Why spend hundreds on tickets to watch the Hamilton musical when you can just read the first half of Brandon Sanderson’s The Well of Ascension? Partway through the book, I could almost hear Washington’s voice telling Hamilton “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.”
The evil Lord Ruler has kept the bureaucratic cogs in the clockwork of society turning for a thousand years, so what happens when that well-oiled machine collapses? A new danger emerges following the victory of our heroes: it’s bureaucracy. What do slaves do when they’re no longer slaves? How functional is the new economic and political system? Can the former nobility cohabitate with the very people they’ve been conditioned to undermine?
The Well of Ascension picks up a year after the end of The Final Empire, showing us what happens when the ugly side of victory rears its nasty three-headed face. Rebuilding society is no easy feat, especially when you’re the de facto ruler of a politically unstable empire forced to wait helplessly as three separate armies lay siege outside your city gates. That’s right folks, King Elend is having a bad day. Elend was a supporting character in The Final Empire, but upgrades to one of the main cast in The Well of Ascension and acts as the idealistic intellectual counterpart to Vin’s cynical brute force. The political footwork necessary to build a new nation upon competing agendas doesn’t come naturally to Elend (or Vin), but this aspect is what made his character development so satisfying. I loved his internal conflict with reconciling the fact that being a strong leader in times of crisis means he must sacrifice his noble ideals for ruthless pragmatism.
The cover of The Well of Ascension next to the original artwork
Vin has her own identity crisis as she no longer needs to masquerade as “Valette the noble lady,” but she’s also matured beyond “Vin the street urchin.” Moreover, there’s a budding religious group called the “Church of the Survivor” that has chosen to exalt her as a religious figure, evidently against her wishes. The issue of identity plagues Vin throughout the book, but I only found it to be somewhat compelling. Personally, I think the overarching plot is the more compelling aspect of the Mistborn series rather than the characters, but other readers may find that they resonate more with the characters arcs.
Sanderson focuses heavily on the political machinations of nation-building, making the story slower paced, but as someone who enjoys the political drama of both real and fantasy worlds, I didn’t mind. During the plot twists of the book’s first half, I was actually riled up and audibly yelled at the bureaucratic buffoonery that so clearly reflected the problems of our own real-world politics.
However, the glacial pace of politics may turn people off from the book. In fact, by the time I was nearing the end of Part Three on my e-reader, I thought the book was almost finished and was prepared to give it a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. That being said, those who remain for the second half of the story won’t be disappointed as it was enough to convince me to make it a 5-star read (be prepared for the most soul-shattering and destructive of plot twists). In the true Sanderson style, I found myself reeling from the emotional whiplash that happens at the end of The Well of Ascension. Now, excuse me while I dry my tears and pick up The Hero of Ages.