The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension

AuthorBrandon Sanderson

Pages: 817 pages
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: June 3rd, 2008
ISBN-10: 0765356139
ISBN-13: 978-0765356130

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.

  • Rich September 15, 2009 at 6:38 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more about The Well of Ascension. Much like yourself, I was eager to delve into the second volume after finishing the wonderful introductory volume. The pacing of the second volume made it torturous to finish it. I am a big fan of ‘building’ novels as long as they get to the point. Unfortunately, this volume about killed my enthusiasm for the entire project. His characters became more complex and richly detailed, but at the cost of pacing and breadth. I couldn’t help but notice how similar the problems this volume were to Abercrombie’s second volume. I mean, glacial pacing of a siege is not exactly riveting stuff… I guess I wonder why they don’t just make two 1000 volumes and just be done with it. Sometimes a story gets crammed into a trilogy when it really doesn’t need to. This book was like getting a great kiss at the end of a long, boring, tedious date. Yes, it was nice but long-term relationships aren’t built on nice kisses.

  • Noircoeur September 15, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Excellent review.

    I just finished reading this trilogy, and I would lie if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. I just didn’t enjoy it as a series of standalone, “solid” books. The whole thing was too “video-gamy”, especially throughout the first tome. Some parts even felt like tutorials (“Hey X, can you teach me how to use power Y?” “Hey, A, tell me about ability B!”); at times, I was wondering when I would get to play.

    I mean, the whole magic system is quite spectacular, and the world is cleverly built, but it’s… too much of a clockwork, if you spare me the strange comparison. It just felt like Sanderson came up with his rules first, and tried to give his story a soul afterwards. Which might explain why most of the relationships feel forced and/or simplistic.

    Well, I hope it made sense; I’m rambling, and I’m French (which doesn’t help).

    PS: Great blog by the way ;)

  • Mendel September 15, 2009 at 10:02 am

    I love the “kiss at the end of a long, boring, tedious date” analogy. For myself, I didn’t find it quite as tedious and boring. I really connected with the characters in the first volume. To further your analogy, it was like going on the second date. You really learned more about the minutiae of the other person. Yes, it got boring at times. However, the foundation was strong. I can gladly say that if this series of books were like a date, then the outcome is marriage. Having read all three books back to back I fell in love with this series. Sanderson will only improve with experience and I look forward to his future works.

  • aidan September 15, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Rich & Mendel – The kiss analogy is very apt. And, like any great kiss, the ending was easily enough to get me to move on to the final volume of the trilogy.

    Noircoeur – I get that ‘clockwork’ feeling quite a bit from Sanderson, and have trouble looking past his very calculated style of storytelling a lot of the time. If you’ve ever read the ‘Annotations’ that Sanderson writes for his website, it becomes very clear that writing is a puzzle to him, and he takes bits and pieces floating around in his head and very methodically writes a story around them. Not bad, especially when one is rewarded by the complex plotting that Sanderson’s great at, but sometimes a little sterile.

    The videogame analogy is also apt, especially for the first volume. Still, it was something I was able to look past most of the time.

    Like you, despite my reservations about the second volume, I’ve been very much enjoying the series. I’m halfway through The Hero of Ages and Sanderson will definitely be staying on my radar.

    Mendel – I connected with the characters in the first volume, but felt that they changed too much for the second volume, losing much of the charisma and confidence that drew me to them in the first place. Vin and Elend lost a lot of their bite, Marsh was underused and Zane just wasn’t that interesting. Sazed, however, was a pleasant surprise.

  • Mendel September 15, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I agree with you Aidan about Vin and Elend losing their bite. Marsh intrigued me a lot and I actually looked forward to the mystery surrounding him. Zane, however, I could not have cared less about. Zane seemed to take on the role of substitute to supplement the lack of action that was so intriguing in the first volume. Sazed has to be my favorite character in the whole series. His character development is very strong and continues into the third book. I look forward to your review of The Hero of Ages.

  • Shane September 15, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I definitely agree. While I still liked Well of Ascension, it just couldn’t compare to The Final Empire, which I absolutely loved. Especially after reading the last volume of the trilogy, I much prefer to think of Mistborn as a standalone novel called The Final Empire. The second and third were decent, but I did not love them.

  • edifanob September 19, 2009 at 9:37 am

    I read the whole trilogy in a row and I think you must see it as one book. When you look at each book separately The Well of Ascension is a “real” middle book. But from my point of view The Final Empire and The Hero of Ages would not work.
    What do you expect when the leader of a revolution dies? Elend Venture gets weak because of the absence of Kelsier. Forme I would it woul have been implausibly when Elend followed in the steps of Kelsier like a rising star. Hope you unterstand what I try to say.
    The Mistborn trilogy is one of my top reads in 2009. And I put the emphasis on trilogy.

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