The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
Bridge books are always dicey things — many fall into a sophomore slump, meandering along trying to get from A to C with the required stop at B (because everyone knows a fantasy story can’t be told in only two books; three is clearly the sacred minimum — damn you Tolkien!). Luckily, The Well of Ascension (2007) doesn’t fall into that trap.
Mistborn is set in an ashen, mist-filled world whose myths tell of a time when plants were green. The world is dominated by the Lord Ruler, a seemingly immortal tyrant who had ruled for centuries, ruthlessly oppressing the majority population of Skaa, as well as the much smaller class of nobles. The Lord Ruler is also the hero who centuries ago defeated the mysterious “Deepness,” saving the world from complete destruction. The magic system in Mistborn is “allomancy.” Allomancers (a small percentage of the population) can “burn” certain metals to give them superhuman abilities, such as super-strength, super-senses, etc. There are only 10 such metals known and most allomancers can burn only one. True mistborns, however, can burn all. One powerful and charismatic mistborn, Kelsier, leads a group of thieves in their greatest caper — taking down the Lord Ruler. Integral to his plans is a street urchin girl named Vin, a more powerful mistborn than Kelsier.
One of the pleasures of The Well of Ascension is that it picks up where most fantasy novels end. Ding dong, the Dark Lord is Dead. What’s left to tell? Turns out plenty. First of all, the rebels start to learn that it’s easy to carp from the sidelines but when it’s your turn to actually rule, things aren’t so simple. They also face the rule of “unintended consequences.” Sure, the tyrannical Dark Lord is dead. But all that tyranny had a plus side — people were too scared to fight among themselves. Now civil war has broken out and young, bookish Elend Venture, the new king of Luthadel, faces three besieging armies, all trying to take his city and the rumored stockpile of treasure amassed by the Lord Ruler.
Oh, and that “free the Skaa, end despotism, move toward rule by the people” stuff that sounded so good in conspiratorial alley-meetings? Turns out sometimes “the people” aren’t so smart. Or grateful. Not to mention the nobles continue to plot to find ways to retain their power, even if that means giving up the city to one of the armies.
The newly-freed Skaa, by the way, are wondering why they aren’t getting regular stockpiles of food and tools, etc. When they slaved on plantation estates they were horribly treated but someone fed them. Now they have to do it themselves and winter is quickly approaching.
And finally, the whole “Lord Ruler saved the world from a great evil” propaganda may, it turns out, have been right. And with the Lord Ruler gone, that evil may be back. The mists are now coming during the day and are starting to kill people. And that’s not to mention the son-wanting-to-kill the father subplot, the brother-versus-brother subplot, the Vin and Elend romance subplot, the new bad Mistborn in town subplot, the other romance subplot.
Sanderson is juggling a lot here and the truth is he does it with a lot of aplomb. There’s a sense of true fun in the telling of this story, despite its dark moments. It doesn’t quite have the humor or Oceans 11 banter of Mistborn; it is a much more introspective, darker book in many ways, but it still feels like the author had a great time with it. The magical system remains a strength due to its utter originality and the way it gets refined and furthered, though the allomantic battles are a bit hard to follow at times. The secondary characters, with one prime exception and two other less-pronounced ones, aren’t as strong as in Mistborn, but the focus on Elend and Vin makes up for that somewhat as they are compelling characters, if not as charismatic as Kelsier. Vin’s victories seem a bit too predictable at times, but Sanderson balances that somewhat by not being afraid to have some major side characters die off. Even better is that the book sometimes spills off into very unpredictable directions. And the ending, though perhaps a bit abrupt, nicely closes off one story while greatly expanding the larger tale, much as happened in Mistborn.
The Mistborn series is one of the more original and enjoyable reads in fantasy I’ve had in some time. It’s original in its own fashion, turning away from the typical fantasy tropes but without simply following down the path of the earlier “rebellious” fantasies, the once-new but now familiar “gritty” epic fantasies such as Martin or Erikson. The series is highly recommended.
The Well of Ascension begins about a year after the events that occurred at the end of Mistborn. The novel takes a while to get going and generally has less excitement to offer than its predecessor. After all, we’re now mostly familiar with the world of The Final Empire and we understand the rules of the unique magic systems that rely on the burning of metals for powers and the storing of attributes such as strength, age, and eyesight into metals. The loss of Kelsior, the most dynamic of Sanderson’s characters, creates a void not only in the other characters’ lives, but in this book as well.
The pace is slow in the beginning, but things finally take off when we’re introduced to Zane, an unbalanced Mistborn who can’t decide whose side he’s on (and who may or may not be insane), and when we find out that there’s an unknown kandra spy in the palace. I was fascinated by the kandra — creatures who can ingest a corpse and impersonate the person or animal whose body it has eaten. Not only was that really cool, but it gave the opportunity for some quirky humor. (The humor in this novel is sparse but funny.)
Besides the kandra, Mr. Sanderson has created some other intriguing creatures: the koloss who never stop growing even when their skin can no longer stretch and who think of themselves as human, the inquisitors who have metal spikes through their brains and bodies (we don’t know the purpose of these spikes yet). This is my favorite aspect of this series — Mr. Sanderson’s wonderful imagination.
The Well of Ascension is well written (other than the constant “pausing” that I mentioned in my review of Mistborn) and the audiobook, read by Michael Kramer, is a treat to listen to.
The Well of Ascension answers a lot of questions which we were left wondering about after Mistborn, but there are just as many questions still left. I have no doubt that all will be made clear in The Hero of Ages (which I am already listening to). This is a well-planned trilogy and this middle book ends with the promise of plenty more surprises yet to come.
(Warning: This review may contain spoilers of Book One, Mistborn.)
There is a lot to like about The Well of Ascension, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN trilogy. There is also a lot that is disappointing. After a lot of serious thought, I must commit to a position, so I am… sitting on the fence.
This book starts up one year after Vin, a peasant girl with powerful allomantic or metal-magical powers, and her noble lover Elend Venture overthrew the Lord Ruler, an immortal near-god who had ruled the Final Empire for one thousand years. Allomancers ingest small amount of various metals, and when they metabolize or “burn” them, the metals give them magical abilities. Most allomancers, called mistings, can utilize only one metal and have only one power. Vin, a Mistborn, can use all of the magic metals. As the second book progresses, Vin discovers that she can do much more.
She and the now-king Elend have their hands full when the book opens. Because the Lord Ruler is dead, the country is in disarray. There are food shortages, and Elend’s capital city is being besieged by an army led by his father, Straff Venture. The “ashmounts,” seven volcanoes that ring the continent, are belching even more ash that usual into the air, and most seriously, Elend and Vin cannot locate the Lord Ruler’s hidden cache of the mystical metal atium.
The backdrop of the beleaguered city is a world where the sun turned red one thousand years ago, and ash has fallen from the sky ever since. Over the course of the first two books, the ashfall has grown heavier, threatening not just the city but all life on the world.
To some extent The Well of Ascension suffers from second-book syndrome, as things are put in place only to form the foundation for the third book, The Hero of Ages. One spot of originality is Sanderson’s use of politics, especially when a second army arrives to threaten the city. Meanwhile, the Terrisman Sazed, who functions as King Elend’s advisor, struggles to decipher the various writings he is studying, which provide contradictory information about the Well of Ascension (where, possibly, the Lord Ruler hid the atium) and the mythical hero called the Hero of Ages.
Sanderson introduces some interesting new characters. Elend is still as exciting as a cup of chamomile tea, but Straff Venture’s psychotic assassin Zane brings some zing to the story. Tindwyl, a Terriswoman and old friend of Sazed, provides a new perspective to the prophecies and the mechanics of kingship. She takes on Elend as a makeover project, providing much of the book’s humor. Sazed, who is my favorite character, remains steadfast, even though by the end of this volume he is emotionally devastated and deeply disillusioned by everything that has happened.
Sanderson addresses the age-old question; “Okay, we defeated the evil dictator; now what happens?” Elend, a sheltered idealist, flirts with participatory government, setting up an Assembly. The Assembly stages a coup and deposes him. That was pretty funny, and a realistic response from a people who can see that, objectively, things have gotten worse.
So, what’s not to like? World-building. That, simply, is the biggest disappointment of this book. Each book in the series has appendices that are stuffed with fun facts, and I have no doubt that Sanderson knows exactly how his world works, but it isn’t in the pages of the story.
Sanderson’s society has, or had, three levels: the Lord Ruler and his henchmen, the noble houses, and the peasant/slave class called the skaa. The skaa have been enslaved for a thousand years. In Mistborn, there was no mention of a skaa middle class or merchant class — although there were skaa artisans. Suddenly in The Well of Ascension, we have a merchant class. Were they there all along, or did they just emerge because Sanderson needed them?
The world is rich in metals and minerals, both virgin metals and alloys, which are the sources of allomantic power. There are references to a few mines here and there, but no talk of smelting plants or refineries. There is one mention of “forges.” Do alloys appear naturally, or are they created? In a thousand years, in a mineral-rich world, how is it that no one has experimented with creating gunpowder or explosives? Did the Lord Ruler stop that line of experimentation for some reason? If so, why?
What was the Final Empire’s economy like? In a world where metal is this plentiful, would metal be a currency? Are there banks and moneylenders? I would think that’s what the bureaucratic Obligators would do, but mainly they just witness and notarize contracts.
No one in this world has respiratory problems, although they breathe ash every single day.
The nobles did not hold armies; they had small squads of household guards, relying on allomancers to provide protection and force in their inter-house squabbles. Suddenly, though, not one but two armies menace Elend and Vin. Where did the soldiers come from? Are they the remains of the Lord Ruler’s garrison? Are they skaa? Am I supposed to believe that a noble who spent a lifetime torturing and killing skaa would allow them to arm themselves? Are they mercenaries? From where? None of this made sense.
Plants, by the way, are brown, a mutation developed, presumably, to thrive under a red sun and an ash-blotted sky. How long did this mutation/evolution take, and why didn’t most life die off during the time period when there was little or no food?
The skaa were oppressed and repressed for a long time, certainly, but they have no remnants of a spiritual system, no folktales, no music. This would be plausible if no one had a cultural legacy from before the rise of the Lord Ruler, but other people do. For instance, there are myths and folktales about a yellow sun, a blue sky and green plants. Where do these myths come from?
If The Well of Ascension raced along from crisis to crisis, with Vin and Elend dodging assassination attempts and pausing now and then to discuss life — and the book were four hundred pages long — I might let some of these questions slide. The narrative, though, runs 763 pages. Sanderson rehashes doubts, feelings and facts repeatedly. If he had devoted 10% — a mere 76 pages — to telling details about Vin’s world, I would have been a happier camper all the way through. “76 pages?” you say. Well, I think Vin spends about that page length obsessing about whether she would wear ballgowns.
I have other quibbles. There is a big chunk of fantasy-wish-fulfillment at the end of the book when a perceived obstacle to Vin’s and Elend’s relationship is removed by the hand of the author rather than worked through. Straff Venture is a stereotypical mustache-twirling Evil Overlord. On the other hand, characters like Allrianne and the kandra OreSeur add interest and liveliness. For me, the kandra and their evolutionary cousins the mist-beasts are fascinating components in these stories.
So, while I am disappointed in the lack of world detail, I am still engaged by Vin and Sazed in particular. And I may have problems with the magical system, but it is one cool system. I kept reading The Well of Ascension and I want to find out what happens next.
“exciting as a cup of chamomile tea”! I love it. I really liked this book, but yeah, there was a lot of emotional dithering and not enough simple explanation.
Sanderson is not a stylist, but I love the magic system and some of the creatures he created for this series.
The good news for you is that nearly all your questions are answered. Basically all at once, hence making it difficult to explain in the second book. I suppose this is part of the second book syndrome, but if he explained it this early it really wouldn’t make sense. Its certainly true that this book very much slows down so that we can consider the questions you posed, where in the first book everything was moving so fast there wasn’t time to do this.
Nick, I wrote this review after I finished The Hero of Ages, so I don’t completely agree with you. Several for the issues could have been addressed better in this book. I don’t mean the mystical things, because I agree with you there; but why technology was at about a 13th-century-earth level, the mines and the forges that manufactured the alloys (if they are manufactured) could easily have been addressed here and not spoiled the ending. Instead we get Elend fretting that he might not be a good person and Vin whipping up a fashion-forward dress out of kitchen scraps. Sorry, I just think the pacing was wrong.