9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
But where are the characters?,
This review is from: Warbreaker (Tor Fantasy) (Mass Market Paperback)[This review is based on the free pdf version of this work, accessible on Sanderson's website. Discrepancies may exist between versions.]
Every time I read a Sanderson novel, I remember why it is I vow not to read another Sanderson novel. The reason's simple: Sanderson is frustrating to a ridiculous degree. The reason for that is probably ever simpler: so much potential, wasted.
Sanderson has two main strengths in Warbreaker, and as these were the two main strengths in each book of the Mistborn trilogy, I'm beginning to see a pattern. The first strength is the untaxing way in which he writes. His prose is easy to read and understand, even if not particularly inspired. Easy to read and understand means the book reads quickly. Which means people like me stay up late (to what some people would call incredibly unreasonable hours) reading.
His other strength is in creating interesting magic systems in settings not cut from the typical feudal Europe cloth. Warbreaker's system was particularly fascinating, especially since it mixed in with the religious system, which was also nothing I've read before. Such imagination and creativity is appreciated. Indeed, that alone is bumping this review up to two stars. The bottom line is that Sanderson deserves recognition for trying different things, even if the execution of said things leaves much to be desired.
But, to put it bluntly, Sanderson's execution of the said different things leaves much to be desired. Because for all the cleverness that goes into the world and the plot, without characters that are more than names on a page, it falls flat. Some characterization--anywhere, anywhere at all!--would have been nice, but in the end, the most developed character in the entire thing was a sword. A sword! As for the others, the humans, the `complex' ones...even right now, fresh from finishing the book, I couldn't really tell you any more about them except for the things we were expressly told about them.
With Sanderson, characters are all cut from the same cloth. They speak the same way, right down to the banter. And are written the same way. And we never get a sense of any of them. Never any sense at all. Not even a wrong, misleading sense. We the readers just get names on the page and actions that happen, and if we're lucky some sort of statement about hair color or an adjective so we can actually remember something about the Name.
Twists are much less twisty when you, the reader, just don't care and were never given any reason to. Betrayals don't hurt when you never believed (or disbelieved) in a relationship between two characters anyway. Perhaps worst of all, plot junkies like myself are deprived in the reading of Warbreaker of the opportunity to play Figure It Out First because the dialogue (sword excluded) is impossible to distinguish from one character to another, meaning we the plot junkies don't get to dissect meanings. Because we don't get a sense of the Point of View character or the secondary characters, we have nothing to get any sort of grounding in.
The entirety of Warbreaker--minus the sword, that is--is stuff happening. "Who" and "Whom" never factor in. I kept reading to find out why it was happening, and I even felt cheated in that, as Sanderson withholds information until the end, when we get the monologue explanations. (Essentially, there's no way to figure out how it's going to end in advance, because you're dependent on information that conveniently isn't revealed until the end, thus obligating you to read to the end. It's a taunt, not a puzzle.)
A few months ago, I might have recommended to go ahead and read this book. It is, after all, enjoyable, and it kills time, and the ideas are fun. I read this free online with no cost except sore eyes from starting at the computer screen, so I really can't complain. Really shouldn't.
But I can't bring myself to feel bad for the harsh things I've said in this review. I'm a dedicated reader of fantasy. The fact that a writer whose characters are virtually nonexistent is now one of the names representing the entire genre is terrifying to me.
So, I say: Demand better of fantasy writers. Avoid this one. And I, for my part, am going to hope Sanderson picks up some characterization techniques, because I'd really love to see one oh his worlds through the eyes of a character who was actually, well, a character and not someone to just make events happen.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 8, 2011 11:45:25 AM PDT
***This is not criticism or snark.***
Amazing how two people reading the same book can get such totally different things out of it. I loved the characters, all of them; sentient sword, the teasing mercenaries, Susebon and the hilarious Lightsong. I really cared about the characters and thought they were dynamic and well developed. I'm sorry you didn't like this book, because I sure enjoyed the heck out of it.
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2011 9:21:54 AM PDT
Thank you for responding (and civilly, too)! I'm always up for discussing my take on a book.
For me and how I read it, I'd chalk whatever personality the characters had up to being superficial and nothing more. There was just no depth, as far as I saw it. The older sister (name escapes me, a bad sign) was stern and prissy. The younger sister was always speaking her mind... To me it reeks of a method of characterization whereby the author simply assigns traits to a character and then makes sure those traits apply to what the character says or does. It's easy, too, to get characters that seem alive that way... you simply assign traits with enough glamor and glitz--like the younger sister being rebellious, like the older sister being an uptight snob. And then, presto! The reader gets something to latch onto.
Maybe I've read too much "literary" fiction (I don't actually believe in the term) but that way of doing things simply doesn't do it for me. To me, that's just being told how a character is. It also creates a rather 2D, flat sort of character because they're only the traits that they got assigned. And, there's not a lot of depth, either, which is what I look for when I read... Why is the younger sister so rebellious? Why do the two mercenaries constantly joke around?
And questions like that, I don't want to be told the answer. I want it to be in there for me to find. Which was why the whole bit with the older sister when she psycho-analyzed herself about why she had come to the city... In my opinion, that's something the reader should be able to figure out and speculate on before she knows. Because it's kind of fun to be reading and say, "No you aren't. You're only coming to the city because you can't deal with being unimportant any more." But instead, we get told that.
One of the main things too is still the dialogue. The dialogue is so... consistently the same. So much that it might as well be, in my opinion, "Witty comment," said Brandon Sanderson to Brandon Sanderson.
"Witty comment back!" said Brandon Sanderson.
"Wittier comment!" said Brandon Sanderson.
That was a bit cruel of me, but I'm just unimpressed with Sanderson in nearly all regards (except for his ideas... he has awesome concepts) and I'm worried that fantasy's going to start becoming what the critics with their pretentious literature think fantasy is... plot driven, unimportant, superficial, candy fiction. :-(
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2011 7:00:55 AM PDT
Thanks for the thoughtful response, DQ! While I was formulating a reply to this, I perused your other reviews, to see if I could better understand your point of view. I was particularly interested in your review of Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb, since you named it as an example of good characterization.
The draw of Hobb's novels was, for me, the plot. I did not see much character growth, especially in Fitz. Fitz's story was enthralling, and the relationships between the characters were dyanmic and evolving, but the people themselves were static. Thus, I believe that you and I are fundamentally at odds about what we like in the way of character development. So yay! Book discussion time!!
Now, in Warbreaker, I found that the characters changed, learned, and evolved as people as much as their relationships evolved. Let's take a look at Vivenna, the eldest sister. She began the novel as a complacent, sweet, obedient girl. Her motivation for rebelling against her father's orders starts as a need to protect her sister, Siri. Eventually the virtuous Vivenna learns to adapt to Haladren's heathen ways, becomes a freedom fighter, and is forced to examine life outside of her normal black and white view of morality.
Siri, the youngest daughter, who lived rebllious and carefree, came to learn the merits of holding her tongue, and the danger of alienating people just because she can. I didn't think that Sanderson wrote her as obnoxiously rebellious, or bratty. I found her to be a realistic 17yr. old. While Vivenna had to learn to loosen up and act less like a monarch, Siri had to learn to do the opposite.
I compared these two to Fitz, in Assassin's Apprentice. No matter what happened to him, Fitz repeated the same mistakes over and over again. He never seemed to learn from them, and until the very end of his story, he never found more than a marginal happiness. Not that a happy ending makes for a good story, but after 6+ books I kept waiting for Fitz to stop frustrating me, and it didn't happen until the end. With Siri and Vivenna, I could see the progression, though the manner in which it was addressed was a bit obvious.
I totally understand what you're talking about when you say that Sanderson bludgeons the reader with internal dialogue about character motivations. It really could have been done more subtley. My only defense for Sanderson is that this is second novel. You want to read some whacky internal dialogue? Try Sanderson's first novel, Elantris. Actually, don't, because I enjoyed that one too and I don't want you breaking my heart with a review! ;-)
Okay, now on to dialogue. I LOL'd at your commentary on "witty comment/comeback", and I think I know what you mean. Lightsong's interactions with other characters took on that pattern of dialogue, for sure, but tell me you never even cracked a smile! I giggled all the way through Lightsong's scenes, because the comments WERE funny! The structure of the conversation became familiar, but I don't feel like that subtracted from the quality of the writing. The same goes for the mercenaries, though I don't think their conversations were as formulaic as Lightsongs.
Alright, I need to get back to pretending to work. I look forward to a response, and if none is forthcoming, I enjoyed our discourse immensely, thanks!
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2011 8:10:47 AM PDT
Oh, Assassin's Apprentice... I did love the characters in that one. But then again, I never did read onward, so maybe I loved them less than I thought I did. I think I read that one more than a year and a half ago, too, which means that my opinions on all this stuff have changed drastically. They unfortunately tend to do that and consistency between reviews is thus unreliable :-/
I'd say my current best example for an author who does astounding work with characters is Janny Wurts. Raymond Feist's work was never better than when he cowrote with her (The Empress Trilogy). I read To Ride Hell's Chasm over the summer and was stunned by the vividness of the characters. Guy Gavriel Kay also impressed me with his characters, though that was a long time ago and I have no idea if I'd say the same today.
In terms of other fantasy big timers at the moment... I'd say that George R.R. Martin's characters are damn good, but he cheats by selecting characters that are easier to frame, in my opinion. Patrick Rothfuss is great but Janny Wurts is better... Anne Rice might even be better than Wurts, seeing as Rice made me fall in love with vampires and I had until then been vehemently opposed to reading anything urban (I'm squarely in the Team LotR camp).
I guess the question here, then, is what I'm looking for in a character, what I consider a fantastic character to be... and I don't really have a great answer because my opinions on it change depending on what lens I'm looking at stuff with. Part of the problem is that there are a great many great ways to build characterization and such. Tolkien had a different way than any other fantasy author on the market today, but I'll remember Frodo and Sam and Bilbo and Gandalf and Aragorn for the rest of my life. J.K. Rowling's methods aren't anywhere close to Tolkien's or Janny Wurts's but I feel like I know Harry and know Hermione and Ron and especially the twins and Dobby and all them.
So, I guess that's my main problem with Sanderson's characters. I read some 700 pages of them and they're still nothing more than names on a page to me. They never had individual voices in the dialogue (hence why I put "Brandon Sanderson" in the tag) and Sanderson had to explain them... without the internal dialogue, there would have been nothing. You could switch the characters' names around and never really know the difference. The characters never came alive for me. I never felt like I knew them--except for the sword--and I certainly never could have known what they were likely to do next.
I am unfortunately out of time and I don't think I actually said anything, but please respond back if you keep up with this! Thanks!
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2011 8:55:38 AM PDT
This is the most interesting thing I've got going today, of course I'm keeping up with it. ;-)
I didn't feel that the characters were interchangeable in Warbreaker, but you're right that in a few years I'll remember more about Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter than I will about Siri and Vivenna. I liked what you said about the quality of characterization depending on the lens it's viewed through. I think that I am very forgiving with novels that keep me entertained. Though I love high fantasy, I'm also a fan of the fluff stuff, like Simon R. Greens Nightside series, where the characters are so larger life and impossible that you just have to take it for what is and keep smiling.
Another example: I just finished a fabulous series by Robert J. Sawyer (WWW:Wake, Watch, and Listen) and the characters are really, really silly. However, the book itself was so thought provoking, and full of awesome ideas that I felt like I was reading a parable. The characters and plot exist only to illustrate a neat moral lesson, so I appreciated their existence as tools. Let me reiterate here that I still think Warbreaker's characters are fine examples of well fleshed people. :-P
You mentioned Patrick Rothfuss in your last comment, and I have a few of his novels at home waiting to be read. I'll be paying extra attention to those characters now, let me tell you! ;)
Have you given up completely on Brandon Sanderson? I ask because after reading the Way of Kings, I may be hooked on this author forever. I'd be interested in finding out if you believe his writing has improved with his latest effort.
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 18, 2011 4:35:24 PM PDT
I'll have to put Way of Kings on the list... If anything, Sanderson's novels read fast and easily and his ideas are cool, and I travel a lot so it's as good as anything.
As for the matter at hand... I'll agree to disagree on whether or not the characters were well-fleshed out because, in the end, each to her own opinion. Buuuut, here's another angle on it, because after all this is what I find most frustrating about Sanderson... what if the characters hadn't just been adequate? What if they had been complex, conflicting, paradoxical, driven not so much by what traits surfaced but rather by some tricksy internal mechanism?
Sanderson has great imagination, and I read in some review or interview somewhere that he loves to do complicated plot twists and such, but in Warbreaker I was never really surprised by anything because I didn't particularly care about any of the characters. Even if I judged them too harshly, I didn't really feel for them and that has nothing to do with my inner critic. The ending would have been so powerful if I had really felt for Character A and his struggle, really believed in it and hadn't just had it explained to me. (The sad thing to me being that any character could be Character A and that sentence would work :-( )
Good characterization), in my reading experience, can make me absolutely bawl for the characters. Great dragons, when I read the finale of The Darkest Road (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 3), by Guy Gavriel Kay... I had to put the book down, I was crying so hard. I loved some of Katherine Kurtz's characters so much I threw one of the books against the wall when one of them died (if you want unpredictable plot, check out her work... the prose isn't in the modern flash-reading style of Sanderson, more Tolkien-like in terms of paragraph size, but it's awesomely evil).
With Sanderson, I just...don't really care what happens to them. The same went for the Mistborn trilogy, too. I read on to find out what happened with the plot, not because of the characters... and in my view of what a good book ought to be, that's all backwards.
But, I posit--in fact, I'd stake money on it--that if Sanderson's characters were more than just trait-sacks with a name and general learning arc attached (oh, I hate being so scathing, but I can't help it. I just want him to be blowing minds like he could be), the book would be a dozen times as entertaining. Not just semi-mindless, "Oh, I wonder what's going to happen next" but "IF YOU KILL ______, Sanderson, I'M GONNA...NOOOOOOOOOO" and I wouldn't even glance at the clock or attempt to tell myself, "You ought to go to sleep." Perhaps even with a book thrown against the wall.
It's this never-ending network. When the characters are rich, the plot gets richer. The tension grows. The themes deepen and widen. And the characters get richer again. And on and on it goes. But the plot's only ever going to be as good as the characters, in the end, in my opinion. C'est triste.
So... maybe Sanderson's characters are fine... but, why settle for fine when you can have outstandingly vivid characters with voices of their own who drive the plot even as it drives them and turn you into a recluse for a few days as you read their entire tome-sized trilogy? And villains... oh, villains are so much more terrifying when they're fleshed and real and not just cardboard. And then, when you find yourself rolling your eyes at one character's POV because you really just can't stand her... that's when an author's done a commendable job, I'd say.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2012 8:28:37 PM PDT
Laura M. Bangerter says:
I really enjoyed this book, and I think Sanderson may be one of my new favorite authors. But I do agree with you that his characterizations could use a bit of improvement. Like you said, I didn't become completely attached to any single character. Have you ever read any of Dave Duncan's books? He is my #1 favorite author of all time, and it boggles my mind that he is not more well known. A Man of His Word series, The King's Blade's and The Omar books are among his best. Definitely characters that have stuck with me.
In reply to an earlier post on May 1, 2013 6:10:23 PM PDT
I agree - I don't understand why Duncan isn't better known. I would add The Seventh Sword and Hero to the list, but I think the Omar books were the absolute best work he's ever done.
In reply to an earlier post on May 1, 2013 6:37:48 PM PDT
Laura M. Bangerter says:
Yes Seventh Sword were great too. I'll have to reread Hero. It has been a long time.
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