Lord of Colors...
WARBREAKER is one of Sanderson's lesser-talked-about novels that is technically part of his Cosmere, but doesn't seem to be as popular as his MISTBORN or STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE series or even his debut novel, ELANTRIS. BookTube personalities like Elliot Brooks and Merphy Napier have given it high praise though, so I was both excited and nervous to explore this world for myself.
HOW I RATED IT
5/5 While WARBREAKER feels somewhat different from some of Sanderson's other work despite being part of his Cosmere, I found this to be such a deeply satisfying story with fascinating magic, a world rife with political/ideological tension that sits on the edge of war, and vivid characters that will likely live rent-free in my head for a long time to come.
The story focusses around a princess named Siri who is the youngest of the Idrian royal family whose bloodline is famous for being able to change their hair length and color on command, although it can also change based on their emotional state unless they control it. Siri is a princess of little consequence until her father (in an extremely messed up move, I must say) decides to send her to the looming kingdom of Hallandren to marry their feared and terrible god king and bear him an heir instead of her eldest sister, Vivenna, who has been training for this task her whole life. The arrangement is part of a peace treaty between the two nations and although honoring it does not guarantee that Hallandren will not invade Idris, the king hopes that sending Siri will at least buy his kingdom valuable time. From there, Siri finds herself in a nation with strange foreign customs and deadly court intrigue, but also learns that not all aspects of this nation are as awful as she has been led to believe. This fish-out-of-water motif combined with the delightful dynamic of all the different Returned gods in Hallandren and the machinations of different people made for a dynamic read that kept me constantly anxious to know what would happen next. In typical Sanderson fashion, there is a flurry of high stakes action and stunning reveals at the end of the book, but I actually found the ending to be a bit more open-ended than is typical for him (outside of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE series at least). I certainly wasn't dissatisfied with the conclusion by any means, but I did kind of wish it would continue somehow although I am not aware of any plans for Sanderson to do a sequel for this (which is kind of a shame). I will also say that this story felt like it took on some darker subject matter than I am used to with Sanderson's work, but I enjoyed that there are still certain lines that he does not cross.
As one might expect with a Sanderson novel, there is a diverse and interesting cast of characters from different economic backgrounds and (fictional) nationalities. Tensions run deep with people of different nations as well as social standing, so seeing how these different types of characters interacted with each other was something that I particularly enjoyed. In addition to seeing the rebellious and carefree Siri grow into a woman of regal poise, it was equally fun to see her sister, Vivenna take on a somewhat opposite character arc. The god, Lightsong, struggling to accept his own divinity and the goddess, Blushweaver's, political maneuverings serve as fascinating sub plots that ultimately have profound implications on the story's end. I also ended up really enjoying some of the more antagonistic characters in the story and enjoyed the "everyone is not as they seem" trope that is rather prevalent throughout the cast. Honestly, I feel like this novel deserves a lot more credit for it's colorful roster of heroes and villains since for me, I think I actually felt a lot more attached to them than some of the characters in even Sanderson's STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE (hot take, I know, I just really, really liked these characters).
While there is a distinct sense that this is a sprawling world with lots of history, the story mainly just takes place in the contrasting kingdoms of Idris and Hallandren. Idris is a conservative nation that values modesty, restraint, and considers vibrant colors of any kind to be ostentatious even though they worship the god, Austre, who is the Lord of Colors. They view Hallendren as an evil, sinful, and even barbaric place even though the people of Idris originally lived there before an event known as The Many War. Hallendren is starkly opposite of Idris with revealing, colorful clothing being the norm and their religion being based around a small pantheon of so-called gods which are made up of Returned (people who died and came back as a brand new person with no memory of their past). There are some interesting themes around the religion and politics of the world, though Sanderson always handles these topics with a light hand and does not prioritize them above the story itself which I appreciate. I did finish the story wishing that we could have gotten glimpses of other parts of this world, but instead we got a much more focused narrative and that's a tradeoff I will always be happy with.
The magic in WARBREAKER might feel quite a bit more mysterious than other magic systems that Sanderson has crafted. Make no mistake, this is still a decidedly "hard" magic system with explicit rules and limitations, it simply feels a bit on the "softer" side for much of the story since the main characters don't fully understand it. I rather liked this balance as I was able to still feel a sense of wonder at what some of the characters could do, but then have it mostly explained near the story's end. I think there are still some open questions that could be answered about the history of the magic and the gods, but I am satisfied with how things all pieced together.
While I am not well-versed in the world of audiobooks, I can say that the narrator is one of the single most important factors that determines whether I will enjoy the book or not in audio format. Alyssa Bresnahan's performance for this novel was absolutely stunning to me. There were honestly times where I forgot I was only listening to one person because of how dynamic and varied her dramatization for the different characters was. Even her more neutral narration is smooth and soothing in a way that felt apropos for this kind of a fantasy story. I've enjoyed vocal performances by industry legends like Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, but this was truly on another level and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for any other books done by Bresnahan. I will also say that the Audible edition has much nicer cover art than other editions of this book.
While WARBREAKER may tell a different type of story than some of Sanderson's more popular works, all of his hallmarks are still here and I found myself appreciating the tighter storytelling even if some of that came at the expense of fleshing out the world and it's history.
(+) Stunning audio performance.
(+) A deep and memorable cast.
(+) Exciting action scenes toward the story's final act.
(+) Lots of political intrigue and fun twists.
(+) Fascinating magic (though this is pretty much a given for any Brandon Sanderson novel).
(-) The ending doesn't offer as much closure as some people might want.
(-) Fans of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE series might find the lighter world building to be jarring (though this was not an issue for me).