I’m binge reading Brandon Sanderson. I really enjoyed the Mistborn series, and the first book in the Epics series, but I’m not enjoying the rest quite as much.

Mistborn is an example of a (fantasy) book series that gets growing scope right. What I mean with “growing scope” is the way series tend to start with a small story that hints at a wider world and larger events, and then gradually the characters in the book learn more and see more and do more, and we follow along, and we end up somewhere grand.

Done well, it all happens naturally. Each step that the characters take is obvious, natural, almost inevitable – given the character’s personality, surroundings, past experience etc. And before you know it, you’ve gone from reading about a street brat to saving the world.

Done badly, growing scope feels like the author just desperately keeps piling on more stuff, each addition more dramatic than the last, in the hope of keeping your attention. But the added parts feel disconnected and overdone, and never cohere into a believable whole.

Exhibit one: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Book one was great: a girl with a magical object sets out to rescue her friend, makes friends, overcomes obstacles. The rest of the series was just silly. Let’s add angels! And magic weapons! And soul-eating ghosts! And alien intelligent animals! And the land of the dead!

Exhibit two: Mercedes Lackey’s Dragon Jousters. Again, book one was great. A slave boy taking care of dragons for a bunch of dragon-riding warriors dreams of having his own dragon. And again, in subsequent books it all spirals out of hand. Give the boy a noble girlfriend! Who can talk to dragons! And let’s make his friend a prince! And add impending war! And super evil magicians! No, that wasn’t evil enough, let’s make them even more evil! What started out as a low-key, believable story about a boy and his efforts to make his dream come true, turns into an over-the-top pile of ridiculous drama. It manages to be predictable and not believable at the same time.

Back to the good stuff, though. Mistborn gets it right. The story starts off with a street brat, and one thing leads to another – a new gang, an ambitious leader with an audacious plan – and before you know it, they’re trying to kill the God Emperor.

And even though this world also turns out to have super evil magicians, and even though the street brat ends up trying to stop the end of the world instead of a plain and simple war, somehow it’s all believable. The characters are believable instead of crude simplifications. The good ones aren’t “heroes”, perfect in all ways except for that one charming weakness that is thrown in to make them look human. And the evil ones turn out to not actually be evil.

The secrets are uncovered gradually, going from suspicions to hints to vague sightings and then to final understanding. And in the end, the parts all tie together – once you see the big picture, all the parts are so obviously right. Everything just had to be this way and no other, because it all makes sense.

I also like the magic system in these books. I have a fondness for books where magic has a system and makes sense, rather than being made up of hand-waving and random words. The magic in these books is not only unique – it is also logical and has obvious limitations and weaknesses as well as interesting implications. (Another example of magic with logic is Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. And another example of totally unique magic is N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth.)

Anyway. To cut a long story short: the Mistborn books are great and you should go read them.