Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson
Warbreaker has one of the strangest publication histories which I can think of. Sanderson, wanting to take a break between the end of one fantasy epic (the excellent Mistborn trilogy) and the beginning of the next (the ten book Stormlight Archive), decided to write another standalone novel, his first since his debut Elantris. Rather than going down the traditional publishing route, Sanderson published the novel for free, on his own website, one chapter at a time, allowing the fans to witness everything that went into his composition process. Eager fans were witness to Sanderson’s rewrites, edits and drafts as he eventually crafted the story into a finished and polished novel. Warbreaker was also published as an actual, physical book, which is how I read it being an old fashioned sort who likes the feel of a book in my hands rather than reading off of a screen. I was initially concerned upon picking it up that this bizarre writing experiment may have failed, and that the novel would fall short of Sanderson’s usual high standard. I am pleased to report however that Warbreaker stands up just fine, and is an enjoyable, solid slice of fantasy fun.
Typically of Sanderson, the world of Warbreaker is built around an interesting magical system. In Warbreaker, every human is born with a ‘breath’, which has them attuned to the world around them, particularly the vividness of colour. Individual people can stockpile large numbers of ‘breath’ by being gifted them by others, and the higher the number of ‘breaths’ someone wields awakens their senses to higher and higher levels from the ‘First Heightening’ all the way to the incredibly rare ‘Tenth Heightening.’ ‘Breath’ can be used to ‘awaken’ objects, and they can be given commands, such as ordering a piece of rope to garrotte a foe in battle. The ‘breath’ can then be reclaimed by the Awakener to return to their stockpile. It’s an interesting and original system, but can at times feel somewhat vague and tenuous compared to the almost scientific rigour Sanderson applied to Mistborn’s Allomancy. Some people in the world of Warbreaker, upon dying in a way which epitomises a particular virtue, are ‘Returned’ as God-like entities with no memory of their past lives, to live a life of opulent luxury in T’Telir, the capitol of the land of Hallandren.
Warbreaker tells the story of two sisters, Siri and Vivenna, princesses of the neighbouring land of Idris. Vivenna is engaged to the head of the ‘Returned’, the God King Susebron, but unwilling to lose his favourite daughter, the King instead sends his youngest daughter younger sister Siri to marry him. Siri’s journey into the heart of Hallandren and the discoveries she makes about the Returned and T’Telir politics is at the centre of the book, although there are plenty of other stories and POV characters which all intersect nicely into a densely plotted tale.
The novel has a slow start, and I must confess that for the first hundred or so pages I was feeling that this was Sanderson’s weakest work so far. In a manner similar to the Mistborn books, Sanderson does not follow a typical fantasy structure of expansion further and further into the constructed world. He focuses upon a single city, and peels further and further layers from the colourful veneer on the surface of Hallandren, delving into the truth behind the mythic events which shaped the nation. It’s an excellent structure, and one that works just as well over the smaller scale of a single novel in Warbreaker as it did in a trilogy in the case of Mistborn. Not every question is answered; Sanderson has stated a desire to one day write a sequel named Nightblood, and given his speed of writing I’d expect it in a few years or so, but Warbreaker was nonetheless conceived as a standalone novel and is easily taken as such. There are some vague links to Sanderson’s shared ‘Cosmere’ universe, but not much and nothing that would be noticed by any but the most eagle eyed of fans. Although I was initially concerned that the shifting in POVs would result in me constantly wishing to return to my favourite characters, as I felt in Sanderson’s debut Elantris, this simply wasn’t the case here. Each POV is interesting to follow, with a distinct style to their stories.
Sanderson’s descriptive talents are sadly not quite on full display here however. T’Telir never feels quite as vivid as Mistborn’s Luthadel, or even the eponymous Elantris. It’s hard to get a real feel for the physicality of Warbreaker’s world, and whilst the characters and their adventures are a joy to read about, the setting does not achieve that transcendently fascinating quality that the best fantasy does. It is in the dialogue that Sanderson truly shines, particularly in the case of the wonderful exchanges between the witty and irreverent Returned God Lightsong, and his high priest Llarimar. Sanderson shows a hitherto unseen flair for comedy, adding another arrow to his literary quiver. There’s an excellent naturalism to the dialogue; there is a tendency in fantasy for dialogue to lean towards the overwrought and portentous, but Sanderson reserves such dialogue for moments which justify them. Although this novel is not as strong as the Mistborn books, it clearly exhibits Sanderson’s development as a writer. He really is just getting better and better.
Warbreaker excels in failing to contain a single character who I found annoying or didn’t want to read about. The two princesses at the centre of the narrative, Siri and Vivenna grow and develop from one-note figures to complex individuals forced by circumstance to embrace aspects of themselves that they had once shunned aside. The lazy God of Bravery Lightsong’s lack of faith in his own status as a deity is fascinating, and returns Sanderson to his recurring theme of faith and belief. Sanderson is one of the greatest defenders of faith I have ever read, and although it in no way shakes my own atheism, I feel that Sanderson has helped me to understand the nature of true and pure faith, without shoehorning the Judeo-Christian God into his novels. The ambiguous warrior Vasher, with his telepathic sword Nightblood, round out a fascinating pack of protagonists. Any one of these characters could have carried a novel on their own, and the inclusion of all of them in this work makes it feel utterly packed even if it is relatively low on incident; the actual plot is relatively slow paced.
Warbreaker is probably the most overlooked of Sanderson’s works, eclipsed by the enormous success of the Mistborn books and The Way of Kings, but it deserves a better reputation than it has. I’ll admit that the story doesn’t sound great on paper, with a goofy magic system and a plot which sounds predictable upon first hearing of it. I implore you to move past these preconceptions and give Warbreaker a go. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a lot of fun and definitely worth a read if you’re a Sanderson fan, and even if you’re not. Hey, if you don’t mind reading off of a screen, it’s free!
P.S A quick warning to any who would be reading the UK Gollancsz publication of Warbreaker like I did; DO NOT READ THE BLURB. It casually tosses out a fact about a character’s past of great significance, one only revealed in the book at the very end. How this blurb was given the green light it beyond me, but AVOID READING IT AT ALL COSTS.