If you haven’t already ready Mistborn: The Final Empire, then I suggest that you read that book before reading this review for its sequel, since I’m not sure that I can completely avoid spoilers for the first book in my review for the second. That’s because, unlike in some trilogies that feel like just one, long book, Mistborn provides each book with its own main objective, and the way in which it does so makes it so that it’s not until the third book that we find out what the main conflict was really supposed to be all along.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, because this isn’t a review for The Hero of Ages (which will come in a couple of weeks). Instead, we’re reviewing The Well of Ascension, which is the second book in the trilogy, and thus the middle book. Middle books tend to have problems, as do second books, to the point that I often bandy about the term “second book syndrome.” This makes sense, since many authors consider middles to be the hardest part to write (I don’t – for me, endings are the hardest part to write), and a second book is often, in a way, all middle. The Well of Ascension, fortunately, does not suffer from second book syndrome, and it does this mostly by having its own, largely independent plot.
Brandon Sanderson had written extensively about his desire to subvert many of the tropes of the fantasy genre in his Mistborn series – you can find out more about that if you go read his annotations, which I highly recommend, especially if you are looking to improve your writing, or just to peek behind the curtain a little – and each book in the trilogy does that in a different way. Final Empire set us up expecting to spend a trilogy trying to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and instead we get a second book in which we look at what happens after the “dark lord” is overthrown.
My wife and I have often noted while watching Dr. Who how the Doctor tends to show up, overthrow the “dark lord,” and then disappear, leaving the people he just “saved” in a state of chaos, and never addressing the difficult work of building something good and lasting after the dark lord is defeated. The Well of Ascension forces the characters (and the readers) to grapple with the arguably more challenging task of building a nation. It might seem like that should be the easy part, but anyone who understands entropy should be able to see why that wouldn’t be the case.
Note: I found it interesting how many aspects of the plot of Final Empire resonated with lessons I learned from reading that practical handbook about staging a coup, even though what was executed was not technically a coup.
Most of the plot focused on defending the city, but humming along in the background is the idea of prophecy, another trope that Sanderson subverts with wondrous dexterity at the climax. This ending, what happens at the Well of Ascension, is possibly my favorite part of the whole trilogy, but I don’t want to say too much about it, lest I make it any less perfect when you get around to reading it.
If I have a gripe about this book, I think it would be Elend. I liked him as a side character in Final Empire, but he fell flat for me as a main character in The Well of Ascension. This is just a personal sense, and I have a difficult time pinning down exactly what I find bothersome about him, but he feels a little too…convenient. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s sometimes unavoidable. Maybe it’s that he feels a little too familiar, even a little anachronistic.
Despite that tiny matter of personal taste, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. Sanderson says that he had the hardest time writing this book out of all three in the trilogy, but his work paid off, because I think that it might be my favorite in the trilogy. I hope that you’ll read The Well of Ascension soon.
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