Friday, March 25, 2016

A Review – Warbreaker

I’m gonna do something different than usual.
Rather than tell you how your novel is awful and how to fix it, I’m going to show you an example of a good novel.

Today, I’m going to review a book written by one of my favorite authors. It’s one of his more obscure books, but one worth noting.
I give you Warbreaker.

Picture found on Sanderson's website; all copyrights to their respective owners.

The Breakdown – Spoiler-free Version

Warbreaker is written by Brandon Sanderson, and was published in 2009 (a blast from the past, hm?).
Rather than coming up with my own summary, I’ll read to you (please imagine a gentle, deep narrator’s voice) the synopsis off of the book jacket, yes?

Warbreaker is the story of 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.
Their world is one in which those who die in glory return as gods to live confined to a pantheon in Hallendren’s capital city and where a power known as BioChromatic magic is based on an essence known as breath that can only be collected one unit at a time from individual people.
By using breath and drawing upon the color in everyday objets, all manner of miracles and mischief can be accomplished. It will take considerable quantities of each to resolve all the challenges facing Vivenna and Siri, princesses of Idres; Susebron the God King; Lightsong, reluctant god of bravery; and mysterious Vasher, the Warbreaker.

Well… that about sums it up.
The tone of the synopsis matches rather well the tone of the book: it seems to be making fun of itself in some parts (“two sisters who happen to be princesses”) but it’s also very deep and philosophical at other times (“the lesser god who doesn’t like his job” has to get philosophical, doesn’t it?)

Brandon Sanderson has been writing fantasy novels for years, now, and he’s done some pretty great stuff. From finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, to starting his own universe filled with steampunk-fantasy worlds (Mistborn, Alloy of Law, etc.) and superhero-fantasy (The Reckoners trilogy) all the way to massive high fantasy tales (The Stormlight Archives). Along the way he’s written a few other things (most notably Rithmatist) and while it seems to be a cliché to compare good fantasy writers to Tolkien, Sanderson actually deserves it.
Each of his worlds is complex and well developed (he spent more than ten years developing Roshar, the world for The Stormlight Archives) and his magic systems are so real.

In Which I sort of Talk, but Not Really

I’d like to take a moment for this quote from a review that’s slapped on the back of the book jacket of Warbreaker:

“Sanderson’s heroines and heroes are outstanding – especially Vasher, the Warbreaker, whose special relationship with his sentient sword is both sardonic and sinister. The mysteries of life after death, of identity and destiny, of the politics of magic, are unveiled through three-dimensional characters. Not only has Sanderson drawn a freshly imagined world and its society, he has also given us a plot full of unexpected twists and turns. In subtle prose, notable for its quiet irony, Sanderson tells the story of two sisters and the god they are doomed to marry. Anyone looking for a different and refreshing fantasy novel will be delighted.”

-Michael Moorcock on Warbreaker

I feel like this review draws out the best parts of this book and wanted to note it. Sanderson spends a lot of time building his worlds. A lot. They have so much detail, so much background, so much vibrant culture, yet he still focuses on the plot and characters.
His story is never sacrificed for the world it takes place in. That’s called real storytelling, right there.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is as follows:

“I try to avoid having thoughts. They lead to other thoughts, and – if you’re not careful – those lead to actions. Actions make you tired. I have this on rather good authority from someone who once read it in a book.”

This amusing little quote is from Lightsong, the aforementioned disgruntled lesser god. He doesn’t believe in his own divinity, which creates some amusing – yet philosophic – discussions between himself and his priests. And the other gods and goddesses, of course.
Lightsong seems intent on being the worst possible god, but ends up being one of the most clever, charming, and sacrificial characters you’ll ever know. His part in the story is fantastically played out.

Another interesting quote from one of my favorite characters:

“You know, Princess, nobody really tells mercenaries anything. It’s unfortunate – but realistic – drawback of our profession. Never trusted. Never looked to for advice.”

(Quote courtesy of Denth, the mercenary.)
One the best parts of this book is how well Sanderson takes a cliché – untrusted mercenaries – and turns it on its head. His mercenaries are funny. They’re not just a bunch of coarse idiots with big swords and small brains.
He takes a cliché and uses it, then breaks it, and creates a new piece of vibrant literature.
It’s fabulous.

Also, that bit earlier about the sentient sword? Well, it’s worth reading the book to find out because this sword is hilarious. And it brings up some pretty deep questions along the way, like “what is evil”.

Downfalls and Upfalls

No book is perfect.
In fact, there will never be a perfect book. There will be some books that have dry parts, some books with clichéd or flat characters, some books with sluggish plots, some books with excessive Deus ex Machina at the end.

Even this book.
I’ve praised it up the proverbial wall, now it’s time to put the book back on the table and tell you this: the book isn’t perfect.

It’s got a few flaws, as well as a few moments where personal opinion might disagree with the themes. But that’s how the world works, right?

An example: there is a moment in the book where a certain character [name omitted because spoilers] undergoes a drastic change of character. While realistic, it happens… too quickly. This moment of change is supposedly stretched out over three weeks, but we don’t get to see any of those three weeks. Thus, the change can be jarring at first.

Another example: some of the surprising twists at the end (his books always have at least two) completely lack foreshadowing. Now, it’s good to have readers go “I never saw that coming”, but it’s not good to get reactions like “Why is that even possible? That’s out of character”. When you don’t foreshadow, you can end up with actions that seem wrong for the given character.
Such is it for this book on one occasion or another. A few of the twists you have to just re-read the book to spot the foreshadowing, but others come out of nowhere and take some getting used to.

As I’ve said, no book is perfect.

Now I usually avoid judging a book purely on “objectionable” content because it really doesn’t matter to me and I’m of the view that such content doesn’t make a book bad just by its presence, but I may as well give you a quick summary so you don’t go reading this book aloud to young children:
This is adult fiction. It’s not a children’s book, and it’s not angst-filled YA. It deals with real themes, some of which can be harsh or uncomfortable. There is mild language and violence, along with some sexual innuendo (some implicit, some… not).
So don’t go reading this book aloud to a five-year-old. Some maturity required.

There’s that, you’re welcome.

One last thing to note: because Warbreaker revolves around characters who are considered gods, Sanderson has several moments where he gets the chance to introduce religious themes. He does so with tact, and they fit with the characters who discuss them. For instance, the malcontent Lightsong frequently argues with his own priests about his divinity, and they often respond with arguments for faith and devotion.

Most of these discussions are purely in character and there are only one or two which you could say “that was clearly directed toward the reader”.
If religious themes bother you, there’s that. But he does an excellent job providing some thought-provoking questions with them.

In Conclusion

Warbreaker won’t be the best book you’ll ever read.
There, have an honest truth.

But if we only read books because we wanted them to be the best book we’d ever read, we could only read one book.
That’s a sad reality to think about – reading only one book. It makes me a trifle mournful just to think about such a reality. I’d rather not imagine such a place.

Instead, we read books to experience new worlds, new emotions, new people, new ideas. And that’s what Warbreaker does. It introduces us to a fantastic world with fantastic characters. Sanderson pulls in the reader and keeps them to the very end.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not the best.
But it is good.
In the end… that’s what really counts, isn’t it?

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