Book Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
Reading Time: about 15 hours
As the second book in the Mistborn trilogy, I was afraid The Well of Ascension would suffer from a sophomore slump. I needn’t have worried – The Well of Ascension is an enjoyable read, and in some ways is superior to Mistborn. Spoilers ahead…
Here are some other reviews:
A Fantasy Reader: http://afantasyreader.blogspot.com/2011/08/well-of-ascension-review.html
(Sorry, my ability to insert links is still broken)
The Well of Ascension picks up where Mistborn leaves off. The story focuses mainly on two characters from the first story: Eland is King, Vin is his bodyguard/mistress. The thieving crew have been promoted to high-level positions in order to run the new government. Trouble starts right away as not one, but two armies camp outside the city, looking for the stash of the power metal Atium, which Mistborn can burn to become very powerful.
Eland begins to have trouble with his new government, while trying to deal with the armies camped outside and repeated assassination attempts. Vin continues to struggle with her own self-worth and the death of her mentor. An early indication that someone in the King’s circle is a traitor is also a cause for concern.
As the story progresses, another Mistborn arrives in town, a mysterious creature appears in the mist, a third army full of creatures called Koloss arrive, the mist starts to kill people, and something’s going on with the Inquisitors. Sanderson has a lot of material to juggle here; despite this, story moves very slowly through the first 200 pages, and struggled through that part of it.
I’ve never been fond of politics, especially in fantasy, and it was my least-favorite aspect of Mistborn. That continues here, and in my opinion it drags on the pace of the narrative; however, when action began to replace politics, I started getting more and more caught up in the story. Though the story has some predictability to it, Sanderson still throws in enough twists and turns to keep the story fresh, and it kept me turning the pages.
Another area where the story bogs down at times is when the Terrisman Sazed is trying to solve the problems with the writings of Kwaan, the discoverer of the Hero of Ages. Far too much time is devoted to Kwaan’s writings, causing the pace to drag. In addition, you could play a drinking game based on the number of times that Sazed knows that there is something wrong with Kwaan’s statements, but was unable to put a finger on it. Although this works out nicely at the end of the story (see the major spoiler below), the journey to get there crawls at a snail’s pace.
There’s a basic premise in creative writing that characters should change over the course of a story. Sanderson has embraced this concept enthusiastically, with Eland and Vin undergoing multiple, remarkable changes. Elend evolves from naive scholar, to commanding king, to bringer of justice; Vin overcomes her lack of self-worth, feelings of betrayal, being used as an assassin, and inability to trust; she fully embraces her power and develops a philosophy on how it should be used. These characters are deep, compelling, have integrity, and are easy to root for. Other characters, however, especially among the thieving crew, are not compelling enough to care whether they live or die.
As in the first story, Sanderson also introduces more strange creatures. The Terris and Kandra are expanded on in many ways, and the Koloss make a great, horrific villian, although Sanderson adds a twist and things are not always what they seem. One of the great relationships in the story is between Vin and the Kandra OreSeur, where Vin’s vulnerability and frustration have the Kandra not only revealing secrets about his people, but also violating his Contract to defend her. I hope this story thread is continued in the last book.
The magic system of Allomancy still plays a major part of the story. While it is still one of the most inventive magic systems ever created, in this book it suffers from both trying to figure out what the limits of its users are (as they push themselves to superhuman efforts), and make it sometimes difficult to follow the action (as it did in the first story). These are minor quibbles that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.
The greatest strength of the story is what happens after the “bad guy” gets whacked. Things should be rosy now, right? Well, maybe not so much…the bad guy was able to control the bickering factions that are now trying to take over the city. He also kept people fed and warm, and protected everyone from the Deepness, a terrible danger. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as everyone thought, but now he’s gone and the people wonder if they weren’t better off being oppressed. You can draw parallels to the war in Iraq – an evil dictator was toppled, but suddenly a host of other problems appeared afterwards. It certainly makes the story more believable.
*MAJOR SPOILER ALERT* highlight this next part if you don’t care if I reveal one of the plot points at the end of the story…
Most stories use prophecy as a means to predict the rise of a hero or event to combat evil. In The Well of Ascension, however, the prophecy is established and manipulated by a possibly evil entity to make sure its goals are met. At one point of the story, the Inquisitor Marsh, Kelsier’s brother, leads the Terrisman Sazed to a place to ensure he finds this manipulated prophecy and supports it. The end result is a crumbling of Sazed’s entire belief system and purpose that he has dedicated his life to. It’s a crushing blow, and an impressive twist. This leads to another aspect of Sanderson’s writing: he’s not afraid to kill off major characters or have everything in their life become meaningless. While it’s not on the scale of Steven Erikson, is does create tension because you have no idea who will make it to the end.
The Well of Ascension is, after a slow start, a compelling middle book that sets things up nicely for the finale, The Hero of Ages. Sanderson’s Wheel of Time and Way of Kings entries will have to wait a bit longer to be read by me, because I can’t wait to see how Sanderson wraps things up in The Hero of Ages. And with the new release of The Alloy of Law, it sounds like there’s more goodness to come.
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