This week on Down the Stacks, I’m turning my attention to one of the my all-time favorite contemporary authors, Brandon Sanderson. He is a master story-weaver with a particular gift for crafting fascinating and complex worlds with unique cultures and very realistic problems. Sanderson is also the best creator of new and unusual systems of magic; half the fun of reading his novels is learning the rules that govern each world’s magic systems. The other half of the fun is watching the characters resolve major conflicts that may only tangentially relate to magic.
There are a lot of Brandon Sanderson book series to choose from, but for this review I’ll be looking at one of the stand-alone novels: Warbreaker.
Warbreaker takes place on a world called Nalthis, and more specifically in Hallendren, the capital city of T’Telir, arguably the most important and powerful country on Nalthis due to its unique tropical climate and the trade of dyes made from flowers that can only grow there. Hallendren is a city of color and art ruled by an ever-changing pantheon of physical gods lead by the powerful and mysterious God-king. North of T’Telir, up in the mountains, sits the tiny kingdom of Idris, which makes it a religious doctrine to reject the ostentation of Hallendren and its gods to the point of dressing in desaturated hues and avoiding the appearance of standing out from the crowd. Idris is ruled by the royal family that used to rule T’Telir until they were driven into exile during a world war called the Manywar. Tensions are high between Hallendren and Idris, and by the time Warbreaker begins the only thing preventing war is a treaty where the eldest daughter of Idris’s king -Vivenna - is betrothed to the God-king of Hallendren. The book opens with that treaty coming due, and after some mental deliberation the king decides to exploit a loophole by sending his youngest daughter, Siri, to Hallendren instead. Meanwhile, a strange man bearing a large sentient black sword is slinking through the shadows of Hallendren on a mission.
In the style that is Brandon Sanderson’s expertise, the story is told through four distinct plot lines that remain mostly isolated from one another until the climax approaches and everything tangles together all at once. The characters we follow are Siri, the free-spirited princess unexpectedly thrown into the role her sister was meant for and is now essentially isolated with the God-king until she bears him a child; Vivenna, the elder princess heavily steeped in Idris’s religion of austerity and disdain for Hallendren who sneaks off to the city with the goal of rescuing Siri; Lightsong, the only one of Hallendren’s gods who doubts his divinity and views his existence as a prison of hedonism and operates under the stated vow of becoming as obnoxious and useless as possible while everyone else drags him into politics; and Vasher, the mysterious man with a living sword that exists to destroy evil but has only a vague notion of what “evil” is. Each plot line tells a different sort of story. Siri’s tale is about discovering the dark secrets behind the mysterious, silent God-king, who does not turn out to be as terrible and capricious as the priests claim. Vivenna’s tale explores the underbelly of Hallendren itself and challenges the princess’s beliefs about everything she was ever taught. Vasher’s segments are short and few until his path combines with Vivenna’s, but what we see of him provides clues about other characters and some early exposition about the magic of Awakening. Lightsong’s tale mixes lighthearted moments with the politics of the Court of Gods, with Lightsong making every effort to frustrate and confuse those he speaks to with his sharp wit and circular logic until a murder of another god’s servant attracts his interest. One amusing highlight of Lightsong’s antics is when he takes part in a complex ball-tossing lawn game with three of his fellow gods despite making a point of never learning the rules, and yet wins.
The magic system shown in Warbreaker is called Awakening. Awakening is based on what is called BioChromatic Breath, which is a portion of the human soul. Breath isn’t anything essential to life or personality, but it does provide a sense of connection the surrounding world, a greater awareness and appreciation for color, and boosts the immune system. Breath can be passed from person to person by means of physical contact and a specific Command phrase, and Breath does not “grow back.” Awakening itself involves transferring Breath into an inanimate object and giving it a Command, which brings the object to life so it can fulfill that Command. Commands need to be simple, most Awakenings require large amounts of Breath, and most things can only handle one Command at a time, but an Awakener can recall the invoked Breath back into themselves when they are done with the awakened object. Holding large numbers of Breaths also confers passive benefits called Heightenings, which are either the epitome of the normal benefits of Breath - perfect pitch and color recognition, agelessness and resistance to sickness, and the ability to sense the number and quality of Breaths in others - or improved Awakening abilities. Color also plays into Awakening, since every invocation of the magic drains something the Awakener is touching to a dull, useless grey. In Hallendren, Breath is a commodity that can bought and sold, but its is uncommon to see anyone above the Third Heightening. Awakening is a system of magic that requires study, experimentation, and especially good resource management skills to excel at.
The gods of Hallendren are an extension of the Awakening magic, commonly known as Returned. Returned are people who died and then were brought back to life by a mysterious force in order to accomplish some goal. Returned possess a kind of “super Breath” that raises them instantly to the Fifth Heightening and which can be passed to someone else to heal them. However, that “super Breath” is the only thing that keeps a Returned alive, and if they give it away or go a week without receiving another Breath they will die. The process of becoming a Returned also wipes one’s memories of their old life, something that bothers Lightsong to no end because the priests are forbidden to speak of their gods’ past lives. Returned can arise anywhere in the world, but only in Hallendren are they revered as gods, fed a Breath every week, and locked away in the hedonistic compound known as the Court of Gods.
Warbreaker is a great book with a great mystery driving its plot. It’s clear from early on that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that somebody is pulling string from behind the scenes, but character flaws and obstructive priests prevent anyone from uncovering the full truth until right at the end, by which time everyone of importance has had their worldview upset or utterly broken and has grown stronger because of it. Sanderson expertly weaves plot advancement and character development with world-building and exposition. He brings in a storyteller character at one point to dump a lot of Hallendren’s history, but does it in a way that feels perfectly natural for the setting. That said, Vivenna’s chapters can be hard to push through because her prejudices about Hallendren and Breath make her unable to open her mind and compromise enough to really act on her own for a large part of the book, and the events surrounding her tend to be dark and serious in contrast to the lighthearted clowning of Lightsong, Siri’s ever-rebounding determination, and even the odd pairing of the weary stoic Vasher with the cheerfully violent sword Nightblood. Wading through Vivenna’s stodginess is worth the payout in the end, however. I’ve read Warbreaker many times, but the identity and motives of the true villains still catch me off-guard every time.
Read Warbreaker, and read the rest of Brandon Sanderson’s books as well. They’re amazing and can teach you a lot of about good worldbuilding.