Book Review: The Well of Ascension
It's that time again readers - time to review the second book in a trilogy. Will The Well of Ascension pass the test with flying colors? Or will it succumb to the doldrums of middle book syndrome?
The Lord Ruler has been deposed, but the rejoicing is short-lived. Elend Venture, the new king of Luthadel supported by Vin and Kelsier's crew, struggles to form a new government, even as that government tries to oust him. Vin considers her place in the new regime and the religion forming around Kelsier, even as she hears the steady beat of the Well of Ascension's power building. And to make matters worse, Luthadel is beset on all sides by three armies: one of koloss led by a former friend, one led by an upstart king, and one led by Elend's own father. Can they survive?
Since I'm sure you're clamoring for an answer to the question above, here it is: The Well of Ascension is a pressure-cooker of a novel, tightly paced and perhaps even more exciting than The Final Empire. It does not suffer from middle book syndrome in the slightest. Sanderson gives the novel its own distinct conflict (the armies surrounding Luthadel and the struggles of the new regime), then threads a mystery behind that which provides the book's climactic ending and dovetails directly into book three.
Several huge setpieces take place over the course of the novel. We see fights both large and small, and there's plenty of allomancy to go around. There's also a much stronger political bent, as Elend tries to become a better king and also navigate the government he's created. Sanderson intersperses these with moments of "downtime" and slower scenes that still add to the narrative, but give the reader a chance to breathe. The looming threat of the armies outside the city will keep you on edge throughout the book, until the tension finally snaps in a huge, crazy battle at the end. And even then, you're not quite done!
The characters are much stronger here, particularly Vin, Elend and Sazed. Vin's personal journey in The Final Empire was about learning to trust. Here, it's about coming to terms with who she wants to be. She waffles on her relationship with Elend, unsure if she's the right person to be his queen and tempted by the opportunity offered by his Mistborn brother, Zane. She doesn't want to be the Survivor's Heir, a religious figure for the skaa, and she's worried that she might be the prophesied Hero of Ages, responsible for saving the world. As I said, this book is a pressure cooker, and a lot of that pressure lies on Vin.
Elend has his own share of it, though. Elend was a much more minor character in The Final Empire, but here we see him fully come into his own. As king, he is responsible for Luthadel's safety - a tricky prospect when three armies wait outside the walls, made even trickier by an assembly that doesn't want him as king. Over the course of the novel (and with the help of a Terriswoman tutor), Elend learns what it means to be king and how to become a better one. Sanderson pays close attention to the details here; even clothing has a place in Elend's journey.
And then there's Sazed. Like Elend, Sazed was more of a minor character in The Final Empire (though still a greater role than Elend). However, Sazed benefits greatly in The Well of Ascension from three things: the worldbuilding takes a decisive turn toward feruchemy and Terris history, Sazed takes on the important task of investigating the "Deepness" and the Hero of Ages, and the introduction of another Keeper as his foil and his love interest. We learn more of Sazed's personal history, his defiance of the Keepers' decision to stay out of politics, his unending curiosity about the world, and his determination to do what he can, however small. I'd go so far as to say that Sazed is my favorite character, thanks to the development he gets here.
As I mentioned above, the worldbuilding runs deeper here. We start to get some answers to the questions that have been lurking since The Final Empire, even as Sanderson leaves the biggest questions unanswered for book three. Feruchemy is explored in great detail, and we discover new metals for allomancers to burn. We learn more about the shapeshifting kandra and their cousins the koloss, including how the Lord Ruler kept the koloss under control. We delve into the world's history through an inscription found by Sazed and Marsh, and we see the inklings of a stronger power than the Lord Ruler in the mists. Oh, and there's clearly some insanity going on with the Inquisitors, from the little we see of Marsh.
The Well of Ascension is suspense, tension, mystery and fun all rolled into one. There's very little to complain about here, so I'm not going to bother. It's an excellent read, and a worthy successor to The Final Empire.