Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 24, 2009

Magic washing powder – Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This book is available online under a Creative Commons license – ie. free to read and redistribute unchanged. You can download it here.

Like everything else Sanderson has written, it’s a how-does-this-universe-work mystery novel. It’s even got a technical appendix. I’ve never been quite sure about the point of these things – after getting to the end of the story, who wants to read the technical specifications of the magic? I suppose the same people who read the ordnance specs in a David Weber book. On the other hand, definitely and categorically not the same people who always read the historical and linguistic appendices in The Lord of the Rings. Nope. Completely different kind of geek.

So, to criticise Sanderson on his own ground – the magical system is quite interesting, very basic but well thought out. It all works by washing powder – well, if you will call it “BioChroma” then it can’t really be anything else. Everyone has a certain amount of washing powder, and can give it to other people. If you have enough, you can invest it in objects or use it to reanimate the dead, and sometimes people come back from the dead with a lot and get worshipped as gods.

When you use washing powder for magical effects, it washes the colour out of something nearby – the more magic, the more washing powder, the more colour gets lost. Given that good dyestuffs are not only expensive but labour-intensive as well, it’s an interesting idea, and points up the whole capitalist theme yet again. Oddly, though, this particular city-state has the advantage of a particular flower which gives all sorts of brightly coloured and apparently lightfast dyes. (This is of course complete scientific, botanical, and technical bollocks, but if I can let that pass anyone can.)

One interesting thing I had to check – on p.60 T’Telir is described as the only city advanced enough to have restaurants. That immediately looked very odd to me, but Sanderson’s right from a strict point of view – restaurants per se, with a choice of dishes, only turned up in eighteenth-century Paris. To the best of our knowledge, at any rate – I’d be delighted to hear of non-European examples before that.

Some other thoroughly characteristic Big Fantasy features – bloody kings, and a talking sword. One called “Nightblood” at that. I suppose we were lucky it wasn’t “NightBlood”. And magic princesses. No, seriously. All the potential heirs of this kingdom are born with magic hair. They can change its colour, or even make it grow. If they’re enjoying themselves, the Royal Locks (sic) turn blonde. Red for embarrassment, white for fear, dark for control, and blonde for unguarded fun or enjoyment…

The characterization is pretty good for Big Fantasy, though not deep. It doesn’t help that most of what we get told about people is unsubtle and fairly crashingly obvious – less so than with Acacia, at least, but still Sanderson seems to feel that we need things pointing out to us.

“They laughed. He wasn’t sure whether to be amused or insulted that they so often confused his jokes for serious statements and the other way around.”

It’s basically a good book, and very readable. The big question it asks is about who can be trusted with what, and what justifies what, but he doesn’t preach at us about it.

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