Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the first book of the Mistborn series, an elite crew of thieves and impostors with a diverse range of metal-based super-powers overthrew the Lord Ruler and his thousand-year Final Empire. Now, in Book 2, the crew struggles to hang onto the free country they have created, after crew leader Kelsier, the legendary Survivor of Hathsin (long story), sacrificed his life for the cause. A year later, they're feeling his loss deeply. With an idealistic young king named Elend Venture to lead them, their political experiment is now threatened both by a ruling assembly that doesn't share Elend's vision, and by an invading army led by Elend's father, the ruthless Straff Venture, who wants to rule Luthadel, the Lord Ruler's onetime capital city. Then a second warlord, named Ashweather Cett, arrives with his own army a few days later. Plus, a third army, this one made up of savage, blue-skinned giants known as koloss, is on its way, led by Jastes, one of Elend's former friends.

As if to ensure things still aren't too easy for Elend and company, the Deepness has returned: an evil the Lord Ruler supposedly defeated a millennium ago. The eldritch mists that have haunted the nights since the Lord Ruler's Ascension have now, since the empire's Collapse, started to invade the daytime, threatening to destroy crops and cattle, and even killing people.

Elend needs help. His lover is a Mistborn girl named Vin, revered by the working-class skaa as the Heir of the Survivor, and gifted with all the allomantic (i.e. metal-burning) powers, of which the other members of Kelsier's crew have only one each. These powers, depending on which metal one can burn - and most people, these days, can't burn any - include physical strength and agility (pewter), heightened senses and alertness (tin), being able to soothe (brass) or riot (zinc) other people's emotions, being able to pull (iron) or push (steel) on metal objects, and being able to detect (bronze) or hide (copper) the use of allomancy, plus a few more. These individual powers enable certain members of Elend's team to be excellent bodyguards, like pewter-burning "thug" Ham; influencers of people, like "soother" Breeze; scouts, like "tineye" Spook, etc. But Vin is the whole package, with additional abilities no one but a Mistborn could hope for - such as being virtually able to fly. With the addition of a vast supply of the precious metal atium rumored to be hidden in the city - a metal that enables Mistborn to anticipate their opponents' moves - and a newly discovered allomantic metal called duralumin, which concentrates any other metal being burned at the same time in one fast, super-intense flare, Vin is practically a one-woman wall of defense around Elend and his city, especially after she puts the fear of herself into Straff and Cett.

But it isn't enough. The Deepness is getting stronger, and time seems to be running out to find the Well of Ascension and re-do whatever the Lord Ruler did a thousand years ago to stop it - or, rather, to do the opposite of what he did - or something. The three armies camped outside Luthadel won't wait forever for their chance to take the city, in spite of the stalemate between them. The members of the city's assembly won't wait for Elend to learn how to be an effective king - although, with the help of a tutor from the scholarly Synod of Terris, he's making rapid strides in that direction - and is invoking a clause in the city's new charter to take his power away from him, perhaps to hand the city over to one of the warlords waiting outside. And an insane Mistborn assassin named Zane, who is secretly Elend's half-brother, has been filling Vin's head with nonsense about how he needs her more than Elend does, and how she needs him too.

If it doesn't seem events are moving rapidly in this book, it's because it's such a big book with so many events moving in it at one time. Sazed, the Terrisman who who defied his own Synod to help the revolution, using his people's metal-based arts called feruchemy - which has fascinating differences and similarities to allomancy - has come back to Luthadel, once again disobeying his Synod. He thinks he is close to understanding what must be done to stop the Deepness. Vin has been seeing a figure made of mist, and hearing a beating sound coming from the Well of Ascension. Elend risks his neck finding out how Jastes keeps the koloss under control. Both Straff and Cett send teams of allomancers to assassinate Vin and Elend, and Zane tricks a confused Vin into making a disastrous counter-strike. The hero couple's love story reaches a crisis that could either bring them together or pull them apart, forever. And after a pair of epic battles - one a one-on-one one, the other on a scale to alter the fortunes of entire nations - each charged with betrayal, carnage, and irreversible loss - the surviving heroes face a final, terrible choice whose consequences may last a thousand years or more.

In my reading of his work, Brandon Sanderson has repeatedly proven himself a master at creating a dramatic structure that works on an enormous scale, building a detailed fantasy-world spanning a vast area and permeated with unique supernatural properties, and keeping it all centered on the hearts of believable characters who hold the reader's sympathy. He keeps the reader cringing in suspense for long stretches, punctuated at perfectly-judged intervals by bursts of thrilling action. He juggles the motivations of widely diverse characters in ways that often touch deep springs of emotions. For example, this book features what I will now, until further notice, describe as "the last wedding I cried at." It also features not one, but two schools of arcane arts, somewhere on the sliding scale between magic and super-powers, each relying in a different way on certain types of metal. Moreover, new facets of these arts continue to be revealed as the series grows, as witnessed by the table of allomantic and feruchemical metals and their uses, in the back of this book, which isn't complete; in fact, it mentions one metal that has never been mentioned in the first two Mistborn books, and omits two that have been mentioned, including one that sees considerable use in this book. Looking at this in the most charitable light, I suppose Sanderson didn't want to spoil too much for readers who, like me, read the glossary first, before attempting to understand the book.

Book 3 of the original Mistborn trilogy, which I plan to read soon, is The Hero of Ages. The series goes on to include The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, and Bands of Mourning. I am also, at the same time, enjoying Sanderson's Reckoners trilogy, including Steelheart, Firefight, and Calamity, and I'm way behind but trying to catch up in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cycle, of which Sanderson completed the last three novels, after Jordan's death. That's just scratching the surface of the work of this insanely creative, Utah-based writer. So I conclude, in my best vocal imitation of a superhero under strain: "No time to say more. Must get back to my reading!"

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