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Magic Systems: Awakening

For this feature, we’ll be covering another of my favourite systems: this time, falling firmly on the ‘rule-based’ end of the scale. The system in question is Awakening – so far featured only in Warbreaker, one of Sanderson’s shorter novels. Yes, there will – as always – be a few spoilers: so if you haven’t read the book, or at least the most part of it, be warned. I have red hot pokers.


Awakening is the magic central to T’Telir: the capital of Hallandren, where the majority of the novel is set. In Idris, however, Awakening – bringing objects to semi-life and the caster’s will – is outlawed, viewed as heresy against Austre. To this end, colour – one of the two components of Awakening – is also heavily restricted, a key defence against Awakeners of any type.

In Hallandren, however, Awakening is not prohibited – but encouraged. Within the novel, BioChromatic breaths are seen as signifiers of wealth and influence, with the powers of the Returned’s single divine breaths forming the rationale behind their ‘godhood’. Awakening, though mainly used on a smaller scale in the novel, is also politically relevant: Breaths can be used to animate Lifeless (random capitalisation seems to do a lot for magic, doesn’t it?). In layman’s terms, zombie armies do a lot for political relevancy.


Let’s get in to exactly what Awakening is – because so far, we’ve been tossing around terms without definitions. Awakening is the act of bringing objects to a sort of semi-life, obeying one or more specific commands (Lifeless, depending on complexity, can manage much more). This requires two things: a verbal command, and an investment of BioChromatic breath – and it’s time to talk about just what that is.

Each person has just one inborn Breath: an attribute which intensifies colour and the senses around you, as well as allowing Awakening with greater numbers. However, by accumulating – usually purchasing – more Breaths from others, these attributes improve to a large degree: and in addition to these, the Heightenings can be reached. These are approximate numbers of Breaths required to attain specific powers or abilities: to give an example, the First Heightening gives the ability to judge an individual’s number of Breaths by the intensity of colours/aura around them.

Breaths can vary in strength as well: the Returned are divinely reanimated through a single powerful Breath, which when given away, heals the receiver – unlike anything an Awakener is capable of. Human Awakeners, meanwhile, Awaken using commands: these are an ongoing field of study in the novel, and can range from simple – ‘Hold when thrown’ – to tongue-trippingly complex – ‘Upon call, become my fingers and grip that which I must’. These Commands then require an investment of Breath for the object: depending on the material and how close to a human form it is (or can become – the easier, the fewer Breaths required). Metal, for example, requires thousands of Breaths to Awaken. A Lifeless can be animated with only one Breath.

Normally, these Breaths can be recovered once use of the object finishes. However, with creations such as Lifeless, some of the Breaths are permanently gone. Awakening also sucks colour from the environment: while normally objects are left grey, a later Heightenings – such as those achieved by the God-King – allow the colour drain to be complete, leaving white behind.


Although there’s little danger for the user in Awakening, there’s certainly a cost: Breaths are inborn, and to attain many requires both monetary cost to yourself and a qualitative cost to others. Those without Breath are termed ‘Drabs’, less colourful than their endowed counterparts, and with less colour perception, life sense, and all of the other attributes of BioChroma. It’s also a system with limits, which helps to sustain its role within the novel. Although Awakeners are powerful, it’s not a magic system which requires radical limits on its use, such as the Warrens of the Malazan books: capable of pretty much anything from teleportation to healing.


In Warbreaker, Vasher presents magic interestingly: as a scholarly field in the progress of research, rather than that often-clichéd ‘in the shadow of a greater magical era’. To fit this, like Sanderson’s other magic systems, BioChroma is intensely rule-based: we learn the Commands and rules of BioChroma well before their use in resolutions, as well as its capabilities, and as such, we’re able to reason our way through the system – a refreshing change! Well… Let’s go for a 10, shall we?


If your interest is in the fantastical, Warbreaker’s BioChromatic Awakening is definitely a system to check out, combining an atmospheric system with a rule-based ability to avoid any deus-ex-machina resolutions. Sanderson has a sequel planned (tentatively called Nightblood), so look out for any future books in this series as well: knowing Sanderson, we can expect more exploration of such an intriguing system.

Which magic system should I cover next month? Comment below with your suggestions.

Jacob Topp-Mugglestone is an SFF reader and reviewer over at Drying Ink. Though whim provides an essential part of his choices, his favourite authors include Steven Erikson, Kate Griffin, Robin Hobb, and Brandon Sanderson, which he reads while waiting for the rain to stop. Living in the UK as he does, this rarely happens, and his current TBR pile rarely lasts very long.

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