Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books, 2009)
Warbreaker is proof that Brandon Sanderson is one of the best fantasy novelists in the game.
On the surface the story sounds a little like a fairy tale: in a futile attempt to prevent war with a larger nation, a king marries his youngest daughter to its tyrant leader to produce an heir. Then his favourite daughter sneaks into the enemy city to rescue her sister.
Of course there’s much more to it than that. The two countries used to be one, and now each one’s culture defines itself by being “not like them.” The people of Idris dress in brown and make a virtue out of not drawing attention to themselves; the Hallendren are as colourful and ostentatious as can be. In Idris they worship the unseen god, Austre, while the Hallendren have a pantheon of gods-in-the-flesh, ruled by the God King (new husband of the Idrian princess, Siri).
The magic in this world relates to colours and to something called Biochromatic Breath, which can work wonders but comes at a high cost. It’s fantastic and outlandish but it makes sense within the story world, a world that’s so carefully crafted that it’s believably real, with a complex history, mythology and cultures.
One of the viewpoint characters is the god Lightsong, who doesn’t believe in his own divinity. He and two of Princess Vivenna’s contacts, Denth and Tonk Fah, add a lot of humour to the novel. Then there’s the dangerous and mysterious Vasher, with his telepathic black-sheathed sword that likes to kill. And some squirrel shenanigans, but I’ll say no more.
Brandon Sanderson has a way of keeping the nastiest scenes off-camera but yet evoking them well enough that we feel whatever darkness he wants to convey. And there’s nothing gratuitous in the book.
This is one of those satisfying novels where every major plot point took me entirely by surprise, although in hindsight I see all the clues in place. It’s faster-paced than fantasy tends to be, with a rich and fully-developed world.
The Warbreaker project was a bit of an experiment. Brandon Sanderson posted a number of drafts on his website for reader interaction, prior to the final version being released in print. I read one of the final drafts as a free download, but it’s definitely worth the cost of buying a final copy.
Brandon Sanderson may be best known for his Mistborn series and for being the author chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series (which he is doing in a most satisfying way). Visit his website for information and forums on his various books. The Warbreaker Portal includes an introduction, various versions, chapter-by-chapter commentary and deleted scenes.