Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension
Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2007

In the opening novel of the Mistborn series (trilogy?) Brandon Sanderson asked the question: What if the hero of prophecy fought the Dark Lord and lost? That is what the initial premise seemed to be. But, as the novel progressed the question turned out to be: What if the hero of prophecy prevailed, but then turned into a tyrant himself? By the end of the novel the question had shifted once again: What if the hero of prophecy was about to achieve the ultimate goal (whatever it was) and was killed by the guy who carried his bags, and that bagman became a tyrant and ruled for a thousand years of oppression and villainy? The actual question changed and shifted as we (and the characters) learned more about what really happened one thousand years prior.

Mistborn: The Final Empire was a starkly original novel which turned the standard hero’s quest on its head because one thousand years before the novel began the hero of prophecy did arise, he was killed by his bagman, and the bagman ruled for a thousand years. That’s where we opened Mistborn. Brandon Sanderson introduced a well thought out system of magic called Allomancery, which is predicated on those with the talent to somehow utilize specific metals to achieve certain results. Burning different metals allows one to have great strength, speed, the ability to pull a metal towards you or push off something metal. Seems simple, but Brandon Sanderson imagines how this could and would be used in a fantasy setting. There were fight sequences and solid description of the skillsets of Allomancers.

The Dark Lord of Mistborn was defeated at the end of the novel, so the trilogy is setting up for something much different than what might have initially been guessed. The initial guess on what Sanderson was doing would have been a three volume set of overthrowing the Dark Lord. But with that accomplished in one hell of a first novel (of the series, Sanderson’s second published novel after Elantris), Sanderson asks another question which is frequently ignored in fantasy: What happens after you defeat the Dark Lord? How do you hold on to what you’ve won? What happens when you are free of the Dark Lord’s taint? Okay, that’s three question, but it boils down to: So you’ve defeated the Dark what?

The Well of Ascension opens with our band of heroes trying to pull a government together out of a squabbling collection of nobles and previously repressed common citizens called Skaa. Elend, a noble son who befriended our Mistborn hero Vin, is King, but almost in name only. The survivors of Kelsier’s band have prominent positions in the government but Elend is not leading the Assembly very well. To make things worse, Elend’s father, the Lord Venture, has an army camped outside the gates of the city and is preparing to invade to claim the throne and dispose of his son. Some of the nobles are willing to open the gates and give up their freedom rather than have bloodshed. To make matters worse, there is another warlord marching on Luthadel with the same purpose. People are free, but they are hungry. The money is running out.

This is where we are thrust into the story. Vin is out patrolling the city attempting to protect Elend, her love, from Allomancer assassins. The political situation continues to deteriorate as threats to Luthadel mount. The political / patrolling aspect of The Well of Ascension takes up at least the first half of the book. The best aspects of this first half (or more) of the novel is Vin’s patrols because we have action sequences where Vin fights off enemies using allomancery. Sanderson has thought out how to make these powers make sense, have a physical cost, make them costly to use, and be exciting to read about all at the same time. If Vin runs out of a particular metal mid-battle that skill is lost until she can get more of that metal. The fights are fast paced and fun to read. The political aspect mildly interesting, but stretched over hundreds of pages it begins to drag.

A complaint that could be (and has been - though I would not go nearly as far as Pat did in his criticism) levied against The Well of Ascension is that there is simply not enough story to fit into the nearly 600 pages of novel that we are given. The complaint is valid and, I’m afraid, accurate. Sanderson only put in what he felt was necessary, I am quite sure, but outside of the sections with Vin (and the also the Kandra), there isn’t enough story to go around. Filler abounds. Sanderson’s filler is still readable, but the novel could have been much tighter with much the same effect, unless the effect intended was to allow the reader to feel the weight of the siege and political upheaval and feel nearly every minute of it. But, even that effect likely could have been accomplished in fifty to one hundred fewer pages. Just one reader’s opinion.

So – Vin, fight sequences, allomancery, history = the best aspects of the novel. Political maneuvering and waiting and almost scheming = slowing the novel down a bit too much.

The Well of Ascension is still a good read, but overall it was not as exciting or successful in telling a story than Mistborn was. The novel did set up a third volume (Hero of Ages?), but little more than that.

Aha! That’s it! The Well of Ascension is, surprisingly enough, a victim of Middle Book Syndrome. It fills in some gaps, resolves certain situations, and sets up the third volume, but does not stand well on its own. I did appreciate that Sanderson is brutal with his characters, that there is nobody safe from being killed off and those deaths will have repercussions down the line with those particular talents and skillsets no longer available to the heroes.

With that said – fans of Mistborn should still read The Well of Ascension, and Sanderson is still an exciting new author, but the novel will not meet the expectations raised by Elantris and Mistborn. It is what it is: The Middle Book of a trilogy.

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