There’s something about watching a fantasy series really hit its stride. No matter how good an initial entry in a series is, there’s always a fair bit of expositional license-plate-making that has to be taken care of, thus there’s always room for growth, for the author to take everything cool about the series and turn it up to eleven. A Storm of Swords immediately springs to mind, as do The Two Towers and Memories of Ice. And now, so too does The Well of Ascension, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
Please bear in mind, there will be significant SPOILERS for Mistborn
The Lord Ruler is dead, but the travails of Kelsier’s old crew have only just begun. Vin patrols the city of Luthadel constantly, on the prowl for assassins and a mysterious Mistborn. Elend Venture struggles to keep his fragile kingdom intact. A new religion has arisen around Kelsier, the Church of the Survivor. Disgruntled noblemen and restless merchants inside Luthadel scheme to usurp power. The city itself is besieged by three different armies, one led by Elend’s brutal father Straff. A spy has insinuated his way into the inner circle of Elend’s advisors. Oh, and the ever-present mists have started killing people.
There’s a lot going on here, and there are times where it seems too much for even Sanderson to keep track of. Whole storylines can vanish for a hundred pages at a time, which can be problematic for the siege or the search for the spy. That said, so much of what’s going on is fantastic that you’ll hardly notice the hiccups.
As in Mistborn, there are co-protagonists, and as in Mistborn, one is on a proper character arc, and one is on more of a lightly-changing badass arc (Vin and Kelsier, respectively, in Mistborn). This time Vin is on the badass arc, for while she does engage in some soul-searching about her love for Elend and her place in his kingdom, most if not all of her character development comes in a late climactic scene (much like Kelsier only really changed when he finally decided “eh, maybe not all noblemen deserve to die” late in Mistborn). In the last book, Vin was still learning her way around Allomancy, but here her power is in, well, full flower, and she joins the well-stocked ranks of what I guess you could call the Diminutive Brunette Badass. The DBB, to classify the term, is a usually physically small woman with dark (and often short) hair, who through technique or training or magic or technological enhancement can kick the crap out of significantly larger (almost always male or monstrous) opponents. It’s a shockingly widespread trope in sci-fi and fantasy entertainment, with examples across media. I suspect a main progenitor of the concept was Molly Millions from Neuromancer, but the list will kind of blow your mind: Major Kusinagi (Ghost in the Shell), Trinity (The Matrix), Arya Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire), Alita (Battle Angel Alita), Apsalar (Malazan Books of the Fallen), the Female (The Boys), Mikasa (Attack on Titan), Hit-Girl (Kick-Ass), Miho (Sin City), Selena (Underworld), to say nothing of any number of wuxia and manga characters. I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds more. Stretch the concept a bit and names like Hermionie Granger and Katniss Everdeen and Catwoman pop up.
As a side note, of course I’m not the first person to talk about this trope. I’m sure there’s a whole page over at TVTropes about the DBB. However, you spend too much time at that site, and you start to think that you’ve never had even the whisper of an original thought in your head ever ever and holy shit does that start to get depressing, so I avoid that site like it had video of a couple of adventurous ladies and a cup full of That’s Not a Milkshake.
If I may be permitted a moment to speculate, and with every attempt to try and not make a value judgment, one of the things that makes the DBB interesting as a character is that they tend to underplay what the prevailing culture would consider feminine character traits. Indeed, the usual DBB is gruff, taciturn, absent any hint of nurturing or significant emotional connection to the world at large. If they aren’t the protagonist, then they’re established as protecting a weaker male protagonist. Aside from occasional surface-level titillation, the DBB’s gender is so subsumed that being a woman becomes rather beside the point. It’s also worth pointing out that the DBB is essentially a leveling of the playing field in a male-dominated field. In a way, it feels like an overreaction to longstanding poor characterization of women in genre media. Now, it’s entirely possible that the DBB is more a product of genre than intent, as there would be no cause for Vin to kick ass at the level she does in The Well of Ascension were it, say, a courtly romance or a novel of manners. To be fair to Sanderson, he does effectively present Vin’s discomfort at having to playact as a noblewoman, with all the ruffles and silks and ladylike giggles that such an act entails (though, to be honest, such prevarication becomes a bit tiresome in the final book of the trilogy, but we’ll get to that in a later review). I’m going to stop here, because otherwise this would get a lot longer, but there are some damn smart people in CBR and I’d welcome a discussion in the comments.
The other, non-badass narrative arc, the one that shows more in the way of character development, indeed the richer story, belongs to Elend, whom I described in my last review as a “slacker one-percenter,” which maybe does him less credit than he deserves. But truly, Elend is a dilettante at leadership. He’s read all the books, his heart is in the right place, and he has a firm commitment to his ideals, but there’s a word of difference between the theory of being a king and the reality of leading a city under siege. His tutelage under Tindwyl, a new character of the same race as noted holdover Sazed, is one of my favorite slice-of-life bits of the book. Tindwyl is charged with making Elend more king-like, and boy howdy does she have her work cut out for her.
On a semi-related note, one of the gripes I have with the book, and really with the series as a whole, is that we never get anything even close to a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Practically every character is a superhero or a king of some variety, and what few looks we get at the lives of the skaa are interesting enough that I really wanted more. It’s easy to say, “well, the skaa are happier now that they’re not slaves,” but we rarely spend more than a page or two with any skaa that weren’t already part of Kelsier’s crew. It feels like a missed opportunity, both in the storytelling and the worldbuilding. And it really hurts the presentation of the siege, as Vin and Elend aren’t exactly the ones tightening their belts or preparing the defenses.
The siege itself is very much a part of fantasy tradition, wherein sieges have been used as either backdrop or action set-piece really since the genre began. In truth, it’s not a terribly in-depth siege. Sure, there’s some mucking about with the basics, but the siege itself stays very much in the background. It’s setting, not story motivator per se, at least not until the book’s climax. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but the Siege of Luthadel doesn’t quite crack my Top Three Fictional Sieges (in case you were wondering, Helm’s Deep, Capustan, and Dejagore, from Lord of the Rings, Malazan Books of the Fallen, and The Black Company, respectively).
That quibble aside, the worldbuilding really begins to take shape here, as the book starts to slowly pay off many of the undefined elements introduced in Mistborn. The koloss, before only the subject of dark hints and oblique warnings, are revealed to be blue-skinned butchers capable of growing to thirteen feet tall. We get a better look at the technological level of the world, in which there are canned goods and pocket watches and grandfather clocks yet no gunpowder, which caught my interest and made me wonder how exactly that came about. Through the diligent research of Sazed, we learn more about the Hero of Ages and the Well of Ascension. More to the point, we begin to get a sense that the Lord Ruler wasn’t quite the evil tyrant that was initially presented.
I’m not even confident that this would make a good movie or TV show. What it would make, however, is an absolutely mind-blowing anime series. There is one scene toward the end of the book that is so incredibly cinematic that had I the money, I’d be on the phone with top-flight Japanese animation houses this very moment. More to the point, only animation, with its limitless palette of expression, could fully convey what exactly is going on in a given action sequence, as live-action would be hard-pressed to, say, properly imply that a given character is flaring pewter or burning duralumin.
Fans of Mistborn will find an awful lot to love in The Well of Ascension, even when characterization occasionally takes a back seat to “hot damn that was cool.” The climax, a couple of twists and turns aside, is pretty awesome, especially since we finally get to see Feruchemy (a parallel system to Allomancy, wherein physical and mental attributes are stored in metal and then used at a higher rate) in action. If you happen to reach the end of the book without having already borrowed or purchased The Hero of Ages, the final book in the trilogy, then I hope there’s an open bookstore or a stocked-up library near your place of residence, because you’re likely going to be as eager as I was to see how Sanderson brings this glorious epic to a close.