Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Book 2)

Well of Ascension

 

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.

 

Actual Review:
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.

 

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Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn Book 1

 

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire is book one of the Mistborn series, and part of Sanderson’s expanding, and increasingly intriguing, Cosmere universe.  It follows the adventures and coming-of-age narrative of young street urchin Vin, and her participation in a rebel plot to overthrow the ostensibly immortal god-emperor of the land, the Lord Ruler.

On the face of it Mistborn has all the markings of a walking fantasy cliché.

We have a young hero who it just turns out has incredibly and unbelievably rare super-special magical powers, and not only that, but has an uncanny affinity for them and learns how to use them absurdly quickly and to an extent that puts all others to shame.  Not to mention a secret bloodline that has ramifications for the upper echelons of society.

We have a scrappy group of super-talented rebels (or quest group for those that are familiar with RPGs) faced with an impossible task that you know that they are somehow going to pull off.  Sort of like a million-to-one shot that works nine times out of ten.  Luckily each member of the group has one specific talent that adds to the plan and pretty much defines them as a character.  For example, Breeze can soothe people’s emotions, Clubs can hide their allomantic activity, and Ham is incredibly strong.

We have the slightly sinister mentor, Kelsier, who, it turns out, has a few dark secrets in his past.  Thankfully he is lucky enough to take a chance on rescuing a young orphan girl, the super-special hero mentioned above, who becomes essential to his plan succeeding.

There is an immortal Dark Lord™ that has been ruthlessly subjugating the masses for a very long time, is obscenely powerful, and appears to be definitively evil for the sake of being evil (ruling with an iron fist, being mean to puppies, and guilty of living alone in a large, foreboding, yet tastefully ostentatious palace which possesses no chamber pots or bathrooms).

The society of the fantasy world has not really evolved or changed in hundreds of years with technology, fashion, literature, and science all remaining relatively static, and made up of two peoples; The Nobles, privileged, spoiled, and decadent, and the Skaa, oppressed slaves.

There is an evil corrupt government bureaucracy and evil military religion that maintain law and order in the land in cruel and vindictive ways.

And lo, there is also an ancient prophecy knocking around that must be fulfilled.

Now if there was an awkward and unnecessary romantic sub-plot and a dragon you would have a full house in fantasy cliché bingo… ok so there is an unnecessary romantic sub-plot but there isn’t a dragon.  Maybe even Sanderson thought that dragons at this point would have been overkill.

It is to Sanderson’s credit that he utilises these stereotypes knowingly, and provides enough subversion so that they don’t completely weigh down the narrative in ever increasingly obvious ways.  But in terms of story there is little here that will be of any surprise to a fantasy reader, until the end, but to give that away pretty much spoils the story.  In this case, the end, at least, partially justifies the means… so to speak.

Mistborn is set on the world Scadrial, a secondary world that is plagued by nigh continual volcanic ash falls, nightly planet-engulfing mists, and orbits a weak red sun.  Despite the seemingly alien nature of the planet and the occasional reminders about the ash and the mists, most of the book feels like it is set in a fairly standard and familiar pseudo-medieval fantasy world.  The strangeness of the landscape never quite leaves the page to enter the imagination, and there is a certain feudal European feel to the entire planet.  Given that worldbuilding is something so important to many modern fantasy narratives, and is also a frequent point praised in Sanderson’s work, perhaps a closer look at the world of Scadrial is necessary here.

The world essentially has two classes of people, the nobles and the Skaa.  The Skaa, although they physically resemble the nobles, so much so that they can be easily confused for them, are a slave race.  Sanderson didn’t use anything as clichéd as colour or some sort of physical characteristic to differentiate the two races, actually, he doesn’t really use anything to differentiate the two races apart from the name.  But choosing a slave race name based on a word for a type of Jamaican music is perhaps a little too on the nose for me.  Regardless, despite the fact that the narrative insists on, and then actually explains how, the two races are physically different, the narrative also depends on the fact that there is no real physical difference between them.  Yes, it is indeed that contradictory.

Oppressed and subservient to the nobles, the Skaa’s only hope lies in the Skaa rebellion.  For centuries a small pocket of rebels has tried to overthrow the Lord Ruler (Dark Lord™) without success.  That is, until, Kelsier, the survivor of the prison quarry, the Pits of Hathsin, returns to the capital, Luthadel, to organise an uprising.  He rounds up a crew of magically talented individuals, and in the process rescues the protagonist of the novel, Vin, from her time in an evil criminal gang, by recruiting her to his good criminal gang…

But luckily for the reader there is never any doubt about who to support as the Skaa are treated as slaves, apart from those Skaa who own their own independent businesses or are semi-successful merchants, but we never meet any of those apart from two of the main characters who are in Kelsier’s crew.   But the vast majority of Skaa are treated as slaves and are horribly abused by the evil nobles and therefore Kelsier and his crew are undoubtedly good freedom fighters, thieves, murderers and conmen.  Sanderson makes sure to show the Lord Ruler and his minions killing people in cold blood to prove a point and to cow the public, just like Kelsier does to the nobles.  Have I mentioned that there are some issues with the worldbuilding?

The world of Sadrial possesses two major forms of magic, the first, and the focus of the first novel, is allomancy, while the second, feruchemy is more important in the later books.   Allomancers, those gifted with this exceptionally rare ability, can ‘burn’ certain metals to create amazing effects.  Essentially they ingest small pellets of specific metals that create reservoirs of power that they can tap to create very specific effects, such as the ability to pull metal toward them, or push metal away from them.

Only the rarest of the rare Allomancers (alloy-mancer, like necromancer) can ‘burn’ more than one metal, and those few are called Mistborn, hence the title of the book.  As it turns out, almost the whole of Kelsier’s crew are Allomancers, it is what makes them so special and effective, and Kelsier himself is a Mistborn.  It just so happens that Vin, our hero, is also a Mistborn.  Given the tight focus of the novel on Vin’s adventures with Kelsier’s crew this gives the unfortunate appearance that almost every character has this exceptionally rare magical ability and therefore it is not rare at all in the novel.  But we are also led to believe that despite the fact that this is rare, there are enough noble allomancers that a strong enough trade in allomantic metals exists, and that Skaa workers are trusted enough to run these businesses* and there are enough allomancers that noble houses have entire houseguard squads made up of low level allomancers who wield no political power nor hold positions of authority within the houses.

(*While never explicitly stated that the metallurgists who provide the allomantic metals are Skaa no noble would risk buying their metals from another noble house that they may be at war with, and if Sanderson had each noble house produce their own allomantic metals then, no matter how logical this would be for the world, Kelsier and his crew would have difficulty in accessing the necessary supplies)

Sanderson is at pains to lay out and explore the strengths and weaknesses of this fairly original magic system, and if you enjoy reading about how different magic systems are used, then this will be a major strength of the novel for you.  A good third of the novel is focused on Vin slowly training, experimenting with, and growing to command her powers.  To give Sanderson his due, these sections are much more entertaining and engaging than comparable training sessions found in a multitude of other fantasy works.  Indeed the action sequences detailing the use of allomancy, both the aspects of training and later in combat, are extremely well executed with cinematic flair.

So as long as you don’t think too hard about the actual ramifications of the rules of the world, the physical descriptions of the people and the landscape, and the fact that the rules of the magic system become flexible according to necessity, and just go along with the flow, the worldbuilding in this novel is great.

But… and this is an important but…

But while much of what I have said thus far has been a little damning, Sanderson does weave a fairly compelling tale.  His prose trips along in an amiable fashion.  The character of Vin is engaging and interesting, and it is genuinely nice to have a central female hero who exhibits depth and backstory, and also isn’t raped.  Kelsier possesses some elements of moral and character complexity that become more apparent as the plot trundles on.  The crew is made up of colourful characters that round out the story and give it some interest as their sense of camaraderie is explored and they grumble and gripe at one another.

More importantly, it is the events and the central mystery of who the Lord Ruler is and why the world seems so strange and yet incomplete, that provide the much needed intrigue and interest.  The reveal and twists at the end of the novel are enough, even after all that I have said, to make me like the novel and read more of the series, as it turns out that so many of the clichés, the tropes, the ‘mistakes’ and weaknesses of the worldbuilding are very deliberately constructed on Sanderson’s part.  So much of what seems contrived and artificial actually plays a part in the broader context that the novel reveals in its last few chapters.

Granted, I will never rate this as among the best fantasy novels I have ever read, but Sanderson weaves a compelling story by acknowledging and engaging with the flawed nature of his world building, even if some flaws are perhaps unintentional, and focusing the story on explaining how this came to be.  And it is this surprising plot thread that convinces you to keep reading.  So rather than being an epic quest or a standard story about overthrowing a Dark Lord™, this is actually a mystery, and if you aren’t careful some of the cleverer aspects of the world will sneak by you.