That’s a weird combination of books, I know, but that’s what I took to read on my WorldCon trip.
Of the two, Warbreaker was by far my favorite; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that Warbreaker is one of the best fantasies I’ve read period. Brandon Sanderson has written bigger, more epic stories in the past (notably his Mistborn series, which has the best climax of any book series, hands down), but he has never written them as well as Warbreaker; his mastery as a writer and storyteller is growing with every book.
Warbreaker is a remarkably sunny fantasy, despite dealing with some very heady themes: sex, death, betrayal, religion, heresy, slavery, necromancy, and even genocide. The basic premise is this: the tropical kingdom of Hallandren is ruled by resurrected immortals, and draws immense magical power from both color and from the commercial traffic of “Breath,” each person’s spark of life. Years ago, a group of religious fundamentalists (including the royal family) fled this hedonistic kingdom to live in the cold, drab mountain kingdom of Idris. The king of Idris has promised his eldest daughter to the Hallandrens to help keep the peace between them, but war seems inevitable, and there are far more factions than you expect, each trying to manipulate this tense political climate in their favor.
Warbreaker exemplifies both of Sanderson’s main literary trademarks: “scientific” magic systems, and the meanings of godhood. The magic is based, as I said before, on both color and Breath, both being used as a sort of fuel for magical effects, which can manifest in two ways. First is Breath itself: merely by holding certain quantities of it, you become attuned to higher levels of awareness; you can discern minute differences in color and sound, your senses are heightened, and you can sense the presence of other people more easily. The second effect comes in spending or investing Breath to animate objects, including everything from clothing to dolls to dead bodies. One of Sanderson’s greatest skills, seen in full force in Warbreaker, is taking these kind of simple, solid magical rules and coming up with endless variations for how they can be used and abused. His “wizards” are not just fireball-slinging artillerists but crafty, clever rogues who think on their feet and use their power in brilliant, unexpected ways. As for the theme of godhood, it is more direct here than in any of his other books; one of the main characters is a Returned god who goes through the same religious questions typically faced by mortals, made all the more interesting by the fact that the god he doesn’t believe in is himself.
Despite the massive scope (one of the characters is the God King, for goodness sake), the story is not as epic as you’d expect. It still very satisfying, though, and as I said in the beginning the sheer storytelling talent on display is a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
My reaction to Life of Pi is a more extreme version of the same thing: the writing craft is fantastic and the story is riveting, but while the ending of Warbreaker is simply calmer than expected, the ending of Life of Pi is a downright disappointment. As the title suggests, it is the life story of a boy named Pi, short for Piscine Molitor Patel. Pi lives in India, where his family runs a zoo, and part one of the book shows us the origins of Pi’s two fascinations: religion and zoology. These two topics seem to have guided his life since the beginning, and he finds a surprising number of parallels between them; one of the key sequences is a trip through the zoo where he meets his schoolteacher, Mr. Kumar, and his Islamic mentor, also named Mr. Kumar. The two men talk to him, and to each other, about the animals in zoo, and author Yann Martel doesn’t bother to tell you which Mr. Kumar is making which comment. The message is clear and surprisingly effective: in Pi’s mind there is no real difference between religion and zoology, for they are both the study of life, and how it can be guided and loved and improved.
Another remarkable sequence shows how Pi becomes a devout member of not one but three religions. While he was born a Hindu, and relates his love for Hinduism in remarkably touching vignettes, he grows to have a similar love for both the clean simplicity of Islam and the relentless humanness of Christianity. Despite the apparent contradictions, he becomes more fervent in his triple worship than most people are in just one religion.
Just as part one shows how Pi learns about religion and zoology, part two shows how he is put into a horrible situation and must use both of those disciplines to stay alive. I hesitate to explain what that situation is, but the book’s marketing–and even the cover–make every possible effort to spill the beans, so I’ll go along with it: his family moves some of the animals to Canada to start a new zoo, and halfway there the boat sinks and Pi becomes stranded on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. This sequence on the lifeboat, which makes up the majority of the book, is endlessly fascinating in the ways Pi survives not only the ocean and the weather but also the tiger, who becomes in turn his greatest enemy and his best friend; both a constant threat and the one thing that keeps him going. The parallels between religion and zoology become more subtle and more profound, and in many ways Martel addresses all the same themes Sanderson does: he teaches us the rules of “magic” (how to control a giant tiger), then lets his protagonist use those rules cleverly to stay alive, all the while showing Pi as both servant and god in his relationship with the tiger.
Then, just as Life of Pi starts winding up for the final pitch, and all the themes and characters are perfectly in place for a magnificent finale, it all falls apart. The characters finally arrive on land, but the story remains adrift; in the end there are very few revelations, and the ones we get left me scratching my head and wondering if that was really all there was. Part of this comes from the frame-like structure of the book, which reveals some of the final points much earlier than you’d expect and makes you feel, by the time you see them again, like you deserve more. That said, as much as I disliked part three, parts one and two are well worth it, and I recommend the book almost in spite of itself.