Congratulations, Hero. You have defeated the Big Bad and freed the empire from its thousand-year reign of terror. Everyone is now free! Well, kind of. You still have to feed and clothe them. And the nobility won’t suddenly want to mix with the peasants. Oh, and the more remote regions have started calving off into kingdoms of their own faster than you can say “melting ice caps” (and I can say it pretty fast).
What, you expected post-victory life to be easy? Some kind of utopia?
Most fantasy books are over when the bad guy has been defeated. Indeed, that’s where many trilogies end as well: all three books were the build-up to the final, climactic confrontation. With the bad guy out of the picture, the implication is that the world can somehow proceed to become a more just and better place naturally. This is perhaps the biggest lie that fantasy novels peddle. The world doesn’t become more just spontaneously. You have to make it more just. And that is difficult, as Brandon Sanderson shows us in The Well of Ascension.
I was really impressed last year with Mistborn, so I decided to make its sequel my second Sanderson reading experience. Set roughly a year after the first book, Vin and Elend are tentatively in charge of the new Kingdom of the Central Dominance. I say tentatively because Elend, out of idealism, has taken an experimental stab at representative democracy by forming an Assembly of twenty-four individuals—eight nobles, eight merchants, and eight skaa workers. The Assembly has all sorts of Super-Dithering™ powers, including the ability to depose the king. (I really enjoyed watching Tindwyl go bug-eyed when Elend explained that technicality to her.)
This might not be a problem, except that two of the upstart kings from other dominances have marched on the capital of Luthadel. One of them is Elend’s father—and there are some serious daddy issues in this family. Hot on the heels of these two armies is a third, composed of the massive and brutish koloss, meta-human creatures that just don’t stop growing. Luthadel, meanwhile, has a rag-tag band of old men and young children, and maybe some spears and swords to share between them. It’s not looking good.
I completely understand why most fantasy books don’t delve into this aspect of rebellion, but I love it when they do. George R.R. Martin does something similar when Daenerys decides to stay in Meereen instead of abandoning it as she has her other conquered cities. She quickly finds that taking a city and ruling it are entirely different propositions, and it is an unforgiving test of her mettle as a supposed queen. The problems that Vin and Elend face are slightly different, given the context of their revolution, but the atmosphere is much the same.
This setting is part of a larger narrative about power relations. Sanderson hammers home the point that most rebellions fail not because of insufficient numbers or ideals but because, in the end, people are happier with a tyrant who takes care of them than freedom at the cost of stability. This is a theme that recurs throughout history, sad as it might seem to our present society, where the ideals of both freedom and individuality are highly prized. The majority of people in the former Final Empire keep asking when the Lord Ruler will return. They can’t understand that their god is dead, that he won’t be returning, and that they have to start fending for themselves.
Somewhat implicit in such imprecations is the question of whether Vin and crew were justified at all in defeating the Lord Ruler. I’d argue that this is more of a red herring, though, that they pose to themselves to distract themselves from the more pertinent question: where do they go from here? The armies camped outside Luthadel are the external manifestation of that pressing problem.
There can be no more Final Empire, at least not as they currently sit. The Lord Ruler unified such a vast territory only through the sheer power of his position. Vin and Elend lack that power, so the fracturing we see here is only natural. With no way to defend Luthadel from a protracted siege by one army, let alone two or three, it seems like they will lose even this small bastion of freedom that they have started to set up. The two of them deal with this impending doom in different ways: Vin becomes obsessed with the mystery of the mists and the mythical Well of Ascension, while Elend gradually accepts that he needs to act more kingly, more self-assured, and start taking more risks.
I liked Elend’s development in this book. He is such a raw and naive individual, and it’s nice to see that change as he struggles with how to mould he idealism into a more useful form. Sanderson does a good job showing these changes not just in how Elend acts but in how other people react to him. That being said, Sanderson could have done this in subtler ways.
Vin’s development is not as profound in this book. Whereas Mistborn saw her transform from a wretched, suspicious street urchin into a heroic, self-sacrificing woman in love, The Well of Ascension plagues her with a lot of unnecessary self-doubt and burdens her with an uninteresting rival for Elend’s affection. I mean, seriously—did anyone think that insane Zane in the membrane was ever a palatable alternative to Elend? I know that Vin was all angsty because she felt that Elend could never understand her angsty Mistborn angst, but he did have one major thing going for him, in that he wasn’t totally crazy and hearing voices.
So, I thought that whole abortive love triangle was too contrived and protracted for my tastes. And that’s something that applies to much of this book, sadly. The Well of Ascension is long. I have nothing against long books, but they need to be long for reasons, and there seem to be few enough here. There is a lot of talking and debating that might have been condensed. I don’t want to downplay the importance of the intrigue, for that is a major part of why this book is so entertaining. But the overall pacing seems very unbalanced, with the last fifty pages or so devoted to an inordinate amount of action and explanation. It’s telling when you need to, once again, resort to some magical shenanigans to get Vin back in play in time for the climax.
Allomancy continues to be a fun magical system, but there is very little we see here that we didn’t see (more of) in Mistborn. Vin discovers the counterpart to aluminum (no spoilers, though) and continues to test her limits as some kind of über-Mistborn. Perhaps the best thing I can say about magic in this book is that, with a lot of the burden of explaining and developing it out of the way, Sanderson has the time to just show allomancy being used as if it were an everyday part of these people’s lives—which it is. As such, allomancy is intentionally a little less remarkable in this book.
All writers are like painters when it comes to the application of their words; it’s just that some use broad strokes while others use incredibly tiny, detailled touches (and some use a combination). Sanderson likes his detailled touches, and depending on your preferences, that might captivate you more.
I’m of two minds about The Well of Ascension. On one hand, Sanderson displays a keen awareness of the twisted nature of power. This makes for some great intrigue between the characters. On the other hand, the pacing of the book drags at times. With the lack of a single, central antagonist like the Lord Ruler, there is less of a sense of urgency for the protagonists, despite their city being under siege. Ultimately, I suppose this is one of those books where I can say that I enjoyed it, though I’m not overly impressed with it. If ever there was a candidate for Middle Book Syndrome, this is it.