"Warbreaker" is a pretty good sign of why Brandon Sanderson is one of the best up-and-coming fantasy authors -- it's a book dense with magic, politics, complex schemes and characters that are never quite what they seen. While there are some stretches that are rather slow, Sanderson has a vivid style and a knack for political tangles that is rarely seen in modern fantasy -- and it leaves you hungry for more.
For many years, the Idrian princess Vivenna was supposed to marry the Hallandren God-King, a powerful Returned named Susebron, and provide him with a divine heir. But at the last minute, her tomboy sister Siri is sent instead. And Siri is completely unprepared for her new life -- the opulent palaces, the bullying priests, and a silent husband who seems to ignore her every night (and whom she's not allowed to look at or speak to).
Determined to rescue her little sister, Vivenna sets out for Hallandren and joins up with a band of Idrian rebels and mercenaries -- and runs afoul of Vasher, a mysterious man with a bloodthirsty, living weapon. And at the same time, a skeptical young Returned named Lightsong realizes that political wheels are turning in the gods' court -- and begins to manipulate them to his own ends.
But things are not as they appear for either of the princesses. Siri soon discovers that Susebron is not the haughty cruel man she thought he was, but a childlike mute who is rapidly falling in love with her -- and she begins suspecting that his priests are plotting against him. And with the help of Vasher, Vivenna discovers to her horror that her trust has been horribly misplaced -- and that she may have set the wheels in motion for a vast, bloodstained plot that could destroy both Hallendren and Idris.
Most "political" fantasy leaves me completely cold; I get bored easily by contrived schemes and equally contrived loopholes. But "Warbreaker" is one of the exceptions, since Sanderson is a master at manipulating your expectations -- every time you think you have all the sides figured out, he twists the story around and shocks you with the facts. Villains turn out to be allies, allies are villains, plots turn out to be imaginary fancies, and leaders turn out to be pawns (and vice versa).
The only problem is that given its length and epic breadth, it gets rather slow at times. And his magical system can be rather confusing for awhile (especially regarding the Returned and BioChromatic breath), although eventually I think I figured it out.
Sanderson's prose is smooth, fast-moving and robust, with lots of intricate descriptions of bright colors, lush clothes and opulent palaces. And when the political cogs aren't turning, he fills the story with a sweet and subtle romance between Susebron and Siri, humorous moments (Siri's "sex bouncing"), and funny dialogue ("You mean to tell me that our God-king -- the most holy and divine personage in our pantheon -- died to cure a few tummy aches?").
The entire plot essentially revolves around the sisters Vivenna and Siri, and they both go down very surprising paths -- Siri has to curb her tongue and learn how to navigate a court's treacherous currents, while the haughty Vivenna finds herself humiliated and forced to face her own arrogance, hypocrisy and weakness. There's a wide range of likeable and realistic characters, but the best include the sweetly childlike Susebron, the snarky but good-hearted Lightsong, and the grizzled wanderer Vasher. And Nightblood is a fun, unique -- bloodthirsty, chipper and a clever variant on the usual magical sword.
"Warbreaker" is a rich and complex piece of work, with only a few flaws in its vibrant writing and plotting -- and the ending leaves you hungry for a sequel. Definitely a classic in the making.