Magic, politics, and religion collide in Brandon Sanderson’s new stand-alone novel Warbreaker. This epic fantasy tells the tale of two sisters, princesses of the kingdom of Idris, and Lightsong, a god who walks the earth. Princess Vivenna is slated to become the bride of the God-King of Hallandren, a much more powerful neighbor of Idris, and her sister Siri is the youngest child, rebellious and precocious. But when the two sisters’ roles are reversed, the already strained relations between Hallandren and Idris are stretched even further. Lightsong, meanwhile, discovers that all is not well among the court of twenty five gods that rules Hallandren, and must involve his indolent, lazy and self-deprecating self in the politics he loathes. And who is Vasher, the mysterious Awakener who seems to serve all and none?
Sanderson weaves a complicated plot in Warbreaker. Through the use of multiple perspectives and a well-designed magic system Sanderson grounds his story in concrete details even as he weaves a narrative of many opposing and in some cases subtle elements. The system of magic he uses revolves around something called Breath, a thing of which each person has only one, but which can be willingly given up to another. Those who have more than one Breath are known as Awakeners and are capable of taking formerly living objects and commanding them to serve their purposes, to essentially perform a limited type of magic based on the number of Breaths they carry. And finally, there are the gods, beings who once were alive and Returned from the dead with only one extremely powerful breath, which if they give away will cause them to die. These Returned are rare, and are worshiped as gods by the people of Hallandren. But the people of Idris do not believe, and this is what causes a great deal of tension between the two nations, in addition to their intertwined origins.
This is all the stuff of great epic fantasy. Sanderson weaves a complex and fascinating plot, with many twists and turns, two of which took this reader completely by surprise. The various perspective and stories are so carefully interwoven that when the climax comes it in from an unexpected quarter. Although the story has only some blood and gore, and only a little sex, no battle scenes, and only the occasional fight, its story of political machinations intertwined with relatable characters and a consistent and unique magic system makes this secondary world story one readers will want to get completely lost in.
There is little to dislike in this novel. Perhaps it is a little overlong and lacking in enough excitement (perhaps due to having little sword and sorcery style fighting or epic battle sequences) for some readers. Also, unlike many of its contemporaries, it has lightheartedness, a kind of playfulness about it that is hard to find in this day and age of dark and gritty fantasy which seems to be so popular. In many ways, it harkens back to the work of David Eddings in the 1980’s and 1990’s in his Belgariad and Mallorean series. Sanderson’s character of Lightsong is a cheerful sort, and his humor, even when acknowledging the seriousness of his situation, helps this story stand above the work of others who too often focus on making their story more “real”. Humor is hard, and humor in what is primarily a story of epic proportions is even harder. This reader especially appreciates those who can do it as well without compromising the integrity and epic nature of the tale, something Sanderson has certainly done.
And although Sanderson does not quite have the same complexity in his novel as George R. R. Martin, it is likely fans of Martin will like Sanderson’s Warbreaker. The political and religious nature of the narrative echoes Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and while there is decidedly more magic in Warbreaker it in no way overshadows the tale of Siri, Vivenna and Lightsong. Like Martin, Sanderson’s work is primarily character-driven and it is the fates of Siri, Vivenna, Lightsong, Vasher and those around them in which the reader will become invested.
Sanderson is an excellent worldbuilder, but he also has that necessary spark to create compelling characters. That combination is what makes him a master epic fantasist, despite his newcomer status, and I am glad that although he ended Warbreaker completely, he left enough open-endedness for a couple of characters that we might be fortunate enough to see a return to this world in a future novel. I wholeheartedly recommend the work of Brandon Sanderson after this, my first reading of his writing, and I am now off to pursue all his previously published work (including his children’s novels) while I eagerly await his completion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I recommend you do the same, with Warbreaker as an excellent starting point for reading this soon-to-to-be-if-not-already household name.