Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson has fast gained a reputation for being one of the better epic fantasy trilogies out there – especially since the publication of the all important conclusion, The Hero of Ages (US, UK, Canada). The Well of Ascension (US, UK, Canada) is the middle book – it’s The Empire Strikes Back of this trilogy, though only time will tell if like Empire, it becomes recognized as the best of the trilogy, but I can say that it is a noticeable improvement over the first book, The Final Empire (US, UK, Canada).

Plot summaries are hard, and in the case of a middle book, rather pointless in a review. It would be very hard for me to even attempt a real summary without completely spoiling events of the first book. It’s not giving too much away to say that the first book basically ends with a victory for our good guys and this book deals with aftermath – which proves to arguably be much more of an issue.

The feel of this book is both the same and different from many middle books. Generally, the first book of a trilogy ends with a great triumph and the second follows up with a set-back for the good guys. While The Well of Ascension does follow general this trend in many ways, it does so in a way that feels different. Throughout the book the struggle is to look forward without looking back – and the characters can’t help but look back. It feels like giant hangover – the hopeful levity inspired by Kelsior even in the darkest times is absent. No one can stand up and be who they need to be. Confidence is shattered, doubts ensue and even the strongest question if they have only made things worse. This struggle feels real – and it’s something that’s easy to relate to.

In my review of The Final Empire I praised Sanderson’s characterization. In The Well of Ascension, Sanderson both improves and regresses in this area. We see many more points of view to get a bigger picture and Sanderson generally handles this very well. However, I wasn’t as impressed with some of the secondary characters this time around while the main characters really come alive with their struggles, their weaknesses and their doubts. We don’t have the domination of Kelsior in this book and the characters often seem to be lying in this shadow, lacking that extra inspiration. This is exactly as it should be – this book is a shadow to the first and the struggle to escape this shadow rightly dominates the characters.

As in The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension has an interesting take on religion. Sazad is a Keeper who was charged with collecting all the information he can about religions that become extinct under the Lord Ruler’s tyrannic rule. Now that the Lord Ruler has been defeated, he is charged to spread his knowledge. When combined with creation of a new religion, this leads to some interesting introspection and questioning. As with The Final Empire, I wish this was further explored – I feel that it could be a real knock-out punch rather than an interesting side-bar.

Now, it’s time for me to admit to doing a bit of cheating. While all of that writing above is still true and does reflect my own thought about the book, I had to do a bit of research (techno talk for reading to other people’s reviews) to bring those thoughts to the surface – more than I usually need for writing a review. The simple truth is that from pretty much the first page, I was completely engulfed in this book. It sucked me in and I easily became lost in the story at hand. More than once I would look up dazed to find that I had been reading for much longer than thought – that I should have gone to bed hours ago. It’s this that makes Sanderson’s Mistborn series so great – the ability to completely remove the real world from my mind. Very few books achieve this with me and it was refreshing to find one that did – especially since it’s been a while.

The Well of Ascension admirably fulfills the role of a middle book in a trilogy. The more depressed tone represents a curious (and well-done) juxtaposition to the victory of the first book. While there is a bit of cliff-hanger for an end, the book is a complete story-arc and the conclusion to the trilogy is available for the anxious to jump strait into. This book grabbed me at the beginning and didn’t let go until the end, and that alone is enough to get a strong recommendation from me, but thankfully it’s not the only reason either. Sanderson is fast becoming a new powerhouse in the world of epic fantasy and I highly recommend the Mistborn Trilogy. 8-8.5/10

Related Posts: Review of Mistborn: The Final Empire, Review of The Hero of Ages, Review of The Mistborn Trilogy


Joe said...

I saw the improvements over The Final Empire (weird not calling it Mistborn anymore), but I think I prefer the first book - if only because there is still that sense of discovery.

The Hero of Ages changes the series quite a bit, too. I really like what Brandon did with Mistborn and how he developed the culture / characters / world.

Major twists thrown in, too.

Neth said...

thanks Joe, I'm looking forward to reading The Hero of Ages - of course I have no idea when I'll get to it. There are so many good books to read and I have so little reading time anymore. Heck, I still haven't read Last Argument of Kings and I've had a copy for many months.

RobB said...

Nice review Ken (and admission of 'research'). You know I like the series quite a bit, but you really hit the nail squarely on the head with this bit:
It’s this that makes Sanderson’s Mistborn series so great – the ability to completely remove the real world from my mind.

Neth said...

Thanks Rob.

I usually do 'research' for reviews just to see what others have said so I can avoid being too much of a carbon copy of what's already out there. But sometimes it just takes a while to figure out what the hell I'm want to say about a book - and I felt that much more strongly than usual for this one.


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