Warbreaker
by Brandon Sanderson
Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes

Warbreaker is nearly unique in the pantheon of fantasy novels. A stand alone. Yes, somehow Brandon Sanderson convinced TOR to release a book with no plans for a sequel. 

The plot? One might say that Warbreaker is about a kingdom, a religion, and two conflicting ways of life. It is what Orson Scott Card calls a milieu story, where exploring the world is of primary importance. In this case, the “world” is the intricately created culture of Hallandren and its capital T’Telir. 

A princess from neighboring Idris is sent against her will to be the wife of the God King in Hallandren. This upsets the whole applecart of Hallandren politics, and the story follows. The gods, the mercenaries, and the priests are plotting. Those who aren’t trying to profit are trying to survive. People are forced to use evil means to achieve noble ends. And, as the story progresses, the protagonists are forced to confront their own hypocrisies.

The story is told from multiple points of view, my favorite being the cynical god Lightsong, who doesn’t really believe he is a god. Each viewpoint is unique. Some are unreliable to the point that they themselves don’t understand their own motivations. 

Lightsong is one of the Returned: mortals who died in some heroic way and so returned to perfect health, perfect bodily shapes, and powerful magic. They are revered by the common folks as gods. The only thing they lack is a memory of who they were before, although they retain their previous life’s skills. The Returned appear to be the primary political players in Hallandren, but are they? The priests seem to be able to manipulate the Returned, even the God King, at will.

The city where most of the action takes place,  T’Telir, reminded me of another famous city created by one of the genre’s masters, Fritz Leiber. That city was named Lankhmar and had its own pantheon, guilds, and gods. One of Warbreaker’s protagonists, Vasher and his deadly sword Night Blood, also recalled Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. However, that was only a passing recollection. The Tone of Warbreaker is uniquely its own. The Leiber books are more poetic than Warbreaker, but no more complex or readable.

Color is magic in Warbreaker, and BioChromatic Breath its source. Each person is born with one breath and can pass on this breath only voluntarily. This, of course, creates scarcity. Some people, including the Returned, have hundreds, even thousands of breaths. There are several levels of awakening, and mortals can only get Breaths by persuading someone to give theirs up.

Sound like a role playing game? According to the press release accompanying Warbreaker, complex magic systems are a trademark of Sanderson’s books. I haven’t read the others, but the system of breaths and colors is clearly inspired by gaming. It wouldn’t surprise me of someone is busy codifying the rules to Warbreaker at this very minute.

Warbreaker is told with plenty of humor and flair. The only disappointment was to have to turn the last page, it’s a great introduction to a very talented writer.
Oh, and did I mention that Sanderson was chosen to finish the Wheel of Time saga? That is sure to bring Sanderson’s buzz to a fever pitch as the first volume of A Memory of Light is scheduled to be released on November 3, 2009.

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