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“The Well of Ascension” by Brandon Sanderson


I enjoyed the first Mistborn book despite thinking it had some weaknesses in some areas. I think “The Final Empire” could have worked well as a standalone since there did seem to be enough material there for a traditional fantasy trilogy so I was interested in seeing where the plot was going to in the sequel.

There have been plenty of fantasy books featuring the attempted overthrow of a dark lord or evil empire, but it’s a lot rarer (although not unheard of) to have a book exploring what happens after the good guys have achieved their victory. Judging from this book it might sometimes appear that overthrowing an empire that had lasted for a thousand years was the easy part and in the second book the hard work of trying rebuild the world is beginning. As the book begins the previous book’s heroes are in control of the old empire’s capital but find themselves surrounded on all sides by enemies, both remnant of the old regime and new forces rising up to try to take advantage of the power vacuum. Most of the characters are feeling increasingly out of their depth and a lot of the character development in this book focuses on those characters trying to live up to their new responsibilities.

At first glance it isn’t as obviously compelling a storyline as the first book’s plot but it does manage to bring in a number of interesting elements, particularly once it becomes clear that there is a greater threat than the rival armies marching on the capital. The nature of this threat is initially mysterious with one of the main plotlines following the scholar Sazeed as he tries to decipher ancient texts detailing this threat. This part of the plotline is the subtlest and cleverest part of the story, as it gradually becomes clear that there’s much more going on that initially meets the eye. There are some interesting plot twists which I thought were very effective (although I wonder if a more attentive reader might have seen them coming earlier). Some of the other plotlines do have some interesting mysteries and plot developments as well and there are also some good action scenes (even if some of the allomancy-powered fight scenes do start to feel a little bit repetitive after a while).

I thought the characterisation had some weaknesses in the first book, where the main characters were interesting but the supporting characters tended to feel either simplistic or bland. I would say a similar thing about the second book, there are some good characters and Vin continues to be an interesting protagonist but some of the characters still feel a bit lacking in depth. Elend, who finds himself as the new ruler, does get a reasonable amount of characterisation as he tried to develop into the leader his people need him to be but I still don’t find to be all that interesting a character and although the book does seem to be trying to make him more interesting I still think he’s lacking a little bit in terms of depth and the growing romance between him and Vin doesn’t feel entirely convincing. I think probably my favourite bit of characterisation in the book involved the initially antagonistic but increasingly respectful interactions between Vin and her kandra (a shapechanging being fanatically loyal to its master but also resentful of having to be a servant).

I’d probably say the first book in the series was better than the second, although the second is still an entertaining read which adds some interesting new elements to the story. I am interested in seeing how the series concludes, although I wouldn’t say I’m desperate to read the conclusion immediately.

Rating : 7/10


“The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson


It is often stated that the Epic Fantasy genre has gone through significant changes in the last decade or two compared to its previous existence. There is often a line drawn between the traditional fantasies of Tolkien or later followers like Feist or Eddings and the more modern fantasies of GRRM, Abercrombie or Morgan which tends to have adjectives like gritty, cynical or ‘grimdark’ applied to them. I think dividing the genre like that does tend to feel a bit simplistic and Sanderson’s Mistborn series is one example of why that is. This is a series set in a world far bleaker and nastier than most of those found in other modern fantasy series, but the style of writing and storytelling feels more reminiscent of the popular fantasy series of the 80s and 90s and as a result it is a much lighter read than might be expected given the plot.

I’ve seen the series praised for its worldbuilding, this praise often seems to focus on the inventive magic system Sanderson has designed, but I think the design of the world itself is more important to the book. The story is set millennia after a prophesied hero defeated an evil threatening the entire world and then promptly seized power himself. Since then the seemingly immortal Lord Ruler has come to dominate every part of the world, the only permitted religion being the one that portrays him as a divine ruler whose edicts are unquestionable. The world itself is covered in almost perpetual gloom due to the ever-present ash clouds and mists while most of the population have short and miserable lives of drudgery trying to eke a living out an unproductive land, the only luxuries being reserved for the small elite of noblemen who oppress the rest of the population on behalf of the Lord Ruler. Both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ epic fantasies have often defaulted to a setting more or less based on medieval Europe, I can’t think of many that have a setting like this series and it is an interesting idea to explore how a traditional fantasy world might end up if good didn’t triumph over evil. Although I generally like the world-building here, I think one criticism is that it perhaps lacks enough detail to be entirely convincing, in particular although the ‘Final Empire’ is supposedly vast we barely see more than a single city and it’s difficult to get much impression of what the rest of the Empire is like.

Sanderson does show repeatedly and at great length how miserable a world this would be to live in. It is here that the writing style does make a significant difference to the experience of reading the book. If it had been written in the same style as some recent fantasy series with explicit and detailed portrayals of the violent scenes then I think this might have ended up being a depressing and possibly gruelling book to read. Instead, Sanderson largely avoids getting too visceral in his descriptions of the frequent violence and atrocities, it may be set in a brutal and nasty world but it doesn’t need to show the details of the violent acts to portray that. Opinions may vary on how successful this is, but I think it makes the book easier to read and more entertaining than some of the alternatives even if the contrast between the nastiness of the world and the book’s squeamishness about sex scenes or swearing does feel slightly jarring.

The characterisation is generally good but not without its flaws. I think Vin and Kelsier make a couple of interesting main characters. Vin does fall into a few epic fantasy clichés (orphan, mysterious parentage, latent powers she needs to master to defeat the enemy) but she is a likeable protagonist and she does get the best character development of any character in the book as she gradually learns to reduce her paranoid suspicion of everyone else and start to trust in others. Kelsier does have some elements of the traditional ‘wise mentor’ role but his arrogance and sometimes excessive bloodlust do help make him a more interesting character. The supporting characters do have a tendency to be basically good or evil with perhaps a single character flaw to make the good characters slightly less good, their characterisation does sometimes feel a bit lacking in depth or nuance. I think the characterisation is another area where this feels more like an older fantasy series than some of the popular modern works, the idealistic (if sometimes cynical) band of rebels bantering among each other as they fight against seemingly insurmountable odds feels more like something from David Eddings rather than George R.R. Martin.

The book moves along at a good pace, although this is the first book in a trilogy as much seems to happen in the first volume as happens in some entire series. The plot has a few interesting mysteries and surprising twists and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion which means this could have worked as a standalone novel even if there is some set-up for the sequels. Sanderson’s prose isn’t particularly notable or memorable but it does a decent job of efficiently telling the story. The frequent action scenes are done well and the Allomancy magic system Sanderson has devised does help the action scenes feel fairly fresh and different to the traditional fantasy battle scenes, even if explaining the magic system does apparently require a lot of exposition.

Overall, this is an entertaining read with some interesting features that make it stand out compared to other fantasy series although sometimes the world-building and characterisation may feel a bit lacking in depth.

Rating : 7.5 / 10


“A Memory of Light” by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

a memory of light

There’s a passage in A Memory Of Light where a character thinks that ‘I can’t die yet, I’ve still got a book to write’. I’m not sure whether that line was one of those written by Robert Jordan, but he probably felt something similar and sadly we’ll never know how close the concluding volume in his Wheel of Time series is to what Jordan would have written if he’d lived to see the series to completion. Brandon Sanderson’s work on the last three books in the series had already delivered one of the best books in the series in “The Gathering Storm” and the somewhat uneven “Towers of Midnight”, but after fourteen books and thousands of pages it was always going to be the final volume that was the most important. The book does have some significant flaws but it does succeed in its most important goal of providing a satisfying ending to the series.

One of the flaws is that the book gets off to a relatively slow start, although there are some good bits in the first half of the book there are also a lot of repetitive battle scenes as war breaks out on multiple fronts. Since it always seem inevitable that a bigger, more significant, battle lies ahead it’s hard to care about most of these early battles and despite the large numbers involved they do almost feel more like skirmishes. In some cases the tactics described are a bit baffling and some parts of the warring forces seem puzzlingly underpowered compared to how they were described earlier in the series, in particular the Aiel (who should be a much bigger force than any of their allies) and the Aes Sedai (whose effectiveness in battle seems to have decreased significantly). One area in which this book is a bit lacking compared to the rest of the series is that there’s relatively little time spent on characterisation and most of the characters don’t really develop much over the course of the book, some fairly significant characters also get ignored for large portions of the story. While the backdrop of an apocalyptic war does mean that it’s inevitable there isn’t as much time spent on character development as in previous books (which spent an often excessive amount of time on sometimes repetitive characterisation), it does feel like there was some scope for more characterisation, particularly in the first half of the book. One particular frustration is that after characters have been separated by the plot for most of the series they often don’t get to interact in this book despite being reunited, the lack of scenes for the recently-returned Moiraine is one of the most annoying examples.

Fortunately, the book does start to improve in the second half. The early skirmishes being forgettable was worrying but the climactic Last Battle itself is much more effective, despite still having some flaws. After having been a mysterious figure in the background for most of the series Demandred finally gets to take centre stage leading his forces in the Last Battle and overall he manages to be a more credible threat than his fellow Forsaken have often managed to be in previous books. The final battle does benefit from there being an enemy that isn’t just a faceless mass of Trollocs and Myrdraal. If the early battles lack a sense of any real peril, the final battle does a better job of conveying the risks and the cost of the battle and the deaths of a number of major and minor characters does raise the stakes, often the series has been a bit predictable but some of the deaths here do manage to be surprising, particularly one of the series’ most important characters. Most of the battle is told in a single 200-page chapter and while I don’t think battles scenes are necessarily Sanderson’s strong point and the battle tactics are still a bit opaque I think it does make a fitting climax to some of the series’ main plots.

Simultaneously with the Last Battle there’s also a more metaphysical conflict going on as Rand finally confronts the Dark One. This isn’t a conflict of armies but more of a conflict of ideas as the Dark One confronts Rand with visions of possible futures, and then exposes the holes in Rand’s own ideas of how things should turn out. I think this is one area where the character development does work well as Rand reacts to the different possible futures and also has to adapt his thinking to move away from some of the ideas he had at the start of the book which are exposed as being flawed. The Last Battle might get a bigger page count but this is the real conclusion to the series and I think thematically it’s the strongest part of the book, and builds well upon Rand’s story arc in “The Gathering Storm” which I think is one of the best bits of the series.

The books ends fairly shortly after the climax of the two storylines with an epilogue that is adequate but slightly underwhelming, in some ways it might have been nice to see a bit more of the aftermath but at the same time I think it can’t be unwise for books to linger on for too long after they have concluded the main plot.

I didn’t find the contrast between Jordan and Sanderson’s styles to be too jarring and a lot of time it is difficult to say for sure whether a passage was one of those completed by Jordan before his death. Sanderson does write some occasionally clunky phrases (one particular metaphor comparing Elayne’s army to yeast was memorably bad) and sometimes his choice of words feels a little bit anachronistic for the setting but overall he does a good job even if Jordan at his best was a better writer.

Compared to earlier books in the series I think this has too many flaws to be counted as one of the best, but it does enough right in supplying a satisfying conclusion for the main plot. A disappointing conclusion to the series could have dragged down the whole series but I think this is a fitting ending to a series which is undeniably an impressive achievement despite fluctuations in quality and being several books longer than it should have been.

Rating : 8 / 10