A Story That’s a Bit Too Big For Its Boundaries – A Review of Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

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Lately, it feels like there are too many series out there for my own good. Every year another author publishes another amazing series with some incredible premise, and I just have to get into it. If I’m lucky, the series is already complete by the time I get to it and I can just mainline the whole thing from start to finish. If I’m not as lucky, the series is only a duology or a trilogy, or even a quartet, which means that wait times between books aren’t so bad and the series ends in three or four years (or less if the writer is especially prolific).

However, if I’m unlucky, the series is something along the lines of a septology (I’m looking at you, Scott Lynch), and it’s so very, very good that I wind up irrevocably hooked, trawling through websites with eyes constantly scanning for release dates of the next book. Most writers of very long series mitigate the wait-time anxiety by ensuring that each book stands more or less on its own, in which case waiting between releases isn’t so bad.

But then there are those books that end on a cliffhanger, and when one checks to see if the latest book is out, one learns that it’s not out yet, and then later learns that it won’t come out for another several years. A prime example of this case would be Jasper Fforde’s superb Shades of Grey series, the first book of which came out back in 2009, ending on a cliffhanger of epic proportions. Readers have been dangling on that cliffhanger for five years now, and will continue to dangle there until 2015, the next book’s expected release date. Please note that oftentimes, the phrase “expected release date” is not a guarantee. I often take it to mean “This is the date we think the book will come out, but it’s also entirely possible that it’ll come out five or six years from this date”.

Because of this, I always appreciate one-shot novels. They’re a great way to get to know a new writer, because they allow readers the chance to get a feel for a writer’s style before committing time (and money) to any longer works from that writer. One-shots from one’s favorite writer are also a lovely thing, because it means that one can read a story by them without any of the aforementioned commitment, and even better, none of the waiting for the next book.

But then there are books like Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. I went into it thinking it was a one-shot, reached the end and thought it was a series, and had its one-shot status reconfirmed by my friend Hope. Warbreaker is a very rare type of novel: a one-shot that I rather wish had been a series instead.

Warbreaker is set in a world where colors are a source of power, embodied by a concept called Breath, which can be given or received, but never stolen. In this world are two princesses, a minor god, and a mysterious rebel, all of whom have a role to play in the coming events as war looms on the horizon – a war that threatens to become similar to the horrific Manywar that happened hundreds of years ago. Guess who are the only people who can stop it from happening.

Now, the first Sanderson book (or books, rather) that I ever read was his Mistborn trilogy, and I absolutely, head-over-heels loved it. I loved the characters, the plot, the world-building, the themes – in short, everything that matters to me when it comes to the books I read. Sanderson hit every single nail right on the head, and at the end of the series I was reduced to a blubbering mess of emotions and tears, because the ending was just that good.

Of course, I expected the same from Warbreaker. I expected wonderful characters, extraordinary world-building, fantastic plot, and intriguing themes. And I was right – except for one, teeny-tiny little complaint that I have about it that might not matter to some readers, but kind of matters to me.

But first, the good stuff. Sanderson is capable of writing some excellent characters: Vin, Elend, and Sazed, some of the main characters from the Mistborn trilogy, are memorable because of the way that Sanderson developed them over the course of the series, how they changed from who they were at the start of the story, into the great heroes they eventually became at the end. Of course, it’s hard to forget Kelsier, who only appeared in the first book of the trilogy but whose influence was such that he’s hardly overshadowed by the others, despite his absence in the last two books. They are characters that stick with the reader even when the reader is done reading, that linger on the edges of the reader’s consciousness, occasionally becoming recognizable in other characters in other media.

The characters of Warbreaker are of a similar quality. They don’t get quite the same treatment as the characters in Mistborn do, mostly because Mistborn is three books long and Warbreaker is only one book. Despite that, however, they each have their own moments.

I’m especially happy with the character development for the female characters, Siri and Vivenna. When I first started reading this my friend Sian compared their dynamics to the characters Elsa and Anna from Disney’s latest movie, Frozen, and to a degree, she was right. As the older of a pair of sisters I’m very familiar with the relationship dynamics between Vivenna and Siri, which made reading about them especially fun, and especially heartbreaking.

Of the two of them, however, it is Vivenna who really grows as a character. She starts out as very prim and haughty, thinking herself above the people of Hallandren because she was brought up to despise Hallandren culture. However, her storyline in the novel breaks all of these prejudices down–indeed some of the most interesting questions about morality, religion, and prejudice are addressed in her storyline. Hers is probably the most difficult and most harrowing plot in terms of development, since she is broken before all the other characters are (with the exception of Vasher, but he was broken long before Warbreaker even starts, so he doesn’t quite count), but it’s all done for a reason, and, as I said, addresses some very interesting issues along the way.

The next most interesting character is definitely Lightsong the Bold, god of bravery. It is in his storyline that the issues regarding the Returned and the Court of Gods as a whole are addressed, and he also asks some very interesting questions about what it is to be a god: specifically, questions about duty, infallibility, and what happens when a society makes gods out of mortals–or those who were once mortal, anyway. Like Vivenna, Lightsong gets quite a bit of time devoted to his development as a character: both of them learn what it means to be who they are, and realize that being a god or being a princess has nothing to do with intention, and everything to do with one’s actions.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Siri and Vasher, the other two protagonists, aren’t great characters in there own right, because they are. It’s just that they don’t get the same amount of time spent on their development. It might be argued that Siri does get a lot of screen time (page time?), and though her development is indeed important, I tend to find that it comes in second to her sister’s. Not to say that Siri isn’t important, since she does figure out some of the most significant bits of information lying at the heart of the plot, but I always thought Vivenna had much, much more to overcome than Siri.

And now that I talk about plot, I have to say that this is one of the finest plots I’ve ever read – and also one that, I think, felt a bit too big for its britches. Here is a world, whole and entire, with an incredibly fascinating cast of characters populating it, and an intriguing plot to go with it, and it’s all supposed to fit in just one book? I certainly enjoy a good one-shot, but some plots are just too large, too grand, to fit in one book. And while I’m certainly all right with cliffhanger endings of the kind that leave the future of the characters up to the readers’ imaginations, the concluding events of Warbreaker leave too many questions unanswered. Sure, Sanderson could have chosen to end it where he did and it would have been all right, there’s nothing inherently objectionable about where he chose to close the story, but I found myself wishing there was more. I can certainly imagine the events that happen offscreen (so to speak) at the end of the novel, but I would have liked to actually read about them, just to know that everything turned out all right–or not, because I’m quite all right with sad endings, too.

Overall, Warbreaker is an enjoyable read, featuring all the things one can expect from any Sanderson novel: quality characters, excellent world building, and exciting plot. However, Warbreaker also feels like too big a story contained in too small a book, as if the plot could have gone on for at least one more book before Sanderson put it to bed. This has nothing to do with the nature of the ending itself: it has to do with the fact that Sanderson has obviously created something enormous enough to fit another one or two books, but he’s decided to cram it into just one novel, and leave it at that. His plots are, apparently, too epic to be contained in a mere one-shot of a novel, and he may have to consider writing duologies instead. This is a minor complaint, at best, but it did leave me wishing for more, and I suspect that it will be the same for a lot of other readers, as well.

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