#CBR5 Maneuver #6 – Warbreaker
Profile: Epic Fantasy
Summary: From the back cover, “T’Telir, the capital of Hallandren, is a colorful city by the sea where gaily dressed crowds bustle though sunny streets and worship heroes who have been reborn as gods. Ruled by the silent, mysterious God King, the pantheon is nourished by offerings of Breath, the life force that keeps them alive and youthful.
Exiled in Idris, the former royal family reluctantly betrothed a princess to the God King. Arriving in T’Telir, she finds both the city and the marriage are not at all what she expected. Her only ally is Lightsong, a god who is skeptical of his own divinity, who fears that war with Idris is inevitable.
Meanwhile, another new arrival in T’Telir, one who bares the sentient sword Nightblood, makes cunning plans based on the unique magic of Hallandren, which uses color to focus the power of Breath – plans that could change the world.
After Action Report:
I was incredibly excited to get started on this month’s book sequence; namely, a speedy run through the remainder of Brandon Sanderson’s bibliography. I can’t really talk about why because of spoilers. Suffice it to say my re-read of The Way of Kings revealed something that I missed because it was the first Sanderson book I had ever read. While I may still dislike the man for his abysmal treatment of The Hero of Ages, I have to say that the greater body of his work is quite good, and the more you read of it, the better it gets.
Warbreaker was originally a free web publication that was serialized on Sanderson’s website. Older draft copies of some of the chapters are still available there, but I ended up reading the finished novel in paperback form. While it shares a number of traits with Sanderson’s other epic fantasies, Warbreaker feels like a very different kind of novel. In the same vein of the Mistborn sequence, it plays with the extremes of power, wealth and status and transposes a more modern society into a fantasy setting. Sanderson’s strong emphases on religions and cohesive magic systems are also present, but the sum of these parts ends up being very different because, at its heart, Warbreaker is a story about averting a crisis, rather than confronting one.
The three principle characters are Siri, Vivenna and Lightsong. Vivenna, the princess of Idris, was effectively sacrificed at birth in an arranged marriage between her and the God King of nearby Hallandren. But when the terms of the contract came up, the king of Idris pulled a switch and sent Siri, Vivenna’s younger sister, instead. Siri ends up trapped in the God King’s palace with the court expecting her to produce an heir posthaste. With her is Lightsong, a lesser god of Hallandren who is principally preoccupied with disproving his own divinity. Meanwhile, Vivenna sets off to T’Telir in hopes of setting her sister free or, failing that, bringing Hallandren to its knees from within. A fourth protagonist, Vasher, serves as a vehicle for the book’s infrequent action sequences, and as a source of exposition.
One of the things that Warbreaker does well is placing its characters in situations that are fundamentally outside of their control. Siri was never supposed to be the sacrifice and had no training in the ways of the Hallandren court. Vivenna, who was trained in politics, poise and manipulation, finds herself the ad hoc leader of a spy ring where none of her skills prove more than tangentially useful. While Lightsong’s position as a god give him the illusion of control, his inability to believe in his own divinity, combined with his missing past, leave him even more adrift than the princesses. Watching each character adapt to the challenges of their respective impossible situations is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book.
I want to emphasize Warbreaker’s avoidance of the classic confrontation story here. In a lot of ways, the book isn’t really a piece of epic fantasy because none of the protagonists are actually heroes. This is evident from their situations, but also manifests in their methods and goals as the story progresses. With the exception of Vasher, none of the main characters have a strong sense of goal or a desired outcome. They are, by and large, reacting to a changing scenario with the implicit desire to maintain the status quo. The end result isn’t the perfect world expected of more classical epic fantasies, but a utilitarian compromise that only tries to avoid unnecessary loss of life. It may not be heroic, but this more rational approach to fantasy echoes the harsh pragmatism of one of the most successful works of the genre, A Song of Ice and Fire. Not that I’m comparing the two. Warbreaker is categorically not trying to imitate George R. R. Martin, but isn’t afraid to bring utilitarian realism to the fantasy realm.
Underneath the atypical story is Sanderson’s usual high-quality world building. As in many of his other novels, the reader leans the history and magic of the world along with an uninformed protagonist; two in this particular case. This process of discovery fuels a surprising amount of character development in Warbreaker, because the religion of Idris rejects the use of magic and abhors the kingdom of Hallandren for its decadency and corruption. This makes both princesses, and Vivenna in particular, come off as uninformed religious fundamentalists, who have avoided confronting the reality of their world. Sanderson’s critical examination of religion versus untempered faith isn’t new either, though Warbreaker feels uncharacteristically opposed to organized faith, while the hedonistic and somewhat corrupt pantheon of Hallandren is tacitly validated by storyline events.
Warbreaker isn’t without its flaws. Many have criticized the relative weakness of both Vivenna and Siri, though I still hold that forcing these women into unknown situations proves their strengths better than allowing them to show off. Lightsong’s climax is also unsatisfying, if only because he is probably the most interesting character. The ending, in general, feels a little jumbled. There are just too many last-second revelations coming from too many different quarters of the book. They serve to undermine each other, rather than building up the tension of the last big reveal and it all feels like a big setup to make Vasher a relevant character at the very end.
Still, Sanderson’s pros outweigh his cons again and I am comfortable giving Warbreaker a stamp of recommended. If you’ve been reading his books along with me, I am now literally frothing to talk to someone about Sanderson’s greater body of work, so hit me up in the comments or over Skype. I’ll be finishing up Sanderson’s adult fantasy novels over the next two weeks with Elantris followed by The Emperor’s Soul so stay tuned if you are interested in that kind of thing.