29 August 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Brandon Sanderson

by Faren Miller

from Locus Magazine, August 2007

The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson (Tor 978-0-7653-1688-2, $27.95, 590pp, hc) August 2007.

What happens after you bring down the Dark Lord of the Evil Empire? That's the question Brandon Sanderson tackles in The Well of Ascension, sequel to Mistborn (reviewed in #547) and middle book in what will be the Mistborn trilogy. The opening volume linked the more familiar epic theme of defeating the magic-wielding tyrant to the Eliza Doolittle transformation of an urchin/street thief into a pseudo-aristocrat. (Whatever elements of traditional genre fiction they've discarded or perverted, 21st-century fantasy writers still love their thieves!) It took a ragged coalition of formerly segregated groups — lowlives, seditionists, and malcontent aristocrats — to bring down the monster, but they're much less suited to forming their own government once he's gone.

Vin the ex-thief is being turned into a major figure in a new religion, centered on the martyrdom of a man she was once close to, and she lacks the natural grace and maturity to deal with it well (Ph├Ędre managed to cope much better with a similar situation in the religion-mad Vralia of Kushiel's Justice). Elend the idealistic young nobleman is no more ready to be king than Prince Otah in Abraham's novel, even if his new position will allow him to try out some of his pet theories. And everyone outside the imperial city of Lutadel sees the current situation as a power vacuum, the perfect time to send in their armies and grab as much as they can.

It certainly doesn't help that even the magic-wielders among the hastily assembled new government still don't entirely know how the strange power of the Mists really works. Vin still prefers her old thievish ways, ninja/superhero feats of action powered by the form of magic known as allomancy, while practitioners of the alternate version (ferruchemy) are more like a combination of a hidebound priesthood and computer nerds before the advent of the Internet.

Like high-minded revolutionaries or college dorm-mates, everyone — gifted, aristocratic, or otherwise — spends much of their time in fierce debate over such topics as reason vs. religion, the responsibilities that come with power, the true meaning of the fabled past, etc. Meanwhile, several enemy armies form and draw near, but even with invaders at the gates the principals are still arguing. One says in frustration, "Why do anything, if it was just going to end like this?'' Another takes the idealist's position that someone had to bring an end to centuries of deadly stasis if progress was ever to take its natural course, and then there are the bellicose types who would defend their new freedom to the death if need be. (Any parallels to American debates about post-Saddam Iraq seem indirect at best, though.) And then, at last, talk gives way to all the explosive action any adventure fan could want.

The Well of Ascension is full of plot twists and surprises, leading (of course) to a cliffhanger ending. Despite the new roles forced upon its major players and the hurried courses of instruction meant to prepare them for the challenges ahead, Sanderson's characters seem to change and learn without quite managing to mature — so far, at least. He leaves them staring into the face of yet another form of Chaos that's partly of their own making but that (to my taste) remains a little too traditional for the genuinely innovative kind of fantasy that Sanderson made his name for in his debut Elantris, with a clear aim of extending it to epic length in the new trilogy. Still, middle books often have a certain awkwardness, and this could turn out to be the setup for a grand finale where ideas, adventure, and character all get their full due.

Read more! This is one of thirty reviews from the August 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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