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The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

March 30, 2014 5 comments

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2014) produces mixed emotions. This is the second of a projected ten volumes in a fantasy epic called The Stormlight Archive. There’s just one problem. At slightly under eleven-hundred pages in length, the author has already delivered enough material for five ordinary fantasy books and yet this is only book two. To call this excessive or sprawling would not be an exaggeration. We meet up with characters from the first volume as expected. They are spread around the environment and, in the first instance, not really interacting. Again, I suppose this is to be expected. If everyone got together for a meeting over beer and sandwiches, the series might be over before it has a chance to get epic. So everything that happens in this book is just edging us further forward in our understanding of the world and how the individuals from the different races relate to each other. With eight more books to go, we’re looking at a vista of fantasy unrolling across thousands of pages. It will take years to write and, from a reader’s point of view, endless patience. Indeed, without wishing to be unduly pessimistic about my life expectancy, I will probably die before the series is finished.

At this level, the world building is spectacular in its detail and internal consistency. However you choose to place a value on the craft of writing, Sanderson continues to deliver a world of incredible complexity, both in the flora and fauna, and in the various races that inhabit it. Taking the physical environment which is constantly at risk from the storms, the idea of plants that can withdraw into the ground or surrounding rocks is but one of hundreds of similarly pleasing examples of Darwinism at work. It would be a natural adaptation for the survival of all the different species. Animals also come with shells that can protect them from the wind. There must also be gills because some areas experience flash floods of considerable force and an amphibious adaptation would help them survive. I could go on, but not only are the words themselves ingenious in delivering a picture in the mind’s eye, the publisher has also commissioned internal illustrations from Dan Dos Santos, Ben McSweeney and Isaac Stewart to illustrate the qualities of the different plants, animals, sword fighting stances, and so on. The whole book package is a work of some beauty including the jacket artwork by Michael Whelan which I have set out above so you can appreciate its quality. I only wish it was less heavy to hold.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

The political situation also progresses with the human kingdom still riven by warring family disputes. Since the assassination of the old king, the replacement has been struggling. It’s not that he doesn’t have some of the right instincts. Rather that he’s petulant and easily led by the wrong people. This forces his son to assume a de facto position of power. His is a heavy burden. Not only does he have to compensate for his father the king, but also try to bring the families together again. Unfortunately, the politics is clouded by an anticipated change in the world. The history shows there have been previous civilisations which have fallen. So far, enough people have survived to rebuild. But this time it may be different. All of which brings us to the central fantasy which powers the narrative. There’s a form of magic available to some people. Essentially, this works when “spirits” called spren from an adjacent dimension bleed through and begin interacting with the humans that can see them. Over time, this produces a bonding and delivers significant powers to the individuals. They become the Radiants. However, this power depends on the continuing relationship between the Radiant and the spren. If the human does not keep his oath, the sprem will die and the radiance will be lost.

This book is largely taken up with two characters as their relationships with their spren begins to deepen. Both characters are broken. They have suffered extreme emotional pain. One finds it difficult not to give into anger, bitterness and nihilism. His is the more difficult journey because he has blinded himself to his potential and does not understand what form his oath must take and how it can be kept when difficult choices have to be made. The other has considerable insight into the practicality of some aspects of the magic, but doesn’t believe strongly enough in her ability to develop full powers. She’s content to approach the matter with the detached interest of an academic. Except, of course, she finds herself stripped of the opportunity to hide, becoming embroiled in an emerging subplot which introduces a group who first seem little more than a band of assassins, but are later shown to be something more important. So the enduring theme of the book is the process of personal transformation. Just as the other races, plants and wildlife have had to adapt, the rare humans with the potential for growth must also adapt to the opportunity to bond with their spren. Needless to say, a series of this length has a cast of hundreds and, to a greater or lesser extent, they are all given their few pages in the sun. So we meet with everyone from the lowest slaves to the king and high lords. All have their own problems to solve and a wish list for improvements in their quality of life. It proves to be a fascinating read and, because it’s an epic fantasy, it builds to a major climax in which there are some issues resolved, and other plot threads left dangling for future books.

I suppose you could read this as a standalone. It will take you longer to work out who everyone is and what their relationships are, but the narrative drive will keep you going. A lot of interesting things happen. The better route is to read The Way of Kings first. That will give you essential background, enable you to pick up the story more quickly, and enrich the reading experience as The Words of Radiance takes you deeper into this strange world.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

August 6, 2013 3 comments

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2013) is a once-more-into-the-breach moment for me as I unwillingly read through a young adult title. This time, I’ve actually paid out my own coin in support of an author I like. As one might predict, the experience proved an unhappy balance between admiration for the inventiveness of the plot and endless horror at the ghastly way it’s written down for the YA market. Frankly, it’s deeply patronising to write like this when the target audience is presumably teenage. I refuse to believe the education services in English speaking countries have so dumbed down their children’s reading ages that the current crop of youngsters cannot yet be trusted with books written with adult sensibilities in mind. This book is permeated by endless drivel as our young man vaguely struggles towards something approximating intelligence while surrounded by adults as thick as two short planks.

So here we have a young boy who was unfortunately denied the test to see whether he had magical abilities because the church wall was leaking water and needed repair. Oh dear. It’s impossible to make a more clichéd start. A young boy, obviously destined to become the greatest magician of his age, is denied the formal training so, with the early help of his father (who mysteriously dies) and then something inside driving him as he’s given a free scholarship in a top school, he develops and hones his general understanding and skills. At last, he manages to come under the wing of Dumble. . . and meets up with highly compatible girl (his Hermione). This is the catalyst he needs to start to bring his magical abilities up to “slightly better than average”. No doubt as the series continues, he’ll become the wunderkind of his generation (traditionally someone under the age of eighteen) and save the world for the Muggles. This first exciting episode sees him showing the academic staff and the police how to investigate crimes of a magical nature, leading to a big fight with the first tier bad guy which he, his Hermione and the Professor manage to win. Yes, it really is that bad.

Brandon Sanderson — still the standout fantasy author of this century

Brandon Sanderson — still the standout fantasy author of this century

So why I am bothering to read such a book? The answer lies in the plot and the rather ingenious diagrams and illustrations by Ben McSweeney. To understand the idea, we need to go back to Victorian times and the novel Flatland by Edwin Abbott. This postulated a world in two dimensions — the men are polygons and the women line-segments — which is visited by a sphere. As you can imagine the two- and three-dimensional characters have great difficulty in perceiving each other. Rudy Rucker and others of a more mathematical or scientific bent have played with the idea. For example, if we postulate life as possible on a single sheet of paper, drawing a circle around a creature on the paper would represent a prison because, in that dimension, the creature can’t get out of the circle. Escape would only be possible by boring through the line forming the circle or moving in the third dimension and jumping over the line. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first full-length novel creating a fantasy adventure out of the idea (Spaceland by Rudy Rucker doesn’t count because that’s a commercial invasion from the fourth dimension). Essentially what we have is the two-dimensional beings breaking through into the three-dimensional world with hostile intent. To defend the world as we know it, some humans have developed the ability to draw lines and shapes in chalk that can interact with the two-dimensional creatures. These “magicians” work together with the military to corral the wild creatures in the area immediately around the point where they emerge into our dimension. Obviously there are casualties and the “magicians” are allowed to retire after a number of years in service. That’s the point of the school where our young sprog studies. It’s one of the places training the next generation of “magicians”. His failure to be tested excludes him from that training but, as is required in YA plots, he’s got the gift and can do it anyway.

More than any other feature of this book, it’s the interaction between the detailed work of the author and the interpretive work of the artist that save it from oblivion for an adult reader. Since the magic system postulated here depends on the ability of the “magicians” to draw both geometrically accurate shapes and interesting creatures to fight and defend those shapes, the visual representation of this skill is essential to an understanding of the magic. Frankly, there’s no-one better than designing magic systems around than Brandon Sanderson and this work with Ben McSweeney is an outstanding collaboration. It’s just a tragedy the result is then buried in this YA vehicle. This would make a sensationally good book if written for adults. As it stands, The Rithmatist is excruciating to read to get at the plot.

For reviews of other books by Brandon Sanderson, see:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
The Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

December 22, 2012 2 comments

The Emperor's Soul

According to Brandon Sanderson, the author, The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Press, 2012) is set on the same world as Elantris which was the quite spectacularly wonderful first novel he published. In my estimation, it’s now been relegated to his second best book but, if you have not read it, you should. It’s a remarkably assured piece of fantasy writing. For our immediate purposes, there’s no need to have read Elantris to enjoy this novella. Although the seeds of the system of magic are the same, this can be read as a standalone. So what’s it about?

Let me start off with a question for you. Suppose there are two people whose command of the craft of painting is so complete, they can both replicate the styles of well-known and collectible artists. One uses this skill to copy existing masterpieces. He then steals the originals and replaces them with the copies. His motive is the satisfaction in knowing the works on display are fakes but of such high quality, no-one viewing them would ever be aware of the substitution. The other paints creatively in the style of well-known artists. He then “discovers” previously unknown masterpieces and sells them on as authentic. Needless to say, he has to forge documentation providing the paintings with due provenance. But both painters arrive at the same result, namely that their paintings hang on display with everyone accepting them as genuine. Indeed, you could argue that the more people see the paintings and accept them as genuine, the more strongly genuine the fakes become. If you like, the collective belief in their validity transcends reality and gives them a greater veneer of respectability. The more time passes, the greater the public certainty the paintings are masterpieces. Why does this matter? People collect originals for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is more than a passing respect for the artist’s vision. When you see the picture, it’s as if you are looking through the artist’s eyes, seeing the world as he or she did. There’s also the attraction of owning something with a reputation — the longer the reputation the better if you are caught on the third reason which is the investment potential. Or perhaps there’s a rather more subtle ineffable emotion, a kind of mystique surrounding the ownership of a genuine example of beauty. Whatever the reason, some people’s lives are built around collecting. For them, it would be very distressing if they were to discover they had a fake hanging on their walls. Yet, in a way, it might suit them to deny such accusations. Admitting they had been deceived would make them look less than expert. It might be better to insist the paintings were real.

Brandon Sanderson — now the standout fantasy author of this century

Brandon Sanderson — now the standout fantasy author of this century

It’s the same with people. If you want to pretend to be someone you’re not, the way you present yourself to the world has to be authentic. Mere imitation will never succeed. Everyone has to believe you are real. For example, someone like Frank Abagnale was able to persuade people he was an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and so on. The question, of course, is how you appear to be genuine. It’s all to do with the signs. You have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, adopting the right manner with other people around you accepting your right to occupy that role. The more other people reinforce your credibility, the more likely it is that newcomers will fall into line and also accept your performance as genuine. Identity and status are very much in the eye of the beholder.

So let’s meet Shai. She’s a Forger (note the capitalisation) and a thief — although being a thief is incidental to her primary trade which is using a form of magic to persuade objects and places to remember being something different. Such are her skills, she can make more or less anything appear to be a genuine example of [insert appropriate noun]. This could be changing a crudely made vase into a beautiful jug or persuading a wall it would look better with a hole through which she could escape capture. She has been captured while attempting a rather complex series of substitutions. This is fortuitous because Emperor Ashravan has been attacked by assassins and left as an empty body. The ruling council decides to use Shai to recreate the Emperor’s “soul”. The idea is simple. If she can fake an object, why can she not fake a person so that all around him would accept him as genuine. The fact this person happens to be the Emperor raises the stakes and makes it an interesting challenge. The ageing Gaotona accepts the primary role of go-between while she goes through the creative process. This is just as well because he’s the only truly honest person on the council.

What then happens is a fascinating discussion about the nature of authenticity and the extent to which it can ever be faked. This is beautiful storytelling combined with some provocative ideas about how we view the world and the extent to which we can be manipulated. Although it’s properly to be classed as a fantasy, it’s actually a fake. It’s really literature exploring notions more usually found in dry books dealing with semiotics and psychology. Not that this thematic subtext should deter you. This is pure fantasy — no, really, it is! I unreservedly recommend The Emperor’s Soul. It’s a joy to read!

For reviews of other books by Brandon Sanderson, see:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
The Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance

This is nominated for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Novella.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

January 12, 2011 2 comments

Jacket artwork by Michael Whelan

Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.

 

Before

 

I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?

 

After

 

Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.

 

This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.

 

The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.

 

That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.

 

At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.

 

I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive, even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

July 26, 2010 2 comments

Having had sand kicked in my face for my whinging about the size and weight of some modern hardback books, I went back to the trunk where I store the few remnants of my youth. There it was. Just as I remembered. The Charles Atlas dynamic tension course. Now, of course, you all think of dynamic tension as being one of these fancy postmodernist theories about narrative — the idea that an author should be able to hold the interest of the reader from start to finish. But, as one who consumed a diet of comics as a kid, the idea I would be able to beat the bully to a pulp and get the girl was a terrible lure to the insecure and callow youth that I was.

Over the last weeks, I have been training in self-resistance, reading only light trade paperbacks while working out the Atlas way. Today sees the proof of the pudding I once was. The weight is now gone from the waist as chords of rippling muscles play across the upper body of a old god holding up the world and a fair-sized terrapin. I have even mastered the Shaolin one-finger technique for turning the pages.

Thus prepared, I was easily able to lift and hold Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. For once, I am able to say this was a delight to read. Recently, I seem to have been caught in a rut of indifferent to poor books. This broke the run with such amazing power, I was immediately checking his web site. Sadly, there do not seem to be any plans for a sequel. I know there’s a terrible glut of trilogies, but if he could maintain the same wit and style, I would happily buy the next in series.

Is this book perfect? In one sense, this is a meaningless question. We are into the world of individual sensibilities. All readers have monster egos and can think of ways in which they believe any work of fiction can be improved. In this case, we have the sudden loss of all narrative connection with Dedelin once his two daughters have left for the capital. I find it impossible to believe he would not have attempted some search for his favoured daughter. There would also have been the preparations for war. That said, I suppose it might have pushed the book into trilogy mode. Once you start considering what everyone else is doing, the wordage expands to fill the space available — Parkinson’s Law of writing. So, no book is every completely perfect. Yet this comes close.

This is about real people in an unreal situation. We have sisters who find themselves in unfamiliar territory, both literally and metaphorically. Some of those around them are wise, others foolish. Perhaps sometimes those who are both foolish and wise at the same time prove to be the best. We have those who smile to conceal their nature and those who are silent because they must learn how to speak. As we progress, the innocent must learn the hard lessons of life and the overconfident must recognise those who stand together can be stronger. All life is here from the lowest in the slums to the highest in the land. And let’s not rush to judgement on who is better. Status counts for nothing when real choices must be made.

And all is told with a remarkable wit. It’s genuinely rare to be able to accuse a writer of high fantasy of breaking the mould of seriousness that so often pervades works of magic. Frankly, the irreverence and iconoclasm are utterly refreshing. As a final test, I gave the book to my wife who asserts a blind and unreasoning prejudice against fantasy. A mixture of threats and promises of a high quality meals in one of our better local restaurants persuaded her to start reading. It took her three days but she made time to finish it. She then promptly asked for more. Believe me. There can be no higher recommendation than both a tired old guy who has read thousands of books “just like this” and a wife who usually hates fantasy both unreservedly like this book. Ignore it at your peril!

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul,
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson

Being old in body and spirit, I very rarely trespass into the YA market. If I am going to spend time on a book, I prefer that the author is trying to address adult sensibilities. In this case, however, I have found Brandon Sanderson sufficiently interesting as an author for the adult market that I decided to see what he can do in the YA market. For the record, this is the second book in the Alcatraz series. The problem with a book written by an adult for the young is that it represents the author’s attempt to match the culture of a different social grouping. This is a difficult trick. As a writer, I find it difficult to write for a specific group that I do not know and understand. For the purposes of these reviews, I write self-indulgently, not caring whether you readers are genuinely interested in what I believe. I write to crystallise what I think, as a discipline that forces me to make explicit what I would otherwise leave unspoken in my mind. When I write for someone else, the work nearly always goes through an editor before publication. This gives me perspective — someone dispassionate reading the content and making a judgement on its appropriateness is indispensable to hitting the target market. I should admit that I have never attempted to write for young readers. If I did, I would need to find groups of young people to read the drafts and tell me whether I had hit the right tone. Only asking an adult editor would seem like the blind leading the blind unless, of course, the editor has a special insight into the way the young currently think. As an aside, I note the controversy over the jacket artwork for Liar by Justine Larbalestier. This would suggest that the editorial staff at Bloomsbury are out of touch with their intended readership’s views on racism.

The curious thing about Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones by Brandon Sanderson is that this is metafiction for the YA market. Frankly, I am surprised that this device should appear here. Perhaps I should read more YA books. I had thought them mostly routine narratives rather than an author deliberately introducing inexperienced readers to a bag of authorial tricks. For me, the result is dissonant. I just do not know who the book is aimed at. Much of the humour is fairly juvenile in the pejorative sense of the word. Whereas Piers Anthony’s Xanth books indulge in a lunatic wordplay that, in the earlier books in the series, produces a madcap air of enjoyability, the humour here feels forced. I think Sanderson is trying too hard rather than allowing humour to emerge more naturally from the situations he is describing. Indeed, if anything, we have a fairly routine adventure story with an authorial gloss that stands as a counterpoint to the narrative. Managed well, this can result in a superior product through synergy. In this case, I do not think the parts fit together well enough.

Although some of the author’s monologuing is quite interesting in a didactic way, I find it distracting. I think it would have been better to invest effort in making a more engaging story of the conflict between the group led by our emerging hero and the Scrivener’s Bone called Kiliman. This is not to say that an editor should have directed Sanderson to write a conventional piece of fiction for the target market. There is always room for innovation. But I think the balance of this work is wrong. It would have been better as a less simplistic narrative with fewer authorial interpolations. If you are reading this as an adult, this is nothing like the fantasy fiction Sanderson specifically aims at you. This is not an Elantris/Mistborn style of book. If you are a young adult and you have read this far, congratulations! You get to make the call.

For reviews of six adult novels, see:
The Emperor’s Soul
Hero of Ages
Warbreaker,
The Way of Kings,
The Words of Radiance and
Well of Ascension
There’s another YA novel called The Rithmatist.

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

August 1, 2009 2 comments

Well, after a steady read through the last two books in sequence by Brandon Sanderson, I have arrived at the end of the Mistborn trilogy. It was quite an effort, if only in terms of holding such heavyweight tomes for so long without straining a muscle. The conclusion? What starts well in Mistborn: The Final Empire, and continues with intelligent panache in The Well of Ascension, comes to a grinding halt in The Hero of Ages. What a disappointment!

The first two books have a tight focus. In Mistborn: The Final Empire, everything moves with smooth precision towards the death of the Lord Ruler. The Well of Ascension picks up the pieces after the success of the revolution, and deals with the inevitable disintegration of the Final Empire. The siege of the capital city becomes the crucible in which the survivors are forged into a more self-confident group. But The Hero of Ages becomes diffuse in structure as the survivors are spread thin around the collapsing Empire in their attempts to find the key to survive the destruction of their environment. We are left to juggle different balls in the air as Sanderson explains the physiology and abilities of the different groups, and leads up to the conclusion. This makes the action very repetitive. Elend plays the reverse role. In The Well of Ascension, he was defending a walled city. This time, he must lead an army against another walled city. Spook leads another revolution in a second city. Our poor kandra gets chased around the landscape, while Sazed ponders the nature of religion and generally mopes around after the death of Tindwyl. And then there’s the fighting. What was quite interesting the first and second time round, has absolutely nothing new in this final volume. All that changes is the scale of the fighting. Vin and Eland, now both Mistborn, must fight koloss and inquisitors in ever greater numbers. There is, I suppose, a not unpleasing irony in Elend’s last hurrah against the koloss, but most of the other fighting is boring.

Worse, Sanderson feels obliged to explain most of the detail in the construction of this world (leaving the central mystery of the nature of the overarching power completely unexplained). This is not merely a local supernatural phenomenon. As the two personified forces in apparent binary opposition, Preservation and Ruin were able to agree the creation of the people on an unoccupied planet. In this, we can admire Sanderson’s ingenuity and smile because he cares nothing for genre boundaries. The blurring between fantasy and science fiction becomes increasingly overt as the trilogy advances. Who would have thought that a little knowledge of astronomy would become so useful towards the end. But, taken as a whole, narrative drive is sacrificed to allow for an express and implied discussion of the dynamics of change.

Sanderson hopes to beguile us by producing a dialectic between forces that are not completely antithetical. Ruin, as its name suggests, is the force of entropy which breaks everything down and produces an equalisation of matter into its lowest common denominators, while Preservation is stasis or inertia, providing some delay in the inevitable process of ruin, death and decay. I suppose, in political terms, this is a battle between conservatives who prefer the status quo and ruinous communist revolutionaries who wish to overthrow the current order and reduce everyone to the same social level. Unfortunately, what this dialectic ignores is the possibility of some creative alternative to the status quo. No-one has ever produced a society in which everyone was completely happy. For a given percentage of the population, the maintenance of the status quo is oppressive. Hence, Sanderson plays the game of allowing the eponymous Hero of Ages, a human who can balance the inanimate forces of preservation and ruin, to ascend to the godhead and set the world to rights. The assumption is that the existing “deities” are somehow unable to change their essential natures. Some external force has removed their capacity to evolve into something different or greater. Thus, the ending is like a Garden of Eden in which the surviving rump of the human population suddenly finds itself in an expanse of flower-studded grassland with only a few tins of food to keep them going while they look around for something with which to build a shelter. Like that’s a big improvement! A utopian rural idyl beckons, so long as no-one sins, of course. Thankfully, there are no apple trees in sight.

There are also problems with the plot. Ignoring the ultimate nature of the “deities” and the superplanetary context in which they operate, the world itself is odd. For some unexplained reason, there only seems to be life on one area of the land mass on this planet — the people seem to be able to walk from one Dominance to another across empty countryside in a few days. Was human reproduction artificially limited? Once urbanisation began, why were the humans not going at it like bunnies to boost their numbers? Perhaps the koloss were acting as the barbarians at the gates, culling the humans to keep up their own numbers. Yet, there is no acknowledgement of them as a population thinner in the first book. I do not understand why the “deities” should stop with such a limited act of creation. Or are we supposedly dealing with a small Pangaea or Gondwana: a single piece of land, totally surrounded by ocean, that limits the population spread? But that would mean the oceans would then rapidly become supersaturated with the falling, albeit degrading, ash. And, on the map, there are islands. . . Ah well, who cares? This is fantasy and, unlike science fiction which should have some rational underpinning, fantasy need not make any sense. But then again (my poor brain will not stop working) I suspect that if the mist covering a continent was suddenly to converge on a single spot in the space of a few minutes, this would be the equivalent of a weather disaster. Winds would blow at superspeeds as the suction draws everything to the epicentre. There might even be a vacuum created at the peripheries. Further, what happens to gravity if the spin of the world is suddenly accelerated through half a rotation and then decelerated back to its original speed? And so on.

So this brings me to an unhappy conclusion. All the good work of the first two volumes is thrown away in a mass of different plot threads. Although they are vaguely linked together, they are thematically parallel and not driving the narrative cohesively. Worse, there is too much dispiriting discussion and debate and, with respect to the author, the ending is embarrassingly trite. Why must books with a religious thread take the survivors through fire in a kind of ark and end with an Eden? Thus, if you have read and enjoyed the first two instalments, there is some interest in seeing the explanations offered in this volume, but be prepared to turn the pages fast through the sometimes quite lengthy boring bits.

For a review of two YA novels by Brandon Sanderson, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There are also the novels called Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
The Well of Ascension

The Words of Radiance and a novella called The Emperor’s Soul.

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