The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson. Or, Shannara 2.0

The Well of Ascension

Read December 2013
★ ★  1/2

Let me be honest. This feels like Shannara 2.0

I am aware that I am committing sacrilege in the fantasy world. The Shannara series has long been scoffed at by modern fantasy fans as “Tolkien-Lite.”  I would agree; when I recently attempted to reread The Sword of Shannara, I found it disturbingly simplistic. However, in the early 1980s, there wasn’t much available in the local library’s fantasy/sci-fi section. I discovered the Shannara series as I worked my way through the small collection, and it wasn’t long before I was saving my baby-sitting dollars to buy the latest. In fact, I still have my original copy of The Sword of Shannara, marked with a unicorn bookplate and my purchase date of July, 1985 (yes, I loved unicorns when I was 13).

Understand, then, that I am not hating on Sanderson as much as expressing the feeling that I’ve read this before.  He writes well enough, with more sophistication than Brooks, but plots are eerily familiar. A strange darkness moves across the land, devouring people in it’s wake or leaving them changed. A scholar accompanies a mysteriously powerful priest to a former sanctuary and hidden center of knowledge. A city under siege. A concealed enemy agent. I understand; there are some elements that are common story threads no matter what fantasy one reads. What I admire most, however, are people that do it well, using talents of a word-smith, or bring an unusual perspective, or take these common themes and put them in a world I haven’t seen before. Sanderson takes the familiar epic fantasy and does it here in an above-serviceable way that does not offend, so for those that want those elements, it should satisfy. But it doesn’t do it particularly outstandingly, or even uniquely, beyond the concept of allomancy already explored in book one, so for me it feels entirely recognizable.

However, Sanderson isn’t that much better than Brooks at characterization. One passage early on stood out:

She was like no one he had ever known–a woman of simple, yet honest, beauty and wit.

How I’ve come to loathe the ‘simple’ /outsider female characterization. Which leads me to my next concern–characterization is not one of Sanderson’s strong points; for me his characters generally feel like trading card profiles defined by a small cluster of traits. Vin, for me, remains a struggle. She is young in years, so Sanderson seems convinced she needs to go through a female rite of passage known as The Choice Between Two Men. That the men share a connection means it takes on archetypical connotations. Elend is the scholar who lacks life experiences, so his rite of passage is learning Leading Can’t Be Done From a Book, and it’s corollary, Not All Answers Come From Books (while I enjoy the fact that Sanderson brings a love of books to his writing, it is disconcerting in a pre-industrial society to have characters that unfailingly turn to the written word for information).

I rather like Vin’s obsession with Elend’s safety in the beginning, and her paranoia about watchers in the mist. It is a perspective that is most consistent with the street-rat upbringing and the experience of a young person who has gone through revolution. Her new suitor attempting to capitalize on the feeling of being ‘different’ just seems weak and uninspired; hasn’t the entire Vin storyline been about her outsider status? The flirtation felt forced either way; the will she/won’t she dilemma felt like nothing more than a distraction and a means of moving the plot to a particular point. The most interesting aspect to her character was the exploration of her relationship with the shapechanger known as OreSeur (and if that wasn’t Sanderson trying to be portentous [and pretentious], I don’t know what is. It also brought back Sword memories with the betrayal of Shannara by gnome Orl Fane).

Elend, on the other hand, remains dangerously naive in applying political theory. Sanderson belabors this area of the book, a discussion of political theory and leadership that is strangely facile despite lengthy passages (‘kings stand up straight, have short hair and wear a visible symbol of office’).  And, of course, the reader learns that people are just ungrateful, and that the underclass appreciates the yoke of oppression if it tells them what to do and protects them from the unknown. The merchant class, of course, will swing whatever way the dollar blows. Good thing there are still secret scholars like Sazed out there, collecting and storing knowledge for when people are ready. Subtle, Sanderson isn’t.

Like most 2.0 versions, I appreciated the updates in the new fantasy version. You know–no overbearing sexism, racism, homophobia (but let’s not get crazy here and imply any of those things are actually part of the world-view). A general improvement in writing ability. An attention to the economics of the world. Sanderson’s magic system remains his writing calling card, but it mostly feels like a sideshow here, a way to distract from the real issues. Vin has various assassins set upon her or practice fights whenever things in the political arena or the library get too slow.

Ultimately, this kind of epic fantasy doesn’t work for me anymore. I suppose I’ll try book three, because fans enticingly hint that there’s an unpredictable payoff, and because I have a bit of series OCD. However, I have left series before (I never did finish the Shannara series once Brooks headed to the history of the druids) when they failed to provide that breath of fresh air.  I want something different, something that takes those fantasy elements and does something creative–something that dreams up the Mac version of fantasy instead of recycling the same Windows elements. Examples, you ask? Something like The Killing Moon, with a world that is not based in European medieval life, contains alternate sexualities and has an unusual medium for conflict. Or perhaps The Bridge of Birds, which explores the medium of Chinese folk tales and has a fine sense of humor. Or The First Law series, which has some of the finest, most complicated characterization I’ve seen in epic fantasy. Or Three Parts Dead, which does not painstakingly explain every aspect of the world and magic system, yet still captivates and satisfies. You get the idea–there’s a lot of fantasy out there that stretches the boundaries of the genre. This isn’t one of them.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson. Or, Shannara 2.0

  1. Found this in a pingback from The Killing Moon. I don’t remember much of The Well of Ascension, but your comments bring back just about everything I remember being secretly annoyed with but didn’t know how to express, especially Vin’s rocky characterization. I definitely have to read The First Law series and The Bridge of Birds.

    • Oh, they’re already on TBR! How is it that the books I plan to read are always drifting out of my memory…

    • thebookgator says:

      Thank you–it took a bit to pinpoint why it bothered me. I strongly suggest Bridge of Birds, although it is meant very tongue-in-cheek. It’s a light read. The First Law is quite dark and dismal and I wouldn’t recommend it for you atm. The characterization was stellar, but only because these were such deeply flawed, occasionally horrible people one cared about anyway.

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