Warbreaker — Brandon Sanderson

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This was a surprisingly good book. Basically, it’s set in a world where Breath is incredibly powerful. Everyone is born with one Breath — the very wealthy can buy other people’s Breath, and can use that to gain heightened senses, the ability to Awaken objects, and increased health/longevity. Sometimes people die and Return with a single, divine Breath, a Breath that turns them into a god.

The Hallendrens have decided to rock this. Their entire culture is built around the nuances of the arts, nuances that can only be perceived if you’ve got enough Breath. This is in marked contrast to the Idrians, who value the plain and the austere. These two nations also disagree on the handling of some extremely valuable mountain passes, and are VERY uneasy neighbors. That’s why the king of Idris is sending one of his daughters, Vivenna, to marry the God-King Susebron. Her marrying a pagan idol should buy them enough time to fortify their defenses, should Hallendren finally declare war. Vivenna is the eldest; this marriage, her duty to her king, father, and people, has defined her life.

Imagine her shock, then, when her father refuses to send her. Instead, he sends Siri, his flighty, frustrating, irascible youngest.* Siri goes into Hallendren, alone. Vivenna follows her, hoping to rescue her little sister from the degradation of this marriage. They both begin exploring a fascinating, colorful world filled with living gods, magic, and myths brought to life.

Both Siri and Vivenna grow noticeably during the course of this novel. They both find themselves at the center of a political plot for vengeance spanning centuries, and end up having to find allies in unusual places. Siri befriends Lightsong, a god who refuses to believe in his own divinity. His struggle with this — as well as Vivenna’s struggles with faith — are some of the major strengths of this text. Vivenna befriends the mysterious mercenary Denth, who promises to help her prepare the Idrians of the city for the war. Denth’s secrets include his relationship to Vasher, his familiarity with the local crime lords, and his eagerness to fan the flames of war.

I greatly enjoyed this novel. Some characters, like Vasher, grew on me during the course of the narrative. While I normally find characters who are grumpy curmudgeons incredibly annoying, his earnest commitment to peace really won me over. Plus, his talking sword Nightblood is hilarious — like, Terry Pratchett’s DEATH hilarious.I really had only two hesitations about the narrative as a whole.

1. Why didn’t Siri ever write a letter home? Or get one?

I know that one of the big deals in the plot is that both sisters are hearing about each other’s adventures, but don’t actually know what’s going on, since they’re in such different worlds. However, one would assume that Siri, who’s crazy home-sick, would at least broach the subject to one of her attendants, especially once she started hearing rumors about Vivenna being in the city. That actually bugged me a lot, since the king of Idris had at least one spy in the city. You’d think that if he was worried about either Siri or Vivenna, he’d not only contact his spy (who is compromised, I know) but would also go the diplomatic route and talk to his Divine Consort of a youngest daughter.

2. Why is Vivenna chracterized as being such a jerk at the beginning of the novel?

Both girls grow into women while in Hallendren. Hip hip. However, what really bugged me was that Siri is presented as being a fey, slightly spoiled, vivacious wild-child. She gives the villagers of her homeland flowers, she is good friends with the cook of her castle, and basically wins over the God-King with her charming impetuousness. Her growing up is more about her learning self-control and learning to embrace her own authority. It’s a refinement, not a drastic character change. Vivenna, on the other hand, is presented as being thoughtlessly cruel, arrogantly pious, entitled, and profoundly naive. She’s humbled, quite vividly, and while she emerges as a stronger, more interesting character, I was a bit uncomfortable at the narrative shaming associated with her earlier self. It was kind of like Siri started out “good,” and became “awesome,” and Vivenna started out with a stick in her butt and eventually grew that into a tree of fantastic-ness. It made me think about the ways stories like this sometimes police gender roles; Siri, while being silly and untrained in the ways of the court, is still girly and innocent in a way Vivenna rejects. I think you’re supposed to like Siri for this girlish innocence, and dislike Vivenna for not being more fun, for being responsible, and for wanting to be useful to her country in a particular way. This was difficult for me, since I found Siri annoyingly like a reformed Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and thought Vivenna was a more realistic character. I’m hoping that part of that characterization issue is because Vivenna is often describing Siri, the annoying younger sister she wants to protect, and Siri is often describing Vivenna, the prim older sister she somewhat resents.

I’ll definitely check out the sequel — the world-building’s tight, the discussions of faith are pretty interesting, and Vivenna rocks. Sanderon’s other works (like the Mistborn trilogy) look fab as well. Maybe Siri will grow on me.

*Note to parents: this is a REALLY poor way to resolve favoritism. Repeat after me: YOU MAY NOT SEND YOUR ANNOYING YOUNGEST CHILD TO BE SACRIFICED TO A PAGAN IDOL.

Comments

  1. Erin says

    Sounds interesting; I’ll put the book on my list.

    This was the first time I’d heard the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl, very interesting and accurate. Immediately made me curious about your opinion of Hayley Mills, in particular her roles in The Trouble with Angels, The Parent Trap, and Pollyanna. Archetypal MPDGs, but none in the context of revitalizing a singular male lead. Angels especially came to mind, but as I said, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. the OTHER Maria says

    Heh, I was profoundly confused when I first read your comment, since the only movie version of Pollyanna that I’ve seen was the Af Am one in the 1980s… I really liked that one because Polly’s pluckiness is set in the context of segregation and, I think, is meant to be seen as a conscious act of resistance. I had NO IDEA why you were talking about The Parent Trap, too!

    Anyways, one of the posters to the NPR piece talked about the pluckiness of what she called Manic Pixie Little Girls. I do think there’s something problematic about this, something gendered, because I can’t really think of an MPLG who’s a boy who’s not feminized in some way (like through illness). I also don’t especially like it when a character is reduced to their function within a plot vs. actually being a character in their own right.

    At the same time, someone having the ROLE of an MPDG/MPLG doesn’t mean that actress doing the part isn’t totally bringing it. For example, (this is a bit of a stretch, since River isn’t strictly an MPDG — I think she’s more of an Action!Grrl Beatrice (see this post for more on that: http://thehathorlegacy.com/there-was-not-enough-angelina-jolie-in-this-movie-to-make-it-worth-my-9-dollars/)) Summer Glau brings a lot to the role of River, and a lot to the role of Cameron, so much so that she sorta redeems it from what would otherwise be a fairly stupid role.

    I think this is some of what Whedon’s trying to creepify in Dollhouse, but is failing at, since the bodies he’s using as history-less MPDG “match” the bodies you’d expect to be in that role.

  3. Erin says

    I on the other hand didn’t realize there’d been a remake of Pollyanna, and I will have to look it up – sounds kind of like the transformation of Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story, in which the social context of race adds depth and resolves some problematic aspects of the original.

    Ok, you really need (if you haven’t before) to see The Trouble with Angels: it’s a young woman’s coming-of-age story in a Catholic girls’ school with no significant male characters, focusing on the reformation of a MPDG (and the reasons for her being a MDPG in the first place). Loved it when I was a kid, still do now but with some reservations, although I wonder if part of my problem is a feminist perspective or simply not understanding the place/calling of religion in someone’s life. Mills’ character has an inner life, and the film focuses as much on her development as her impact on the develpment of others (imo), but she is the quintessential zany madcap spunky miscreant young woman.

  4. SW says

    I’m glad that you were also bothered by the portrayal of Vivenna. Vivenna, though not without her flaws, began the book as responsible, brave woman who loved her sister and her home. Yet I had the feeling I was supposed to dislike her because she wasn’t as carefree and light-hearted as Siri. Given her upbringing as the future wife of the God-King, of course she wouldn’t be.

    • Maria says

      Yeah, I’ve actually been really hesitant to start Sanderson’s other stuff because of that characterization issue. Women (not girls) in his fiction seem to get a bit of a bum rap… I wonder if that is one of the writing tics he shares w. Robert Jordan?

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