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A book review by Steven Wu
November 11, 2009
|Rating: 3 (of 10)|
Warbreaker is a decent fantasy novel, but ultimately a disappointing one. It has a lot in common with Mistborn, including an intricate magic system that here is called BioChroma. That's right! Magic now comes in CamelCase.
Aside from its ridiculous name, which I could never quite get over, BioChroma is actually pretty interesting. Basically, every person is born with one Breath. People can collect Breaths from others and use them basically like mana points. At certain threshold levels (again, very RPG-like), Breath collectors achieve stages of Heightening that give them certain powers. Those powers revolve around animating dead or nonliving things, like ribbons or corpses. That's the "Bio" part of BioChroma.
The "Chroma" part comes from a somewhat unnecessary side effect of using Breath. Anything with Breath (including people) becomes more colorful; stuff enough Breath into something, and it will even cause surrounding objects to shimmer. By contrast, sucking all of the Breath out of something causes it to turn gray. I don't think the color aspect of BioChroma is really essential at all, except that it gives Sanderson a convenient physical manifestation of an otherwise invisible magic system.
Unsurprisingly, BioChroma is a consistent, well-explained magic system, much as Allomancy was in the Mistborn trilogy. Sanderson really is a master of exposition, deftly splicing new information into existing scenes and pausing for lessons only when absolutely necessary.
While BioChroma is fairly original, the rest of Warbreaker is basically a retheme of Mistborn. There's a mysterious, apparently immortal God King; he's supported by a gaggle of hand-picked "nobles" (also immortal) with mixed motives; one of these feckless nobles turns out to be a pretty decent guy; there's an initially threatening hero with a secret past who also turns out to be a pretty decent guy; and the protagonist is a spunky young girl.
While these similarities aren't fatal by themselves, they do set up an unfortunate comparison with Sanderson's far superior trilogy. Unlike in Mistborn, Warbreaker's world-building is just not very good. There's a hidden history, but it's shallow and very simple, despite covering hundreds of years. The political and social systems in Warbreaker also seem abstract, perhaps because none of the protagonists represent the lower classes. Overall, the setting of Warbreaker lacks the organic feeling that characterizes the best speculative fiction. Instead, it has the dry and and slightly antiseptic feel of lecture notes from a history class.
What really broke the book for me, however, was its climax. Warbreaker's overarching story is about the uncovering of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The protagonists eventually figure everything out, but the ominous threat turns out to come from a completely random and uninteresting place. In fact, when the big reveal first occurred, I thought at first that Sanderson had made up the foreign threat on the spot. He hadn't -- there is some foreshadowing -- but it's still so sudden and unmotivated that it saps the political mystery of all of its energy.
That being said, the very, very end of the book features a clever twist that brings to a satisfying end the plotline of Lightbringer, one of the immortal nobles. The closing of that loop, however, is (quite literally) one of the few bright spots in this flawed novel.
Steven Wu's Book Reviews