Tor, 2009 (also available under Creative Commons for free here)
Warbreaker is a new epic fantasy by Brandon Sanderon, author of the highly entertaining Mistborn series and the man chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Like Sanderson’s pearler novel, Elantris, Warbreaker seems to be designed more or less as a stand alone novel (though potential for future books is there). This is a bit impressive given the modern fantasy market’s penchant for long series. Like the Mistborn series Warbreaker features a complex and fascinating magic system that is wholely original in its conception and extraordinarily crafted in its execution. Sweetening the deal is the fact that alongside the novel magic system Warbreaker has strong characters mired in plots full of action, intrigue, and mystery all enhanced by some of the best dialogue Sanderson has ever written. As mentioned Warbreaker is a self-contained tale but with somewhat open ending that, thanks to Sanderson’s strong writing, leaves you wanting more (though, at least, not needing it). Read on for more impressions….
The plot of Warbreaker is a bit difficult to describe without veering off into spoiler territory. As the Tor description states it is a “story about two sisters, who happen to be princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, the lesser god who doesn’t like his job, and the immortal who’s still trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago.” which, as far as succinct plot descriptions go is pretty good. It doesn’t really do justice to some of the more complex aspects of the novel’s world and plot. I’ll try my best here but there might be some very minor spoilers.
The princesses, Vivenna and Siri, are from the country of Idris. The ruling family of Idris, in days long past, used to be the ruling family of the city of Hallandren. Unfortunatly a religious and spiritual split started what is now known as the Manywar, and event which ended the founding of Idris and the instillations of the God-King as the ruler of Hallandren. Day to day rule in Hallandren is overseen by the Returned, beings who were once mortal or but who died and came back to life as Gods. Or so the priests say. While the citizens of Hallandren worship the Court of Gods and the God-King the people of Idris revere the God Austre, Lord of Colors. Unlike the mortal-gods of Hallandren, Austre is a more typical divine being: unseen and unheard. Where the people of Hallandren adhere to a very capitalist and cavalier mindset with regard to Breath (the source of magic in the world) the people of Idris take a more stoic, reserved approach to live. There near polar opposite approaches to life and religion, combined with the history of the two nation means that a conflict looms rather large and it is the King of Idris’ hope that the marriage of his daughter Vivenna to the God-King Suseborn will help halt the possibility of war. There are of course, other forces at work, notably the enigmatic Vasher whose motivations are suspect and who seemingly answers to no political or religious faction on either side.
Ok, maybe my description isn’t really any better but I hope it at least reveals a bit more of the deep backstory that Sanderson has crafted for his world. Like Elantris before it, Warbreaker reveals Sanderson’s ability to craft a surprising detailed world in a fairly small amount of space. Well, 600 pages isn’t exactly short but Sanderson manages to pack a lot of detail into a extraordinarily complex plot and never manages to slow the pace down with unnecessarily or overly long infodumps. The details of Warbreaker’s are detail through “show don’t tell” mentality.
It is a similar methodology that Sanderson employs with talking about the BioChromatic magic employed by many characters in the novel. Each person has a single Breath that represents something like their life-force (or perhaps it is a kind of minimalistic divine spark since giving it away won’t kill you). Breath disappears when you die, but can be given away to other individuals during life. People who hold more Breaths gain certain benefits like increased perception and longevity, based on the specific number of breaths held, they can also use their breath to animate objects to perform specific tasks. Like I said it is a fairly complex system and, while it isn’t as kinetic as the allomantic magic seen in the Mistborn series, it has its own unique visual style and creative use that makes for some extraordinarily fun reading. Ligthsong’s use of a reanimated squirrel was particularly amusing.
With it’s deep complicated plot, fascinating backstory, and new magic-system Warbreaker would already have been an exciting read. But Sanderson manages to up the ante by including some of the best dialogue infused with humor and life that it leaps and bounds above anything he has so-far written and stands high amongst the best dialogue I’ve read in any fantasy series. In fact, some of Lightsong’s dialogue comes close to topping Sergeant Hellian from Erikson’s the Bonehunters and the “mercenary humor” of Denth and Tonk Fah was particularly amusing. I was particularly amused by this exchange between Lightsong and his high-priest Llarimar:
“Ah, very good,” Lightsong said. “I do believe that we’ve accomplished something today. I’ve run from my responsibly, screamed at my servants, and sat about pouting. Undoubtedly, this will convince everyone that I’m far more noble and honorable than assumed. Tomorrow, there will be twice as many petitions, and I shall continue my inexorable march toward utter madness.”
“You can’t go mad,” Llarimar said softly. “It’s impossible.”
“Sure I can,” Lightsong said. “I just have to concentrate long enough. You see, the great thing about madness is that it’s all in your head, so to speak.”
Llarimar shook his head. “I see you’ve been restored to your usual humor.”
“But of course.” They stood for a few more minutes, Llarimar making no chastisement or commentary on his God’s actions. Just like a good little priest.
That made Lightsong think of something. “Scoot,” Lightsong said. “You’re my high priest.”
“Yes, your grace.”
Lightsong sighed. “You really need to pay attention to the opportunities I’m giving you, Scoot. The proper, sarcastic response to my comment would have been ‘I’m your priest? Really? Is that what this big hat is doing on my head? I thought it was for neck support.’”
“I apologize, your grace.”
Or like this exchange between Denth, Tonk Fah and Vivenna:
Vivenna raised an eyebrow. “Mercenary humor?”
“Such that it is,” Denth said with a sigh. “We’re not generally a clever lot. Otherwise, we’d probably have selected a profession without such a high mortality rate.”
“Like the profession of princess,” Tonks said. “Good life-span, those. I’ve often wondered if I should apprentice myself to one.”
The humor isn’t there for humor’s sake either. Denth, Tonks, and Lightsong, the primary conduits for that humor, act and speak that way for specific reasons that are inseperable from the their characters. Or at least, it is used as means to unsettle and keep off balanced whoever it is they are speaking with. It made some wry chuckles and amused grins while I read and at least one laugh out loud moment (dead squirrel).
The characters are all interesting in their own right though there are quite a few parallels one can draw between characters in Warbreaker and in the Mistborn series. Vivenna/Siri/Vin, and Vasher/Kelsier are the ones that come to mind though, truth be told, it is only something I thought of in hindsight not while I was reading. The unique nature of the Hallandren religion also provides a fantastic means to discuss faith, especially as it’s seen both through the eyes of the non-believer (Siri and Vivenna) and one of the Returned Gods themselves (Lightsong). Lightsong, despite he reluctant-god status, is particularly fascinating, even more-so when you finally understand how the other Returned see him. The enigmatic and cantankerous Vasher is an interesting character is a character who remains mostly in shadows for the majority of the novel, his importance only revealed towards the novel’s endgame. Sanderson does a magnificent job in obscuring the truth with regards to many of the characters to the point where after the first big character-related surprise I was kept guessing and began to question almost every character in the novel.
Warbreaker is another strong entry by Brandon Sanderson. It is remarkably different from any of his earlier works; despite the archetypal similarities between certain characters. As mentioned the story is more or less self-contained. The plot of the novel is complete, a single story arc that is left open in the end for possible future exploration. It is exploration that will likely have to wait until Sanderson is further towards completion, or completely done, with Jordan’s Memory of Light. As I mentioned above Warbreaker is currently available under Creative Commons license over on Sanderson’s webpage so if you’re curious head on over and take a look. If you like what you read be sure to check out Warbreaker when it hits the brick and mortar stores this June,.