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Friday, August 17, 2007

"The Well of Ascension" by Brandon Sanderson

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A couple of years ago author Brandon Sanderson impressed me with his debut novel “Elantris”, a standalone fantasy that flashed a lot of promise and had me looking forward to his next offering “Mistborn: The Final Empire”. Without a doubt, Mr. Sanderson turned it up several notches in the opening chapter of his Mistborn Trilogy, delivering one of my favorite books of 2006.

What immediately grabbed my attention in “Mistborn: The Final Empire” was the magic system Allomancy/Feruchemy, which is by far one of the most innovative concepts that I’ve ever seen in fantasy. By definition, Allomancy is “a mystical hereditary power involving the burning of metals inside the body to gain special abilities” while Feruchemy uses metals outside the body to store attributes. In other words, by using a certain metal (iron, steel, pewter, tin, etc.) an Allomancer or Feruchemist can enhance abilities such as increased strength, speed, sight, hearing and other extraordinary powers. Those who can use Allomancy are divided into two groups—Mistings who are born with only one ability (Coinshot, Thugs, Soother, Tineye) and the much rarer Mistborn who can burn all of the metals, while Feruchemy is limited to the Terris Keepers who mainly use their power to store & safeguard knowledge. Suffice it to say that the Mistborn, and to some extent Feruchemists, are extremely powerful individuals, and the highlight of the book is seeing them in action, especially in battle, which reminded me of something you might see in a comic book, videogame or animation. Secondly, the world of Mistborn is a pretty fascinating place to explore. Essentially, the Lord Ruler has reigned over the Final Empire for a thousand years, replacing “individual kingdoms, cultures, religions & languages” with a social class that is divided between nobles and skaa (peasants basically), all governed by the frightening Steel Ministry, which consists of Obligators & Steel Inquisitors who are a different form of Mistborn. And because of the ever-present Mist, the Final Empire is a depressing world where such concepts as a blue sky and green plants are foreign. Finally, the story is an intriguing one, based on such questions as, “What if the hero of prophecy fails? What kind of world results when the Dark Lord is in charge?” Incorporated into that is some good ol’ fashioned caper fun—think Scott Lynch’s The Gentleman Bastard novels or the Ocean’s 13 films—with revolution and religion also playing an important role. In short, I absolutely loved “Mistborn: The Final Empire” and was left breathless in anticipation for its follow-up “The Well of Ascension”. As much as I enjoyed reading the sequel though, I have to admit that I was somewhat let down by “The Well of Ascension”, partly because I had such high expectations for the book and partly because of the so-called “middle-volume syndrome”.

The Well of Ascension” is set a year after “Mistborn: The Final Empire” and once again takes place in the city of Luthadel which is located in the heart of the Central Dominance. The main storyline deals with Elend Venture, an idealistic young noble who has taken the throne and is facing numerous threats both within and without the walls of Luthadel, including assassins, a parliamentary council that doesn’t want Elend as king, and not one, not two, but three armies intent on conquering the city. Meanwhile, Vin has her own hands full trying to protect Elend without any of the precious Atium left, learning about a 12th alloy called Duralumin (previously it was thought that there were only ten allomantic metals), dealing with the mysterious Mistborn called Watcher (as well as an ominous mist-spirit), figuring out which of her friends might be a kandra spy, and having her love for Elend tested to the breaking point. Other subplots include the Mist starting to appear during daytime and killing people, and solving the thousand-year mysteries behind the Hero of Ages, the Well of Ascension, and the Deepness

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in “The Well of Ascension”, but thankfully I never had any problems staying on top of things since Mr. Sanderson has such a good grasp on the material. Of the actual story though, I thought the book was a little hit or miss. On the positive side, Allomancy once again steals the show, as does Feruchemy, and we get to learn more about kandra and koloss, two highly unique species, the former of which can ingest a creature’s dead body, using their own flesh to create an almost perfect duplicate. Furthermore, I liked how the author played around with a bunch of standard fantasy truisms including prophecy, “mythological saviors/monsters”, and in particular, what happens after you defeat the evil ruler which, as “The Well of Ascension” demonstrates, is much more difficult than actually beating the bad guy. Unfortunately, the book isn’t cliché-free. There’s a love triangle between Vin, Elend and an unnamed third party that is pretty formulaic, a character that is revealed to be related to one of the main characters, and the whole “imposter in our midst” subplot was fairly transparent, at least for me since I figured out who it was early on. Also, I really missed the caper elements that were prevalent in “Mistborn: The Final Empire”, getting instead a heavy dose of politicking which I didn’t find nearly as compelling. Still, despite whatever issues I may have had with the story, when you combine complex plotting and high-flying action with themes of love, trust & faith, as well as shocking revelations and unexpected betrayals, it makes for undeniably entertaining reading.

Character-wise, “The Well of Ascension” once again follows Vin who continues to develop her Mistborn powers, while still dealing with issues of trust, friendship, and now love. Replacing Kelsier from the first book is Elend, who’s not as captivating as Kelsier was, but it is fun to see Elend evolve from a timid, scholarly type into a commanding, authoritative figure. Sazed, a Terris Keeper facing matters of faith & his own problems with love, provides the third narrative and is my favorite character, partly because of his Feruchemy abilities and partly because of his personality. OreSeur, a kandra contracted to serve Vin is one of the more interesting secondary characters, while the remaining viewpoints rotate between Straff VentureElend’s father and one of the book’s chief villains—, the Soother Breeze, and the mysterious Watcher. Sadly, Kelsier’s ‘crew’ (Ham, Clubs, Spook, and especially Dockson) are relegated to minor roles in “The Well of Ascension”, which was disappointing since they were such an entertaining part of “Mistborn: The Final Empire”. Moreover, I wish that Marsh, Kelsier’s brother who infiltrated the Steel Ministry, and Inquisitors in general, had been in the book more, but I think that will be remedied in the final chapter of the Mistborn Trilogy. As a whole, the characterization was a bit lacking, particularly when characters start dying off since I didn’t seem to care about who lived or died.

Regarding the “middle-volume syndrome”, let me first clarify that “The Well of Ascension”, like its predecessor, stands well on its own even though the books are obviously connected. Despite that, “The Well of Ascension” does suffer from a few middle-volume maladies, such as leaving questions unanswered—How and where did Kelsier discover the eleventh alloy Malatium?—, spending too much time on setting up events for the third book in the trilogy, and ending “The Well of Ascension” on a cliffhanger note. Truthfully though, these were minor issues for me, and for the most part Brandon Sanderson does a good job of addressing this problem area, which is common in a lot of trilogies.

In the end, I had very high hopes for “The Well of Ascension”, and while the book did not live up to my expectations, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth the time and effort. Sure, characterization is an area that Brandon Sanderson needs to work on, the pacing of the book was uneven—particularly when the story got bogged down with government politics—, and the plot suffered from a few clichés, but as long as the author’s fertile imagination remains in play (Allomancers, Feruchemy, kandra, koloss, etc.) and he’s making an effort to break down conventional fantasy trappings, then it’s easy to overlook such imperfections. Of course, if Mr. Sanderson’s flaws ever catch up with his strengths, then the author will definitely be a force to reckon with. For now, Brandon Sanderson is still a work-in-progress, but he’s easily one of the most exciting new voices in fantasy and I think his next few releases, which includes “Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians” (October 2007-Scholastic), the conclusion to the Mistborn Trilogy (“The Hero of Ages”-Summer 2008), and “Warbreaker” (Spring 2009), will go a long way in determining just how much of an impact the author will have in the genre…


D Walsh said...

I stopped reading after the second book when instead of loving, or feeling sympathy for the lead character, I fully hated and despised her. She commits mass murder, but no other characters in the book think it's too bad, it's excused because of her troubled upbringing. Instead of feeling hope when I finished this book, I felt full of hate...and it makes me sick to feel that way.

The ending is stupid too. You build up the bad guy to be so smart and powerful, the he gets defeated by an extraordinary bit of luck. Stupid.

Blayney. said...

It wasn't merely an extraordinary bit of luck my friend. you are right in saying that he was built up to seen overwhelmingly powerful... that was the point because the lord ruler wanted everyone thinking he was immortal, but he wasn't he was just smart. his strength was overstated the whole time, not to mention that Vin's strengths are clearly hidden, there is something about her which is more than just a regular mistborn.

R.L. said...

@D Walsh,

If you read the third book, it turns out that this is not luck, the force of destruction, Ruin, helped vin kill Lord Ruler. Lord Ruler was actually saving the world from Ruin.

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