The Well of Ascension

Brandon Sanderson
The Well of Ascension Cover

Everything that Made Mistborn Great Makes This Good


I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed Mistborn: The Final Empire. The setting of a nigh-ruined world ruled by a messiah-turned-evil ruler, the well-crafted magic system,  and the interesting mythos blended with good characterization immersed me in pure SF pleasure.  I was eager to pick up  The Well of Ascension, the second installment of Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which picks up the story roughly a year after the events of the first book.

The Lord Ruler is dead, killed during the uprising in Luthadel that finally freed the skaa from the oppression of The Final Empire.  Elend has been named king and has put in place a new government with a representative assembly.  All of this is put in jeopardy, however, as an army headed by Elend’s father, Straff Venture, lays siege to Luthadel.  Straff has named himself the rightful king of what remains of the Final Empire, and is determined to claim the city one way or another, particularly so he can secure the Lord Ruler’s valuable atium stockpile for himself.  He isn’t the only one with designs on the Lord Ruler’s stash, however, as another army enters the scene, headed by another warlord and would-be king.  As if invasion and the religious adoration of the people wasn’t enough to deal with, Vin also must contend with assassins targeting herself and Elend, a mysterious mistborn who is either there to help her or kill her, and a strange apparition in the mists.  This apparition isn’t the only thing odd about the mists these days, and Vin fears that with the Lord Ruler gone the Deepness is returning the world.  Can the crew protect the city?  Can they keep control with opportunists and possible traitors in their midst?  Can they unravel the mysteries left behind by the Lord Ruler before it’s too late?  Will they find the Well of Ascension?

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but it didn’t satisfy me as much as the first volume did.  I only had a few tiny criticisms of the first book, but my problems with this one are more numerous and much more glaring.  Taking that into consideration along with the feeling that my compliments of this book feel mainly like a recapitulation of what I said in my review of the previous novel in the series, I’m going to flip my usual reviewing style and start with my criticisms before heading in to what I thought worked in the book.

Where The Well of Ascension Could Have Been Better

The primary theme in my criticisms of The Well of Ascension is that, while each element of the book on its own is thoughtful and interesting, in concert they make for a story that drags unnecessarily and possibly tries too hard to solidity its themes.

One problem I had with The Final Empire  is that the majority of the story takes place in Luthadel.  The siege of Luthadel confines our main characters to that city once again, which limits the opportunities we have to see more of the world Sanderson has created.  The capitol of the former Final Empire is nowhere near as engaging as Lynch’s Camorr from The Lies of Locke Lamora (a book I find myself continually comparing other fantasy titles to), and it quickly becomes an uninteresting setting in and of itself.  While reading, I began to question Sanderson’s world-building as I became dubious whether or not he had conceived of all these other locals he makes reference to but never shows.  There are only brief forays to other locals, such as the Conventacle of Seran (a retreat of the Steel Inquisitors), but the narrative always pulls us right back to Luthadel like we are chained to it.  I didn’t mind staying in the city throughout the first book, but I think a second volume in a fantasy series should continue to wow us with the worldbuilding by taking us to some new places.

Now, I understand that staying within Luthadel made sense for the story considering the siege it was under, and I understand the reason for the siege: the Lord Ruler’s death left a power vacuum and now would-be kings are seeking to claim his capital and his atium stockpiles.  This is where the primary theme in my criticism comes into play, because while I understood the reason for this siege, the way it was executed left a great deal to be desired.  Overall it felt like it lasted too long.  I know that sieges are meant to last long, but from the get-go Elend, Vin, and their crew knows two things for certain: 1) if an army decides to attack, the city will fall, and 2) an army will attack.  The sense of inevitability of the loss of the city and the death of just about everyone is pervasive, and early on it creates this nice Sword of Damocles for the plot, but when the sword takes so long to finally drop that you check your watch and decide to catch a quick nap while you wait, something is definitely wrong in the pacing. Take for example the crew’s plan to play one army off of the other by making alliances with both and then goading them into a fight while Luthadel sits back and watches (which makes me think of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo).  It’s roughly 150 pages between the time that strategy is broached and when the first part of it, Elend’s negotiation with his father, goes into effect. 150 pages!  Why the delay?  Why not keep things moving to keep the characters behind the 8 ball?  Well, I’m 90% sure that the siege was just a framing device for all of the other stuff going on in the city in the meantime.

As for when an army finally attacks, I was somewhat disappointed.  I hoped for a riveting battle like Helms Deep or a last stand like Thermopoalaye, and I at least expected a climactic full-city battle like the one from the previous book.  What I got, however, came from a very restrictive viewpoint and only showed the battle in snippets, with a good deal of it happening off stage, so that when main and supporting characters die (and several do die) it is unsatisfying.  One death of a beloved character was almost like the cheap shot at the end of Serenity.  The build up to the battle lost its pzzazz, and the big break in the tension was  unsatisfying to a large extent, particularly given how long I waited for it.

As I said, the siege seemed to be a framing device for what was happening within the city: Elend dealing with trying to keep his throne while also trying to stay an honest man,  we have the arrival of a new party that wants to make Elend look and act more kingly, there is the possibility of a traitor in the ranks, Vin sees a strange mist apparition like the one the Hero of Ages saw, another mistborn who  pulls the “we’re alike, you and I” card with Vin, the escalation of the religious mysteries engendered by Kelsior and continued (unwillingly) by Vin, another translation mystery being tackled by Sazed, etc.  The siege seemed to be protracted in order to give this stuff time to play out, and on their own each element was interesting and felt vital, but together they kept the novel from moving like it should: bloated with good ideas is how I might describe it.

Sanderson characterizes his viewpoint characters through a great deal of inner monologues to a significantly higher degree than he did in the first book, it seems.  He comes back to these inner struggles time and again throughout the novel, unnecessarily in some instances. Kudos to Sanderson for giving these characters rich interior lives, complicating their relationships with others, and solidifying certain important themes, but  I frequently felt pounded over the head with this stuff.; I get it, VIN IS INSECURE, you don’t have to wail on it every chance you get.  In one scene late in the book, for example, Vin decides to run a long way to the rescue of some of her friends.  The following chapter cuts to her mid-trip to have her first despair and then decide she will never give up, and then it cuts away again to someone else.  Nothing else happens in that snippet.  I didn’t need this since this attitude has already been well established earlier, and it felt remarkably like treading water.

Overall, The Well of Ascension is ambitious and tries to accomplish a great deal not only in terms of plot but in terms of character development as well.  Overall, however, I think it was weighted down by too many good ideas, so much so that in order to fit it all in the pacing of the book suffered.  One thing I really liked about the first book was its pacing, so it was disappointing to feel this novel dragging along as it did.

What The Well of Ascension Does Well

I still like what Sanderson is doing with the prophecy of the Hero of Ages.  Playing with the  expectations of the well-used genre of the hero’s quest is part of what makes this series stand out.  There are very significant developments in terms of unraveling the mystery of the Well of Ascension and the Hero of Ages that adds a new layer of complexity and intrigue to the overall story.  I am sufficiently intrigued and creeped out (in a good way) by what Sanderson has done here.  Prophecy and legend and foretelling are so overused that they usually come across as tripe.  Who made these prophesies?  Why does it have to go down this way?  It all feels artificial most of the time, but Sanderson puts an interesting spin on this all-too-familiar plot device that, as I said, makes this series stand out.  A lot of this is accomplished through translation of another mysterious document, a project once gain spearheaded by Sazed.  Snippets from this translation once again are used as epigraphs for chapters, and while at first I was worried that this conceit had run its course in the first novel, it ultimately is worth it.  As the mystery is partially unraveled at the end of the novel, we are called to question all the characters have seen and heard in the book in an intriguing way.

I also still enjoy the magic system.  Sanderson has added in the discovery of a new alloy that adds new possibilities for Vin’s allomancy.  Just as Vin is touted as one of the most powerful mistborn ever, we are also well aware of the limitations of her gifts.  This keeps her from seeming like an invincible superwoman and, as I’ve stated in my review of the first book, requires her to be clever and cunning in addition to being flat out powerful.

While the inner monolgoues of the characters and their musings on their problems and insecurities seemed overdone in several instances, overall the characterization was interesting and engaging.  Vin is insecure about her place in the growing myth of Kelsior in addition to being unsure about her place with Elend.  This seems to be a natural extension of a concern many lovebirds in drastic situation must face: is it love or just infatuation strengthened by intense situations?  Elend is delcared king at the end of the first boo (a plot development that was glossed over so quickly at the end of the first book so as not to raise too many questions, it seems) and in this book he struggles with trying to maintain his power and help his people without losing his honest nature.  Is he a good man, or just a naive one?  Sazed is developed more in this story and becomes just as interesting a character as Vin and Elend.  Breeze also is surprisingly made more nuanced, although I still wish I knew more about Dockson!

The action is still satisfying overall, although I wish the battle for Luthadel in the end was more completely fleshed out than it was.

Concluding Thoughts

The Well of Ascension has a lot going for it in terms of characterization, the continuation of an interesting mythos, action, and the novel use of a well-thought out magic system, but it doesn’t feel more than the sum of its parts.  The book drags to an extent that the siege of Luthadel loses its teeth.  Overall it becomes a hindrance to the pacing of the story.  This stands in great contrast to the first book, The Final Empire, which was a very tight, well-paced story.  This is not to say that its a bad novel, however.  It continues the story and themes of the first book in a way that feels believable and interesting, and much of what made the first book great makes this book good.  I’m going to read Hero of Ages and the more recent installment The Alloy of Law not because I feel bound to since I started the series, but because I’m genuinely interested in what happens to these characters and in how Sanderson plans to play out the mythos he has created.