Just in case people were starting to think all I ever did was write things … I finished reading a novel yesterday!
I give it three out of five diamonds, because apparently there is no unicode graphic star easily available for me to insert.
I’ll admit from the beginning, I had real trouble with this book.
Part of it comes from a deep-seated fondness for its author. I love what Brandon Sanderson can do with language, and Warbreaker has some beautiful examples of it. Sanderson also has a way of creating places – both physical locations and cultures – that intrigue and immerse me, and this is no exception. I enjoyed the geography described, the inclusion of flowers as both a valuable resource and a cultural signifier, and the Hallendren and Idrian cultures played in and around each other in ways that I found both plausible and fascinating.
Another thing Sanderson can be counted on to provide is a magic system unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Sometimes, as in his Mistborn series and Elantris, it draws me in and makes me wonder. In this case, though, I found myself eyeing the Awakening process sideways, trying to figure out if I was missing something. The rules make sense, but I couldn’t ever quite find myself buying into how it came to be in the first place; instead of accepting the base premise and moving on from there, I frequently found myself wondering why the magic existed in the first place. I’m not sure what could have been done differently to prevent this, but I’m fairly certain that kind of fundamental challenging isn’t what he was going for.
Really, though, both my problems and my joy come from the story: the plot and the characters.
Anyone who’s read Sanderson before is familiar with the way his stories play out; they begin quite slowly, allowing a reader to settle into the world before he starts rolling the snowball downhill. It’s something I quite like about his works … but itdoes mean that the reader gets to spend the first book doing little except getting to know the characters.
And for that first third, I hated them.
The story is set out as the tale of two princesses. The eldest has been prepared her entire life to fulfill a certain political obligation – in fact, her role was set out before she was even born. She is presented from the beginning as the successful receptical of years of education. And yet, in spite of a lifetime of training, she seems to know absolutely nothing about anything even remotely relevant, up to and including how people function. As far as I can tell her father, who presumably would have governed her education, was a perceptive and educated man. And yet, for some reason Vivena is brimming with local superstition, is shocked by basic examples of human nature, and knows little or nothing about economics, politics, bureaucracy, war, or cultural development outside of her own country’s borders. This, in addition to an initial tendency to reactive passivity, made her early chapters almost painful to push through.
She grows considerably as a person by the end of the book and – as ended up being the case with all four major characters – I quite liked her by the time the story really got moving. Still it was tedious to have to sit as she was led around by the nose for the first third of the book, judging people she should have already understood and asking questions I’d think any well-educated ten year old would know the answer to.
Her sister was much less infuriating to follow, but not really any more pleasant for it. Siri, the rebellious free-spirited third princess, quite quickly finds herself in a place where rebellion and freedom of spirit is shall we say ill-advised. She is told very early on that if she makes waves, irritates the wrong people, or even blinks funny she might well end up getting herself slaughtered for her trouble. She decides, quite reasonably, to avoid doing so. She then becomes incredibly boring.
It’s really too bad. I felt for Siri; she was trying her best to do what a sane person would do, trapped in a strange location and told to behave or die. I would have been irritated if she’d gone out of her way to be carefree and spunky in spite of the warnings, but that doesn’t change the fact that her first few weeks in Hallendren are not exactly page-turning. Her eventual plotline – a combination of romance and political intrigue – and her character development are each both fairly predictable and quietly satisfying. I just wished she hadn’t needed to lead into them by sitting in large rooms doing nothing for the first chapter of it.
The two princesses also shared one annoying common trend, worth mentioning because it never went away and each time it happened I got one step closer to pulling out my hair in frustration. The girls have magical hair that changes colour with their mood unless they will it otherwise, which makes marginally more sense in this world where colour is actually a key component of magic. I understood the concept by about the fourth chapter, and I could see why Sanderson might have done it. I never came to understand why he felt the need to keep reminding us; every time one of them felt an emotion, their hair changed accordingly, and the book cheerfully pointed it out. On the rare occasion that one of them felt an emotion and their hair didn’t change, the book helpfully pointed that out. It ended up almost reminding me of some of the more mediocre fanfiction I’ve read – not a comparison I’d ever thought I’d make with one of my favourite authors.
The other two viewpoint characters gave me less grief. Lightsong the Bold is a humourous god who is lazy, and also doesn’t seem to believe in his own religion. I also couldn’t understand why gods in his pantheon were referred to as ‘gods’, since they seemed to lack several key traits of immortals (namely, not dying really easily), and so his being the only one to question his divinity had the unfortunate effect of making him seem like the only person with a brain in a country full of blind idiots. Still, he was witty and intelligent, so I could largely overlook both that point and his tendency to sit around reminding everyone how lazy and humourous he was until he actually found his plot. After that, he was absolutely delightful.
Vasher, on the other hand, is competent and interesting. He also has a secret, one the author clearly didn’t want the reader to know too quickly, and so he appeared only briefly in the early stages. When he did get screentime, it was always done in such a way to make it impossible for me to know what he was doing in any but the most specific sense, and gods help anyone trying to get a handle on his motivations. I liked him, in an abstract sort of way, but I remember referring to him to a friend as “that guy who’s doing stuff, because” which was, at the time, the most solid grasp I had on his character.
All of that having been said, I eventually came to quite enjoy the novel.
Once I quietly rewrote Vivena’s backstory in my head to explain her glaring ignorance, her journey of self-discovery and growth was a lot of fun to follow, and she and Vasher had a particularly pleasant sort of chemistry that differed nicely from the standard Male Lead Female Lead balance you see so often. Lightsong found a mystery and didn’t solve it the way you’d expect, Siri found things to do that weren’t just wandering a palace, and by the end I was eagerly awaiting the next stage of the story.
That, to say nothing about Nightblood the talking sword or Vivena’s self-referrential mercenaries, who were each delightful in their own very different ways. Blushweaver, though unnecessarily and near-constantly sexualized, was an interesting take on the standard ‘sensual goddess’ archetype who did not take the path I expected her to.
Once the snowball got rolling, I really had very little to complain about.
But would I recommend this book? I honestly don’t know. The first act, as it were, was hardly the worst I’ve ever seen in a novel – but it was extremely disappointing on several levels. The ending, while fantastic, didn’t manage to erase the taste the book’s beginning left in my mouth. There will be readers who don’t have the same objections I do; wikipedia suggests that there are many of them, including Orson Scott Card. And given that I find I don’t regret having read it, I probably would pass this on to someone looking for an interesting fantasy mystery conspiracy adventure romance.
Just, not without some reservations.
Behind her came the sound of rich laughter, and a gust of frigid wind that smelled like pine and ice and ozone.
“Was this your plan all along?” Aeval asked, stepping through the newly-reopened gate. She looked around, curious, while Forbes followed her into the hallway. “Is this where he keeps his front door? Oh, how delightfully ordinary! I would never have thought to search an office building. Who could have guessed?”
She laughed again, sounding scandalized.
Gwen’s entire body felt frozen.
“I thought you said gates couldn’t be opened here,” she hissed, glaring at Forbes.
He spread his hands.
“I couldn’t make one.”
“Yes, well.” Aeval’s attention turned away from their surroundings. She reached out and stroked Forbes’ cheek in a familiar-looking gesture. “Your skills with traveling weren’t ever very high on the list of reasons why I wanted you, sir knight.”