I just finished Warbreaker, and the words that keep coming to mind are “That was so good!” This is the first Brandon Sanderson novel I’ve read, and it certainly won’t be the last. Warbreaker combines highly original world-building with an exciting plot that kept me on the edge of my seat.
The novel begins with the introduction of two major characters: Vivenna and Siri, princesses of the tiny kingdom of Idris. You may think you’ve seen these archetypes before — the stiff, elegant princess and the feisty, rebellious princess — but the way the two women develop is unexpected and realistic. Neither is prepared for what awaits them in the neighboring kingdom of Hallandren. The royal line of Idris once ruled Hallandren, and everything about present-day Hallandren is vilified in Idris, especially its magic, its colorful clothing and architecture, and its flesh-and-blood gods.
Siri is sent away to be married to Susebron, the mysterious God-King of Hallandren. I was reminded of the Cupid and Psyche tale, in that Siri is given every luxury but kept from learning the true nature of her husband. Vivenna runs away from Idris shortly after Siri’s departure, planning to rescue Siri and find her own purpose in life, and ends up involved in a resistance movement. The court and the street are both filled with dangers. Things are not always what they seem, and few people can be trusted.
Most of Hallandren’s gods are pushing for war with Idris, a war that Idris cannot possibly win, and the plot revolves around Siri and Vivenna’s attempts to prevent it. They are aided by Lightsong, the reluctant god of courage, and by a mysterious man with a long and troubled past. The plot is exciting and complex, with lots of twists and turns. Often a revelation would make me jawdrop in surprise, and then the next moment I’d be thinking, “Of course! How did I not see that?” Those are the best kinds of plot twists — they seem to come out of nowhere but in retrospect make perfect sense.
There’s a brief period when the story dragged a little for me. I’ve noticed that, as a reader, I tend to get bogged down when the point-of-view character is being buffeted along by the plot rather than driving events. Looking back, I wonder if I was subconsciously picking up on the fact that this character was being used as a pawn. Like many other things, it makes sense later.
A short scene I loved: the goddess Allmother’s treatment of a petitioner, which showed that a god can change someone’s life without using a drop of magic.
Warbreaker is dark in places, but the darkness is tempered by hilarious dialogue, a tender love story, and unexpected acts of heroism from the unlikeliest sources. I’m reminded of my fellow reviewer Kat’s comment about a completely different book: it leads us into darkness but doesn’t leave us wallowing there. In Warbreaker, you never know who might turn out to be a villain. You never know who might turn out to be a hero, either.
Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker is yet another strong showing from the author of the highly recommended Mistborn series and the stand-alone Elantris. Though not without flaws, the book’s problems are more than outweighed by its strengths, making it a highly enjoyable read.
Like his previous novels, Sanderson introduces a unique kind of magic, known as BioChromatic magic. Each person is born with a single “Breath,” which can be bought, sold, or given away freely (it cannot be taken). Having multiple Breaths allows someone to perform limited magic through a combination of spending Breath, leaching color from objects, and reciting Commands. One can, for example, imbue objects with a form of life by filling a rope with Breath and commanding it to hold a person. It costs a certain amount of Breath to perform certain acts (think spell points or mana) and there are rules regarding if/when one can recover spent Breaths. Accumulating more Breath makes you more powerful and nobody has more Breaths than the god-king of Hallandren, who has 50,000 as a result of a royal legacy and being “fed” breaths given by willing citizens.
There is also a special group known as Returned — people who have died and come back with a single, powerful Breath. They will “consume” that single breath and die again, but if they are fed extra breaths, they can live off of those instead, saving their single Returned Breath, which has power to heal, though if they use it or give it away they will die. In Hallandren, the Returned are considered gods. They live pampered, ageless lives in a compound with the god-king, and are petitioned by the people to use their divine breath on the petitioner’s behalf (some gods in fact do so, killing themselves as a result).
War is looming between Hallandren and Idris, a highlands country founded centuries ago by the then-royal family of Hallandren, their rule ended by Kalad the Usurper. Hallandren has long viewed Idris as a rebel land and tensions have been increasing for some time and attempts to either prevent war or hasten it are what drive most of the plot. The precipitating event is the coming-of-age of Vivenna, a princess of Idris contracted to become the God-king’s wife when she turned 22. But rather than send Vivenna, the king of Idris sends his other daughter Siri — his impetuous, rebellious, “useless” daughter.
Siri arrives in Hallandren’s capital city and takes her place in the gods’ compound as wife to the God-king (who comes with some surprises of his own), and soon becomes enmeshed in court intrigue between the god-king and his hierarchy of priests, as well as in the politics of the impending war. Meanwhile, Vivenna, unbeknownst to Siri, also arrives in the city, ostensibly to rescue Siri but equally because for her whole life she’d prepared to be the God-king’s wife as sacrifice for her people and with that taken away she’d lost her sense of self. While Siri tries to survive in the isolated compound, Vivenna, aided by a pair of mercenaries, works the city streets, trying to disrupt Hallandren’s ability to wage war and rally to her side the extensive expatriate population of Idrians that make up much of the city’s underclass.
Another major character is Lightsong, one of Hallandren’s Returned gods, who has always believed in doing as little as possible and doing what little one must do as unseriously as possible. The aforementioned events, though, along with several others (his attempted recruitment into politics by the god Blushweaver, a series of nightmares, a murder in the compound, and the possible resurfacing of fragmented memories of his past life) threaten to turn him unwillingly into a person of importance.
Finally, there is the mysterious character whose scene opens the novel — Vasher, a man well-versed in BioChromatic magic who carries with him a black sword that causes almost all who hold it to kill anyone around them and then themselves.
The major strength of Warbreaker is its characterization. Each of the three major characters — Siri, Vivenna, and Lightsong — change dramatically as the story progresses. Siri must grow beyond the silly, irresponsible, “useless” second daughter. Vivenna must find a new path once the one she’d aimed at all her life was suddenly removed, and she finds that she knew neither Hallandren nor herself as well as she thought she did. And Lightsong, as much as he fights it, finds himself turning into someone serious. More impressively, Sanderson’s minor characters are almost all equally well-drawn, including Blushweaver (who first tries to pry Lightsong from his irrelevancy) and Denth (one of the two mercenaries working with Vivenna). Even characters who barely make an appearance, such as Vivenna’s friend Parlin or the goddess Allmother, have their sharply drawn moments.
Another major plus is the humor laced throughout Warbreaker, with Lightsong and his long-suffering priest Llarimar, and Denth and his partner Tonk Fah, acting almost as a pair of comic duos. Comedy isn’t easy to pull off, and in much fantasy it’s either sorely lacking or feels forced, but here it is actually funny and falls naturally into the characters’ personas. Even better are the times it serves more than the singular purpose of comic relief.
Then of course there’s the story itself. It’s a pleasure to read a relatively original fantasy plot — no quest, no long journey, no dark lord, no band of underdogs, no battle scenes coming at regular spacings to lead up to a Final Battle, no elegant elves or grumpy dwarves or sarcastic thieves. The whole premise is actually the antithesis of much fantasy because it’s about preventing a war instead of winning one. The canvas is small, as are the actions of the characters (meetings and conversations for the most part rather than sword-swinging and city-taking), but it doesn’t lack for tension. There are several twists — some which sharp-eyed readers might see coming, but even ones that were heavily foreshadowed don’t lack for enjoyable revelation. And there are several honestly powerful emotional moments. Warbreaker has a plot that keeps you interested, and throws you off-stride enough, to keep it constantly fresh. Finally, with regard to the plot, it’s simply a pleasure to read a self-contained one. Sanderson clearly points toward a second book, but one feels quite happily satisfied with the resolution at the end of Warbreaker. So much so that one needn’t read a sequel, though I’d assume most will want to based on how good Warbreaker is.
Warbreaker isn’t a flawless book. Despite the time spent on the BioChromatic magic, and a few heavy info-dumps that were sprinkled into the text, I never really felt like I had a strong concrete handle on it, certainly nowhere near the understanding I felt I had with regard to allomancy in the Mistborn series. This was true both of the system/powers itself and the way it works in the general economy. Granted, one of the characters most well-versed in it says there is much more unknown than known about the system, and there is the probability that more will be explained in a sequel, but that line felt a bit more like a CYA line or placeholder line than an honest explanation. But while it’s a bit nagging of a flaw throughout, and especially at one point when a character seems to reveal a different and much stronger use of the power than I would have guessed was allowed, it never hinders enjoyment of the story, and I’m willing to grant Sanderson some leeway in return for coming up with yet another original magic system.
Characterwise, I would have liked to have seen Siri take more time to get her feet under her; she becomes a bit too good too quickly for my liking. And I could have done with less of Vivenna’s interior monologues on how she’s changing, mostly because Sanderson had done a good enough job in showing us that. And I wouldn’t have minded seeing more gods because the few we did see were so sharply drawn and interesting. I thought it also would have been nice to see what was going on in Idris, or at least to hear somehow what was happening there. Another relatively minor flaw was that characters seemed a bit less knowledgeable about history and BioChromatics than I would have expected given the relatively short historical time period over which this all developed (roughly 300 years).
Finally, the ending of Warbreaker felt rushed to me. It wrapped up a bit too quickly (I can’t say neatly as we left it so abruptly that I’m not sure it was all wrapped up neatly). And I’ve never been a fan of the epilogue, especially when it’s of the expository here’s-some-info-that-will-help-explain-what-really-happened sort.
The funny thing is, most of these flaws could have been taken care of with a slightly longer book. It isn’t often that I’m clamoring for a fantasy novel to be longer — usually just the opposite since so many can be so bloated — but I would have been more than happy to have spent another 100 pages in Sanderson’s Warbreaker just to allow for a slower, more full ending and a bit more characterization/explanation throughout.
If the worst you can say about a book is that it wasn’t long enough, the author is clearly doing something well. In Brandon Sanderson’s case, that’s nearly everything. The parts that don’t quite measure up really don’t have much of a negative impact; the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. I’m looking forward to what follows — I hope we’ll be getting a sequel to Warbreaker! Highly recommended.
My fellow reviewers have sufficiently covered all of the important elements of Warbreaker (indeed, Bill’s review was nearly as long as the book) so I will briefly report my own reaction and then mention the audio versions.
I really enjoyed Warbreaker (“I’m blonde with excitement!”) for all the reasons that Bill and Kelly did: Unique world and magic system, interesting twisty plot, agreeable humor, and great characters. I was slightly annoyed with Vivenna’s use of the word “ostentatious” and her constant concern about modest clothing (this reminded me a lot of The Wheel of Time), but I looked forward to the transformation of her character that was obviously coming.
There are two things that I really like about Brandon Sanderson’s writing in general, and Warbreaker is no exception:
- His magic systems. I’ve read all of his work now, and in each case he’s developed a wonderfully thoughtful, unique, and internally valid magic system.
- He’s funny. So many authors try to be funny, but I find few of them to be actually funny. Brandon Sanderson is funny.
This brings me to the audiobook. (Listen to sample). At first I was put out by James Yaegashi’s slow pace which at times sounded like he was reading to first graders (I know how big this book is, so I thought “this is going to take forever!”), but it turns out that his reading really highlighted Sanderson’s humorous dialogue.
Yaegashi’s voices for the mercenaries Denth and Tonk Fah really brought out that “comic duo” feel and worked charmingly with their hilarious black humor. His voice for Nightblood (the sentient sword — probably a nod to Elric’s Stormbringer) was suitably creepy, demented, and naïvely zealous at the same time — perfect. The following scene is one I played back several times because Yaegashi’s rendition made me laugh (keep in mind that up to this point nearly all of Nightblood’s thoughts, speech, and actions have seemed remorselessly evil and unnecessarily bloody):
[Vasher] reached into a pouch at his belt, pulling out the object within: a dead squirrel.
Yuck, Nightblood said with a sniff.
(This renders better on audio than print, I realize now, but I guess that’s my point.)
Also entertaining was Yaegashi’s voice for Lightsong, the god who doesn’t believe in himself (actually, his priest preaches to him!) and who strives to be as lazy and useless as possible. Yaegashi chose to use upspeak for Lightsong’s voice, and the effect is amusing because it reinforces the impression that even his stupid jokes are purposeful.
“Lightsong,” Lifeblesser said with his tactlessly honest voice, “You really need to take more of an interest in politics. It can be very diverting. Why, if you only knew the secrets to which I’m privy!”
“My dear Lifeblesser,” Lightsong replied, “Please trust me when I say that I have no desire to know any secrets which involve you and a privy.”
Yaegashi’s voices actually contributed to my surprise at a couple of the plot twists which involved characters doing uncharacteristic things.
Warbreaker is a terrific book and would be nearly flawless in my eyes if not for Sanderson’s just slightly superfluous writing style. For example, the “Yuck” quote above would work better this way:
[Vasher] reached into a pouch at his belt and pulled out a dead squirrel.
Yuck, Nightblood sniffed.
I’m sure I’m unusual, but these things pop out at me — probably because of all of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, Omit Needless Words is the one I find myself constantly working on with students. So, I can’t help but notice needless words in all of Brandon Sanderson’s works (though they’re getting better!) and this is the main reason I can’t consider him to be the Perfect Fantasy Author. However, though style is slightly lacking, substance is not — Brandon Sanderson writes great worlds and great characters. He is a Nearly Perfect Fantasy Author and is near the top of my must-read list.
Graphic Audio sent me a review copy of their version of Warbreaker. When I looked into Graphic Audio, I discovered that their books are abridged, so I was concerned about this (how can I properly review a book if I don’t read the whole thing?), but after learning more about these productions at Brent Weeks’ website, I decided to give it a try. It seems that all of the content is there, but because it’s performed as theatre, we hear the actors say the lines and we hear sound effects. Therefore, it’s not necessary for the narrator (there is a narrator) to read “he said,” “she replied,” and “the door slammed.” Thus, the listener may miss out on the structure of some of the author’s prose and dialogue, but won’t miss any of the plot. The Recorded Books version was over 24 hours long and the Graphic Audio version is about 18 hours long, but much of that difference is likely due to the speed of the narrator’s voice. In fact, I mentioned in my review of the Recorded Books version (above) that their narrator spoke painfully slowly.
I tested some areas of Graphic Audio’s production against the print book and could detect nothing missing. For example, the passage I quoted in my review above goes like this in Graphic Audio’s version:
Narrator: He reached into a pouch at his belt, pulling out the object within: a dead squirrel.
Nightblood: Ooh, Yuck.
Nightblood’s voice, by the way, was suitably creepy. A different actor does each voice (they have a large acting staff) and mostly I found the voices appropriate and at least as good as those in the Recorded Books version (though I have to admit that I hadn’t considered an Irish Brogue for Siri and Vivenna). There was quite a bit of background music (Celtic in this case, composed by their staff musicians specifically for Warbreaker). The music ramped up the drama while never getting in the way of the voices.
If anything, the theatre atmosphere draws the attention away from any defects in the actual writing style — it is, as their motto indicates, like “a movie in your mind,” so the “reader” is focused on the story and not the mechanics of the writing. This makes it really fun to listen to, but gives a reviewer the difficulty of not being able to adequately critique some aspects of the author’s style. (Thus, if I listen to more of their audiobooks, I’ll be sure to indicate this in my review.)
If you’re picky about writing style and mechanics and feel the need to evaluate those in the literature you read, then it’d be best to stick with the print version or a traditionally narrated audiobook. If you’re the type of reader who just wants a fun fantasy story (which, I suspect, is most of you), then you will find these productions to be really entertaining and I confidently recommend Graphic Audio’s version of Warbreaker to you.