Man Ching's Reviews > The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
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Jul 13, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy-horror, library
Read in July, 2008

I think Mistborn (the first book in this trilogy) is a better book, but Sanderson's "good" still surpasses just about any other author's best. For one, Sanderson managed to avoid the drop in energy that usually afflicts the middle book(s) of a fantasy epic. The book has its share of plot twists and surprises, and we also find out more about the history of the Final Empire. However, it is the development of the characters that give Sanderson the opportunity to show off his writing talent.

We continue with the story of Vin and Elend. Elend is a mere mortal, pressed into service as a king of a city that is wracked by riots and instability. There are two armies camped outside city walls, in addition to a malevalent magical force that threatens to destroy the world. Elend does his best to hold the squabbling merchants and noblemen together in a new government, after having overthrown the dictator in the first book. Elend was played off as a court fop, well meaning, learned, but impractical, in Mistborn. Here, Sanderson has to make Elend grow as a character, developing a backbone. Further, Sanderson chose to do this in the context of continual disruptions to the relationship between Vin and Elend. Suffice to say, an insecure man will have issues dating a woman who is much more powerful than he is.

For Vin, Sanderson introduced another Mistborn, a man who is vibrant and tempts Vin. Sanderson chose a more interesting route; while physical attraction plays a part, he does make a convincing case that Vin and Elend are both worried more about how they fit into each others' lives than a simplistic worry about whether one is cheating. Vin is no longer as distrustful as in the first book, although she remains wary to the point of paranoia. Sanderson cleverly injects hints of Vin's previous distrust (in the form of cynical aphorisms by Vin's dead brother) at key points, cleverly highlighting that although Vin has changed, she is very much a personality that had only recently come into her own. Of course, the fact that she has the power of a small army gives her confidence but she begins to feel more like a weapon than a woman.

Through it all, there is the Well of Ascension. It is absolutely amazing how much Sanderson does with a small, but not meager, amount of magic and prophesy background. The series had been pitched as a story about the failure of a Hero in fulfilling prophecy. In the first book, we had followed our current heroes with the idea that the overlord they were fighting was that failed Hero. We find out here that we need to revise what we learned in Mistborn. Again, I am just amazed at how well plotted these two books have been; Sanderson does not just refer to ideas established in the first book but does his best to extend them. What is fascinating is in how Sanderson continues to rework the main prophecy. We followed the characters as they did the best they could to understand the journal left to them by the last Hero. In this story, we are working with the words of the Hero's betrayer, the man who thought he made a mistake in interpreting the prophecy and thus tried to renounce the Hero's authority.

At the beginning of each chapter, Sanderson gives a quote from the text in question; one reason I thought so well of the book is that the device created a haunting image of the failed Hero. The story played out like a tragedy as we realized what a well-meaning man he was, at odds with the oppressive overlord he became. Sanderson played to the structure we've come to expect from the fantasy genre, before blowing it all up in the end. Sanderson's assault on a worn fantasy trope continues; he doesn't just question the honesty and competency of seers but asks why we think prophecies are helpful and "good".

Sanderson has a bundle of talent; he has clear and specific ideas about how the story will develop over the trilogy. He convinced me of this by establishing the groundwork in Mistborn and furthering it here. As in the last book, he never exactly details how the magic works, but gives enough examples. He also does a great job discussing the prophesy in question, generally avoiding cheap tricks (like witholding information or sending the characters on quests to find more corroborating evidence.) Again, the quests are beside the point; Vin and Elend are dealing with sieging armies. That's what the main plot is concerned with; Sanderson managed to further the plot involving prophesy by involving Sayed, Vin's court mentor in the first book. Sanderson writes well in describing how Sayed thinks about prophesy. Vin and Sayed discusses and expands on the concept of the magic, since Sanderson wishes to make a point about this genre. Because Sanderson focuses more on arriving at new insights by learning and thinking, we do not get the travel guide treatment used to drive so many fantasy stories. The characters are actually making discoveries by thinking about things, and that is refreshing. Thus, this part of the book is satisfying since Sanderson never obscures key information that readers can use (well, readers may argue about this point, but I think the ultimate revelation fits within the context of the book and is well "earned). He is as interested as the consequences of his world as readers are.

The book moves along quickly; I've mentioned in Mistborn that Sanderson's sense of pacing is superb, fitting everything he wanted in the book without making it a rush or a needless run on. Middle books in series generally wish to avoid the end; here, we have already seen the evil overlord destroyed in the first book, and Sanderson is clever to use the second book to introduce the main malignant force in his world (and in a spectacular way). Need I say how eager I am to see Sanderson finish this series?

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