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Warbreaker    by Brandon Sanderson order for
by Brandon Sanderson
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2009)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Brandon Sanderson is becoming well known in the genre as a fantasy writer with remarkable inventiveness in systems of magic. Though my favorite by far is the allomancy he created for his Mistborn trilogy, the BioChromatic magic in his standalone Warbreaker is also different and engaging. Women in particular will love the idea of mental control over hair length and color (unfortunately limited to certain royal princesses), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Sanderson opens by introducing readers to the mysterious, colorless Vasher, who's obviously arranged to be thrown in jail. Helped by his very dangerous, sentient sword Nightblood (which disposes of the guards), Vasher uses up his Breaths to Awaken a piece of straw and Command it to bring him the keys to his cell. From there he seeks another prisoner, a tortured rebel, whom he persuades to give up his vast store of Breaths. What is Vasher really after? That puzzle pulls readers through the story that follows.

It's a world in which there has been historical conflict between Hallandren, 'land of Returned gods, Lifeless servants, BioChromatic research, and - of course - color', and the small, mountainous state of Idris. Hallandren royalty fled to Idris after the Manywar. Seventeen-year-old princess Siri is the fourth and youngest Idris royal, the unimportant one. Her elder sister, beautiful, poised and perfect Vivenna has been groomed all her life to fulfill the realm's treaty promising a royal bride to the Hallandren God King, but Siri is not very devout and is always getting into trouble.

Unable to bear the idea of sending his favorite daughter to what he believes will be her death, the king of Idris unexpectedly sends a stunned Siri instead. And Siri copes surprisingly well with the culture shock of Hallandren, with court intrigue, and with the unexpected nature of God King Susebron himself. In parallel with all this, Vivenna (her lifelong role suddenly stripped from her) decides to rescue her little sister and journeys to Hallandren herself. There, nothing is as it seems. Both sisters encounter betrayals at every turn and mature a great deal in the process.

There are many factions in Hallandren, that are either for or against war with Idris, at all levels of society from common folk to the pantheon of immortal gods. Yes, gods! Those who die in an exceptional fashion return as superpowered gods, renowned for the characteristic their death exemplified. They are worshipped, watched carefully by priests for visionary clues to the future, and able to perform miracles by giving up this new life. Until then, they accept daily Breath from volunteers to survive. Lightsong, god of bravery, is not very happy about his role, but ultimately meets his destiny with great courage.

Siri and Vivenna, Susebron and Lightsong, Vasher, their allies and enemies, all fight - for varying reasons - to foment or prevent a devastating war. There are touches of deus ex machina (which should be no surprise as gods are key characters); an oft over the top plot; a strong vein of irony, following a welcome trend in fantasy from authors like Terry Pratchett, Kage Baker and Dave Duncan; and a most satisfying ending. Warbreaker is an excellent read.

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