“It was strange, how easily and quickly protection could cause destruction. Sometimes, Vasher wondered if the two weren’t really the same thing. Protect a flower, destroy pests who wanted to feed on it. Protect a building, destroy the plants that could have grown in the soil. Protect a man. Live with the destruction he creates.”
Going into this fantasy standalone by such an acclaimed author whose work I had never read before gave me high expectations, but to say that Warbreaker met these expectations in stride would be insufficient, since it truly exceeded them.
In Warbreaker, we follow two Idrian princesses as they enter the capital of Hallandren, an enemy nation, with different missions: Siri is sent by her father to marry the terrifying God King as per an old Idris-Hallandren treaty, and her older sister Vivenna follows her soon after to try and save her from this fate, which was initially intended for her. All the while, war between both nations is brewing.
The story feels at once familiar and fresh, as it takes several common character and plot tropes (princess being married off to an opposing kingdom, the brilliant but tormented anti-hero, two warring nations with one that has an obvious, massive advantage over the other, etc.) and turns them on their heads by adding an unexpected aspect to each of them. In this way, Sanderson creates something that you know and love, without some of the elements that you’ve maybe seen a few too many times and are getting sick of.
The greatest feature of this novel, however, is its hard magic system. Awakening is the main magical skill, and it is the process of transferring BioChromatic Breath (a form of power that gives holders various qualities, like perfect pitch, perfect colour recognition, etc.) to inanimate objects to give them life. I’ve never read anything like this system. It’s elaborate and complex and at times a lot to keep track of, but so rewarding to see play out on the pages before you.
This story is action-packed with great character arcs, a couple of unexpected twists, and mind-blowing magic and worldbuilding. If you like high fantasy with lots of action, this book is for you.
*End of spoiler-free section*
I’m still reeling from being completely enamoured with this story, and despite having read Warbreaker pretty recently, I don’t think that feeling is going to really go away with time. This book hooked me and didn’t let me go until its end, and as a pretty critical reader, I was shocked that I had so few negative things to say about it.
The main aspect of this novel that I think really struck me was the characters — you might notice this becoming a consistent theme with me in these posts, as I tend to be a character-driven reader and viewer. More specifically here, for Warbreaker, I was particularly enthralled by Vivenna. Watching her arc unfold from obedient, dutiful princess to a more open and daring version of herself after all the hardships she experienced — I especially enjoyed her huge existential faith crisis — was a treat. Everything with her dedication to Austrism and her initial opposition to Awakening, and how she thought through those issues, had me hanging onto Sanderson’s every word and loving Vivenna more and more.
I get annoyed when people say that they’re sick of “good” characters, or that good heroes are overdone. I love me a good anti-hero or morally gray character (or a villain too, of course — hi Denth) but personally, nothing hits like a well-done hero just doing their absolute best to be good. True, heroes can get basic and be easy to fuck up, but Vivenna is an awesome example of a fundamentally good person who still comes off as realistic because she’s also flawed. She’s become one of my favourite characters of all time, and I hope to see more of her (I could be wrong, but I’ve heard that the world and characters of Warbreaker might become a series).
I appreciated Siri’s arc as well, which serves as a great counterpart to her sister’s, but for me it wasn’t quite as great and as visceral as Vivenna’s. I think it’s because I personally relate to Vivenna a lot and not so much to Siri, and I’ve seen arcs similar to Siri’s in other books, but I don’t want to take anything away from it either because it was done well. I especially liked the romance with Susebron; their dynamic felt really unique and genuine to me.
I feel like I should briefly touch on the two other points of view in the book, since the story doesn’t just revolve around the two princesses and since one perspective did comprise of one of my only two gripes with the story: Lightsong. While I found Vasher very enjoyable to follow around and hear from, whenever a Lightsong passage would come up, I would find myself dreading it a bit. Almost every stopping point I took while reading Warbreaker was at the start of a new Lightsong passage. I acknowledge that he was well-rounded and had a nice arc (I was actually a bit sad to see him die, I’ll admit) but overall, I found him pretty insufferable. His “wit” was too much, not really funny most of the time, and just so damn excessive.
My other minimal issue was the twist with Denth and Tonk Fah actually having been against Vivenna the whole time. I felt like it wasn’t quite hinted at enough (although it could totally be that I just didn’t pick up on the hints well enough) and for whatever reason, it rubbed me the wrong way. I think I felt cheated from the lack of hints, though part of it was definitely hurt at their betrayal, which I suppose means Sanderson did his job right to an extent. Their constant mercenary humour kind of missed the mark for me as well, and I feel like we were robbed of more significant scenes of actual conversation with Denth in them — definitely some missed potential there, in my opinion, since I took quite a liking to him early on.
Ultimately, those are some pretty minor and nitpicky complaints, which shows you just how much I loved this book. I feel like I didn’t discuss the plot too much, but I think it’s because there’s not much to say; it’s pretty standard, though not bad by any means. Where Sanderson makes it shine is in his characters, magic system, general worldbuilding, elevating this story from good to truly excellent.
The compelling nature of Vivenna, Siri, and Vasher’s characters alone makes it worth the read, so you can imagine how everything else only enriches the brilliance of Warbreaker.