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The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

For this review, I’m travelling back in time a little. I’ve been putting off reading this second in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson until I had the time to read the last two books together. It avoids the cliffhanging ending being too much to bear for a year and more until the last episode comes along. So, off we go with another strength-enhancing dumbbell of a book. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, The Well of Ascension continues the fantasy saga of the Mistborn. But rather than a “conventional” text, it’s written with very clear postmodernist sensibilities. It would be easy to see this story as only about a small group, mainly magicians of varying degrees of power, trying to cobble a government together using democratic means while being threatened by invading armies. But there’s a lot more going on in the text.

Michel Foucault proposed in a series of articles and books that the best way to understand the present is to interrogate the past. He described this process as a type of intellectual archaeology. Researchers dig down into the early layers of documentation. Every new piece of evidence being important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. The lacunae are just as important as the finds. This process is central to this book as the Terris Keepers are walking archaeologists, each carrying a datastore of the accumulating knowledge about the past and present. As new facts are uncovered, the researchers cross-reference and annotate, creating an ever more comprehensive view of past events. All this scholarship does, however, rest upon a simple assumption. That no-one else can change the records they find or keep. Just imagine how distorted the research would become if someone was able to manipulate the records.

This theme directly links into the second proposition that access to control over people depends on a linkage between pouvoir and savoir — power and knowledge. Societies are built on and driven by a continuing stream of discourse. In their most refined form, the discourses of constitutional law and political influence dictate the shape and operation of the state. At the lowest levels, the discourses of class and culture determine how people present themselves to the others with whom they interact. Everything is essential from the clothes they wear, their body language, the accents with which they speak and so on. Leaders dress in particular ways to communicate their right to lead. There are deliberate borrowings from semiotics in this fantasy as Tindwyl, one of the Terris Keepers, tries to instruct Elend, the potential leader, in the theories of communication and the manipulation of signs and symbols.

In this story, there is access to all parts of the discourse at a metalevel with only the records engraved on metal outside direct control. Lower down in the layering of discourse, access follows the real-world structures of political power brokers and increasingly less influential classes. But, interestingly, two of the magical skills are soothing and rioting which allow those with the power to directly interact with the emotions of those close to them. Thus, the combination of words, body language and magical ability (substitute “charisma” in the real world) endows speakers with the maximum ability to influence their audience.

Then there are matter of the heart. Hardly the concern of a postmodernist but Sanderson rises to the occasion with an extended parable about choice. In one set of relationships based on romantic, courtly love (albeit not quite in the real-world mediaeval European style), the Mistborn finds herself between two brothers who could not be more different. She is young and inexperienced in love, but the need to make a choice between the two brothers becomes increasingly real as the book continues. In the second relationship between a mature couple, we are presented with two Terris Keepers. Male Keepers like Sazed are eunuchs. Tindwyl has her own reasons for preferring to remain platonic. In this trilogy, Sanderson’s central preoccupation is on the relationship between love and trust. He muses on how people might transcend their differences and find comfort in each other. It could be an entirely rational and somewhat dispassionate process. Or it could be intuitive as the couple try to see beyond surface impressions. It might be driven by the genetically-programmed desire to continue the race by producing children, or the couple might be intellectually compatible while incapable of producing children. As a separate but allied thread in the plot, we also have the developing relationship between the Mistborn and her kandra who, by reason of his ability to take on the shape of humans and animals, is not who he seems to be. With the kandra, we have a person who feels bound by the strict letter of his race’s agreement with humanity, yet is tempted by the freedom to choose.

The danger with books of this kind is that they become too preoccupied with the discussion of ideas. Every author walks a fine line. One of the best examples of the problem is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. As an academic specialising in semiotics and literary theory, Eco could have sidelined the mystery to identify the murderer in a mediaeval abbey, but the primary narrative of how William of Baskerville “solves” the case manages to rise above its context. Although not quite on the same level as Eco, Sanderson also drives the plot along as the imperial capital of Luthadel finds itself surrounded by two armies. The threatened arrival of the third non-human koloss army keeps everyone on their toes. The merits of a democratic as against various kinds of more direct power structures are pivotal to the unfolding of events, but they remain sufficiently a subtext to let the narrative to drive forward. The emerging interest in religion also hints at future developments.

On balance, I found this an intelligent and pleasing book. I hesitate to limit it by genre. Yes, it’s ostensibly the second in a fantasy trilogy, but Sanderson’s willingness to explore the ideas and relationships gives an added depth and resonance to the otherwise simple story of daring-do. For once, I swept through a long book and immediately picked up the concluding volume, The Hero of Ages, to see how it all turned out. Five hundred and seventy two pages later, I had the answer.

For a review of the sequel, The Hero of Ages, and two YA novels set in different universes, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There’s also a stand-alone novel called Warbreaker and a novella The Emperor’s Soul.
You also have the first two novels in The Stormlight Archive:
The Way of Kings
The Words of Radiance.

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