I realised recently that I almost never read epic fantasy any more. At one stage of my life it was all I ever read, but in the last five years I have picked up only a handful of ‘swords and sorcery’ books. I blame Robert Jordan. Since the collapse of the ‘Wheel of Time’ into an infinite loop of repetitive self-parody, I don’t like to start a series of books to which the final instalment has yet to be published. As a result, I’ve yet to read Patrick Rothfuss, and haven’t started fantasy saga of the moment, ‘The Song of Ice and Fire’. I don’t want to start another series where there the author dies (either creatively or literally) before his story ends. Yet I still yearn for the excitement I felt when reading the Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad or the Drenai series for the first time. (Though David Gemmell remains unforgiven for dying before writing a sequel to Quest of Lost Heroes).
Whenever I go into a book shop I trawl the SF&F shelves hoping for inspiration, but it rarely strikes. I have looked at Brandon Sanderson novels on numerous occasions, but until now nothing has persuaded me to bite. Yes, the Mistborn trilogy is complete, but it now looks like an awfully large investment of time in order to make it through to the end, proving if nothing else, that I am entirely inconsistent in my prejudices.
And then I saw ‘Warbreaker’. Sucked in by the front-cover tag-line, ‘Magic as you’ve never seen it before.’, I read the blurb. It describes a chromatic magic system, based on ‘breath’ that can only be collected one unit at a time, and magic wielders who draw their power by leeching the colour of objects around them. It sounded like absolute genius. Better still, the novel was a one off. A surreptitious read through of the exciting and intriguing prologue left me in no doubt, ‘Warbreaker’ was a book I had to read. A bit of digging around on the internet, shows this is one of Sanderson’s less popular novels. All I can say is that the others must be something special, as I found Warbreaker entrancing from start to finish.
The plot centres around two kingdoms, one powerful, Halladren, the other, Idris, in decline. Halladren has replaced Idris as the strongest power in the region, but the Idrian monarchs still hold a claim to the Halladren throne. To make matters more interesting, the religion of Halladren is considered an abomination by the Idrians. As the novel opens, there is to be a marriage between the daughter of the King of Idrian, and the God King of Halladren.
What’s most impressive in this book is the depth of Sanderson’s world building. From some cursory research, I gather that the magic, religion and politics of the novel, fits in with the philosophy of Sanderson’s other works. This definitely comes over in this book. It occasionally feels a little clunky; too much telling, rather than showing, particularly in the early part of the novel. What I liked about it though, is that the magic system works like science. Often in fantasy novels the magic comes complete, with the characters (and therefore the reader) rarely questioning how it works. Here, the most powerful wielders of ‘Breath’ have had to research as they go, and much like science, their answers reveal yet more questions. Magic effects the senses, but can also be imbued into real objects, or stored for later use. The system described remains consistent and is well realised, better still, the novel’s characters use it in innovative ways that have unexpected consequences for the story.
But a solid world alone does not make for a good novel. It has to have a good story to back it up. Sanderson delivers with aplomb. There are all sorts of interesting things going on here. Magic, obviously, but there’s political intrigue, revolutions, plots, counter-plots, murder and some good old-fashioned betrayal. It also has some very dry humour and the greatest sword since Stormbringer. There are some strong themes too, most notably the novel asks, how are our lives shaped by our expectations? Terrorism and religious tolerance also come under scrutiny, as does the malleability of history. It seems the bar has been raised high since I last read any epic fantasy.
Nearly all of Warbreaker’s characters have mixed motives, with factions playing out their hands for good and ill. There is also a nice poke at the indolence of the ruling classes; the living gods are so far removed from the real world, they have absolutely no idea how it works. The conversations between these living gods are full of dry wit, and are highly entertaining.
So my first foray into the world of Brandon Sanderson was a resounding success. ‘Warbreaker’ had me reading late into the night, returning me to my teenage years. Since I now have goblins of my own, who are more than happy to wake me up at 6am, staying up until after 1am to finish a book is just about the highest compliment I can pay. If ‘Warbreaker’ is not Sanderson’s best book, then I can’t wait to read the others.