The Well of Ascension
Author – Brandon Sanderson
Pages: 817 pages
Release Date: June 3rd, 2008
In my review of Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire, the first volume in his Mistborn trilogy, I lauded it as a novel that returned me to my roots as a reader of Fantasy. It brought back memories of first getting into the genre and reading the likes of Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Feist and R.A. Salvatore.
Furthering its success was Sanderson’s ability to take the cliches of the genre, which the aforementioned authors were chock full of, and flip them on their head, pulling the rug out from under readers, so comfortable with genre tropes, just as they began to feel like they had a grip on the story. The Final Empire was a story of likeable characters, imaginative world-building and genuinely shocking twists. Unfortunately, The Well of Ascension takes most of these strengths… and tosses them out the window in favour of a hard-to-swallow love story and a drawn-out siege with the heroes caught between two armies. Luckily we still have one hell of a twist to end the novel off.
With the Lord Ruler seemingly defeated, Sanderson was set to explore territory not often touched upon in the Fantasy genre: how a world reacts when the evil lord has fallen and freedom is within grasp. Sanderson presents a world on the edge of chaos, one that has to transition from a society ground under the oppressive rules of the Lord Ruler to one that has to manage itself, to figure out how to right the wrongs set by a thousand-year-old regime, and why it might not be so easy to rule with kindness, compassion and democracy. Where The Final Empire was a successful character-driven caper novel, The Well of Ascension is a political stalemate led by a naive youngster.
The Well of Ascension is defined less by what it has, and more by what it’s missing. Kelsier, the dashing lead of The Final Empire is gone, and with him goes most of the charisma and fun that defined the first novel. In his place is Elend Venture, the aforementioned naive youngster, who made a strong impression when he was first introduced in The Final Empire, but utterly fails to live up to it in The Well of Ascension. Gone is the confident, aloof individual that helps bring down a tyrant, and in his place is a nervous, self-righteous boy who has little idea how to handle his newfound power. Of course Sanderson sets up The Well of Ascension as a novel about growing into oneself, and making sacrifices for the greater good, which gives Elend (and Vin) room to grow. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the extended siege (which takes up the majority of the novel) was an excuse to halt the more interesting aspects of the story (what exactly the Lord Ruler was warning against at the end of The Final Empire; where Kelsier discovered the fabled Eleventh Metal; Marsh and his infiltration of the the Steel Inquisitors), allowing Sanderson to self-indulgently explore his philosophies on leadership and bog down the story with boring politics that just don’t hold up against other novels in the genre.
The action is still there, and Sanderson continues to grow and showcase Allomancy (his magic system developed for Mistborn), which is well and good, but it often made me wish that he’d just get on with it, and really delve deep into the mythology of the world and the magic system. Every chapter that passed held promise for what was to come, but ended up being nothing but setup for the final novel. Often it seemed like Sanderson would throw in fight scenes simply to remind us of how the magic worked, as though he knew that too much politicking and unbelievable love stories was boring.
The worldbuilding that is in the novel is interesting and holds promise for the final volume. Sanderson further explores the Terris culture (and their mysterious magical ability) and the Kandra, both elements being highlights of the novel. But again, each time Sanderson fed me a little bit of information about the world, it just made me more eager to get past the politics and love stories and get to the more Fantasy-heavy elements.
Still, I’d be remiss to ignore the end of the novel, which fixes all of my complaints. The action is frenetic, the consequences of the Lord Ruler‘s fall finally rear their head, and Sanderson blasts open the scale of the story, spinning every misconception I had on its head. To say the novel ends with a huge twist is an understatement, leaving the heroes with a mountain to climb, when they thought they were looking only at a molehill. But is the final 150 pages enough to makeup for the first 400? I just don’t think so.
The Well of Ascension suffers more from ‘middle book syndrome’ than almost any other novel I’ve ever read. The pacing is glacial, but the promises made for the third book were enough to keep me going. It’s clear that Sanderson knows how to tell a thoughtful story, and built empathetic characters, but where he failed with The Well of Ascension was choosing what story to tell. I couldn’t help but feel that he told the story he thought needed to be told, rather than the story that should have been told.