As before, SPOILERS.
We technically have only one magic system going on here, but it manifests itself in several facets, so there are actually a few things to keep track of. There's Awakening, the Returned, BioChromatic Breath (which is technically a part of both of those), Nightblood, the Lifeless, etc. It's all interconnected, yet they all have their own little subsets of rules. I'm not going to try to summarize it all for you, as it's much better for you to simply read the book.
What I like: The interconnected nature of the system, as I mentioned above, is very well handled. Sure, in Mistborn, the different magic systems could influence each other, but they didn't have the same sense of cohesion. Yeah, in Elantris, the (supposedly) different magic systems all (supposedly) derive their power from the same source, but you hardly were given enough time to get to know the main system, so it never really felt that it was all one big happy family at all. In this, Sanderson does a good job of teaching us the core principle (collecting the Breaths of other people in order to gain power) and then slowly reveals the wide variety of ways that this system either a) Influences society, or b) Can be used to create magical effects.
The clear delineation of power. I know Sanderson complained in an interview or a podcast or something that, at one point in the writing process, this magic system felt too "video gamey," because the Breath system felt like trying to track a mana bar. For me, though, this was one of the elements I liked about it. Being able to clearly indicate, "Okay, this guy is more powerful (magically speaking) than that guy." It wasn't distracting, it was informative. (And, I realize, that this is largely due to Sanderson's skill in handling the descriptions of this system and its effects. If it had literally read: "Vasher had 2,000 breaths. Vivenna had 300. Vasher beat Vivenna." Then, yeah, that would have been lame and just a bit too statistical/DBZ/RPG/video gamey.) What made this kind of measuring system work, is that it still came down to character knowledge. Vivenna spent the majority of the novel filled with more powerful magic levels than anyone around her, move even than the people who were opposing her. But because she refused to learn how to use her power, it didn't matter. Similarly, when Vasher fought Denth, Vasher was able to win because he was more knowledgeable and skilled at using the magic than Denth was (that was one of my favorite moments, by the way. More on that when I get around to my full review of Warbreaker). I think, these days, the majority of people who read fantasy are kids who have grown up playing video games (or watching DBZ), so they're familiar with this kind of "measurable" system for their magic. And if not this current generation of fantasy readers, than certainly the next generation. Does that mean that I think we should boil our fights down to "He has fighting skill 7; she has fighting skill 12. She wins." or something similar? ("He's over 9000!") No. Of course not. That'd be stupid and completely devoid of any creative merit. But I do think that readers are growing more and more comfortable with this kind of a system, to the point that we may even see "Magic points" showing up (in a far more abstract form, of course) in future novels. ~shrug~ Who knows. I certainly enjoyed marveling at the wealth (or lack thereof) of power that each character gathered at various points in the story, comparing their relative power levels and access to specific abilities using the Ars Arcanum in the back of the book. It actually helped me to get into the story more.
What's not so great: Inconsistencies, mostly. I know Sanderson mentions this in his annotations (which are fantastic, by the way. I'll probably talk about them in a future post). He goes to such lengths to describe how difficult it is to Awaken things -- the specific steps that need to be taken, the large amount of breath required to do so -- and yet, after the prologue, it doesn't ever matter. There are a few, very specific instances where characters make mistakes and end up losing some of their breath, and yet even that great of a blow to them never seems to have any impact. So a part of me is thinking, "Wow, missed opportunity there. He could have really upped the dramatic tension in a few places by making the characters unable to do some things, yet still able to Awaken to a degree." While another part of me is thinking, "Wait. If it takes 25ish breaths to awaken a little straw man that has been shaped ever so carefully, then how is this character able to awaken so many things that don't have the shape of a man when they have 1,000ish without expending all of their breath? I would think there would be exponential increases, etc. etc. etc." My (underused) mathematician brain gets working and tries to figure out the system even more than what I've been told. So, yes, I didn't feel as though the system was used to its fullest potential within the story. Did that make the story bad? No. Sanderson always tells a fantastic story and never uses his magics to their fullest extent. It's about the characters. I get that. But still... missed opportunities. Inconsistencies. Logic breaks down eventually.
(NOTE: In case you were wondering, I'm skipping the Alcatraz books and the Wheel of Time books. First, because the magic systems aren't as prominently defined in those books, so far as I can tell. And second, because I haven't actually read all of them yet.)
The Way of Kings
This is the trickiest one to talk about, because it's the first in a series of ten. So we're really stretching our bounds of comprehension. None of the magic systems have been spelled out for us yet, though we have been able to learn quite a bit from what we've observed and the few things we've been told in the text. In addition, there are at least four magic systems currently recognized in the series, though at least three of them are likely interconnected. So, in conclusion, there isn't too much I can or want to say about this series yet, but I will mention a few things.
What I like: Stormlight. Clear source of power with an awesome aesthetic, yet also has in-world dangers for obtaining it. Very cool.
Shardplate. Robot suits for the magical world! Yes! These are a lot of fun, as I always like things that level the playing field (though not too much). Granted, it does get into the territory of making your characters overpowered (a middle-aged man is just about the most dangerous warrior in the land because the shardplate is able to make him fight with the strength and speed of a youth), but ever-clever Sanderson makes up for this by giving the characters other weaknesses. Also, in this case, the shardplate lets us put an emphasis on skill over speed or strength, which is also always a plus in my book.
Shardblades. Magic swords! By the dozens! But these are more than just magic swords. These swords have very, very, very specific properties in regards to what they can do and how you can use them, etc. They're almost more a piece of technology than any kind of ancient mystic relic.
What's not so great: Soulcasting. Granted, we don't know much about this yet. It's more than likely that by the time I've read the second book (when it comes out in 2012, or whatever), I'll have a completely different opinion about this magic. For now, though, I'm a bit disappointed. Although there have been hints that using this power is extremely dangerous and (more importantly) that there is some kind of cost involved in using it, those things haven't been laid out yet for us. Right now, to me, it just seems like an easy excuse for creating free food, but without any of the logical benefits (why does Kaladin's village need to farm again? Can't they just make more food? I think they talked about this somewhere in the book, but it must not have been a very convincing answer.) So, yeah, without explaining why the soulcasters and whatever haven't solved world hunger, I'm going to need a bit more convincing on this one.
Alright, that's it on Sanderson's magic systems. I'm sure I'll spend some time talking about magic systems in general at some point. For now, though, I need to think about my reactions to Warbreaker, as well as start reading the next book on my list.