Consistent, engaging and well crafted – these are just three ways one can describe Brandon Sanderson and his second stand-alone fantasy novel, Warbreaker. Sanderson tells the story of a land ruled by a faceless God King and focuses on the woman (Siri) who is sent to be his wife. That core of the plot feeds several subplots – Vivenna, the sister of the God King’s wife (Siri) trying to save her; a brewing war between nations; the machinations of the Gods who live amongst men and just who and what the God King really is.
Sanderson follows the storyline of multiple characters in Warbreaker, the primary of which would probably be Siri, the young girl sent to the land of Hallandren to marry the God King in order to bring about a union between Hallendren and Siri’s homeland of Idris. Initially, her sister Vivenna was the intended wife of the God King but at the last minute, their father decided to send Siri in Vivenna’s stead. Not long after Siri is sent to be the God King’s wife, Vivenna follows in order to save her sister from the dire fate. As the story progresses, Sanderson shows an engaging parallel story of how Vivenna and Siri learn about the two disparate sides of life in Hallendren.
In the magnificent world Sanderson has created, people who die heroically are brought back as Returned, living gods who form the upper echelon of society and are models for decadence and power. One such Returned, Lightsong is the point-of-view man among this world of gods in Hallendren. He is snarky, entertaining, and is a god who doesn’t believe his own deification. One of the most important elements of being a Returned is being unaware of how his/her previous life ended and what kind of life it was. Naturally, Lightsong is nagged by this fact, continually seeking information about who he was and how it might affect his role as a god.
Gods amongst men is just one magical aspect of the novel, for color is magic in Warbreaker and this magic system feeds the novel and the world. People’s hair changes color giving away their moods, and the essence of thaumaturgical power is BioChromatic breath, which is collected, shared and given to others in order to manipulate magic. As with Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, the intricate magic is worked out logically and only serves to enhance the story.
With Siri as the focal character for much of the book, Sanderson provides an empathetic character with whom to discover the decadent land of the gods. Siri is told many times not to touch Susebron, the God King; not to look into his eyes, and to submit wholly unto his will. The frustration she exudes during her early days in Hallendran is an addictive thing to read as the plot and character work in equal strength to reveal a game of politics and subterfuge that connects throughout all the land with an unwitting God King at its center.
As Vivenna hangs out in the slums of Hallendren and attempts to rescue her sister, she falls in with a band of mercenaries and a rivalry that goes much deeper than the surface would outwardly imply. Caught between a gang leader named Denth and a rogue swordsman named Vasher, her plight is more dangerous than it would have been if her father had chosen her to be the God King’s wife.
Vasher does not get much “page time,” but it is well spent. Sanderson effectively shows a man tortured by past deeds with a talking sword that seeks battle by his side. Though this comparison may superficially resemble a certain Melnibonean albino and his own bloodthirsty sword, Sanderson applies humor to the master and weapon in Warbreaker, which allows for Sanderson’s voice and style to imprint its own indelible image and character.
The characters and the world itself have a great “not everything is what it seems” feel to it. As such, Sanderson does a great job of revealing these layers in terms of pacing them out to the reader.
So, after a successful trilogy, Brandon Sanderson has given readers a done-in-one (for now, at least) Epic Fantasy novel that is engaging, entertaining, and like his Mistborn trilogy, gives a new lens with which to view familiar elements of a pleasing story. If I can level any negative criticism at the novel it is that once Vivenna leaves her homeland of Idris, it is only spoken of as a place to keep out of war. Considering Vivenna is the only remaining princess after Siri is sent off to be married, I was expecting her father or a group of men from Idris to come into Hallendren in search for Vivenna. This never happened and seemed odd that a King wouldn’t search out for a runaway princess especially when that princess is his daughter. On the whole, this aspect wasn’t a detriment to my enjoyment of the novel, but it itched at my brain a bit. In many ways, the story initially has a faery-tale feel to it, with a royal daughter’s marriage binding two kingdoms. What unfolds from that simple premise is well-wrought, intelligent, and at times, surprising – one might say a conspiracy novel with hints of slight hints 1984 wrapped in a wonderful fantasy package.
Warbreaker is another top-notch novel from Brandon Sanderson – a novel that will likely be one of the top fantasy novels of the year.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford