In ‘Warbreaker’ by Brandon Sanderson, tensions between the countries of Idris and Hallendren have almost reached boiling point. With the intention of delaying or even preventing this war Princess Siri of Idris is sent to marry the God-King of Hallendren, taking the place of her eldest sister Vivenna at the last moment and so upsetting the machinations of the Hallendren court.
Like most Sanderson novels, there is an awful lot of world-building here, as we have two nations that were formerly one, split by a historic war. We have the magical system of biochroma and how it is attributed to something called ‘breath’. In this world, everyone is born with one breath and that breath can be transferred and added to. The more breaths a person has, the more they can use a power called ‘awakening’, which lets them control inanimate objects or even re-animate the dead.
There is the other concept of ‘The Returned’ who are seen and revered as Gods. These are people who return from the dead with a single deific breath than can heal another person completely but, in doing so, it kills the God all over again. The God-King is a Returned that along with his deific breath also contains a stockpile of many thousands of breaths which can be passed on to an heir before his death and added to with each generation.
Impressive as this world-building is, perhaps it could have been developed more. During the course of the story, we hear about but never experience other nations and there is a also lot of historical content that has probably all been worked out in advance but only hinted at in the novel. It’s like the story is begging for a sequel in order to fully paint this world’s history rather than being truly self-contained and the standalone novel it is.
As to on-going themes, the narrative is all about contrasts and oppositions and how they conflict and co-exist. This is first evident in the Princesses Vivenna and Siri, the eldest and youngest daughters of the King of Idris. Vivenna has always known it was her destiny to marry the God-King and secure peace. She is intelligent, dutiful, calm and focussed, helping her father run the Kingdom even as she prepares to leave it.
Siri, on the other hand, is rebellious and carefree. The youngest of four children, she has no duties or responsibilities and is free to roam the countryside doing as she wishes, ignoring the will of her father. While Vivenna is important and has a purpose, Siri sees her own existence as redundant and decides to have as much fun as possible.
In a sudden role reversal, Siri is sent to marry the God-King instead of her sister and her father deciding he loves Vivenna too much to sacrifice her. Unprepared, Siri finds her more relaxed nature allows her to adapt quickly to another culture and the intrigues that are afoot in court. In another about face, she learns that the God-King, Susebron, is not the monster she was told to expect and eventually falls in love with his innocence and intelligence, taking the dominant role in their relationship as she teaches him about a world he knows nothing about.
As for Vivenna, she runs away from Idris with a minimum entourage, arriving in Hallendren incognito with the intention of rescuing her sister or taking her place. Almost at once she is shocked and disgusted with the way of life presented before her. This is another of the contrasts explored in the novel. Idris is a cold country in the mountains where the inhabitants believe in an invisible God, dressing in brown, shying away from ostentation and selfishness. Hallendren is a country of heat and colour where Gods live in palaces and everything is about decoration, art and pleasure seeking. The two nations are culturally opposite and as a result distrust and hate each other. Vivenna is emblematic of these prejudices but, as the story continues, she comes to realise how narrow her views are and that she didn’t come to Hallendren to rescue Siri at all but rather because she needed to take her purpose back. After her eyes are opened, she comes to understand herself and the stark realities of the world around her, making choices for herself rather than simply being the pawn of others.
There are plenty of other characters the two sisters interact with, Lightsong being one of the more memorable examples, a God who doesn’t believe in his own divinity. Throughout the book he is constantly questions his existence, humorously conversing with his high priest Llarimar and the Goddess Blushweaver. It is only in the end that he finds his true purpose and proves himself to be a hero all alone.
Then there is Vasher, a harsh haunted man engaged in an age-old conflict with the likeable mercenary Denth. Without giving too much away, one of them starts wars while the other works to prevent them. Neither is what they first appear to be, subverting expectations and defining themselves both by how different and how similar they really are.
So, is ‘Warbreaker’ any good? I can say for sure it is the product of an experienced and detailed writer who has a lot to say about how people and societies interact and learn from each other. I can’t say it didn’t lag at times, perhaps because there was such a long build-up of detail and intrigue until the last action packed hundred pages. Characters danced around each other a lot and it felt like events advanced in very minor increments until finally there was a burst of super acceleration.
There is no question that I enjoyed the novel and that these were people I wanted to know and understand and whom I wanted to win. But the stakes never seemed high enough, there didn’t seem to be a particularly effective opposition and, at the end, events and circumstances lead to a last minute surprise revelation that resolved the conflict perhaps a little too quickly for my liking.
As a final judgement, I would say ‘Warbreaker’ was brilliant but flawed and there is probably nothing wrong with that but it needs a little more development in order to fulfil its potential.
(pub: TOR/SciFi Channel, 2009. 592 page hardback. Price: $27.95 (US), $35.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2030-8)