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The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

book cover of The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension didn’t exactly go in the direction I was expecting, which is a little disappointing, but what I got is a good book too.

In this follow-up to The Final Empire, Sanderson introduces us to further elements of this world that we didn’t, or barely, saw before: we learn more about Feruchemy, an alternate form of magic that co-exists with the better-known Allomancy, as well as some magical beings called kandra and koloss. The plot largely revolves around Elend (now the beleaguered king of Luthadel), Vin (Elend’s partner, famous for her role defeating the Lord Ruler, and revered by a huge part of the city as a religious figure), and Sazed (who is trying to get to the bottom of some troubling historical and religious texts), as Luthadel is besieged by three competing armies.

Just like the first book, the plot unfolds very, very slowly, up until the last quarter where everything falls into place for an electrifying finale. If I rated books on finales alone, both these instalments would’ve got higher ratings than I’ve given them, but… well… it’s hard to set aside the fact that I spent a week struggling through chapter after chapter of characters lamenting how sad the situation is that they find themselves in, interspersed with brief action sequences that never really seem to shake up the stalemate of the siege.

If that description of this book sounds harsh, it’s because it is harsh… there’s a lot of great world-building and character moments in here as well, and (in retrospect) a ton of groundwork being laid for the shocking cliffhanger ending. It’s just, man, these slow-paced long books are not the easiest for me to get through.

So. At the end of the previous book, Elend Venture stumbled into the role of new king of Luthadel. He tries to set up a quasi-representative democracy with eight seats each reserved for the nobility, the merchant class, and the skaa (you might notice that this leaves the vast majority of the population with only one-third of the seats). In order to continue as king, he is dependent on this institution to keep lending him their support, which proves challenging because half the ding-dongs representing the nobility and the merchants just want to hand the city over to one of its enemies.

See, rumours have spread far and wide that Luthadel contains great stockpiles of atium – an almost incalculably valuable metal that allows Mistborn to see a few seconds into the future. As a result, multiple armies march on the city, each one led by a noble who’s determined to seize these reserves of atium for himself.

Meanwhile, there’s something going wrong with the mists. In his travels, Sazed encounters villages which have been attacked by a mysterious force, with the villagers themselves insisting that the mists have been shaking people to death. Sazed immerses himself in his studies. It was foretold, over a thousand years ago, that a Hero of Ages would come to defeat the Deepness. The Lord Ruler had made out that he was that Hero, but the characters are sure that he’s not; nonetheless, these mists – which Vin becomes increasingly sure is the Deepness referred to in the historical texts – are clearly a rising threat.

Vin herself spends most of the book struggling with her insecurities. Does she deserve the way the skaa have lionised her as the heir to the Survivor of Hathsin? Is she worthy of the love she shares with Elend, or should she randomly ditch him for a weirdo named Zane who keeps stalking her at night, just because Zane is a fellow Mistborn? (Honestly, that love triangle subplot was pretty poor… I don’t think Sanderson intended for us to ever have a shred of doubt.) Her main arc over the course of the book is learning to overcome these doubts, to trust her instincts… and obviously to try to save the world.

There are other characters who I probably enjoyed reading about more. Vin’s kandra, and the friendship that blossomed between the two of them, was wonderful to read about. I also liked Tindwyl, another of Sazed’s people – her no-nonsense, tough-love kind of attitude to life, and also the relationship that developed between her and Sazed as they tried to get to the bottom of all those ancient texts.

Elend was a bit more eh. In the first book, he had a bit of roguish contrarianism about him. Here, he’s just found a way to convince the skaa to be happy with the minutest of incremental reforms, and isn’t even able to leverage that to stop the more traditional elements of the nobility trying to oust him. I spent a lot of this book missing Kelsier, just because I know he wouldn’t have been as satisfied with Elend's toothless reform agenda as Vin was.

In many ways, this was a very traditional “middle book” (and not just because it feels like a bit of an awkward transition): where the first book ends at a point where the main issue of the novel has been dealt with, but there are lingering doubts about where to go next, this book just ends with a full-on cliffhanger. Obviously, having read this far, there’s no way I could stop here and never find out what happens at the end! But I do think I wouldn’t mind having a little break and reading something else first. I just need to read something faster-paced so I can remind myself what that feels like.

Sanderson does have a lot of strengths: the world-building is great, and the way he lays all these clues so they can all suddenly come together in a mind-blowing ending is top-notch. I also think that the prose here is a little better than in the first book, without sacrificing the accessible simplicity of it. He also clearly has a veritable ton of subplots all unfolding here, and the fact that some of them didn’t hit the mark for me doesn’t negate the fact that others were really good. I mean, Sazed and Tindwyl studying old texts didn’t exactly make for the most action-packed of chapters, but man did it pay off at the end. Just wow.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, despite some flaws. I feel like if you’ve read the first instalment and don’t really know whether you can be bothered continuing on, this book probably won’t convince you that yup, continuing on was totally the right idea. A counterpoint, though, is that if the last book felt like a set-up book, this one also feels like a set-up book. So maybe the conclusion to the trilogy is going to be really, really big.

Books in the Mistborn series

  1. The Final Empire
  2. The Well of Ascension (you are here)
  3. The Hero of Ages (no review available)

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.