Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Blog Fantastic 019: Warbreaker review

Warbreaker is my first Brandon Sanderson book. I’ve known about him and his work ever since he was announced as the writer who will finish writing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. It’s taken me a long time to get to read one of his books because all of his novels I see in stores are either second or third volumes in a series or the Wheel of Time books (readers will know I’m only three the prequel and the first two of that series). Sanderson has been at the top of my list of fantasy authors to discover for a few years and when I included him in my list of authors and series to read in my introduction to The Blog Fantastic project, I specified A Way of Kings. I’m a little ashamed to admit it’s been sitting on my shelf since then. Still, maybe reading Warbreaker will motivate me to pick up and read the giant ass first volume of The Stormlight Archive.

I found Warbreaker at my local used bookstore. It was the only Brandon Sanderson they had. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s still relatively new to the genre (his first book was published in 2005) or if people consider his books very good and do not wish to trade them or sell them. Either way, I’m glad there was at least one book of his that I could actually read. All in all, my first Sanderson reason experience was a very good one. The man lives up to his reputation, particularly in the magic department.

The story isn’t anything earthshattering. Over three hundred years ago, at the end of the Manywar,
the kingdom has been divided in two. The port city of Hallandren, once the kingdom’s capital, has remained in power but is now under the rule of the God King and the Returned. They are all rich in Breaths and the people revered them for their BioChroma. The royal family has retreated to the northern province of Idris where their faith in the unseen god Austre has led them to despise the heretic practices of the people of Hallandren. Twenty years before the beginning of the novel, a treaty was made between the rivals in which the King of Idris agreed to marry his daughter to the God King, hoping to bring peace between the two nations. Two of his daughter eventually make it to Hallandren and there they do all they can to prevent the war with Idris. Most of the novel is about the characters attempts to prevent or encourage the war.  

Breaths and BioChroma in Warbreaker:
Magic is the star of the show. I would not be surprised to find out if the novel’s origins followed the creation of the magic system. As such, the story can sometimes feel like a frame which allows Sanderson to be organized in his presentation of BioChroma. The story is structure in such a way as to allow Sanderson to regularly insert additional information regarding the magic. His approach to magic is very original and it’s so detailed as to make the magic feel somewhat scientific but it works. The problem with complex magic systems isn’t the system itself, it’s the author’s explanation of the system and how it’s handled. Complicated explanation or ham-fisted exposition will render any interesting magic system into something incomprehensible and boring. Sanderson avoids that in part because his writing style is clear and simple without being unrefined. I certain that it’s more difficult to do than it sounds. As I’m about to show, BioChroma is complicated and to explain it so effectively as Sanderson did without patronizing the reader is impressive.

Right at the prologue, Sanderson assaults the reader with his world building and the magic system of the story. You actually don’t fully understand the evens of the prologue until you’ve read more of the book, but the building blocks are all present in the first few pages. BioChroma is a magic that takes its power from humans souls which the inhabitants of this world refer to as Breaths. Every person is born with one Breath but they can accumulate any number of them. This of course is difficult to do since Breaths cannot be stolen from others, they can only be given. To further complicate things, when someone gives Breath away, they cannot control the number of Breaths they give. It’s an all or nothing deal. Breaths power BioChroma which can give the owner powers even if no magic is performed. To have one or multiple Breaths will affect how the individual views the world around them because having a certain number of Breaths will give you special abilities. There are ten levels of different abilities, the more Breath you have the higher the level, or Heightening, you are at. Owners of 50 Breaths attain the First Heightening which grants them Aura Recognition: the ability to sense and see other’s auras.

Owning Breaths is also the first step to being able to use magic, or to Awaken objects. To Awaken an object is to give them life by giving them Breaths. Not all objects can be Awakened, metals and other objects made of non-organic materials. Plants or objects made of plants are the easiest to Awaken because plant-based objects were once alive. This makes it easier to suffuse life into those objects. It’s also easier if you shape the object you wish to Awaken into a human shape. These Awakened objects can then perform tasks based on specific Commands you give them. In order to effectively Awaken, you need another component: colour. Colour is the fuel that powers the spell. Thus, in order to Awaken, you require an object to Awaken, a Command for the object, Breaths to give them object and colour to power it all. Awakeners often carry around colourful handkerchiefs to prevent their clothes from discolouring to grey when using magic. I forgot to mention that you need to have physical contact with the object you wish to Awaken as well as the source of colour you’re using. But that can vary based on your level of Heightening.

See what I mean about the magic system? It’s very complex! I’m only scratching the surface, too. There are far many more things that can be done with BioChroma and parts of what make up the city of Hallandren are intrinsically related to magic. The use of Lifeless armies is but one additional example. Like the story, Sanderson built the world in which the story takes place entirely around the existence and the use of BioChroma.

Everything is influenced by magic, from the characters’ world view as well as their actions. Their actions then inform the reader about how magic relates to their day to day lives. Everything comes full circle and it makes for a very satisfying reading experience. The better you understand the magic, the better you understand the characters and their motivation.  Magic is so ingrained in their cultures that it forms governments, destroys kingdoms and affects everyone in some way or another. From the social-economic, the political and the religious. BioChroma plays a role in everyone’s life, even if they aren’t magic users themselves. Because Breaths can be interchanged like a form of currency, those who have many likely bought them from the poor who are left with very little in return. Having many Breaths make it easier to acquire more which can cause some pretty serious divides in social strata.

Character Study and Further Development of Magic:
Sanderson isn’t just adept at developing magic, he’s also pretty good at developing characters. He uses them to provide expository explanation of BioChroma, of course, but more importantly it’s through his characters that he develops the theme of identity. Sanderson has two main types of characters in Warbreaker: some that appear to be something are really the opposite of what they appear to be and others who embody contradictions by having two opposing identifiers to who they are. The sisters, both princesses of Idris, are the first kind of characters. Who they were at the beginning of the novel is radically different than who they are by the end of it. Seeing their development as characters is one of the highlights of the book. Particularly Vivenna, the eldest, who annoyed me at first but grew so much as a character that I came to like her in the end. Really though, I liked all four point of view characters. Siri, the youngest sister, who has to learn to navigate the complicated politics in the Court of Gods in an all or nothing effort to prevent war between Hallandren and Idris. There is also Lightsong a god who doesn’t believe in his own godhood and the mysterious Vasher and his equally mysterious sword, Nightblood, who are roaming the streets of Hallandren doing who knows what (thankfully we find out by the end of the book).

My favourite character was Lightsong, Lord of Bravery. He’s one of Hallandren’s gods, a Returned. He died a bold and heroic death which resulted in him being returned to Hallandren. As a Returned he has a very powerful Breath, strong enough to grant them the powers of the Fifth Heightening. Theologists say that Returned have come back from the other side of the Incandescent Wave in order to accomplish something. Their priests and servants keep them alive by finding candidates to give them Breaths. They're also busy trying to help their gods remember why they came back and what they wanted to accomplish. Their memories are shattered by the forces required to send then back to life. Once they're accomplished their goal they're encouraged to use their Breaths to heal or help one of the common people. Daily petitions allow for commoners to plead their cause. 

Lightsong is a god who doesn’t believe in his own godhood. He’s clearly Returned but he’s still very critical of the religion that is tied to those who have Returned. He’s a godly equivalent of a person who is smart but incredibly lazy and incredibly unmotivated. HE feels bad about having so many priests and servants devoted to him and it pains him that so many people suffer simply to maintain his lavish lifestyle and to prevent him from dying again. He’s like a manga and anime character in many respects. He’s a slacker with amazing abilities. He’s very capable but lacks the motivation
to really do anything of worth. He reminds me of Spike Spiegel (from Cowboy Bebop), Vash the Stamped (from Trigun) and Shikamaru Nara (from Naruto). He's an unusual character for fantasy novel and that's why it works. He's constantly asking his high priest what the point of it all is but he doesn't do it in an existential way. He's just lazy and bored. It takes something out of the ordinary to stimulate him and once he's properly stimulated he because a force to be reckoned with. It's actually very exciting to see him become interested in something because you know hems capable, even if he hasn't shown it.

The sisters from Idris are interesting but I don’t like them at the beginning of the novel. I like them much more about midway in the book where their characters are less like templates. They have depth to them and that’s what makes them interesting. I enjoyed seeing their growth. Susebron and Vasher are also interesting mostly because of the mystery to them. I really liked Vasher but the book didn’t have enough of him in it. Sanderson has talked about doing a sequel some day and if he does, I really hope that Vasher and Nightblood play a larger role in the story. I would also enjoy having the sisters continue to play a big role because they’ve been well developed and it would be unfortunate for them to be left behind.

Sanderson skilfully balances big and complex ideas with a simple and clear writing style. The story moves at a leisurely pace which clashes a bit with the ever-present threat of war. It’s necessary though because Sanderson needs to juggle the explanation and development of the magic system with the advancement of the plot. I think it’s great how explanation for BioChroma are spread out from beginning to end but it also results in slower plotting. It’s worth it thought because all of the pieces fall into place and it leads into a pretty grand finally that is sure to surprise most readers.

The magic system is truly fantastic. It’s the part of the book that separates it from other modern fantasy novels. Like some of the best fantasy writers, Sanderson develops a world where you need to learn the words and the expressions in order to fully appreciate and understand the story. You have to immerse yourself completely and he aids the reader by building a world that is rich and full of detail. His ability to mesh that with a clear and sometimes wise authorial voice is what made Warbreaker and excellent read.  

Note: Sanderson shared Warbreaker in it’s entirely on his website before it even got published. He wrote it and published t one chapter at a time and later reworked and revised it as he went along. I liked his perspective on it and I think you should check out his website where he discussed his decision to share Warbreaker (here).

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