After bursting onto the fantasy scene with his acclaimed debut novel, Elantris, and following up with his blockbuster Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson proves again that he is today's leading master of what Tolkien called "secondary creation," the invention of whole worlds, complete with magics and myths all their own. Warbreaker is the story of two sisters, who happen to be princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, the lesser god who doesn't like his job, and the immortal who's still trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago. Their world is one in which those who die in glory return as gods to live confined to a pantheon in Hallandren's capital city and where a power known as BioChromatic magic is based on an essence known as breath that can only be collected one unit at a time from individual people. By using breath and drawing upon the color in everyday objects, all manner of miracles and mischief can be accomplished. It will take considerable quantities of each to resolve all the challenges facing Vivenna and Siri, princesses of Idris; Susebron the God King; Lightsong, reluctant god of bravery, and mysterious Vasher, the Warbreaker.
"Brandon Sanderson is an author I first discovered when he got the job completing The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Having long ago given up on Robert Jordan (seriously, book seven pretty much turned any love I had for that series into ashes), I wasn't really bothered at first, but the internet kept saying such wonderful things about Sanderson's own writing, and I decided to try his Mistborn Trilogy (reviewed all the way back in 2009 - use the search function if you're interested). While I have absolutely no interest in his fan fic completion of Jordan's books (it's fan fiction even if it's based on Jordan's notes and authorised by his estate, don't try to convince me of anything else), I have become a huge fan of his other books. The fact that he writes entertaining books, frequently stand alone (always a plus, but oh so rare, when reading fantasy) and is terrifyingly prolific has endeared him greatly to me. He was also super sweet and unfailingly patient and polite at the signing where I met him, making me a huge fan of his. Warbreaker is one of his stand alone novels, and it's not exactly made me like him less.
In the country of Hallandren, those who die in glory are Returned and worshipped as gods in the colourful palaces of the capital city. In the neighbouring mountain kingdom of Idris, the people believe the worship of these Returned is heretical, that the people of Hallandren are decadent and frivolous, and it is considered virtuous to live as spartan and simple a life as possible. The priesthood of Hallandren consider the people of Idris breakaway rebels, as historically speaking, both countries were one. The threat of war is looming, and hoping to save his people, the King of Idris signed a treaty that when his eldest daughter, Vivenna, reached the age of 22, a princess of Idris would be sent to Hallandren to marry the God King and sire him an heir, thus reuniting the royal lines of the two ancient kingdoms.
Vivenna embodies all that is seen as ideal in Idris. She is calm, reserved, courteous, proper and has known since she was a child that she is to be sent as a sacrifice to marry the God King and hopefully save her kingdom from war. So when her father decides to send her youngest sister, Siri, to Hallandren instead, everyone is shocked. With her brother being groomed as the next king, Vivenna having trained to become the Hallandren queen, and the third princess having become a monk (as is traditional) to serve the people, Siri has always been the redundant one, who was allowed to run free, who chafed at the teachings of her tutors and who rebelled against everything. Now she is facing a future she is wholly unprepared for. With Siri being sent away to marry the God King, suddenly Vivenna is the redundant and useless one. She resolves to be rebellious for the first time in her life, and follows her sister to Hallandren, determined to rescue her from being married to what must be a terrifying monster.
In Hallandren, Lightbringer the Bold is one of the many Returned gods, worshipped by the people, living a pampered existence in the capital. Like all other Returned, he doesn't age, he will never get sick, he is worshipped by the populace - and he is terribly bored. Constantly questioning the established tenets of Hallandren religion, Lightbringer baffles and frustrates many of his fellow gods with his flippant and irreverent attitude. He tries to avoid getting involved in politics, but when some of his fellow gods claim that the presence of a new queen makes a war inevitable, he feels he has no choice but to get involved.
There is also Vasher, a mysterious and very powerful man with a sentient (and very funny) sword. His motives and ultimate goals are unclear, but he is clearly older than he seems, and very invested in stopping a war between the two countries from breaking out.
While somewhat uneven in its pacing, Warbreaker is a very entertaining novel. One of the very impressive things about Sanderson is his wealth of imagination, and his ability to create such diverse and different fantasy worlds. In his various novels he creates complex and fascinating societies and magic systems, multi-faceted characters and while his writing certainly has some flaws, his books are always worth checking out just for the scope of the creativity on display. In this book, there are the two ancient nations on the brink of war, originally united, but separated after a devastating war in the past, that also caused an apparent religious schism. Idris and Hallandren are vastly different, with religion being only one aspect of the difference.
The narrative switches between the point of view of the four protagonists, which is a device used by a lot of writes, probably most famously George R. R. Martin. It makes the action move forward faster, but also means that occasionally you want to skip ahead to follow your "favourites". To begin with, my favourite was probably Lightbringer, but by the end, it was probably a tie between Vasher and Vivenna (who totally starts out being the most dislikable of the four).
Vivenna sees Hallandren as vulgar and decadent, and is deeply sceptical and prejudiced. She had prepared herself for the great sacrifice that she was going to make for her country and people, and when that is taken away from her, she convinces herself that she must save her sister, when in reality she's really just looking for a new purpose and identity for herself. Everything she's been brought up for has been taken away from her, and she's completely adrift and doesn't deal well with it. Vivenna starts out as really rather insufferable, pious and narrow-minded when she first arrives in Hallandren. She's probably the character who experiences the most over the course of the book, though, and grows and develops most satisfyingly.
Any fan of historical fantasy should give Sanderson a try. If you don't like the Mistborn books, where the first one is by far the best, there's always Elantris or this, or his new series (rumoured to be a ten book epic) starting with The Way of Kings. 4.5 stars"
Malin (4 out of 5 stars)