Warbreaker is Brandon Sanderson’s second standalone fantasy novel. It is unrelated to any of his other books. The process of writing this book was somewhat unusual, earlier versions of the story were released under a creative commons license on the author’s website (they are still available for those who are interested) so the reader could more or less follow the creative process. I must admit I have not read any of the earlier drafts, by the time this book came to my attention the author was almost done writing it, but I like this idea a lot. I guess the sales the author is now waiting to see how this experiment impacts the sales. From the quality of the book I’d say it should do very well. I think it is Sanderson’s best book yet.
As with Sanderson’s previous books the Warbreaker is set in has a well defined magical system referred to as BioChromatic magic. A person is born with one “breath” which heightens the perception of the world for that person. It is possible to transfer that breath from one person to another. With an increased number of breaths a person’s magical power grows and can include such thing as animating lifeless objects and dramatically slowing aging. When a person passes a certain threshold a “heightening” is achieved, and a magical ability granted. The first heightening takes about fifty breaths, each subsequent heightening needs an increasing number of additional breaths. People with many thousands of breaths can achieve god-like powers.
The use of this magic caused a destructive war that ended some three hundred years. In the nation of Hallandren the end of this war coincides with the arrival of the first God-King. The God-Kings established a new religion, causing the nation of Hallandren to split. Those following the old god retreated into the mountains and formed the nation of Idris. A rebel province but for all practical purposes independent. An uneasy peace between the military superiors Hallandren and the strategically well places Idris last for centuries. Recently many of the influential priests in the God-King’s court are pushing for war. A treaty between Idris and Hallandren that includes the marriage between the God-King and a princess of Idris is all that stands in their way.
In Idris, the king has to make a difficult choice. Does he send his daughter Vivenna to Hallandren to marry the God-King, knowing it could mean her death? War seems inevitable, what is the point? The King decides to stall for time and sends the younger daughter Siri to Hallandren instead. Vivenna, who was raised to take a place at the God-King’s court soon follows in secret so rescue her completely unprepared sister. In the mean time, in Hallandren things are moving as well. Lightsong, one of the lesser gods at the God-King’s cour,t and known for being the god least interested in his duties, finds himself unable to stay out of the political arena once the Idrisian princess arrives. In the city itself, several people are trying to push matters in one direction or another. One of them is the mysterious Vasher. His agenda is unclear, but he certainly possesses frightening means of achieving his goals.
The story relies very heavily on magic. Just about every element in the story is linked to it somehow. The rift between Idris and Hallendren for instance is caused by a disagreement on the taking of Breath from another person.This has to be done voluntarily and while this does not kill the giving party, it does leave the giving party without something that is part of their being. The Idrisians believe it is ethically not acceptable to do so. On the other hand, for many poor people in Hallandren, selling their breath is an easy way to make money.There are never shortages in people wanting to sell their breath. Vivenna is the character that pretty much embodies this conflict. When she is exposed to Hallendren society her beliefs are rigorously put to the test. I must admit I didn’t like Vivenna’s rather closed minded look on the world, but she grew on me later in the book. Especially after Vasher’s involvement.
Also linked into the magic of this world it the theme of religious worship woven into the story. Lightsong, one of the awakened, and a creature holding vast BioChromatic capabilities finds himself the object of worship without. Like Sazed in the Mistborn trilogy he is trying to understand religion. Unlike Sazed, he’s right in the middle of it. His lack of understanding, purpose, and a case of severe boredom make him behave like a spoiled child most of the time. Gods are born for a purpose according to his priests and eventually we found out what Lightsong’s is. The change from his juvenile behavior early in the book to someone dedicated to a cause is a fine bit of character development.
And then there is Siri. Impulsive, wayward and completely unprepared, she is thrown into a situations where she has no realistic chance of doing well. In a way she is the character that changes the least but also the character that I found to be the most interesting. Her unexpected and forced marriage to the God-King does nothing to dampen her spirit. In fact, Siri thrives in her new environment. Something that unfortunately cannot last.
Sanderson does not really do anything he didn’t try in Elantris, his first standalone fantasy novel, which is my only real criticism on the novel. He does it a lot better though. Thematically you could even consider it a variation on the idea of people turning into gods under the influence of magic. Only this time we get to see the divine perspective as well. In Warbreaker Sanderson seems to have found the right mix of magic and worldbuilding, interesting characters and fast paced story. Despite the almost six hundred pages in my advance copy it was a pretty quick read. All this makes Warbreaker a much better novel than Elantris, in fact, I think this is his best novel yet. So if you liked Elantris or if you are looking for a good standalone epic fantasy, something there is still a severe shortage of in my opinion, Warbreaker is highly recommended. And if you like this one, it Sanderson leaves more that a few openings for other books in this setting. Who knows? There may one day be a sequel.