Sunday, June 07, 2009

Book Review: "Warbreaker" by Brandon Sanderson

The fire crackled, throwing a flicker of light across a large throne like chair sitting beside the bed. It was occupied by a figure wearing black, bathed in darkness. He watched her, eyes twinkling, unblinking, in the firelight.
Siri gasped, casting her eyes downward, her heartbeat surging as she remembered Bluefinger's warnings. Vivenna should be here instead of me, Siri thought desperately. I can't deal with this! Father was wrong to send me!
She squeezed her eyes shut, her breathing coming more quickly. She worked shaking fingers and pulled nervously at the strings on the side of her dress. her hands were slick with sweat. Was she taking too long to undress? Would he be angered? Would she be killed before even the first night was out?
Could she perhaps, prefer that?
No, she thought with determination. No. I need to do this. For Idris. For the fields and the children who took flowers from me. For my father and Mab and everyone else in the palace.
She finally got the strings undone, and the gown fell away with surprising ease--- she could now see that it had been constructed with that goal in mind. She dropped the dress to the floor, then paused, looking at her undershift. The white fabric was throwing out a spectrum of colors, like a light bent by a prism. She regarded this with shock, wondering what was causing the strange effect.
It didn't matter. She was too nervous to think about that. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to pull off her undershift, leaving her naked. She quickly knelt on the cold stone floor, curling up, heart thudding in her ears as she bowed with her forehead touching the floor.
The room fell silent save for the crackling hearth. The fire wasn't necessary in the Hallandren warmth, but she was glad for it, unclothed as she was.
She waited, hair pure white, arrogance and stubbornness discarded, naked in more than one way. This was where she ended up---this was where all her "independent" sense of freedom came to an end. No matter what she claimed or how she felt, in the end, she had to bow to authority. Just like anyone else.
She gritted her teeth, imagining the God King sitting there, watching her be subservient and naked before him. She hadn't seen much of him, other than to notice his size-- he was a good foot taller than most other men she'd seen, and was wider of shoulders and more powerful of build as well. More significant than other, lesser men.
He was Returned.
~Excerpt from Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson
Idris and Hallandren are countries on the brink of war. In an attempt to buy time before going to war, the King of Idris sends his youngest daughter, Siri, to marry the God King of Hallandren.
Vivenna, the oldest daughter of the King of Idris, knew it was her duty to marry the God King and that her father sent his less-favored daughter to the rival country because the marriage would likely mean her death. Feeling guilty and responsible for Siri's fate, Vivenna follows Siri to Hallandren with the intention of saving her sister.
But things in Hallandren aren't what they appear. The Gods of Hallandren, known as the "Returned," are kept in pampered comfort within their palatial compounds, but lack any real freedom. Siri soon learns that the real power lies in the hands of the priests who "serve" the Gods.
But the intrigues between the two kingdoms aren't limited to the palaces of the Gods. Vivenna soon finds herself in the middle of a plot to stir up rebellion among the Idrians who live in the city of Hallandren. And, carefully watching Vivenna and her allies, is a mysterious man named Vasher who carries a dark sword that kills anything in its path.
"Warbreaker" is the second stand-alone novel by author Brandon Sanderson, and in his signature style it has a highly detailed magical system and theology. Magic works through a method called "BioChromatic Breath." Every person is born with one Breath, but that breath can be bestowed on another person; giving them the power to "Awaken" objects to do their bidding. The more Breath someone has, the more power they have. The ability to Awaken objects also requires the use of color to power the magic--bleeding the pigment of any object touching an Awakener while they animate an object.
The people of Hallandren freely use the magic of the BioChromatic Breath, while the people of Idris shun it. The Gods of the Hallandren are born with large reserves of breath allowing them to "see" colors with great depth, though they don't have the ability to Awaken objects. But the Gods do possess the ability to heal with the power of their breath, though they have to give their lives to do so. And the BioChromatic Breath gives the Hallandren a tremendous advantage because they have figured out how to animate the dead, known as the "lifeless," who are perfect, low-maintenance, soldiers.
If there is one thing Sanderson does really well, it's write a story that continually unfolds. Just when you think you know what's going on, the story takes a new direction and the characters are given added depth.
Yet, for all its originality, "Warbreaker" doesn't cover a lot of new ground for Sanderson-- which says a lot for his imagination. Like Sanderson's other stand-alone novel, Elantris, "Warbreaker" looks at faith and self-awareness-- even the Gods question their own divinity. Sanderson keeps to using predominately female protagonists and witty dialogue amidst a creative backdrop. The main distinction between "Warbreaker" and the rest of Sanderson's work is the use of color that adds a hint of brightness to this story-- literally.
If you have read, and enjoyed, Sanderson's other books, then "Warbreaker" should be a sure thing. For those who haven't read Sanderson before, "Warbreaker" is a good place to start. Sanderson's writing is smooth, self-assured and often lighthearted. And though the plot sometimes goes from complex to confusing, it is never dull. A lot of reviewers have started comparing Sanderson to recently-deceased author David Eddings and when reading "Warbreaker" it's easy to see why. Sanderson tells a good story without having to bring in graphic sex, language or violence-- which should appeal to a lot of readers. But, most importantly, "Warbreaker" is unique in a genre that has a strong tendency to be derivative. "Warbreaker" isn't what you'd call gritty and it never veers into overly pessimistic territory. It's a bright fantasy that I believe will have broad appeal. Definitely worth a look.


Charles Gramlich said...

Lovely language.

SQT said...

Sanderson always comes up with something interesting. If you haven't read any of his books, you should. From a fantasy writer's perspective, it's nice to see someone really stretch to bring something new to the genre. I still think "Elantris" is my favorite. But maybe "Warbreaker" would be if I had read it first.

Steve Malley said...

I don't read much fantasy anymore-- I like the good stuff but it's so hard to separate from the dreck. Thanks to this review, I do believe I've found someone worth reading!