Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, begun with The Final Empire, was not Sanderson's first work, but it was the series that propelled him into the limelight, a success that led to him being chosen to continue the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan's death.  Now, he's returned to that series, some three centuries after the events of the original; and we've moved from a semi-mediaeval dystopia to a reasonable analogue of the America of the 19th century, and a reasonable one at that.

The characters are straight out of a Western, in many ways; Wax, our main character, is driven back into the arms of his family by a terrible mistake made when hunting criminals in the Roughs - the Wild West, essentially.  Wax is a well-rounded character, whose attempts to fit into the upper levels of society from his role as lawman of the Roughs are flawed from the start by his unwillingness to fit, and only thrown further into doubt when his fiancée-of-convenience is abducted as part of a series of robberies and kidnappings; Wax's rising to the gauntlet thrown down to him, and his expansion into a powerful, strong character in his own right who has overcome his failure, is a fantastic piece of characterisation, well-written and thoughtful.  Wayne, on the other hand, is much more like comic relief; he's not a character without merit, but he's flatter (and hat-obsessed - a tip of the cap to Girl Genius perhaps?) and develops less over the course of the novel, though he remains a well-written and interesting character; slightly off-kilter to the rest of the world and seeing it through the lens of accents, he creates a fantastic PoV, with a different take on the world.  Finally, Marasi, the second cousin of Wax's kidnapped fiancée, opens the novel appearing to be a weak and shy woman, but with a curious and inquiring mind; as time goes on she develops into a much more interesting, well thought out character, who has her own drives and emotions; she's a well-developed female character who goes beyond the bounds that society would imply for her, and she is also a strongly written character on her own terms, with a nicely mixed sensibility.

The plot of The Alloy of Law is also brilliant; Wax is drawn into trying to solve a series of crimes and hunt down the perpetrator, an ex-lawman turned criminal who sees himself as a freedom fighter.  The plot is carried off with style and panache, as Wax - like any good detective - doesn't reveal to the reader what he knows, but does reveal it to his allies, and it's revealed to the reader only as we see it.  The plot is ingenious, as seemingly-magical events are explained by means within the rules of the universe (expanded somewhat since the original Mistborn Trilogy), and as the characters' motivations come to the fore, and their limitations are highlighted and overcome.

What really makes the novel, however, is the style Sanderson brings to it.  The Alloy of Law is a Western fantasy; and it combines both elements really quite well.  We have the convention-breaking characters, the lawman drawn back into the job after retirement, the train robberies (oh, the train robberies!) and the gunplay.  Sanderson brings these elements together in a new, thrilling way, to create the feeling of a Western, with the elements of a fantasy.  He also incorporates a certain humour to the proceedings; the interplay between, especially, Wax and Wayne (puns aplenty suggest themselves, but they're never made) is filled with jokes and cutting remarks.  However, what makes the novel first and foremost is the style Sanderson applies to action sequences; they're fast and furious but never confused or clunky, and they flow beautifully and smoothly, powerfully but without any sense of inevitability to their conclusion.  The Alloy of Law reads rather like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; that is, it's smooth, cinematic, stylish, beautiful combat, despite the gunplay and violence, and indeed despite Sanderson's refusal to turn away from that violence.

Overall, The Alloy of Law is not only a fantastic standalone novel (although the ending implies future novels), but also a great new instalment in the Mistborn series; Sanderson is rising to new heights and breaking new ground in fantasy here.  I can hardly recommend the novel enough.
This novel completes my reading of Sanderson's original secondary-world writing published to date, and oddly enough, I'm not sure what to think of it. Published after the Mistborn Trilogy and Elantris, but before Way of Kings, it seems to fall short in some ways of those novels - although as I progressed with reading it, Warbreaker did grow on me and certain elements of Sanderson's writing did become more apparent and indeed perhaps even surpass their equivalents in those novels (certainly in the case of the Mistborn Trilogy as we'll see).

The cast of Warbreaker start the novel a very mixed bunch, with both Vivenna and Siri seeming particularly poor (the responsible but spiteful character who doesn't think about her actions and is blinded by prejudice, and the flighty one who is cowed and weak) and Lightsong, the other main viewpoint character, being a much better creation (who has less character growth, though more of a change, over the course of the novel).  However, Sanderson really does turn the tables on the reader over the course of the novel - as the plot unfolds, the characters do actually grow to meet it, with the character of the God King Susebron one of the particular surprises in how it developes; as is Vasher, perhaps, given early portrayals of him.  The high-point of characterisation early in the novel, of Denth and Tonk-Fah with their strange humour and interplay, changes and takes on whole new levels of meaning as the novel and plot unfolds (although perhaps it is a bit anticipatable) and is perhaps characteristic of the twists Warbreaker contains.

The plot of Warbreaker is typically complex, and very reminiscent of the MIstborn series, in its repeated twists and turns, with friends and foes being very much not who they seem at first sight and indeed often the opposite of whom one might expect.  Part of Sanderson's genius in this novel is the use of characters' preconceptions to set things up from multiple viewpoints and then pull a complete switch on them, creating both character growth (which in the case of Vivenna is an absolute necessity...) and plot twists that give the reader whiplash! The use of the various factions, and the magic system of BioChroma (or Breath), combine to give the plot a great deal of pace and life despite its actual slowness through the majority of the novel as it builds up to an absolutely epic conclusion.

Finally, the setting is rather a brilliant one; despite Orson Scott Card's criticism, I am actually a fan of the magic system, which is detailed, complex, well thought out and has (magical-)scientific levels of analysis applied to it within the novel; indeed, the various mechanics and markers of BioChromatic magic are rather brilliantly used in the novel as both plot points and more effectively as a way of adding flavour.  More widely than this the difference between Halladren and Idris is really well played up and used by Sanderson, as his not-too-lavish descriptions give us a much needed sense of place and detail in the novel.

All in all, then, Warbreaker is a rather fantastic story that, whilst at times appearing weaker than other works by Sanderson, is at its best better than almost anything other high fantasy I've read.

Sanderson's latest blockbuster novel - over a thousand pages in trade paperback format, it'll be a challenge to convert it into MMPB one suspects - is the start of another epic fantasy cycle, and Sanderson goes about his business of world-building, scene-setting, character-creating and so on with characteristic style and panache.

The Way of Kings has an incredibly large cast, but is primarily focused on about 8 individuals (it's hard to say - perhaps a few more could be included in that "primary focus" group, and perhaps a few less); each person has their own viewpoint on the events that occur around them, and each person experiences very different events as well as different perspectives of the same events.  No one comes out of the book unchanged, and everyone experiences some significant character developments across the course of the novel, especially Kaladin, about whose past and background we discover the most and whom I at least became most involved with.  That isn't to say that the other characters aren't well portrayed, and Dalinar's conflict about his visions is incredibly well put across, as is Szeth's internal conflict.

The plot is, of course, grand and arching, massive in scope and yet, for some of the characters, far more specific - Kaladin's relation to the plot is vital, and expands from tiny to epic over the course of the novel; and Shallan remains relatively peripheral for far longer than Kaladin.  However, each part of the plot ends up tied together to the central concept of the novel, setting the events in action for the rest of the Stormlight Archives; and the plot - or perhaps interlinked plots - of The Way of Kings tie together brilliantly in setting up later events but also in resolving themselves, to various degrees, with mysteries solved and objectives achieved; indeed, that is one of Sanderson's great skills here: resolving the plots only to have them lead to greater plots...

Finally, it is well worth mentioning the worldbuilding, because this is once more incredible.  There's a depth of detail, history and geography that is uncommon even in secondary-world epic fantasy, with passing mentions of far-off places of little importance to the plot but still vital; those passing mentions do, however, occasionally feel like they've been thrown in simply to show that there is this scale of background.  However, even excluding those there's a diversity of religion, rulership, and value-systems in the novel, enough to provoke thought about the world's politics; and the religions and magic system are interesting in their own way, with some really brilliant thought put into them - indeed, Sanderson's writing is incredibly in-depth and the world is varied and detailed to an incredible degree.

All in all then, The Way of Kings is the latest in a line of masterpieces from the pen of Sanderson; brilliant work, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of the Archive.
Having read the Mistborn Trilogy, the first book of which is The Final Empire, Sanderson's debut novel was perhaps a little bit of a disappointment; but that in many ways was to be expected.  Taken from the shadow of that epic fantasy trilogy however, the novel is incredibly good - a large scale, it passes the Bechdel Test, it has good characters and manages to include the twists and turns that make a really good political thriller.

The characters of Elantris are an interesting bunch; the three main characters are a fallen prince, a princess in a misogynistic society who is a widow before she's married, and a priest with a mission of converting a nation to avoid bloodshed.  Each character is incredibly intelligent and strongly motivated toward their own ends, aiming to achieve - through various means, political, military and other - their specific, important ends.  Each figure has their own character and mannerisms which manage to come through quite strongly, especially Raoden and Hrathen; however, that isn't to say that Sarene's character doesn't come through - simply, she's the one who spends a large amount of time acting as if she was someone she wasn't.  They're each - oddly, given their antagonism - sympathetic and incredibly well written, with fully rounded personalities and well-explained actions.

The plot is incredibly complex and brilliant, revolving around a central issue but with each character having different responses to the dilemmas that appear; and the interlocking of political, religious and economic concerns for every character - with their own different spins and opinions - and the effects those responses have on the other characters.  Because of the different viewpoints and the ways the actions interlink and affect each other, it's an incredibly complex plot for a relatively simple set of events - that is, indeed, a compliment in that Sanderson uses Elantris to look at the plot in a holistic manner rather than the simple linear manner of much post-Tolkein fantasy.

The worldbuilding is quite enjoyable and complete; the nations of Teod and Arelon are well explained as are the various faiths, histories and political systems, and one gets the feeling that there is a lot of groundwork underlying the tip of the iceberg that is all we as readers of the novel get to see.  Indeed, the detail put into the novel by Sanderson is quite impressive, and the slow revelations - we never find something out in an infodump, only when it becomes relevant and is actually told to a character - are really well done.

All in all, then, Elantris is a fantastic debut, overshadowed by the Mistborn Trilogy perhaps but an incredibly strong and brilliant work by Sanderson all the same; I recommend it.
Sanderson's epic fantasy novel, a traditional doorstopper in scale, is anything but traditional in content (well... sort of).  Sanderson plays fast and loose with the post-Tolkein cliches of the genre, using some, discarding others, and overturning many.

Sanderson's characters are where the real joy of the novel lies; Vin, with her internalised paranoia and distrust, is a shining character who whilst fulfilling the role of hero who grows into her powers, allowing us to learn with her, is also a well-drawn character of herself.  Kelsier is also really excellently drawn, his passion and egotism shining through as well as his deviousness; the final chapters of the book showcase just how excellent and complex this apparently simple figure is, and demonstrate also Sanderson's understanding of human nature.  The rest of the cast - as this book is part-ensemble, part-Vin & Kelsier centred - are well-drawn, varied, and all have good humour (albeit of different kinds); Sanderson uses (and abuses) the archetypical roles, but he also makes the characters filling those roles feel very different from each other with style and panache.

The setting - the eponymous Final Empire - is an interesting, and horrifically grim, one; as we learn more about it - the brutal treatment of the skaa, the ashfalls, and the mist - Sanderson also shows the reader a kind of dark and unsettling beauty in the world.  The city of Luthanel, the local setting of most of the novel, is also really well drawn in its dark skaa districts as well as the ballrooms and keeps of the nobility; it's a wonderful and lavishly described urban environment, despite the bleak darkness running through the novel.

The plot is also rather brilliant; the combination of heist, insurrection, and idealism in the novel is a really great intertwining of themes, archetypical tropes and styles, and Sanderson manages it brilliantly - there's so much going on in the novel, which is a doorstopping 650 pages, but Sanderson keeps a tight hand on the reins, dripfeeding the reader (the little pieces of text between each chapter, if the reader pays careful attention, tells one so much about the payoff and twist at the end) and controlling the information whilst hinting solidly at it.

Perhaps, though, the best advertisement for this book is that, having finished it earlier today, I went out and bought books two and three of the trilogy - Sanderson has made me care enough to want to find out what happens to his characters.  So, if you're a fan of well-written epic fantasy, The Final Empire is the book for you.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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