The introduction of some intriguing new characters doesn’t quite make up for the loss of Mistborn’s greatest asset. However, we are delivered a story that treads far away from its predecessor, giving us something very different than what we were expecting.
The Well of Ascension is Book 2 of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.
If you have got this far and haven’t read The Final Empire, be warned, everything onwards is very much in spoiler territory. It is impossible to review this book without referencing some of the great shocks that were delivered in the first entry of the Mistborn trilogy. There, you have been warned, now read on at your own peril.
After the defeat of the Lord Ruler and the death of Kelsier, Elend Venture claims the throne of the Final Empire and is left with the unenviable task of trying to bring order to the turmoil. Not only is he under threat by three armies who have laid siege to Luthadel in the hope of claiming the yet undiscovered cache of atium, but also from discontent amongst his own court. All the while, Vin is doing all she can to protect Elend from assassins. But the introduction of a new Mistborn throws doubt in to her mind, along with a new-found suspicion of the mists and their intent.
For me, The Final Empire did not quite live up to the hype that surrounded it, but it still managed to prove itself as an excellent read in its final third. And what a final third it was. There we were, set up to witness the battle against the Lord Ruler consume three whole novels, only for Sanderson to pull off one of the greatest feats of misdirection in any novel I have read. Just like that, we lost our main antagonist as well as our main villain. This was incentive enough to pick up the next chapter. Where could Sanderson possibly go from here, after delivering us the climax that we were not expecting for so long? The answer to that question is that he takes us on another similar journey of slow meandering that ascends in to crashing climax. I will not reveal spoilers for this book, but even though the outcome is quite different, the shock is somewhat lacking second time around.
One thing that immediately struck out to me in the Well of Ascension….it was missing Kelsier. Vin is a much more well-rounded character in this entry, but her constant self-doubt is a poor substitute for Kelsier’s gung-ho charm. Even Elend’s promotion to main character fails to fill the void. Here we have two people, both from very different backgrounds, with very different skill sets, struggling to overcome the burden of their roles. When you have two characters that are expressing the same emotions constantly, they fail to compliment each other. Instead they grind together in a hum of mediocre conversation that seems set on repeat. When they are apart, they are much better. Kelsier was very much about making himself a legend in order to provide hope to the Skaa once he had died. Elend’s motives and intent are far more grounded. He has no desires of heroism. All he wants is to do the best for the people he cares so much for, but is constantly tripped up by his own idealism. He is too scared to make the hard choices, and we are with him every step of the way because Sanderson shows us the darkness behind the burden of power, and we are keen to ensure that Elend does not follow that path. His all-pleasing style of leadership could easily have been grating if handled wrong, but with a deft touch, Sanderson garners our sympathy for the inexperienced king.
Sanderson tried very hard to make Vin the standout protagonist in the Final Empire and wasn’t wholly successful. He tries again here and, again, there are mixed results. Whereas we are supposed to be fully behind her relationship with Elend, too often it verges on tedium. The strength of her character lies in the way she interacts with others, especially OreSeur and Zane. Her love/hate relationship with OreSeur, who she makes do things that are deplorable to both the Kandra and the reader, is extremely well developed. There are layers of animosity, understanding, and eventually respect that mature organically as the story progresses. The same can be said of Zane, but almost in an antithesis of that with OreSeur. The introduction of a new, extremely adept, Mistborn draws intrigue from Vin, and through that we journey with her as she bonds with someone who is not as righteous as the man she loves. Zane draws from her a new doubt. One more interesting to the reader. No longer does she question her own abilities, for in them she begins to feel truly comfortable. No, now she questions her place in the world. Is she nothing more than a weapon used to sway the tide of battle? Or can there be more to what she can achieve? Is she worthy of a normal life with a not so normal person? Each of these questions burns bright as Luthadel is laid under siege and Vin is forced to carry out escalating degrees of violence to protect her friends. Her destination is nowhere near clear cut, and it is that intrigue that will draw you deeper in to the book.
There is one area where Sanderson truly improves on the Final Empire, and that is in his antagonists. Gone is the omnipotent ruler who moulds the world to his very will. In his stead is a man whose power is in the way he manipulates rather than overpowers. Straff Venture is despicable in everything he does, but we are not battered by it with blunt force trauma, as so many other writers tend to do. Sanderson builds his character in layers. Just when we think we know all there is to know about Straff, he does something that little bit unexpected. This is enough to prevent him from becoming that one-dimensional villain. He is clever, and he is smart enough to not always show it. I also encountered something truly unexpected in the Well of Ascension. I genuinely thought the bulk of the Lord Ruler’s role had been fulfilled. And, in a way, it had. Now, we are introduced to the man behind the mantle. This story teaches us that there is so much more to Rashek than the title of Lord Ruler suggested. We get more of his lore, his history, his despair. Sanderson has performed a small miracle in the way that he has transformed a cliched villain in to a character that we actually want to learn more about. In doing this, he has also managed to bring true meaning to the excerpts at the beginning of chapters in the Final Empire. They now have new meaning. The story has new meaning. These subtle inclusions actually make the Final Empire a better book in hindsight, and it takes a true craftsman to thread such an intricate backstory through numerous books. It is a masterful piece of planning that left me a little in awe.
With so much preamble to the siege of Luthadel, it became apparent that Sanderson was going to do a hard shift, just like in the Final Empire. This meant that when the tonal shift did occur, it held none of the impact that it did last time. This does not mean that the events that precede the increase in tempo are any less shocking. I could not have predicted the majority of what happened at the end of the book. Sanderson has a knack for producing a shock that, on further inspection, was built up throughout the story. It makes you look back on every single thing you have read to reassess its importance. It also implores you to keep reading; to pick up the next book as soon as you have finished this one just to see the culmination of all these little secrets that are scattered throughout.
When a novel is able to not only prove its own worth, but also improve upon the quality of its predecessor, you have to admire the skill and foresight of the author. Only true talent can plot a thread so intricately that it makes you question everything you have already read. It is just a shame that Sanderson falls in to the same traps that he did in the Final Empire. Allomancy is still an exceptional magic system, but is bloated by over-explanations of its practice. Characters, while an improvement overall, still stumble over their own brash clichés and struggle to break free of the chains of stereotype. These criticisms do not prevent this book from being an excellent addition to anyone’s fantasy collection.