The land has been controlled by the sinister Ruler for a thousand years. And for a thousand years, it has suffered. A cruel noble class enslaves and tortures the broader population. An evil church oppresses the hearts and souls of the people. The landscape itself cries out - ash raining from the sky all day and eerie mists filling the streets at night.
However, this charming realm is not without champions.
A handful of Skaa (essentially the common folk) have access to Allomancy, the metal-based magic that is generally the plaything of the upper classes. Lead by Kelsier, a talented Mistborn (someone that can use all sorts of Allomancy), a crew of thieves and rebels plot the overthrow of the Final Empire.
The majority of the story is told from the perspective of Vin, a sixteen year old girl and another Skaa Mistborn. She's 'discovered' by Kelsier and brought into the plot, wherein she soon plays a critical role.
The premise of the book is, if totally unique, still quite rare. Whereas most high fantasy follows a 'good land, bad threat, good prevails' structure, the idea of starting in a world where the bad guys already won is too rarely explored. And Sanderson spends a lot of time in the exploration. Kelsier's crew of rebels infiltrate every aspect of society - from the military to the mines, from the church to the nobility. They discover undeniable corruption and faint glimmers of hope, and, in a credit to the author, the characters spend their time articulately debating everything. The revolution against the Ruler is a meticulously-plotted scheme, and we're let into every detail.
If the scheming is the real protagonist of the book, Allomancy takes a close second. Sanderson has invented a unique system of magic based on the consumption and 'burning' of metals. Pewter gives strength, while Brass allows emotional 'soothing', etc. It is an elaborate and intricate system that the author takes no small pride in explaining.
However, underneath the complex plotting and the magical world-building, there's not a lot of character development. When push comes to shove, Vin is the same magical stableboy that we see in every high fantasy novel. She's found on the streets, parentage unknown, heir to an unprecedented magical power, etc. etc. She's more likable than most, but, when everything else is stripped away, her plot arc is pedestrian and clear (down to the predictable romantic interest). This is, needless to say, a disappointment.
The Final Empire has an elaborate premise, an intriguing plot and meticulous world-building. But without strong character development, it comes dangerously close to being just another high fantasy, if better written than most. Sanderson has come up with new ways to dot the i's and cross the t's - but ultimately, he's still writing the same old sentence.
Random note: Sanderson has a terrificly detailed website for the series, including lots of annotations, extras and 'behind the scenes' materials.
Tube journeys: 1 lazy evening