Having both been a fan of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, Jenny and I thought it would be fun to review his newest work, Warbreaker, together in a co-review. In Warbreaker, Sanderson once again shows his strengths; well-developed and complex characters, interesting plots and subplots that weave together toward an exciting conclusion, an intriguing magic system that includes enough limitations and rules to make it believable, and the development of suspense and surprise to keep the reader guessing at the outcome.
Typical of Sanderson's work, it is difficult to condense into a concise summary. But I'll take a stab at it. The Hallandren kingdom is a tropical climate full of vibrant color. This color is an essential part of the BioChromatic magic system, where a power called Breath can be passed from person to person, or even accumulated in a single individual to give that person heightened abilities. The ruler of the kingdom is a mysterious tyrant god-king, and he is surrounded by a court of lesser gods called the Returned. In a style akin to Mt. Olympus, the spoiled Returned are guilty of every mortal character flaw such as jealousy, lust, greed, laziness, and selfishness. One in particular, Lightsong, is so disgusted with his undeserved life of luxury and laziness that he intentionally tries to undermine his own divinity and his banter with his faithful priest provides some of the most amusing and clever interactions in the novel.
At the onset of the story, tensions between Hallandren and nearby Idris are building, and the Idrian king decides to honor an old treaty that promised his daughter as a bride to the Hallandren's god-king. But rather than sending his oldest daughter, Vivenna (who had been raised for this fate), he sends her youngest sister, Siri, instead. Siri is less refined, more compulsive, and completely unprepared for such a frightening assignment. Vivenna follows her in a secret attempt to rescue her from her horrible fate and ends up trying to mount an underground revolution. Both sisters have to leave behind the world they once new to grow into mature women who can act with courage and commitment in the face of the forces trying to destroy them.
As I said, it's difficult to condense Sanderson's work into a concise summary. I've left out some other major characters, including the enimgatic Vasher whose origin and motivations are delightfully mysterious. But this should at least give you a basic idea of what lies in the pages of Warbreaker. If you think you may want to read it, stop now and return when you're finished so that we don't give away any spoilers in the rest of the review!
Caren: Overall, I didn't enjoy Warbreaker as much as I did Mistborn. I had a harder time sorting out the pieces of the plot, but that might have had something to do with trying to read it as quickly as possible during a family reunion so that I could finish it before I had to return it! Perhaps it also had to do with some of the plot lines feeling similar to Mistborn (at least in the beginning) -- a tyrant god-king, the second-class citizens trying to overthrow him, the dubious religion, etc. Those early similarities sacrificed some of the freshness, but fortunately that passed and Sanderson succeeded in drawing me in with the intrigue and suspense until the similarities to Mistborn were reduced to a mere shadow and Warbreaker was able to come to life.
Jenny: It was interesting to me to be right there when you were first reading it and comparing so many aspects of Warbreaker to Mistborn. You sounded a bit frustrated by it. Since then, I've spent some time wondering if having you point out those similarities changed what I thought of it. The similarities are there, but like you said they are a mere shadow. I was so wrapped up in this new world Sanderson had created that I didn't even catch the similarities until you pointed them out. For me, that counts as being creative and different enough to not be a replica of Mistborn.
That cheerleading said, I still like the Mistborn trilogy better. I felt more connected to and fascinated by the characters in Mistborn than I did the characters in Warbreaker. Maybe if Sanderson writes another few books in the Warbreaker world I would get as invested in their successes as I did with the others. I did love Lightsong especially because he was so disgusted by the whole basis of their religion being the worship of such flawed gods. His curiosity, his determination to be unlikable and his need for answers were some of the best parts of the book. His ultimate sacrifice raised him even further in my esteem.
Caren: Sorry if I tainted your view of the book! I tried to hold back for that very reason. I didn't feel frustrated as much as........skeptical? Worried? Hoping that he would make a cleaner break from Mistborn? And ultimately he did, and it was fine. But I do think that it served as a little bit of a barrier to getting into the story. If I hadn't read Mistborn first, probably not.
I felt that way about Lightsong's sacrifice as well. It was sad to lose him since he was such an entertaining character, but I was pleased that his second death would be for such a noble purpose.
One thing I was delighted to see was that Sanderson once again included women as main characters in Warbreaker. I enjoyed his portrayal of Vin in Mistborn, and while Siri and Vivenna were no Vin, they were still admirable and sympathetic characters. How does he manage to write women so well when so many other men degrade them to sexual playthings, shrews, or a combination of the two?
Though, having said that, I have to admit that a little of Blushweaver went a long way. Oh man, how many descriptions of her voluminous breasts did we really need? It was like reading Twilight, but with Blushweaver's decolletage on every other page instead of Meyer gushing about Edward. Really, I got it the first dozen times! Do we have to have it restated in every scene where she appears? It just felt too gratuitous-male-fantasy for my taste. In general, I love Sanderson's treatment of women and admire his ability to create convincing women with both strengths and weaknesses. But with Blushweaver, I have to admit I felt a small kernel of relief when she got the axe!
Jenny: Ugh, no kidding. I wonder if the purpose behind that was just to demonstrate how well Lightsong could resist her. But any decent man can resist a woman throwing herself at them without being tempted to do something he shouldn't. It definitely wasn't sad to see her go.
Siri and Vivenna were great characters and it was interesting to see Vivenna make so many mistakes when Siri was the one who never could do anything right in their home country. I never grew to love those sisters as much as I loved Vin from Mistborn (we can't seem to help making those comparisons, can we?) but then I wonder if that's simply because I got three books worth of Vin and only one of Siri and Vivenna. It was interesting to see Siri figure out things on her own and dealing with the machinations of the palace priests.
How shocked were you when the God-King had no tongue? I about jumped out of my chair. I'm trying to think of another moment in the book that caused that reaction for me.
Caren: I didn't expect that, but I figured something must have been up. I was so glad that he turned out to be a decent, good person. Those early scenes with a naked Siri prostrating herself before him every night were so humiliating and frustrating. So I was happy when we could move on from that! I often wondered how Vivenna would have responded to that situation, and was glad that it was Siri because she seemed more open to accept Susebron than Vivenna would have been.
I wonder if one of the reasons we didn't get as attached to the sisters as we did to Vin is because Vin didn't have to share the limelight like they did. Vin was the main focus of Mistborn, but they had to share airtime not only with each other, but also with Lightsong and Vasher. I was really interested in Vivenna's experience, as painful as it was. Not only with those who betrayed her, but also with having to challenge all of her beliefs and figure out where she really stood in her commitments. Siri had never been that committed, so she never faced that kind of grueling introspection. But Vivenna did and it contributed to her greater depth of character, even if she didn't always like what she saw.
Did you get the sense of a possible future romantic attachment between Vasher and Vivenna? I couldn't quite tell what the nature of their relationship had the potential to become.
Jenny: Yes, Sanderson barely hinted at something more for Vasher and Vivenna, but it wasn't wrought with unrequited desire or anything obvious to make you know for sure what's ahead in any future books. I can't help but think that Vasher is massively too old for Vivenna, if not really in physical form but definitely in years. Maybe she'll really come into her own in future books, since you mostly see her figure out what her purpose and direction are in Warbreaker.
Out of all the characters in the book, those are the only two that feel like they have more story to come. Everybody else feels wrapped up nice and neat. Vasher is fascinating to me, having so much history and background to his character, so I'm excited to see what direction he and Vivenna will take.
I've noticed that all we have talked about so far is the characters, nothing about the politics, religion or magic system of the book and those are pretty interesting too. I think that's what makes Sanderson's books for me, that the characters are rich enough to discuss all on their own, and like you said, such great portrayals of women!
Caren: It's true! And I felt the same way about Vasher and Vivenna. A romantic pairing would have seemed too predictable and imbalanced. So, what did you think of the magic system? It didn't seem as straightforward as Allomancy (yes, yet another Mistborn comparison), and then had other seemingly unrelated aspects like the Returned coming back from the dead with the potential for immortality. I never felt like I had a full handle on how it worked, though I really liked the Genesis-like image of Breathing life/power into a person.
I thought the religious interpretations of the magic were interesting -- how the Hallandrens and Idrians developed such different religions even though they traced back to the same beginning. Once Vasher's true identity was revealed, I would have loved to sit down with him and say, "Okay, give us your version!" It'll be interesting to see if Sanderson explores that further in other books.
Jenny: That was one of my favorite parts of the book, to find out that Vasher was one of the original Five Scholars. I want his character to tell the story, or version like you said. I bet in future books we'll get to find out more about that. It's too bad, according to the interview questions he answered for us in a soon-to-come post, that he won't get to another Warbreaker book any time soon because of other obligations. On that topic, I'm excited to get to that post where we get to share the questions he answered for us. I'm almost giddy.
Caren: Yes, it'll be interesting to see where he goes with Warbreaker and if following more of the story will raise it closer to the Mistborn standard. But even if not, it was still a fun read!