Why I liked (but didn't love) Misborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

I'm a first-time Brandon Sanderson reader who's starting with one of his most famous trilogies: Mistborn. Today, my review of book #2: The Well of Ascension.
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Mistborn The Well of Ascension.png / Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson. Credit: Winter is Coming

Brandon Sanderson has been a big name in fantasy books for years now, but it was only recently that I took the plunge and read the first book in his popular Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire. I'm now onto book #2, The Well of Ascension. How did it go?

If you enjoyed The Final Empire, and I did, then you'll probably enjoy The Well of Ascension, and I did. It shares the first book's strengths — a propulsive plot and sturdy sense of imagination — but also its weaknesses: characters who are likable but flat, overly tidy prose, and a tendency to keep moving the goalposts whenever we think we finally have a handle on whatever Big Problem our heroes are trying to solve. These are fun, well-constructed books that go down easy, but they lack depth. I enjoy the books while I read them, but I don't think they're going to make a little nest in my mind and live there.

Maybe things will change when I finish The Hero of Ages, the third and final book in the trilogy. For now, let's talk The Well of Ascension.

Review: Mistborn book #2, The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension picks up some time after the end of The Final Empire, when our hero Vin killed the Lord Ruler, a god-like figure who had shaped society in his image for hundreds of years. The Lord Ruler was able to live so long, we learn, because of how he combined his skills with Allomancy and Feruchemy, branches of magic that Sanderson treats like physics. Their use is governed by rules, but Sanderson is far more interested in the specifics than me. The upshot is that skilled Allomancers like Vin — who is a Mistborn, the rare person able to use every Allomantic power available — can leap through the air like Spider-Man, fight through hordes of bad guys like Batman, and fling around pieces of metal like Magneto. And Vin may well be the most powerful Mistborn in the world, a messianic figure destined to do...something. Prophecies are often unhelpfully vague, and the one in The Well of Ascension is no exception.

I think Vin's growing power represents a tension in the story. A large chunk of The Well of Ascension deals with Elend Venture — the love of Vin's life and the heir apparent to the Final Empire — trying to defend his new kingdom from other lords who wish to seize power now that their godking has died and left behind a vacuum. These include the ambitious Lord Cett and the brutal Lord Straff, Elend's own father. Sanderson gets some mileage out of the political gamesmanship, but this is the slowest and least enjoyable part of the book. Things never approach the knottiness of the politics in A Song of Ice and Fire, and if they did I would feel cheated, because ultimately Sanderson cuts through these issues by having Vin go Super Saiyan and tear through Elend's enemies. The Well of Ascension is a middling political drama that turns towards the end into a fun superhero movie.

The final stretch of the book is by far the most gripping, as Vin and Elend race against time to save the city of Luthadel from an attack by violent koloss, a troll-like race of bestial creatures given to killing anyone they come across, and often each other if no one else is around. They were one of my favorite additions to the series. I also liked OreSeur the kandra, who can take on the form of any creature by ingesting its dead body; here, he takes the form of a wolfhound and assists Vin in her attempts to root out a traitor within Elend's ranks. Sanderson is good at worldbuilding and lore. And unlike with the rules of Allomancy, I was interested in learning more about the cultures of the koloss and the kandra, probably because Sanderson doesn't tell us everything. A little more mystery can go a long way.

But you can overdo it. At the end of the first book, I was annoyed that we didn't get clearer answers about some of the story's biggest mysteries: why does ash fall from the sky? What is the nature of the Mists? By the end of The Well of Ascension, this is still mostly unclear, and we have a new nebulous big bad monster to worry about going into the next book. I realize Sanderson is setting up the end of his three-book story, but I think it could be done in a way that doesn't feel so much like it's baiting readers.

Our heroes

All of this would be easier to swallow if the characters were more vivid. At least for me, if I care about the characters in a story, I'll care about the story. Everything else — the plot, the lore, the prose — is secondary. And the characters in Mistborn are...fine.

Vin is the closest thing we have to a hero, and her arc sometimes moves forward in awkward bursts. She's devoted to Elend, but is also tempted by a new character named Zane, a psychotic Mistborn who I thought had far too easy a time convincing Vin that leaving the people she loves to become a Mistborn ubermensch might be a valid option. I never thought she was actually gonna act on his pleas, but that she even considers it struck me as far-fetched, and Zane's "We're not so different, you and I" villain posturing as corny.

I also wasn't sure why Vin suddenly became interested in the idea that she might be the Hero of Ages, that messianic figure of prophecy I mentioned up top. My favorite moments with Vin were her conversations with the kandra OreSeur, whom she doesn't like at first — you try working with a corpse-eating monster and see how comfortable you feel — but comes to respect. I liked how unguarded Vin was around OreSeur, and there's a twist with him towards the end of the book I didn't see coming.

Beyond Vin, Elend gets a lot of attention, as does the Terris scholar Sazed. I already mentioned Super Saiyans, and Dragon Ball Z came to mind again when Sazed uses his Feruchemical abilities to transform into a 10-foot-tall, super-swole version of himself to fight off an invading horde of koloss. I think The Well of Ascension is at its best when it becomes an action movie, although I like how Sazed's beast mode contrasts with his normally placid, scholarly demeanor.

Sazed also gets a romance arc with a new character named Tindwyl, who feels a bit like she's been brought in (and then written off) just to give us a new angle on Sazed. More successful is the ongoing romance between Vin and Elend. Sanderson seemed skittish writing about sex in the first book, so I was surprised when we got an implication that the two were getting it on late in The Well of Ascension, although that's only after they get married in an intimate, spur-of-the-moment ceremony; until then they have separate bedrooms. Whatever Sanderson's thoughts about sex scenes, the two did often feel like two kids in love under the weirdest of circumstances. Less successful is a bizarre subplot about the middle-aged Breeze, one of Elend's counselors, sleeping with a teenager named Allrianne. The whole thing is played for laughs, with Breeze embarrassed by the affections of this airheaded 18-year-old, but it still happens, and it feels weird. So the book is one for three in the romance department.

Once more, with feeling

I like the characters in Mistborn. I don't love any of them. I have a hard time accepting them as fully realized people, maybe because they talk to each other in ways that feel a shade too precise. "Seeing you like this yanks on every protective instinct within me," Elend tells Vin in a difficult moment. That feels written to me, not felt.

I could stand for Sanderson to loosen up his prose across the board. It seems he's always either leaving things annoyingly vague or describing how the characters feel so exactingly that it's hard for me to get invested. For instance, here's a passage where Vin listenes to Elend's lieutenant Demoux talk to members of the skaa underclass about a religious faith that's sprung up around her and her mentor Kelsier after the death of the Lord Ruler. "The more she listened, the more Vin understood the Church of the Survivor," Sanderson writes. "It was what they needed; it took what the skaa already knew — a life filled with hardship — and elevated it to a higher, more optimistic plane."

"Demoux was giving the skaa a paradise. It had to be something completely removed form normal experience, for the mundane world was not a place of hope. Not with a foodless winter approaching, not with armies threatening and the government in turmoil."

I think this passage does what Sanderson wants it to do, but I think it reads less like we're being let into Vin's private thoughts and more like exposition. If I had to point to one thing that explains why I've liked these novels rather than loved them, I'd say it's the lack of emotional depth. Stuff like this is part of my block.

But it is my block. I know Sanderson has lots of passionate fans and I'm glad they've found something they so thoroughly enjoy. And I'm still looking forward to The Hero of Ages because, whatever quibbles I have with the trilogy, the books are sturdy and fun. That's worth a read.

Next. Mistborn: The Final Empire review. A first-time Brandon Sanderson reader reviews Mistborn: The Final Empire. dark

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