Monday, January 10, 2011

Warbreaker Read-through: Midpoint

So today I passed the halfway mark in Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker. I figure this is far enough into the book for me to start making some observations and offering my thoughts.

It's always difficult for me to review books. Especially when comparing a single book to others in the genre or by the same author. Most of the books I read are long, sometimes exceedingly so. In addition, I have an abysmally slow reading speed; I like to soak in the story and live in the world and spend time with the characters when I'm reading a book. As a result, I don't get to reread books very often. So it's difficult for me to remember or effectively express my opinion on said books. Not to mention the various details of plot, world, and character that escape the feeble trap of my mind.

Consequently, even though I haven't consciously thought of it until now, one of my goals with my reading goals for this year is to improve both my speed and retention while reading.

Barring that, I'm trying to read critically, from the perspective of a writer, in order to identify what I admire in the books I like and why I admire those things and how I can apply that knowledge to my own writing. Among other things.

That being said, at this point, I'm mostly amused by Warbreaker.

There are things I like, as with any of Sanderson's work. The magic system is inventive and robust, and it's incorporated widely into aspects of the world's society, culture, and psychology (something that Sanderson consistently does well in his works). The world-building is immersive without being distracting (for the most part), and he does a good job of following through on the logical conclusions that such a world requires of its people (his treatment of the Returned pantheon is especially enjoyable).

However, Warbreaker seems a bit too... obvious to me. At least compared with Sanderson's other works.

Now, I will admit that this isn't entirely fair. I'm coming to this book in order to satiate my craving for Sanderson writing after reading The Way of Kings, the first volume of his soon-to-be masterpiece The Stormlight Archives. (He obviously learned a lot and grew a lot as a writer while working on the end of The Wheel of Time.) In addition to that high expectation, I recognize that I've always kind of looked down on Warbreaker. It's got a lot of baggage, as far as where I'm coming from (and not necessarily bad baggage, just... baggage).

For example:

While Sanderson was working on the book, he posted various versions of the draft to his website in order to give his potential fans a chance to sample his writing style as well as to give potential writers a glimpse into the process. In other words, it was a free book. In my mind, this creates a subtle and somewhat unjustified paranoia that it lacks the quality of a paid product. I don't know why I would think that someone would put less effort into a piece of work that anyone can see as opposed to the ones that only show up on store shelves. But there you go, that's my prejudice showing through.

I've also never been able to shake off the suspicion that this was just a "side project" between Mistborn and The Wheel of Time (or The Way of Kings). Sanderson talks often about how he needs to work on smaller, "side" projects between his epics in order to cleanse his pallet and keep himself interested. Exploring these "diversions" is a refreshing way for him to generate and follow ideas. Sometimes (often, it seems) these diversions or side projects turn into publishable material, as was the case with the Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians books and Warbreaker (as I understand it). This is a good idea, one that I fully support and intend to implement in my own career, but I was so blown away by Mistborn that I couldn't see (at the time) how anything could measure up to its epicness, which is what I wanted it to do. (Having worked on my own side projects sense, I can better understand how they fit within the oeuvre of an author. I'll probably take some time to talk about that in November.)

Now, baggage explained, we'll go back to the "obvious" comment from above. (Goodness, this is getting convoluted. Let's see if we can stay on track from here on out. Shall we?)

Sanderson is the master of the "big reveal." He builds and builds and builds throughout a book or a series and then WHAM!, at the end of it, you have every rug you've ever stood on pulled out from beneath your feet as you fall on your back with your jaw still dropped to the floor.

Exaggeration. Slightly.

Point is, he does a good job of misleading you on the important things throughout a book and changing your entire perspective of the world while still making things make sense when you read through it again. It's fantastic misdirection and makes him a pretty good mystery writer...

...except when it comes to the little things. There are small, minuscule details of Sanderson's writing that drives me up the wall in each of his books. I don't remember what they were for Elantris, Alcatraz, or Mistborn. The Way of Kings had some really awkward phrases and word usage (like "juxtaposition" used twice within three or four pages of itself). For Warbreaker, it's the obvious foreshadowing.

A clarification. I definitely don't know how this book is going to end, I've had some friends mention that it shifts dramatically in a religious direction toward the end (which is both a big surprise, considering the religious overtones of the book so far, as well as something I've come to expect from Sanderson). But I definitely don't know how all these different plot threads are all going to weave together in the end to prevent the supposedly-inevitable war that's been looming over us from the beginning of the book. (It's called Warbreaker, people. Of course the climax is going to involve preventing the war. Besides he doesn't have enough pages left to chronicle an entire war [not to mention that, until The Way of Kings, Sanderson had shown no inclination of writing wartime fantasy].)

However, I do/did realize a number of things that I'm sure Sanderson thinks he's being subtle about.

For example:


"The priests of the Iridescent Tones, it appeared, were hiding things from the rest of the kingdom. And from their gods."
     -Warbreaker, chapter 21
Of course the priests are hiding something! I've known that since Lightsong's introduction! (Chapter 3) As soon as "Scoot" Llarimar mentioned that the priests can't tell the Returned about their previous lives I said, "Oh, there we go. They're hiding something. There's going to be a really important revelation at the end of this book about the Hallandren gods and they're probably going to be taken down off of their pedestals. Control the information, control the world. Yep, yep, yep."
Thing is, I'm okay with that. I'm looking forward to learning just what the priesthood his hiding and how the Returned are actually different from what we've been led to believe. At this point in the book (Chapter 28), we've already had a fairly dramatic revelation about the GodKing himself that I was really impressed by.
What I'm irritated about, however, is that Sanderson felt he needed to devote an entire chapter to show us that the priests are hiding things. Even more annoying is that it was a Vasher chapter. Vasher! The darkly mysterious man who may or may not be pulling the strings behind everything and who may or may not be the villain and who may or may not be carrying a sword that could doom the entire world in apocalyptic black smoke. (Sanderson really loves his apocalypse storylines in fantasy.) I mean, the Siri chapters are doing an impressive-enough job of showing us how deep the treachery and deception of the priesthood goes, even if the reader couldn't detect the vibes of "something's not right" from elsewhere in the book. I suppose the Vasher chapter shows, directly, that the deception is more widespread than just the GodKing and that Vasher is seemingly moving against the Hallandren pantheon, but still. Did we really need the entire chapter to build up to the above quote?

Kalad's Phantoms
...or whatever they're called. Yeah, they're coming back. (Upon further reflection, they might just be a part of the world that will come up in the potential sequel. For now, I'm running with my initial impression.) They were described as a mythological, invincible fighting force of Lifeless. That in itself is just an interesting bit of the world's lore. However, when the character telling the story mentions at the end that "legends say the Lifeless are still out there," it had might as well be saying "watch out, they're coming back." Any kind of "legend," "myth," or "just a story" that claims something/someone is "still alive," or "still out there," or whatever in a speculative fiction book can reasonably be expected to be true. (If you can't follow that string of descriptors and/or logic, I apologize. Just pick one of each and go with it. If you're still lost, ask me. I'll try to do a better job of breaking it down for you.)
So yeah, I'm fully expecting these guys to show up for the final battle or some such. In fact, knowing Sanderson's penchant for hiding things in plain sight, and picking up on this trend of the D'Denir statues being so pervasive throughout the city and always portraying militant figures, I wouldn't be surprised if these statues turned out to be the unstoppable army. ~shrug~ It's a thought. We'll see.

My goodness. I think this one has gone on long enough. I've got to be careful or else my blogging word count will exceed my writing word count and then where would I be?
More thoughts on Warbreaker tomorrow.

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