Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

My past reading experience with Brandon Sanderson has taught me that his strongest writing ability is in making the idea of magic feasible.  Such a feat take time (perhaps this explains the author's always staggering page count) and he never does so upfront--that is how he keeps you reading--but at some point in Sanderson's tale readers understand the concept of magic as the author has created it and it makes sense to us even though we know such things aren't possible in our boring mundane world.  It is in part that by convincing us that magic seems tangible that readers get caught up in plot events.

In Elantris, his first novel, I was convinced that if I were in that world, and blessed with the gift, and studied hard enough I'd be a badass: scholarly aptitude yields badass magical ability.  Simple.  In the Mistborn trilogy ones body processes certain substances in a way that produces a certain affect: ingest this metal do this with it...  By the time events concerning magic grew complex in both of these stories I was so well versed in the theory (theory of concepts that aren't possible I should point out) that everything seemed logical.  That, is a strong ability as a writer.  In Warbreaker, everyone has a 'Breath' and ones Breath in combination with colors yields something that would pass in our world as magic.

This particular magic system was very very weak; not merely compared to other systems Sanderson has devised but it didn't stand alone very well; hence my difficulty in trying to explain how it worked and further explaining my difficulty in connecting with the heart of the story.

Siri, and her sister, Vivenna come from the monochrome kingdom of Idris where they, ironically, worship the Austre: the god of colors (I never made sense of this).  Vivenna has been groomed all her life to be wife to the Hallandren God King in his lands where ostentation and color abound in terrifying quantity and the people live in decadence, and the glow of a host of living deities.  Despite the impending wedding, war looms between the two nations and it Siri who is sent to marry Hallandren's all-powerful in a political move to buy time.

Sanderson's characters feel solid and tangible if not a little bit stereotypical.  Siri is the younger rebellious sister, Vivenna is the prim and proper one.  Lightsong, a Hallandren God is flippant and carefree and there are a host of devout priest who can't explain their faith but have firm beliefs.

My primary problem with the book isn't the characters or the magic system--which all things considered felt unnecessary to tell the tale Sanderson told, not exactly forced but certainly not needed--is the sense of central conflict.  It's odd as there is tension on every-page, a la John Grisham.  I never once felt like putting the book down yet at the same time I never got a clear impression of what events were building towards.  The resulting feeling was one of reading without direction: this insures surprises and interest but there is no real payoff as the climax happened but I didn't really know it for what it was. Furthermore, while the characters are enjoyable, it's was difficult to grow attached to their dilemmas as I couldn't see how the fragments would affect the whole of the story.  Much of my angst is with the book's political intrigue: Sanderson focuses so much on obscuring the man behind the scenes and the true bad guy that when he arrives both the characters and their motives feel premature. 

War is threatening from the first page and yet the stakes never felt very high.  Surely, that should never happen in a novel.  Warbreaker deals with a lot of character and Sanderson seems to try to give them all equal screen time.  I felt this was a mistake.  Unlike most fantasy I read I wouldn't use my blanket comment of, 'the book needs to be two-hundred pages shorter.'  Nothing is inflated in Warbreaker, but much of what is given sure doesn't seem necessary.  Lightsong developing an interest in being a god and politics could have been conceived much faster.  Vivenna's character turns out to be wholly 'unimportant', never offensive but I certainly wondered why we were made to bother with her at all.  Finally with a primary character called 'God King' and with so much centered around him; man was that guy ever irrelevant.  Without certain story elements I felt greater focus on the events that mattered could have been given.  Some of the tension and central conflict could have been instilled.  Six-hundred pages is a lot of writing just to coast along.

This is easily the book I'm most ambivalent about this year.  It's OK.  Not horrible; not phenomenal; but easily could have been much stronger.  Okay I'll say it, 'The book could have been two-hundred pages shorter' and under an expert editorial eye we may have been left with something special.  Content editing aside, there were a lot of typos here, and I'm not allergic to typos but there were enough to merit me making mention of them.  Also there were some really awkward sentences that may not be real sentences: "Of one thing remained firm."  Some improperly used question marks and an extraordinary overuse of italics rounds out to what I have to admit were minor annoyances.  I liked reading it, only I wanted more of what I liked.  Alas... Should you feel inclined to read Warbreaker, like me, you may enjoy what's given, but it's hard to not wonder about 'what could have been.'      

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