‘Warbreaker’ was written as a fun fantasy standalone, although there is currently a sequel in the works. It once again demonstrates Sanderson’s ability to create incredible new fantasy worlds and magic systems populated by brilliant, memorable characters. It’s also sprinkled with dry, sarcastic humour, setting it apart from many of the more serious Cosmere books.
Sanderson’s debut novel, Elantris, is set in a city of the Gods – except that the Gods fell ten years ago, taking their civilisation with them. ‘Warbreaker’ goes in the opposite direction – here, the Gods are very much alive, living in a Pantheon in the city of Hallandren. Vivenna has been raised her entire life to fulfill a treaty between Idris and Hallandren by marrying the God King – but when she turns of age, her father instead sends her little sister, Siri, in her place. Now Siri must navigate a city and culture she’s been raised her whole life to distrust. Vivenna, feeling robbed of her purpose, chooses to secretly follow her sister, becoming embroiled in Hallandren’s underground rebellion. Meanwhile, Lightsong, God of Heroes, grapples with being a God in a religion he doesn’t even believe in, and Vasher, a mysterious man with an even more mysterious sword, returns to Hallandren after a long absence with unknown motives.
Siri is a great character – always the rebel of the family, she’s completely out of her depth in Hallandren with no idea how to act or where to turn for help. She’s both feisty and naive, likeable but with a quick temper and a mouth that gets her into trouble. On the surface, her and Vivenna are complete opposites – Vivenna is calm, collected, and poised, with thorough training in diplomacy – but Vivenna never prepared for a rebellion, and in a pinch her and her sister are just alike. Vivenna initially comes across as aloof and cold, but as the story goes on it becomes apparent she’s just as fiery as her sister.
However, the true highlight of the story is Lightsong. A God who doesn’t believe in his own religion, Lightsong is lazy, sarcastic, and sharp – but his quick wit and deprecating humour hide a man who’s thoughtful and courageous and, at the end of the day, will always do the right thing. Lightsong’s chapters make you laugh, but they also make you think, and they turn ‘Warbreaker’ from a conventional epic fantasy into a masterpiece.
The magic system in Warbreaker, known as BioChromatic Breath, is essentially the magic of colours. Every person has one Breath, which allows them to see colours. They can give their Breaths away, becoming drabs – colourless – or collect the Breaths of others, enhancing the colours they can see and the sounds they can hear. With enough Breaths, they can start to pass them to inanimate objects, bringing them to life to fulfill a specific task. It’s a simple yet clever system – a hallmark of all Sanderson’s magic systems – and one that informs every aspect of society, culture, and religion. There are also hints of other magics – Vasher’s sword, Nightblood, being the main example – which will likely be expounded upon in the eventual sequel.
Whilst ‘Warbreaker’ works well as a standalone, the ending is more of a cliffhanger than many of Sanderson’s books and leaves the door wide open for a sequel. It’s definitely a world that deserves further exploration.
Overall, this is a typically brilliant book, but also – despite the topics of war and rebellion – lighter and funnier thanks to the inclusion of Lightsong. An ideal holiday read, and a great introduction to the genius of Sanderson’s writing and magic systems. Recommended to all epic fantasy fans, along with fans of complex sibling dynamics, comedic fantasy, and a more cynical take on religion.
Originally published in the US June 9th 2009
UK Publication February 14th 2012