Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker is an interesting experiment that Brandon Sanderson decided to do. He released it online for free through his website, though you can buy it in hardcover (as I did) or through the kindle store (as I also did). If you don't want to pay for a Sanderson book, you can just grab the free version, though if you wanted to give him a try I would start with Mistborn.

This is the second time I read this, so I knew a few things to expect but still enjoyed the story. My full review after the jump.

Overall Impression
This is another Brandon Sanderson tale which implies a good cast of characters, clever well building and an intriguing plot. However, compared to his other works I think it is weaker. Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive are, in my opinion, his best books thus far. That's not to say that Warbreaker is bad: it isn't! It's a fun tale and has one of my favorite Sanderson characters: Lightsong the Bold. A very good thing about Warbreaker is that, although it is an epic fantasy tale, it is told entirely within a single book, which makes it a great way to see Sanderson's style without investing into a large series.

There were some typesetting errors, the most common being spaces in words. The most severe was one instance where the last two sentences of one chapter (34) was identical to the prior chapter's (33). That was a rather surprising and major error I thought would have been fixed by now.

The plot follows what is at first a straightforward story, yet quickly gets more complicated and then starts adding some clever twists that spice things up. It's the story of two kingdoms, Idris and Hallandren, who have been in an uneasy peace for the past few decades. As part of peace agreements, Idris had to supply a princess (Vivenna) to Hallandren when she came of age. However, Idris is worried that once they have that they'll launch into war and so they decide to exploit a loophole and send the wrong princess: Siri. This throws things into a bit of chaos as the new princess is a wild element in the Hallandren court. Furthermore, certain factions are eager for war and things get progressively worse.

Practically all of the story takes place in a single city: T'Telir, the capitol of Hallandren. Hence, things are more compact and rather than having epic adventures or journeys you instead have more political intrigue and manipulation in the plot. Sanderson uses some clever twists in his story and despite knowing when they were coming up, I had trouble anticipating them on my second read through.

Despite being an epic fantasy tale, Sanderson condenses the cast of characters to a few important ones. We have two sisters, Vivenna and Siri, the God King Susebron, some Returned like Lightsong and Blushweaver, allies and enemies like Vasher, Denth, Treledees, Bluefingers, and a few other minor characters.

The two sisters, Vivenna and Siri, couldn't be more different. A very cool moment is when they encounter the very same things (their first views into the city, seafood dishes, Hallandren clothing styles) and react in completely opposite manners. One aspect of Vivenna that I couldn't remember from my first read was how much of a religious bigot she is. She is so discriminatory against everyone around her and is, for at least half the novel, a generally unlikeable character. It takes her being beaten down for her to learn true humility and acceptance of others. So, while she starts of being unlikeable at least she redeems herself and thus presents an interesting, growing character.
Siri has always been more of a rebel and so she has no problem trying out what Hallandren offers her. She is terrified of the God King, for good reasons, yet slowly warms up to him. Both sisters, though, are quite naive and easily manipulated and are central to the plot and its interesting twists.

The best character in my opinion, though, is Lightsong. He is a Returned god that doesn't believe in his own religion, is deliberately lazy, and too clever for his own good. His dialogue is amazing and full of humor:
“Nonsense,” [Lightsong] said. “You just have to promise me that I won’t have to do a thing, and then I’ll do anything you want.”  
“Anything that doesn’t require doing anything.”  
“That’s nothing, then.”  
“Is it?” 
“Well, that’s something!”

Setting / World Building
The story is set primarily in the tropical kingdom of Hallandren. Most fantasies are stereotypical in that they have more temperate climates (with a desert or mountains thrown in). Hence, a tropical city deviates from the norm. Interestingly, the two Idrian princesses come from a much colder, mountain climate and so express shock or curiosity at the abundance of fish and seafood and at the shorter skirts or sleeveless outfits that the warmer climate encourages. The styles of clothing sees to be a recurring theme throughout the book.

Like all Sanderson books, a main part of enjoying the story is discovering the magic system in place in the world. In Warbreaker, people utilize the magic of BioChromatic Breaths. A person has a single Breath that they can give away or sell. With many Breaths, people called Awakeners can invest these breaths into inanimate objects, draw colors from nearby objects, and have these objects do actions for them, such as lifting them up a wall, tying down an enemy, or other simple commands. In addition to having the power to Awaken, people with a lot of Breaths reach what are known as Heightenings. These are levels that grant things like ageleness, the ability to discern colors or tones, and the ability to spot other people's Breath auras. Despite being related to colors, it's less similar to the color-based magic in Brent Week's Lightbringer series and more like David Farland's Runelords series.

There are some cool implications to the power of BioChromatic Awakening, such as the production of Lifeless. These are corpses that have been reanimated by investing them with Breaths and Commands. An army of Lifeless is near unstoppable as they do not need food, water, or rest and do not feel pain or fear.
A more mysterious aspect of BioChroma is that of the Returned. When a person dies, he or she may Return to life to carry out some duty. Unfortunately, they loose all their memories so they do not know what exactly they came back to do. Returned come back with a single powerful breath that takes them all the way to the Fifth Heightening. However, in a week's time they will consume what Breath they have and die (again; for good this time). In Hallandren, these 'gods' are kept alive by giving them a Breath a week in the hopes they may bless their kingdom with their wisdom and divinity. The Returned are some of the most interesting aspects of the book and a lot of mysteries remain to be solved when Sanderson returns to the Warbreaker universe.

Final Thoughts
This is an other great Brandon Sanderson book, even if it isn't his best. I enjoyed the characters, especially Lightsong, and the mysterious magic of Breaths and BioChroma. The magic feels far more incomplete than, for example, Mistborn or Elantris, but it feels deliberate as I'm sure Sanderson will return to this world in the future. I reread this book because of two elements in it that appeared in Words of Radiance. It's interesting to see how Sanderson is starting to link the Cosmere books together. I look forward to reading from all his series and spotting the connections!

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