Friday, September 7, 2012

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.14 / 5.00

I read this book as part of a Read Along hosted by Amanda and Naithin at Once Upon A Time.

Vivenna and Siri are Princesses, daughters of the King who lives in exile in Idris. Since she was born, Vivenna has been raised to marry the God-King Susebron who rules the city of Hallandren. Siri has always been surplus to requirements and has been able to do as she wanted. However, when Hallendren demands that the King delivers a daughter as soon as possible, he decides to spare Vivenna from her fate and send Siri in her place. Angered that she has been overlooked and worried about her sister, Vivenna races after Siri to try to rescue her. Meanwhile, Siri is shocked that she must face a marriage that she never wanted or expected.

Lightsong is trying to find some way to deal with the boredom of being one of The Returned. After dying heroically he was brought back to life as a God and so is given all the luxury and diversion that anyone could wish for. However, he is still uneasy, not knowing why he is a God or what he is really meant to do with his powers. Also in Hallandren, we encounter Vasher, a gruff man with his own goals and Nightblood, an evil sword that can talk and really, really enjoys killing people. Vasher is adept at manipulating Breath, the magical currency of this world. Each normal person is born with one single Breath, but they can give it away and become a ‘Drab’, a person with dulled senses and monotone coloring. Those people who acquire extra Breaths gain more and more control over and perception of the world around them. With a relatively low number of Breaths a person can perceive shades of color more accurately, but as they acquire more Breaths the person can use them to Awaken increasingly complex objects, even reanimating the bodies of the dead.

I had just finished reading Mistborn: The Final Empire when I saw a post about a Read Along for this stand-alone book by the same author, Brandon Sanderson. Mistborn was my introduction to his novels, but I was blown away by the amazing world building, most especially the unique magic system, so I signed up.

As with Mistborn, we are placed in a universe that is very similar to our own, apart from the magic. Here the magic is based upon color, which seems like an extraordinarily esoteric idea, but it really does work well. The idea that a person’s innate ‘Breath’ makes them able to fully experience the world around them is intriguing, but add in the ability to give away your Breath so that some individuals can hold hundreds or thousands of Breaths and you have the makings of some very interesting abilities. But why would anyone give away their Breath? Simple: some individuals are reborn after death with the abilities associated with a huge number of Breaths. However, these ‘Returned’ die within a week unless they are given one Breath every week, in which case they are virtually immortal. Giving one’s Breath to a Returned is a great honor, and brings great rewards to those who make the sacrifice. Also there are plenty of people so poor that the only valuable asset they have is their Breath.

So, as with Mistborn, we have a magic system that is closely tied to the ruling power. In both worlds one could argue that the bureaucrats actually run the system, but both have immensely magically powerful beings in the place of God-King. However, unlike Mistborn’s Lord Ruler, who is fully aware of his powers and how they work, the Returned gods here are in a totally cloistered and protected situation. We see this through the eyes of Lightsong, who is told that he was Returned for dying bravely, but is kept ignorant of his previous identity and history. He has no idea how he died or what he is supposed to do as a Returned. In theory, they can make prophecies and continue to have audiences with the general populace until they meet a person to whom they are willing to give all their Breath, at which point they die. He constantly questions his role and seeks answers, provoking his attendant priests and providing quite a lot of witty banter and humor.

The sisters are the two fairy tale archetypes: reckless, carefree tomboy and controlled, perfect princess. By reversing their positions, Mr Sanderson places them both well outside their comfort zones, leading to a lot of humor but also to massive personal growth, as each has to adapt to her situation. At first Vivenna is a fairly unsympathetic character because she is just so perfect herself and so judgmental and critical of others. However, she learns to let go of her training and do things that she would never have thought possible whilst uncovering some amazing personal strengths. Siri is a thoroughly likeable character from the beginning and her efforts to keep Susebron’s priests happy are hilarious. She learns to be more restrained and responsible, but her underlying compassion shines through in all her efforts.

My favorite characters are not your typical offerings, even in fantasy novels. Several hilarious scenes revolve an Awakened squirrel corpse, which proves to be as much trouble as a live tiger: disgusting and yet hilariously funny. My favorite character is another Awakened entity, Nightblood, a sentient sword. Although it provides some very funny moments, Nightblood is also extremely scary because it does not even need to be drawn to kill people. It has immense power and yet has the personality of a small child, somewhat like young Robert Arryn in A Game of Thrones, who always wants to see people ‘fly’ out of the door that opens over a drop of several thousand feet. Nightblood’s voice can be very chilling indeed even though we learn that it is not inherently evil.

The plot moves along at quite a good pace, and you are kept guessing abut so many aspects of the world and its characters that it is very entertaining. My only criticism is the title. It is not a bad title, but it sets up a question (Who is Warbreaker?) that is not answered until the very end of the book. This left me with the constant impression that I had missed something really obvious about the identity earlier on. I admit that Warbreaker is fundamental to the resolution, and also a very intriguing and interesting character, but by using the name as the title I was unsettled in trying to solve the mystery.

Reviews that I recommend:

The Book Smugglers: Ana & Thea

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