It’s not often that a book is capable of reducing me into a screaming, howling mess of emotions. I’m simply not the type to react violently to whatever I’m reading. Perhaps I was, when I was a teenager, but those days are well behind me and even then I wasn’t the most reactionary of readers. The only book that could do that was Lord of the Rings. But then, just last year, I read the first book in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, titled The Lies of Locke Lamora, and it left me swinging between laughing out loud and brief bursts of screaming in protest, depending on what was happening. The experience has left me a devoted reader of Lynch’s series: after all, any book that makes me want to simultaneously hurl the book across the room and cradle it close to my chest at the same time, is a good book.
I did not, however, expect to react the same way to another series – or if I did, it wouldn’t come so soon after discovering Lynch’s series. Except that’s precisely what happened when I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, which was recommended to me by my friend Hope, and who in turn was recommended the book by Matthew, the DM for our weekend D&D games. The result has been heartbreak all around – the good kind, I hasten to add. But if I thought the first book, titled Mistborn: The Final Empire, was very emotional on its own, I was not prepared at all for the effect the second book, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, would have on me. And again, I mean this in a very good way.
The Well of Ascension continues almost right where The Final Empire left off. With Kelsier dead after the events in the first book, it’s up to his crew to pick up the pieces and figure out a way to keep the Central Dominance stable from the city of Luthadel, once the home of the Lord Ruler, whom Kelsier’s apprentice, a street urchin-turned-Mistborn named Vin, killed in the climax of The Final Empire. As it turns out, starting a revolution and killing a despotic ruler is one thing; dealing with the fallout from that event is another thing entirely. With the Lord Ruler gone, his realm has began to crumble, with powerful nobles breaking away and setting themselves up as kings in their own right. The few nobles who remained in Luthadel after the fall of the Lord Ruler have sworn nominal fealty to Elend Venture, whose idealistic perspective on politics might just mean he’s the wrong kind of man for this situation. And with armies headed towards Luthadel, intent on taking the city – and the stash of atium the Lord Ruler has hidden somewhere in it – Vin, Elend, and the rest of Kelsier’s crew will have to make some difficult decisions that will directly affect the direction their lives take hereon out.
One of the most important story lines in this series is the one I mentioned earlier: the fact that a revolution has just occurred, and a despot has been overthrown. This event is everything that the first book was leading up to, with the Lord Ruler’s downfall forming the climax of that novel. The series could have ended there, or the second book could have picked up some years after when the dust had settled, but what I appreciated most about Sanderson’s series is that he’s sensible enough of history to know that revolutions don’t just end there, with everyone tired but happy and ready to rebuild. No: revolutions are messy things, both before, during, and after, and I really like the fact that Sanderson tackles the “after” part. Regime changes are part and parcel of so much of fantasy these days, but not a lot of them deal with the messy bit that comes immediately after.
That period is a rich mine for drama and story, and Sanderson does a good job pulling up as much compelling story as he can, both as a plot and as a means of developing characters – in this case, Elend Venture and the original members of Kelsier’s crew. It’s clear that the situation, as it stands at the beginning of the novel, is tenuous, mostly because Luthadel’s new leaders aren’t exactly sure how to go about running a country now that they have control of it. It’s a problem that’s plagued every revolutionary government in history, so it makes sense that Elend and Kelsier’s crew now have to find ways of making sure that the Kelsier’s sacrifice is not in vain – Elend, especially, since he’s the king.
Such conflict, though, helps characters grow, and Elend definitely does that (with a little help from a new character who is introduced in this novel). He’s not a flake, necessarily, but he’s certainly not strong-willed enough to make a proper ruler in a time of crisis – ideals can only go so far, after all, in holding a kingdom together. Fortunately, Elend does grow, and while it’s not a completely dramatic and sudden change in character, I really like the fact that it isn’t. There’s still one more book after all, which means there’s still enough time for Elend to change and grow, depending on what happens further down the line.
I mentioned in my review for The Final Empire that the magic system was the second major plot line in the series, and that prediction bore fruit in this one, in the form of a prophecy about the Hero of Ages. In the first novel, everyone assumed that the Hero of Ages was the Lord Ruler, but it turns out that this might not be the case. The story about the Hero of Ages, the Well of Ascension, and mysterious entity called the Deepness are further explored in The Well of Ascension, with Vin at the heart of it all.
Just like Elend’s having a hard time being king, Vin has a hard time trying to adjust to her new roles: Elend’s beloved, Elend’s personal Mistborn (and therefore assassin), Luthadel’s resident Mistborn (and therefore to be treated in the same way a tactical nuke is treated), and Kelsier’s Heir, a quasi-religious figure to the followers of the Church of the Survivor. While the first two roles she has to fulfill are interesting for the way they help in her character development (especially her relationship with Elend), it’s her status as the Heir of the Survivor that I find most interesting. That Kelsier was deified after the Collapse is unsurprising, but watching how Vin deals with her new status is interesting to read about – as is the development of the Church of the Survivor into a perhaps-legitimate faith. Will it replace the religion of the Lord Ruler? That remains to be seen.
And then there’s Vin’s link to the prophecy of the Hero of Ages. That entire storyline is a lesson in how prophecies are so often shaped by those who believe them, and the tragedies that can result – both in the Lord Ruler’s case, and in Vin’s. I really liked this take on the concept of prophecies, because so often in fantasy novels, prophecies are taken as absolute truth, and, often, turn out to be absolute truth. But what if they were subject to human fallacy – as anything humanity has ever tried to understand is subject to? What if in the reading of a prophecy, someone or a group of people made a mistake in the interpretation? This was a nice place to go with the concept of prophecies, and I’m glad Sanderson went there.
As for personal relationships, they are front-and-center more in this novel than in the last one – and the primary reason for the emotional roller-coaster my heart went through while reading this. I won’t say anything further in case I give away too much on that score (and I mean this: part of the pleasure of reading about how these relationships develop is to know as little about them as possible), but suffice to say that Sanderson certainly knows what he’s doing when he writes about interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise, and I’m still metaphorically picking up the pieces of my broken heart even now, some days after I finished reading the book.
Overall, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension is a novel that does more than just continue the story that began in Mistborn: The Final Empire: it stands on its own as a tale to match the first novel, and carries the plot forward in a manner that makes the reader excited to read the third novel. Unlike so very many other second books in trilogies, it does not suffer from middle-book syndrome, serving as more than just a bridge between the events of the first and third novels and standing on its own as an important moment in this trilogy’s development. And, as a part of that development – and part of what makes this book so good – this novel feels more emotionally-charged than the last one, with lots of time and opportunity for the reader to get more invested in the established characters, and to develop a fondness for newly-introduced ones. But it is, as I mentioned, only the second book in a trilogy, and while it might be hard to imagine that there could be more after what happens in this novel, there is definitely more, in the novel Mistborn: Hero of Ages. Whether or not that book lives up to the setup done in the first two remains to be seen, but I definitely look forward to finding out – and I cross my fingers that the payoff is as grand and magnificent as I hope it to be.