Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

Two sisters go off to a city ruled by gods and start a rebellion.


Tor, 2009, 592 pages

Warbreaker is the story of two sisters who happen to be princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, the lesser god who doesn't like his job, and the immortal who's still trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago. Their world is one in which those who die in glory return as gods to live confined to a pantheon in Hallandren's capital city and where a power known as BioChromatic magic is based on an essence known as breath that can be collected only one unit at a time from individual people. By using breath and drawing upon the color in everyday objects, all manner of miracles and mischief can be accomplished. It will take considerable quantities of each to resolve all the challenges facing Vivenna and Siri, princesses of Idris; Susebron, the God King; Lightsong, reluctant god of bravery; and mysterious Vasher, the Warbreaker.

There is a certain unmistakeably "brand name feel" to Brandon Sanderson’s writing. I've read a bunch of his stuff, and it's all been readable, some of it has been really good, and he brings the Epic to Epic Fantasy like a true nerd-turned-writer-in-the-career-of-his-dreams.

That said, it's so obvious he is a nerd-turned-writer-in-the-career-of-his-dreams, getting to write fantasy novels instead of doing what he would be doing if he hadn't made it big as an author - running homebrew FRPG campaigns with huge three-ring binders full of the history and cosmology and rules systems for his settings.

Every one of his books has a meticulous, highly gameified magic system with characters begging to be statted out on character sheets.

In the world of Warbreaker, the magic is based on "Breaths" and color. Sanderson, who is a nice Mormon boy, about which I will say more in a bit, indulges in his usual trademark "fantasy swearing" that allows characters to say bad words without saying English bad words. In this case, the fantasy expletive everyone uses is "Colors!"

Basically, people can transfer their breaths to one another. If you lose your Breath, you become a "Drab." If you have lots of Breaths, you are wealthy, and also capable of performing magical feats by using your Breaths to animate inanimate objects.

Then there are people who come back to life after dying, and are called the Returned. In Warbreaker, there is one country where the Returned are seen as sort of magical revenants, and another, ruled by a God-King who controls thousands and thousands of accumulated Breaths, where the Returned are worshiped as gods. The plot mostly revolves around a naive young princess being sent off to marry the God-King, per treaty, to prevent a war, and her older sister who was supposed to marry the God-King going to rescue her, and they both become embroiled in internal and external politics, learn about magic and the secrets of the Returned, get betrayed a lot, and try to stop a war. There is swords and sorcery and secret layers within layers of this invented metaphysical system that get peeled back as characters discover the "rules," and witty banter and heroes being heroic, and also Sanderson writing his weird, slightly creepy Mormon sensibilities into the cosmology.

The thing about Sanderson’s religious beliefs is that if you are not familiar with Mormonism, you probably wouldn't notice this at all, but I know just enough about it to notice it in every single one of his books. So, if you have never read about the Latter Day Saints, some of their less public beliefs revolve around, among other things, the idea that you and your spouse will be eternally married in heaven, and you will essentially become gods in your own little universesg. This isn't an entirely accurate description of LDS theology as a Mormon might describe it, but that is my understanding of their afterlife.

So in Warbreaker, it's hard not see some really obvious allegories in the conflict between "gods," who are not really gods but just chosen individuals who've been given magical "Breath" that allows them to come back to life and then be worshiped by a hierarchy of priests who regard them as gods, and the oppressed faction that split off centuries ago which worships a more monotheistic supreme deity that no one ever actually sees. And the princess in this story is sent to marry a God-King and expected to bear him a child, even though she thinks he's a monster, but ends up very chastely falling in love with her immortal god-like husband.

There are all kinds of little details like that, which, while I'm sure Sanderson doesn't sit down and think "How can I put Mormon messages into my fantasy novels?" are impossible to miss once you start seeing them. Along with things like the aforementioned lack of "real" swearing, the fact that his heroes never have sex unless they're actually married, etc. I just feel like Sanderson novels should all have a "LDS-Approved Fantasy" sticker on them.

This isn't meant as a criticism per se, or a tirade against the LDS church. I actually like Sanderson’s books. It's just a weird, quirky slant that affects everything he writes.

As I gear up to finally read the second book in Sanderson’s massive Stormlight Archives series (with the third book already out), I realize I probably sound rather critical about this one, and honestly, it was kind of middle of the road - much better than Elantris but not as good as Mistborn. But I did enjoy it, Mormon flavoring and RPG magic system and character classes and all.

Also by Brandon Sanderson: My reviews of Elantris, The Mistborn trilogy, The Alloy of Law, Steelheart, and The Way of Kings.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, brandon sanderson, fantasy, reviews

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