Length: 652 pages
Release date: 9 June 2009
Warbreaker is the story of two sisters – who happen to be princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, a lesser god, and an immortal trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago.
Theirs is a world in which those who die in glory return as gods to live confined to a pantheon in Hallandren’s capital city. A world transformed by BioChromatic magic, a power based on an essence known as breath. Using magic is arduous: breath can only be collected one unit at a time from individual people.
But the rewards are great: by using breath and drawing upon the color in everyday objects, all manner of miracles and mischief can be performed.
“My life to yours. My Breath become yours.”
Starting with Skyward, I found it hard to believe that Brandon Sanderson was traditionally criticised for his characterisation. Skyward has strong, gutsy characters who feel significant whether they’re the protagonist or extra #20, and the teenagers forced too young into a fight for their lives feel like, well, teenagers forced too young into a fight for their lives. Going back and reading Warbreaker, written over a decade ago, I both understand the criticism and find myself with a new appreciation of how much the author has developed.
Warbreaker‘s characters are by no means awful. Lightsong and Vasher are excellent, the latter’s scarce chapters by far the most interesting parts. They, and to a lesser extent the male secondary characters, are authentic if occasionally clichéd. It’s with the women that Warbreaker struggles. Aside from the sisters Vivenna and Siri, who are two of the four main characters, women on Nalthis are few and far between. Idrian women are Madonnas, Hallandren women are whores–or so the stereotype goes, and we are never shown any Idrian or Hallandren women to disprove the lazy dichotomy.
As for Vivenna and Siri themselves, I struggle to think of two more annoying, useless protagonists in adult fantasy. Although both undergo character development, they’re passive at best and actively working against their own good due to incompetence for a majority of the story. Vivenna, in particular, is judgmental to the point where I’m uncomfortable following along with her borderline bigotry. She has a serious martyr complex that’s unnecessarily emphasised so many times that when she finally grows out of it, it feels she’s performed one of the labours of Hercules rather than, you know, grown out of her childishness like a 22-year-old woman ought to have done years ago.
I hate to say this about a book I enjoyed overall, but these two remind me of why I was wary of SFF for the longest time.
Brandon’s obviously not misogynistic and has paid plenty of effort since his early novels developing his portrayal of female characters, which I can’t express how much I appreciate. Skyward‘s Spensa, Kim, and Ironsides amongst others, as well as the Stormlight Archive’s Jasnah and Shallan from what I’ve heard, are testaments to the long way he’s come.
Aside from the issues with portrayal of women, Warbreaker suffers from slight pacing issues that I’m inclined to believe are a result of relative inexperience at the time of writing. The first two-thirds are uneventful to the point of boredom, then suddenly everything happens at once, including large dumps of exposition that will leave you very confused if you haven’t been paying stringent attention to the details. Thankfully, there’s a wiki that explains everything.
This is adult fantasy, but half due to the immaturity of two main characters and half due to the author’s aversion to explicit violence or sex (Brandon Sanderson is a devout Mormon), Warbreaker reads like sanitised YA. 75% of the books you find on the YA shelf these days are racier than the closest thing Brandon has to a romance novel. Which is fine–fantasy doesn’t need sex and gore, especially if it’s done poorly. But I can’t help getting distracted by the “writing around” he does to keep the plot realistic without directly talking about the gruesome bits of reality, which gives a strong sense that this was written by a religious person.
Despite the problems that stopped me from fully falling in love with Warbreaker as I did with Skyward, this was a heartwarming story with good, clean banter, effective prose, and a few slick twists that made me ashamed of relying on first impressions. Brandon is the master of misdirection. Take care when all the clues seem to be building up to an obvious revelation. The answer will be something you weren’t expecting, and it will make sense, and yes, you’ll love it anyway.
I wouldn’t have rated this book higher than three stars if Vivenna hadn’t, by the grace of good storytelling, become tolerable in the last quarter of the book. I really want to see more of her and (view spoiler). And yes, I’ve heard about Stormlight Archive, which is why a copy of The Way of Kings sits ready on my desk whenever I next have the time for a 1200-page epic. I’m officially plugged in the Cosmere now–finally, I’m a true fantasy reader.