Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Book 2)
Short Review: A sequel that feels pedestrian and somewhat underwhelming until the reveal and twist ending. An ending that saves the book. A fascinating continuation and evolution of the characters from book one.
Book 2 of Sanderson’s Mistborn series begins shortly after the end of book one. The Lord Ruler is dead by Vin’s hand, Elend is now king of Luthadel but has set up a quasi-democratic council to rule with him, a new religion has sprung up that worships Kelsier ‘The Survivor’, and several armies are descending upon the capital in order to seize the fabled atium reserves of the Lord Ruler. As one would expect when the despotic tyrant of an empire dies, there is chaos across the land as nobles vie for power and control.
The second book of a trilogy, as this initially was before the series began to build larger, can often be something of a problem child for authors, but Sanderson’s narrative moves the story along without any of the usual signs of trouble even if the pace and focus of the story are very different to The Final Empire. Eschewing the great caper storyline of the first novel, Sanderson instead focuses more on the political turmoil created by the death of the Lord Ruler and the subsequent collapse of the empire he had ruled and controlled with ruthless efficiency. So rather than producing more of the same, Sanderson gives the reader something that they didn’t know they wanted, a story about what happens after you kill the Dark Lord™. And rather than ‘they all lived happily ever after’, things seem to go from bad to worse for our intrepid rebel alliance.
While still the central character, Vin is no longer the sole focus of the story and she now shares narrative space with Elend and the Terrisman Sazed, as well as my favourite, the kandra shapeshifter. For some readers this shift into a split focus may rob them of some enjoyment, particularly if they had built up any great attachment to Vin. But Vin’s journey in book one from street urchin to extremely powerful and competent mistborn didn’t have much further to go in that vein, so the change to focus more on her competence and character growth, rather than her abilities is a welcome development. More so as she finally gets paired with a genuine challenge in the form of Zane, a fellow mistborn, who seems just as at ease with allomancy as she is, and is accompanied by the kandra, OreSure, who acts as both sidekick and foil to Vin.
This shift in focus leads to Vin developing as a character, rather than pushing the over-arching plot along, and as mentioned, may make her sections seem less essential than before, although no less action packed. She gets embroiled in numerous scrapes and battles, and Sanderson doesn’t exactly shy away from using her as an action set piece. In fact, in comparison to the first book, Vin’s body count in this seems a lot higher. The trend being representative of the fact that she moves from young trainee and apprentice, to active agent, assassin, and bodyguard, in effect, growing up. While there were sections of Final Empire devoted to the slightly tedious and repetitive ballroom scenes in which Vin dabbles in ham-fisted court intrigue and gossip, in this book she devotes her time to being mistborn and embracing her more destructive skill-set. This change provides most of the much needed action and excitement in this novel, and with OreSure, much of the witty repartee. So it isn’t really a bad thing at all.
One of the most surprising developments in this novel is how the character of Elend evolves. While somewhat nondescript and wet in the first novel, and fairly unconvincing as a love interest for Vin, his character arc and development here is extremely welcome. Rather than assume that he automatically grows into his leadership role as some destined hero, Sanderson brings in another Terris character, Tindwyl, who takes it upon herself to instruct Elend in the ways of kingship. Her lessons with Elend and his slow growth into a strong king form a solid plot thread that ties the political arc of the power struggles in Luthadel together. The amateurish, arm-chair revolutionary dilettante of book one is slowly replaced over the course of the novel by a leader, a king, a man of character. This development of his character, punctuated by Tindwyl’s acerbic comments and with all Elend’s growing pains exposed, forms a fairly fascinating story as he painstakingly ‘fakes it until he makes it’ and becomes the leader Luthadel desperately needs.
The change in Vin’s storyline to a more action-oriented one, and the focus on the development of Elend as a leader make for some fairly engaging and interesting reading. While very different to the caper-focus in the first novel, this is actually entertaining and fun. They both grow into believable characters who demonstrate a growing depth and complexity that was somewhat missing from the first book in which their characters were predominantly defined by their function and role within the story.
But the book is not all good news. A strange issue arises in the fabric of this story. Elend’s plan for a democratic republic, or at the very least a democratic council of regents, falls flat. A combination of self-interest, corruption, ignorance, and ambition leads the council to fail and Elend is voted out of office. But rather than leave it there Sanderson has Vin step in and essentially place Elend on the throne as Emperor and Dictator through the use of magical and physical force. In effect making Elend a tyrant emperor… like the one they spent all that time overthrowing in the previous book. In his defence, Elend has only the best of intentions and is doing it for the good of the people and the country, and we can trust him because he is the good guy. Uh huh. Yeah. Sure.
I think that this is one of my problems with this novel, the undercutting of each storyline in a way that negates its relevance. If Sanderson’s characters had cause to question their becoming the very thing they rebelled against, instead of paying lip-service to the idea but dismissing it because they, the narrative, and the reader accept them as heroes, then this would be very clever. But Sanderson just nods at this occasionally without ever actually engaging with it. In fact, the narrative gose to show that they are right and justified in establishing a tyranny.
Sanderson goes to great pains to outline Elend’s benevolent desire to create a just and representative government and then, by the end of the novel, has him, supported by his powerful friends, overthrow it and seize power. And we, as readers, are meant to agree with this. So the novel reads as fairly anti-democracy as it will always be corrupted by cronyism, avarice, and ambition, and is actually pretty pro-tyranny. Elend’s position as a tyrannical ruler promises to be efficient, direct, and because he is a good man, relatively fair, at least from the point of view of someone who agrees with his position, like Vin… the person who makes him Emperor.
In the first novel it is clear who the good and bad guys are, or at the very least, who the sides are and which side we are meant to root for. Even if by the end things grow more complicated, the struggle is clearly delineated. But in this novel, the bad guys are dispersed, threatening but not really evil or even that worrisome. The stakes seem less high, less relevant, and less specific. The main reason Elend opposes handing the city over to any of the lords leading the other armies is so that he can protect his new type of democratic government… that he himself then is part of overthrowing. For their own good of course. Elend wants to protect the freedom of the skaa and all the citizens from a tyrannical dictator who will simply take control and rule them… the way he does at the end. The political storyline then completely disappears in the dying pages of the book to be replaced by the overarching mystical storyline that, until the end, has been fairly sketchy at best. So it feels like the majority of the book was simply killing time for an all-important magical scene at the end, and therefore the ramifications of the politics are actually inconsequential, the characters actions are inconsequential, the majority of the developments and plot points are inconsequential.
Actually, the Koloss themselves, the mercenaries who make up one of the armies, also bothered me a little in this novel. Newly introduced in this story they are presented as violent, savage, practically mindless, dumb brutes; they are monsters. Sanderson then tries to make them more interesting and perhaps sympathetic by showing how they are being manipulated and used by one of the lords. Ah ha, so this is going to be like the skaa storyline about freeing an oppressed people? Nope. Vin swoops in at the end and simply takes control of them, mind and body. For their own good of course, and for the good of the people of Luthadel. Never mind that this is a complete invasion and violation of their agency in a way you would think that the scrappy insurgents from book one would rally against. The Koloss have even less power and freedom, and even fewer rights than the skaa, but they are a monstrous threat, so apparently it is fine that Vin uses them as living weapons and imposes her will on them. So it is a good thing that Vin, just like Elend, is a good dictator.
Because of all this I am left wondering at what the moral centre of this story is meant to be. The first book was a clear struggle for the freedom of the enslaved skaa by a ragtag group of rebels and rogues. To depose a tyrannical ruler and encourage self-governance. To remove the corrupt and decadent nobility who profited from the oppression of the people. Yet each of these positions is essentially negated by the actions of Vin and Elend by the end of book two. Elend, a noble, is now emperor with magical powers (something that has worked out so well in the past for Luthadel). The skaa are indeed free in that they are no longer slaves, but have no say in how they are ruled, and have been pretty much left to fend for themselves with no money or means to actually find a place in society. The nobility, while reduced in influence, still hold almost all the power, wealth, property in the land, and are the only ones who have had access to education meaning that they will continue to lord it over the rest of the populous. So after overthrowing the Lord Ruler, Vin et al essentially set up almost entirely the same situation, but with less competence, experience, or effectiveness. The major change simply being that they are now the elite power living off the people. This is a fairly depressing outlook on life, ‘hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.’ While no doubt more ‘realistic’ than the heroes winning the day and succeeding, it goes against the narrative grain constructed by the narrative tone and perspective.
Then we come to the dénouement, the conclusion of this particular volume. The enemy armies are threatening and meant to be impossible to beat, but rather than having a plan to defeat them that Elend, Vin et al will execute as a team and that has a slim chance of winning, once again it comes down to a magical save in the 11th hour. So the whole point of having Elend set up a council, learn to be a great leader, and all the political posturing comes to naught and has almost zero impact on the actual story. To have a deus ex machina end this book as well as the first one does not bode well for the series. Especially as the idea of three hostile armies threatening each other and the city should have proved fertile ground for intricate political manoeuvring and Machiavellian intrigue. What Sanderson leaves us with is closer to high school politics and ham-fisted, juvenile intrigue, rather than imperial statesmanship as each manoeuvre ultimately has almost no real bearing on the narrative. That isn’t to say that the battles and fights aren’t fun to read, it is just that it seems to come down to Vin having super-special magical powers and just so happening to stumble across a magical secret in the nick of time… again. So rather than the other characters actually being effective, there being real consequences to the heroes’ actions, and there being a discernible reason for the plot of three quarters of the novel, everything hinges on a surprise ending.
While much of this will no doubt be built upon in the third book, at the end of book two I wondered why I was meant to be supporting these characters at all. Vin is a murderer and assassin, Elend has become a dictator, and the majority of the book has focused on a storyline that has almost zero relevance for the important reveal at the end.
But it is here that Sanderson saves the book. The reveal. The twist. The all-important over-arching magical narrative. Were it not for this I would have been extremely disappointed in the ending as it panned out. While I might call shenanigans on the use of deus ex machina and immaculate timing yet again, it is nonetheless an intriguing end. An ending that makes me want to read the third book immediately. And isn’t that what a good story is meant to make you do? Admittedly, although the fact that the book requires a twist ending that mostly comes out of nowhere to save it might seem a cheat, there are enough hints, references, and intimations dribbled through the book to make it seem a natural part of the world and overall story arc. Even I will admit that I was hooked on finding out what was going to happen next.
But ultimately I thought that this was a fairly uneven book. The early storylines that held my interest turned out to be fairly meaningless for this novel. The hook and twist ending, while vital for the series as a whole, made the majority of the book’s action seem irrelevant filler, even if it did ensure that I immediately queued up the next instalment to read.