This month we’ll be diving back into Brandon Sanderson’s intricate set of – well – settings: the Cosmere. One of my personal favourites, not least for its hardest-of-hard magic systems, we’ll be looking once more at Scadriel, world of the acclaimed Mistborn trilogy, as well as the recent standalone novel. This time? Feruchemy. Although spoilers will be more minor this time round, if you haven’t finished at least Mistborn: the Final Empire, you may wish to run fast and far (or at least click the ‘back’ button).
Feruchemy is largely the preserve of the Terrismen in the Mistborn novels: a group selectively bred for stewardship in the Final Empire. Although the Lord Ruler attempted to purge this talent, it obviously stuck around – but it’s not exclusively given to the protagonists. The Inquisitors are Feruchemists too (in a limited way) – as of course is the Lord Ruler. As such, it’s one of the more balanced fantasy magic systems.
Beyond plot-based considerations, however, Feruchemy is important in-setting: it’s what keeps the Lord Ruler in his current state of ‘not a pile of dust’. It’s also the partial source of many of his other godlike abilities (instant healing and the like). But we’ll discuss what Feruchemy can do later. Needless to say, it’s rare and knowledge of it is suppressed: when your ruler is claiming godhood, the last thing you want is the trick to get out… Considerably more ‘god-credit’ that way.
A rule based system, Feruchemy is – oddly enough – the magic system which comes closest to being scientific as well. What do I mean by that? Feruchemy stores attributes in metals to be drawn on later, at rates chosen by the user. Say you want to become twice as strong for a time. In order to do so, you need to store strength in pewter, effectively becoming weaker – and there’s no way to get around this. So Feruchemy, of all magic systems, comes closest to not violating conservation of energy (of course there’s no mechanism – and it’s not truly scientific at all… But it’s the thought that counts). Why do I say ‘closest’? Well, there is something else that can be done with Feruchemy. If the user is an Allomancer as well, they can burn their storage metals, amplifying the Feruchemical effect. Thus the Lord Ruler storing up and burning youth to become immortal…and the almost infinitely healing user of The Alloy of Law.
Feruchemy is more flexible than Allomancy. A much greater range of attributes can be stored: from health to eyesight. However, pure Feruchemy is the ultimate balanced system, in that what is used has to come from the user (the novels even state that burning other Feruchemists’ storage metals doesn’t work) – so Feruchemists like Sazed don’t dominate the scene, either. And once their storages run out… Well. Allomancy becomes a much more practical, much flashier alternative for combat.
DANGERS AND COSTS
With Feruchemy, the only real danger or cost is storage: what you use comes from your own body in the first place. And similarly to the Dedicates’ vulnerability in David Farland’s The Runelords series, storing an attribute at too great a rate can be dangerous – and storing it more slowly can take too much time to be practical. That’s the cost – but what about limitations? Feruchemy can allow accentuation of attributes, but it generally doesn’t create new powers. So no telekinesis for you, Sazed (yet). Allomancy, on the other hand, offers new abilities, not just increased: normal humans can’t adjust others’ emotions regardless of how much they improve their strength, eyesight, and healing factor. (To take some of the most commonly used Feruchemical attributes).
MYSTERY vs. RULES
As with all of Brandon Sanderson’s systems, Feruchemy lies firmly on the rule-based side of the scale. If you’ve taken a glance at the tables in the back of The Alloy of Law – and if you haven’t, go out and buy it, it’s that good –you know all of the attributes which can be Feruchemically stored. There are always new applications; characters themselves often don’t know the origins or metals of Feruchemy, but the system is itself purely rule based – and very well known to the reader.
This magic system is firmly a Sanderson, with everything that entails: it’s rule-based, quas scientific, and a lot of fun. Feruchemy is a good example to go to if you’re looking for a very balanced magic system, both for plot and in itself: it’s as annoying when an Inquisitor heals in an instant as it is great when Sazed does. And this balance is what makes it fun: there are new ways to apply it, and to fight its use, and both have to be used over the course of the novels.
Jacob Topp-Mugglestone is an SFF reader and reviewer over at Drying Ink. Though whim provides an essential part of his choices, his favourite authors include Steven Erikson, Kate Griffin, Robin Hobb, and Brandon Sanderson, which he reads while waiting for the rain to stop. Living in the UK as he does, this rarely happens, and his current TBR pile rarely lasts very long.