Monday, August 10, 2009

Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

Hello there! This will be the first of what I intend to be a series of reviews of assorted books, movies, music, etc. that catch my fancy. I'm not quite certain how often I will post, but let's give it a go...

Mistborn is the first book in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, a relative newcomer to the Fantasy genre, and demonstrates his absolutely fantastic skill at turning the conventions of traditional Fantasy writing on their head. We open with a passage from the perspective of an unnamed, unknown speaker; he is the Hero of Ages, or so he's been told, but he has doubts about his own authenticity. The reluctant hero in the extreme, it would appear... Each chapter of the book begins with these passages, which Sanderson refers to as epigraphs, giving us further insight into this particular character; insight which we come to rely upon throughout the book to try and give us a glimpse into a distant and very different past.

Flash to the modern-day of the Final Empire, so-called because its leader, the Lord Ruler, is immortal, un-defeatable, and has ruled the entirety of the world for a thousand years. The sun and sky are red as blood, the plants are brown, and the closest things to weather that anyone has known in a hundred lifetimes are the periodic ashfalls, caused by a ring of volcanoes surrounding the capital city of Luthadel, and the nightly mists. Thicker than fog, they appear at sunset each night and vanish with the dawn each morning, and are the subject of much superstition and speculation. The skaa, the worker population, believe that the mists will kill you if you're caught out in them, or that you'll be eaten by one of the misterious mistwraiths; all of the skaa, save for the occasional Misting, one who has the forbidden power of Allomancy.

Allomancy is perhaps Sanderson's most fascinating convention, as a magic system based entirely on the ingestion and "burning" of one of the eight Allomantic Metals; iron, steel, pewter, tin, copper, bronze, zinc, and brass. There are eight types of Misting, each of whom can burn one of the eight metals. Then, there are the Mistborn themselves, who can burn any and all of the eight metals, along with the two "higher" metals, gold and atium. Atium itself is very special indeed, as it grants its wielder the ability to see into the future, if only by a few moments, to know the actions of an opponent. Faced with a Mistborn burning atium, you have only one defense--to be burning it yourself.

The story centers on three main characters; Vin, the street urchin, who grew up with her brother, Reen, on the streets of Luthadel, surviving as members of thieving crews, and only by their wits; Kelsier, known as the Survivor of Hathsin, a skaa Mistborn (a special kind of rarity in itself) who was sent to the Pits of Hathsin as punishment for a crime against the Lord Ruler himself; and last, but not least, our unnamed writer of the epigraphs, who provides the final and most crucial clues to the plot.

Sanderson's characters are wonderfully developed in ways that one doesn't really expect, with razor-sharp dialogue, and endearing but not overdone personality quirks that bring you to really care about them. The book is part fantasy, part Ocean's Eleven, and part martial arts action story. The combat scenes, relying on the part science, part magic nature of Allomancy, are fast-paced and well detailed without being monotonous or too much play-by-play. Similarly, the descriptions of the rich backdrop of Luthadel and its surrounding environs are provided through Vin's eyes--having grown up on the streets of the capital city, she knows no more about the wider world than we do as the readers, so it becomes a learning process for us all that flows very naturally.

The plot twists in ways that are rarely the expected path. Many times through the book, when I thought I knew exactly what would happen next, I could not have been more wrong, which made me love the tale even more! Sanderson brings the book to a startling conclusion that leaves you salivating for the next volume in the series, as Vin's world, and your own, is blown wide open.

Mistborn is an absolute must-read whether you love the fantasy genre, or have never once in your life picked up a novel that stepped outside the real world.