Paul Hamilton's Reviews > The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
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Apr 25, 12

bookshelves: fantasy, novel
Read from April 11 to 25, 2012 — I own a copy

When I first finished Mistborn, I thought that I would rush straight into the second book in Brandon Sanderson's series. I even went pretty far out of my way to secure a copy of The Well of Ascension. But then, I hesitated. I read a couple of other books instead. At first I wasn't even sure why I seemed reluctant to dive in, but upon further reflection I realized that the problem was that I had loved Mistborn so very much that I was afraid a sequel might not live up to the expectations set by the first.

There is precedence for this, in fact. I read and loved Anne Rice's The Witching Hour years ago, then started book two, Lasher, only to literally throw the book across the room within the first few chapters, disgusted by what unfolded there. I never finished it and my opinion of the first was sullied. I don't even remember now what I liked about the first Mayfair Witches volume. Stephen King nearly lost me as well in the opening pages of The Drawing of the Three which followed the remarkable The Gunslinger with a seemingly devastating character event. I stuck with King through a couple more books, but the extended break I had to give myself before I could face Roland again put distance between me and the series, one I've never been able to recover.

I was afraid, in fact, that Mistborn, despite being an imperfect novel (no one is likely to mistake Sanderson for a literary genius), was so fun and so exciting and so right up my alley with even a completely satisfying conclusion that made the book wholly standalone, a sequel had the chance to undo that. I subconsciously wanted to give myself some time to just bask in the giddiness of having read a really good book. However, after a couple of weeks, I had to finally admit I had no choice. Knowing there were more adventures out there to be experienced with Vin and Sazed and Breeze and the crew, I needed to know what else Sanderson could come up with.

I'll say this right off the bat: The Well of Ascension is not as good as Mistborn. In a way, I'm not sure it could be. Mistborn is a novel of discovery, of revealing, while The Well of Ascension is a novel where much of that exploration has already occurred. By this point we're familiar with Allomancy, we understand what Mistings and Mistborn can do, we know some of the nature of Obligators and Steel Inquisitors, and the Final Empire is a place we've been before. So instead, The Well of Ascension has to be about happenings, about events that take place within that framework set up so well by the first novel.

And in part, that's the core flaw in Well, because the events that Sanderson chooses for this book are grand in scope and impact but limited in intrigue. The book chronicles the aftermath of Mistborn, where the survivors are now tasked with keeping the central setting of Luthadel secure now that everything has changed. Doing so is not going to be easy, of course. The power vacuum has made Luthadel and its fledgling government a target, and one by one three distinct armies lay siege to the city. The new government struggles to determine how to deal with the impending invasion(s) while working through the growing pains of any new leadership. Meanwhile, a more ominous and less tangible threat begins to take form, and the walls start to close in on the cast of still-wonderful characters.

Part of what I loved about Mistborn is that it was so gripping: full of tension, unpredictable and full of a kinetic energy that kept the pages always turning. The Well of Ascension is successful in its way because it maintains the tense atmosphere (I'm inclined to say it is even more taut, with the stakes raising from grim to hopeless to utterly bleak by about the halfway point) and remains just as unexpected as the first. Where it falls short of Mistborn is that, without that sense of newness that made the first volume so exciting, Well grinds down at times, especially in the first third, to something that isn't ever close to boring, but is—to butcher a phrase—put-downable.

This is something that eventually goes away, and the final quarter of the book is ridiculous almost in how breakneck fast it moves. I mean, you know it's got a no-brakes ending when the "epic journey foretold in legend" doesn't even begin until there are less than 150 pages left in a 700+ page novel. The early parts of the book have their moments of triumph, but one does have to acknowledge that by comparison the book can feel very weighted in terms of significant events toward the back. This was true in Mistborn as well, but it felt less like a flaw because the slow burn to that point was full of so much wonder. Here, that wonder is replaced by some compelling character arcs, including several fascinating new additions (and subtractions) to the core cast, but developing characters just isn't quite as much fun in a fantasy setting as developing the world, so the odds were kind of stacked against this book. I think, perhaps, this is what I feared all along during those weeks where I saw the book sitting on my shelf, but I was reluctant to open it.

But, I can admit when I'm wrong. Despite The Well of Ascension being not quite as amazing as its predecessor, it's inferior only by comparison to a book I adored. Which is to say, taken by its own merits, Well is a triumph in its own rights. The most impressive part about it, perhaps, is that it manages to be satisfying in spite of being an Act Two book. It's obvious by the end that we're going to need at least one more sequel to finish the tale (I happen to know now that there is a fourth book as well) Mistborn began, but where other series or trilogies might simply drop a cliffhanger on the reader, content to know that two books in most readers will be committed to at least a third, but The Well of Ascension actually has a real ending. It's not The End, true, but it doesn't leave you feeling like you're dangling, rather it neatly ties up the central conflicts it presented and then paves the way for the much greater conflict to come. Lots of people could learn from Sanderson about how to finish series books.

My final recommendation is that, if you read Mistborn, don't hesitate to start The Well of Ascension. It's a bigger book, in scale and size, and it's not quite as taut as a result, but you'll welcome the chance to catch up with these characters and a new excuse to revisit this world.
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