Warbreaker: A Spoiler-free Review
Post Description: Little Blue discusses her decision to begin reading Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere and her (spoiler free) thoughts on his stand-alone Cosmere novel, Warbreaker.
If you haven’t heard of him, Brandon Sanderson is an internationally renowned author famous for writing several fantasy and sci fi series, including finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. He’s sci-fi fantasy’s modern day big cheese and, after falling into a booktube rabbit hole last week, I decided I’d give his books a try. I hadn’t picked up any epic fantasy since devouring A Song of Ice and Fire years ago and I was keen to get back into the genre.
Oh boy did I not know what I was getting myself into. I’m currently one book down and I can feel a new obsession looming. The urge to run out and buy matching prints of his entire works is being held in check only by my ironclad self-control.
Okay fine, by my wallet. But whatever.
Choosing your first Sanderson can be an intimidating task. I wanted to start with the Cosmere, his self-contained fantasy universe. Think Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but novels. Once I’d decided to start there, I had two stand-alones, two trilogies, a collection of short stories, and a ten-novel saga (three of which have been published) to choose from. Right. Not like I’m terrible at decisions or anything.
It was tempting to begin with publication order, which would lead me to read the stand alone novel Elantris first. After a bit of background reading, carefully navigating potential spoilers, I opted for Warbreaker instead, for the following reasons:
Sanderson’s writing style has developed over time and fans generally find his later works more palatable. If I wanted to really get a feel for his writing rather than taking it on faith that it gets better, Elantris supposedly wasn’t the place to start.
Warbreaker is also a standalone book, which eliminated the need to commit to a trilogy right off the bat.
Of all of his books so far, Warbreaker is the most light-hearted, which potentially makes it a good starting point.
Starting with Warbreaker wouldn’t spoil any of the other Cosmere series for me. Nor would I be missing out on anything major that I needed to know from earlier publications, apparently.
Decision made, I picked up a paperback copy of Warbreaker and began reading…
I finished it in two days. I’m a slow reader, so that’s a big deal for me. Before I delve into why I found this book such a page-turner, I’ll explain the overall premise of the book.
Warbreaker is a story of political intrigue that centres on two princesses, Siri and Vivenna. As part of a treaty formed twenty years earlier, Vivenna is betrothed to the ruler of a nearby kingdom, Hallandran. This ruler, the God King, is an immortal tyrant whose subjects both worship and fear him, along with a pantheon of other gods called the Returned. The plot follows Siri, Vivenna and a lesser God named Lightsong as they try to navigate the political minefield that is Hallandran society in order to prevent a seemingly inevitable war.
Due to this book being a political mystery in a fantasy setting, it can be a bit difficult to go into detail without strafing into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best to explain what I loved about this book and to cover some ground on why it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
+ The Positives +
When it comes to the strengths of this book, I’m of the opinion that we’re spoiled for choice. However, I’ll try to focus in on the key things I enjoyed.
The Main Characters
The majority of Warbreaker is told from the perspective of three characters: Siri, Vivenna and Lightsong. An immortal being revered as a God, but who doesn’t buy into his own religion, Lightsong was probably my favourite character. His chapters are full of humour that nicely offset the political machinations that drive the plot and I was surprised by the amount of affection I had for this character by the end of the novel.
Sisters Siri and Vivenna were also enjoyable to follow as they try to navigate the complex Hallandran society from two very different perspectives. Even down to simple descriptions of T’Telir, the city that provides the main setting for the story, I enjoyed seeing the world that Sanderson has built through the eyes of these two very distinct characters. On top of that, the way that Sanderson used adversity to push his characters out of their comfort zone and force them to grow made this book a real page-turner, especially in Vivenna’s case.
Beyond these three characters, we are introduced to an interesting and detailed cast of side characters. Not all were as flushed out as I would have liked, but many had surprising depth and impact. A warning regarding character spoilers: annoyingly, the blurb on the back of the book gives an indirect spoiler for one of the character arcs. I’d recommend giving the blurb a miss if you want a fully spoiler-free reading experience.
The World Building
‘Magic as you have never seen it before’ - The quote from the front cover certainly wasn’t wrong. Perhaps someone who’s more well-read in high fantasy will be less impressed by the magic system in Warbreaker, but I loved it. There’s a lot to it, especially once you factor in how magic has shaped the various kingdoms of this world. The basics are very nicely outlined by Sanderson in what is easily the most engaging opening chapter I’ve ever read.
In essence, magic operates using colour, sound and BioChromatic Breath. Everyone is born with one Breath and so some cultures equate it to a person’s soul. By accumulating Breath, speaking appropriate Commands and drawing colour from nearby objects, Awakeners can breathe life into inanimate objects and have them carry out their will. These principles form the bedrock of two very different civilisations: the extravagant, magic embracing nation of Hallandran and the conservative nation of Idris, who believe that the use of Breath is a violation of the soul. Since Siri and Vivenna are both Idrisian princesses attempting to represent their homeland in Hallandran’s capital city of T’Telir, we get to dive into how vastly different and interesting these two cultures are.
Perhaps the greatest contrast between these nations lies in their religions. In prideful Idris, modesty and good deeds stand as a testament to an individual’s piety. On the other hand, Hallandran citizens demonstrate virtue by offering up their skills and wealth so that the Gods who walk among them can live in luxury. Whilst one society seems vastly superior in morals, Sanderson walks his characters (and his readers) into the grey areas where they are forced to confront the shortcomings and saving graces of both ways of life.
I really can’t go into this one in any detail without giving too much away. The pages kept turning for me because of the characters and the world, but where this story goes and the twists it takes to get there made for a satisfying conclusion. The ‘twists’, if we can go so far as to call them that, weren’t completely out of left-field; Sanderson gives us enough information to a least suspect where things might be going. However, there’s so much that could potentially be going on that even twists I had considered felt satisfyingly unexpected.
- The Negatives -
I’ll be honest, I had no major criticisms of this book. It wasn't perfect, but any issues I had were easily overshadowed by the things I enjoyed. To help provide a more balanced review, I took to the internet to discover what issues people who didn’t enjoy this book had with it. I came up with a handful worth discussing, and whilst I don’t personally agree with them, I can certainly see why some of them would affect someone else’s opinion of the book.
Whilst I found Warbreaker to be an engaging read, it by no means action-packed. There are a few well written action scenes, but the chapters of this book centre on key conversations more than anything else. Sanderson fans who are used to his high-action stories may find this jarring, and if you’re a big fan of action over talking, this may not be the book for you.
As with any book, if you don’t engage with the main characters, you’ll likely walk away from it unsatisfied. Though I didn’t necessarily like Vivenna, I admired her strength and enjoyed seeing her develop. Others found her irritating and her chapters too slow. Lightsong’s attempts (some successful, some not) to outwit and irritate his peers made his chapters an entertaining read for me. If you don’t like that sort of humour, his chapters are going to get old real fast. It’s all a matter of preference.
The Moralisation of Sexuality
I feel somewhat underqualified at this point to provide a full perspective on this, but essentially some readers argue that Sanderson allows his beliefs as a Mormon to cloud his writing of sexuality in his books. I’ll speak generally about all of his novels to avoid indirect spoilers for Warbreaker but apparently chaste characters in his books tend to get a much better deal of things than characters who are promiscuous or more sexualised. Having only read one of his novels, I can’t speak to this. Perhaps over time I’ll come to see what people mean but based entirely on Warbreaker, I don’t hold this point of view. Yes there is a character in the book who uses her sexuality to manipulate, and whilst I found her a bit tedious (I really don’t care where a character's boobs are at any given time), I don’t see why her behaviour is any different from similar characters in other books. Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, uses her sexuality as a weapon for political gain. Until I’ve read more of Sanderson’s books, I won’t jump to the conclusion that any sexualisation he writes is a reflection of his religious beliefs. Instead, I’ll assume that promiscuity is a product of characterisation and plot driving, as I do with many other authors.
Overall, I loved Warbreaker and would highly recommend it. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on the book, especially if you’ve read other novels by Brandon Sanderson first. How does Warbreaker hold up in comparison? Does the argument regarding promiscuous characters hold any water? Let me know what you thought!
Thanks for reading. Be kind to yourselves.