This is another glorious foray by Brandon Sanderson into the world of fantasy literature, once again with a series of twists and turns that never cease to keep me reading. In fact, I read the second half of this nearly 600-page monstrosity in the course of one afternoon!
The story revolves primarily around two societies; the Idrians guard the northern trade routes through their mountains, worshipping Austre, the God of Colors, and following a puritanical, nearly aesthetic lifestyle. The Hallandren, on the other hand, live at the edge of the sea in a city riotous with color and decadence, worshipping their God King and the Pantheon of the Returned, who are people who died in valorous or otherwise stunningly heroic circumstances, and were chosen to Return, with no memory of their former life or the afterlife, to bring visions of the future to the people.
The heroines of our story are Vivenna, eldest daughter of the Idrian King, who, due to a treaty signed with Hallandren some twenty years before, must travel south to marry the God King, a task for which she has been groomed all her life. With a war looming in the near future as the fateful day draws near, however, King Dedelin decides at the last moment to send his youngest daughter, the impetuous, rebellious Siri, keeping Vivenna near at hand under the claim that her leadership skills will be better put to use leading the armies of Idris when the inevitable invasion happens.
At the Court of the Gods, Lightsong the Bold is the god of heroes. His trouble is that he is the only one who doesn't actually believe in the religion in which he himself is one of the most popular figures, though neither he, nor his high priest Llarimar understand exactly why. Reading Lightsong's constant input on what is going on in his surroundings is a continual source of background humor to a story that might not otherwise be very amusing at all.
Once again, Sanderson has also developed a complex system of magic, this time surrounding Breath--every person is born with a single Breath. It is not quite the soul, and not quite the life force, but somehow related to both. A person can give up their Breath, becoming a Drab, and others can collect these Breaths and use them to Awaken inanimate objects (but only ones made of formerly living animal or plant fibers, and the less it resembles a living creature, the harder it is to Awaken). The Returned themselves rely on Breath, one a week, to stay alive, or else their own Breath fades and they pass into the beyond.
Following behind the scenes for much of the book is Vasher, a mysterious figure who has wielded, at times, tens of thousands of breaths, and is a master Awakener. He wields a dangerous sword of black metal that speaks into the minds of those around it, whispering secrets, and can kill without ever leaving its scabbard.
The twists are fewer but more vibrant in this book, and Sanderson once again finds a way to tie the story together in the last fifty pages that leaves you gasping for air and praying for a sequel. Having read both this and the Mistborn trilogy, I can sincerely say that I have found my new favorite author, and that I am desperately looking forward to the final installment of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, which Sanderson is in the process of writing.