Monday, May 12, 2014

Review of The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

For its magic system, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books occupy a unique niche in the market—something increasingly difficult to accomplish these days.  Employing the idea of allomancy for action purposes, The Final Empire, the first book of Mistborn, saw the rise of a rebellion and toppling of the ruling power.  The dialogue wooden, Sanderson was nevertheless able to pull off a mainstream work of genre that capitalized on a hero’s story.  Yet more to be told in Vin’s story, Sanderson followed up The Final Empire a year later with The Well of Ascension (2007).  Dialogue only more stilted, plot heavily contrived, and the overall narrative bogged down with high school romances and statements of the obvious, perhaps Sanderson would have been better off leaving the young woman’s story at a single volume.

Set one year after The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension opens with Vin playing the role of bodyguard to Elend, now king of Luthadel and the surrounding Dominances.  A man dubbed the Watcher mysteriously keeping tabs on Vin’s late night thwarting of assassination attempts, a greater threat rests outside the city: Elend’s father, King Straff, and his massive army.  Meanwhile, Sazed wanders the countryside and amongst the skaa, gathering information.  Encountering dead bodies seemingly killed by the mist, he has a whole new mystery to unravel, one helped by the uncovering of a sacred text.  The plot elements stewing for some time, they eventually triangulate on Luthadel, the city and character’s fates hanging in the balance.

Allomancy is a unique idea, and Sanderson is certainly aware.  Numerous mini-battles using the metallurgy are staged to entertaining effect.  What Sanderson doesn’t seem to be aware of, however, is how to present his ace in the hole: the actions scenes are snowed under with its usage.  “Now Vin burns copper so she can keep an eye out on emotions, and now she pushes steel to bounce here, now she pulls steel to change direction, now Vin wishes she had some atium so she could see the future..” is only the beginning of a normal midnight jaunt for Vin.  In other scenes, including both action-oriented and quotidian, matters get bogged down with the repetitive minutiae describing the very idea which makes the story unique.  Readers are told innumerable times each metal’s use.  Having established the idea in The Final Empire, it’s as if Sanderson doesn’t trust his readers, and re-establishes the workings a hundred times thereafter.

Making matters worse is that without a driving force behind the narrative to engage the reader (in The Final Empire’s it was the hero’s story), many of Sanderson’s faults as a writer are laid bare.  While some may consider the following dialogue good storytelling, it’s equally possible to consider it unchallenging, even excruciatingly crude:

    “Nobody sent assassins to kill bodyguards. Assassins killed important men. Men like Elend Venture, king of the Central Dominance. The man she loved.
    "It's not about trust. It's about what's right. We spent a thousand years fighting off the Lord Ruler—if I do things the same way he did, then what will be the difference?"
    Vin turned and looked him in the eyes. "The Lord Ruler was an evil man. You're a good one. That's the difference."”

The exact opposite of subtle, it reads like a trailer for a B-movie romantic epic.  (Just imagine the deep baritone of the movie trailer guy reading the excerpt above and a smile will creep onto your face.)

But beyond juvenile romance and contrived plot development, there are additional concerns regarding the narrative.  The following serves as an example of the tell-not-show techniques employed:

    “As he approached the ground, Sazed tapped his pewtermind, drawing forth a tiny bit of strength to prepare. He hit the ground—but, because his body was so light, there was very little shock. He barely even needed to bend his knees to absorb the force of impact.
    He stopped filling the ironmind, released his pewter, and waited quietly for Marsh.
Beside him, the carrying cage lay in shambles. Sazed noticed several broken iron shackles with discomfort. Apparently, some of those who had visited the Conventical had not come by choice.

If it was not apparent from the first excerpt, than the second makes clear Sanderson’s opinion of the reader’s ability to comprehend his story.  He. Holds. The. Reader’s. Hand. Every. Step. Of. The. Way. Describing. Every. Possible. Nuance. Just. In. Case. They. Didn’t. Catch. Some. Fact. Or. Forgot. What. Happened. One. Page. Ago.  The text is a barrage of winks, nods, reminders, and statements of the obvious.  The usage of “to prepare”, “the ground”, “very”, “even”, “force of”, and “Apparently” above, for example, is redundant, superfluous, unnecessary, gratuitous, excessive, uncalled for—you get the point.  But this is minor.  More concerning is the continual reiteration of what is ostensibly clear. As if “…because his body was so light, there was very little shock” was not obvious enough, Sanderson adds the line about knee bending.  As if the significance of the shackles was not clear, he adds the last sentence “Apparently, some… had not come by choice.”  Not a page goes by in the book when such redundant lines do not crop up, leading to an overburdened, unpolished narrative that defies the idea of economy.

In the end, The Well of Ascension is a weak follow up to The Final Empire.  With only frail sub-plots bonding the book together, the problems at large become more apparent, and in fact, overburden what could have been a good story.  In the hands of a more skilled craftsman, the removal of several layers of transparency (not an oxymoron in this text’s case) could have rendered a tale that engages the reader at different levels.  It would still be readily accessible, but the degree of intrigue would undoubtedly increase, as would the willingness to suspend disbelief in the face of such immature character interaction, e.g. the romance, the handling of armies, etc.  As it stands, The Well of Ascension is a novel most concerned with the integrity of its magic system, but little else.  Plot, setting, and character are as flat and mired as can be.

I could find no place in the review for the following quote.  But given its representative qualities, I wanted to include it somewhere. Without further ado, here is Sanderson’s version of high school student—I mean, serious epic fantasy character—banter. 

    "Close enough," Vin said, walking forward. "She was bubbling to the servants about how hot her bath needed to be, and making certain they wrote down her favorite foods."
    Breeze sighed. "That's Allrianne. We'll probably have to get a new pastry chef—either that, or have desserts ordered in. She's rather particular about her pastries."
    "Allrianne Cett is the daughter of Lord Cett," Elend explained as Vin—ignoring the chairs—sat on the edge of a planter beside his chair, laying a hand on his arm. "Apparently, she and Breeze are something of an item."
    "Excuse me?" Breeze huffed.
    Vin, however, wrinkled her nose. "That's disgusting, Breeze. You're old. She's young."
    "There was no relationship," Breeze snapped. "Besides, I'm not that old—nor is she that young."
    "She sounded like she was about twelve," Vin said.
    Breeze rolled his eyes.

The huffing, sighing, snapping, flushing, eye rolling…  Pure drivel.

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