is in the end very much an enacment of Brigham Young’s maxim that all truth can be circumscribed in to one great whole.

8. Certain langauge/terminology creeps in — that doesn’t mean that it’s used in a Mormon way, but they add a certain Mormon tint to the works. There are, for example, “Endowments” in Runelords.

9. Finally, I’d say that there’s a certain overall Book of Mormon flavor to these two series. The movement of armies, the bloody battles, the using of “spiritual” power to try and halt the bloodshed and save some people — yes, all part of the fantasy genre and so maybe not all that different, but further work is justified, I think.

There’s probably more, but I’ll stop now.

Now, readers can fully enjoy these works without any knowledge of Mormonism. And just because these elements are there, doesn’t necessarily mean that the works have anything profound to say about Mormonism. But, I found that they resonated with my Mormonism. Anybody else have the same experience?

* Farland has extended his Runelords series (it’s up to 7 books now, but it’s the initial quartet that’s of most interest, in my opinion).

9 thoughts on “OSC’s heirs: The Runelords and Mistborn series”

  1. I think a great many people have come to know Brandon since he was commissioned to write the final book of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series. He recently had his latest book reach the New York Times best sellers list, a first for him. Fans of Jordan know that Sanderson has been given a huge task akin to fixing the economy. The Wheel of Times 11 volumes and prequel left a zillion open plots with thousands of characters. Fortunate, Jordan left extensive notes for Sanderson to follow. I wish him luck, he’ll need it.

  2. William,

    An excellent post.

    I’ve long contended that there are at least 3 different senses in which literary works can be Mormon. They can be culturally Mormon: that is, about Mormon characters. They can be thematically Mormon. They can be narratively Mormon (e.g., like Scott Card’s retold Book of Mormon series). And I think there’s a fourth way I’ve discussed in the past, but I can’t for the life of me think of it right now…

    My point is that I suspect that we’ll find, over time, that fantasy is particularly well suited to address Mormonism on a thematic level. For example, the implications of humans coming to exercise divine power are, I would argue, more naturally addressed through fantasy than through mainstream literature. It’s wonderful to see you drawing attention to some of these themes.

    By the way, I’ve also heard Dave Farland describe the “endowments” system in his books as (among other things) a critique of Western capitalism.

  3. I too have enjoyed the Mormon themes within Mistborn

    I find it interesting though to compare them (and OSC works) to the two authors who pioneered the use of religious imagery in fantasy fiction.

    1: CS Lewis, 2: Tolkien

    They were, friends, wrote at the same time, but had very different styles.

    CS Lewis used constructed allegory to teach Christian beliefs and doctrines. His works are timeless master pieces because of it. However, they are occasionally felt to be heavy handed. I don’t feel that way, but I do agree that the religious imagery in both the Chronicles of Narnia, and Out of the Silent Planet is visibly created by the author’s design.

    Tolkien was very different. The Lord of the Rings is filled with religious imagery and themes. Not only is it a very Christian work, it is very Catholic. Yet, there is no allegorical frame deliberately created by the author. Instead, in Tolkien’s words, he created a “false history” that people can derive moral lessons from.

    Lewis’s works are wonderful, they engage my mind, and makes me think of things I have not before. But Tolkien… Tolkien moves me, in a way that Lewis cannot. Tolkien’s works make me feel things that I did not feel before- and often makes me feel new things each time I read it.

    Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Sanderson both seem to me of the CS Lewis model. This might be partially due to the element of having such carefully designed system of magic, that other elements of their books also have a structured, orderly element. They make me think of many new things- but only Ender’s Game, and to a lesser extent the first Mistborn novel, manage to make me feel things- the way Tolkien makes me feel things.

    I do not mean this as a negative criticism. I merely am suggesting that there is another way to convey a Mormon theme without carefully constructed insertions of Mormon thought. Someday we will have a Tolkien, who can write something that inspires hearts with Mormonism as well as minds.

    It is probable that this is mainly due to me being a Mormon reader. Many non-Mormons will probably be unable to recognize the constructed Mormonism elements, and so might be able to feel the books in a way that I can not due to my awareness of the source material for the mythologies.

  4. Cicero,

    You don’t comment on Farland’s stories. How do they fit into your dichotomy?

    For that matter, how do the works of other LDS fantasy authors (such as Tracy Hickman) fit in here, as you see it?

  5. I was thrilled to discover Sanderson’s writing a year or two ago. I expect that there are good LDS writers working in other genres, but fantasy and science fiction move me much more deeply than most. After reading both Elantris and Mistborn I offered payers of thanksgiving at finding books that left me feeling encouraged and better. I much prefer this to the nihilism and negativity that many other authors seem to revel in.

    The characters in Sanderson’s books face great challenges and have personal failings, but the overall tone is one of determined optimism. It is a very Mormon worldview. I am not sure how non-Mormons respond to it, but it does seem to sell.

  6. I didn’t comment on Farland’s stories because I haven’t read them. I got about 3 chapters into Runelords and just didn’t enjoy the book. Maybe I’ll give them a 2nd chance.

    I didn’t realize Tracy Hickman was a member. I’ve always enjoyed his and Margret Weis books (other than the Dragonlance series which I never read much of- found it too formula fantasy.)

    I always thought Rose of The Prophet had some themes that could have come from Mormonism- and I think I remember thinking something similar with the Darksword trilogy. It’s a little more difficult since his writing partner is not LDS, so the themes might be more hidden, and it’s harder to attribute them to Hickman.

    It’s also been a while since I read his works. I’ll have to go re-read them now. However, based on what I can remember I think Rose of The Prophet at least might fit as a more Tolkien-like display of Mormon ideas.

    However, I’m not sure if it has the same power as Tolkien. Parts of the Rose of The Prophet made me “feel” things (especially when Arkan takes on himself the wounds of his follower), however Lord Of The Rings had a lot more depth. Maybe because Tolkien drew directly on a lot of ancient mythology, while much of Hickman and Weis seems draw on that same mythology second-hand (through things like Lord of the Rings).

    I do remember feeling quite moved by the Darksword trilogy when I first read it- but it was a dark, melancholy flavored book, so I haven’t read them in a long while.

    Sovereign Stone and Death Gate Cycle both made me think of Mormon conceptions of Lucifer and his fall, and Outer Darkness, but I can’t remember why. (Again haven’t read them in a long time.)

    Hickman doesn’t appear to plan the inclusion of Mormon ideas, they just develop naturally into his stories because Mormonism is part of his life and so influences his world view which is then part of his stories. This makes his books closer to a “false history” rather then allegory.

    Another book that I thought displayed Mormon-ish theology (at least when it comes to free-will and the purpose of suffering) was Curse of Chalion by Lois BuJold. However, I’m fairly certain she is not LDS, and it might be that I’m just picking up some general Christian theology that is also common in Mormonism.

  7. Bujold is not LDS, but she writes some great fantasy and sci-fi novels. Although some may be put off by some of the sex scenes in her recent series the Sharing Knife (I’m not too fond of them, personally), I think it’s an interesting model for Mormons. That is, it’s a fantasy series that really focuses on a marriage relationship. It’s not my favorite of Bujold’s work — I like the Vorkosigan books and the Chalion series better. But it’s the type of romance-heavy fantasy that I think could do well if translated for the LDS market.

  8. BuJold has always been noticed for writing Sci-Fi like a Romance novel since Shards Of Honor. (I actually think it compares interestingly with Twilight and the whole “hot” yet “chaste” romance thing going on).

    The Mile Vorkosigan books are like Bond movies.

    But the Curse of Chalion stands out to me in many ways. First because of the explicit discussion of theological issues such as free will, but also in the choice of protagonist. The protagonist is older than the typical hero, and is old and wiser from his experiences of war. Made me think of some of the post WW II movie protagonists, or favorable depictions of Vietnam veterans.

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