Brandon Sanderson has a real knack for creating high fantasy worlds from the ground up, including magic systems. This, the tale of two sisters, the God-King one of them must marry, a lesser god, and an immortal trying to atone for his sins, is set primarily in the kingdom of Hallandren, ruled by the God-King and a set of Returned (lesser gods) and filled with Awakeners.
Every person is born with one Breath, and Awakeners collect Breath to reach different levels of power (Heightenings) and can create certain feats of magic. Breath cannot be taken by force, it can only be given voluntarily, and the more Breath a person has, the greater the feats they can carry out. The Returned, or the Hallandren pantheon of gods, are similar – having died heroically, they Return as gods, invested with only one mighty Breath granting them powers comparable to an Awakener of the Fifth Heightening. The catch: because a Returned only has one Breath, he cannot Awaken. His Returned nature means the giving of his one Breath would mean his death. And so the Returned await that moment only they will recognise – that moment when they should make the ultimate sacrifice and use their Breath for another.
And so our cast of characters – the sisters Siri and Vivenna, from a kingdom holding Awakening abhorrent, one doomed to marry the Hallandren God-King, the other hell-bent to rescue her. The God-King himself, Returned, mighty, unknowable, and all-powerful. Vasher; who does he play for, and in whose interest? And Lighthope, a Returned who does not even believe in his own religion.
The idea of a god who doesn’t believe in his own godhood or his own religion is one of the themes Brandon Sanderson set out to explore in this book, and I must say I easily connected with Lighthope very early in the book. His flippant nature and refusal to take his own godhood seriously conceals the fact that he, of all the gods, actually takes his duties with some importance. He says he is unreliable and a hopeless god, while at the same time actually trying to be a good one; his flippancy reflects his own dissatisfaction with what he perceives as a flawed government and religion. Why should he be trusted with power to govern? He has no clue what he is doing and believes this should be evident to everyone who sees him, but instead they stubbornly insist in trusting his divinity. His earnest uncertainty draws me to him.
The sisters, Siri and Vivenna, are completely different characters with their own distinct voices. One, promised in marriage to the God-King, must offer herself to bear his child in silence, lest her words offend this majestic immortal, while the other, adrift in a barbarian city must decide who to trust to free her sister. But nothing is as it seems for either sister, and in the background looms the very real threat of war against their homeland – a war their kingdom cannot win. Each sister must battle in her own way, against the odds, to prevent that war and rescue all they hold dear, with neither knowing who they can trust and who plots against them.
Warbreaker is a compelling story of love and a spider web of intrigue. It’s been a while since I tore through a book in less than a few weeks, but Warbreaker I read in three days – and that’s my pre-marriage, pre-child rate of reading! I crammed that in around a family. If I wasn’t reading this book, I was thinking about reading it. Every chapter ends with a hook, driving you on to know what happens next, and I assure you, what happens next is never what you think it will be. I often enjoy a book where I make the connections to guess what happens, but in Warbreaker I guessed but rarely and the surprise was a pleasure all of its own.
As always, the near-perfection of the writing is impressive, although I found the prose less-polished than The Way of Kings (bearing in mind this was written first). However, the occasional ‘saidism’ or telling sentence was not sufficient to spoil my pleasure in the read, and the foreshadowing is so masterful it’s enough to make any aspiring writer fall to the floor in worship.
I simply cannot recommend this book enough. Original, exotic, unique, and compelling.
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