Recently I’ve been re-listening to my favorite of Brandon Sanderson’s trilogies, the Mistborn trilogy: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. After finishing The Final Empire, I found I didn’t have much to say about the book beyond what I’d said in my first review. With The Well of Ascension, however, so much came to me to discuss. Fair warning, there will be spoilers in this review, as I plan to go in depth into several topics.
This is the first thing that struck me during both readings of this book. Several of the main characters are struggling with their identities in this new world. Vin was formerly a young member of the slave underground class, now infamous and even regarded as a kind of deity by some. She’s spent her life in the shadows, trying to stay as small and invisible as possible. Her entire world is focused on survival and the protection of a select few, and now she’s responsible for the protection of an entire kingdom. Elend grew up as a pampered nobleman, a sort of rumpled, disheveled scholar who loves to read and discuss philosophy. He wants to the world to be better, but he isn’t prepared to have kingship thrust upon him, and soon discovers that all his idealistic politicking won’t help against the ruthless men who want to take the kingdom for themselves.
The Well of Ascension is a middle book, and there’s a lot of focus on evolving characters and identities. The kingdom has passed from a tyrannical deity (book 1) and hasn’t yet stabilized into a sturdy government. There’s a lot of floundering, both in politics and characters. A lot of bad decisions are made. Vin and Elend, along with others, are easily manipulated by their naivety, innocence, idealism, and/or feelings of inadequacy. One of the big themes that goes through the book is the growth from those unsure, hesitant, easily-manipulable characters into people who make firm decisions and know who they are and what they want.
Power vs Responsibility
Through all this growth, there’s a careful balance needed between power and responsibility. Elend wants to maintain his crown, not because he necessarily wants to have power, but because he knows he will look out for the former slave class, whereas other leaders openly profess that they will reinstate slave conditions. He wants to give the people power. At the same time, he doesn’t want to be a tyrant, and so builds into his laws the power for his own assembly to overthrow him and choose a new king. All through the book, he falls mostly on the side of responsibility, not exercising his power enough. Vin, on the other hand, tends to fall on the opposite. She is the most dangerous force in the kingdom, mistborn, deadly. There is a part of her that wants to simply assassinate all of the other people vying for the crown, to keep Elend and the people safe. Only Elend’s refusal to take/keep the crown by force holds her back, and sometimes even then, she chooses poorly and later feels the crushing guilt of responsibility after assassinating hundreds of guards. Both characters must find the right balance between power and responsibility.
This comes into play even more when Vin enters the Well of Ascension at the end of the book, and has to choose between taking that power for herself to save the people she loves, or giving it away because it’s what her duty demands. I believe that it was only her development through the book allows her to make (what she believes to be) the right choice, giving that power away.
There are several very uncomfortable moments in this book, and some very disturbing scenes. I’m going to talk about two of them here, because they are related to the many moral dilemmas that come up through the course of The Well of Ascension. The first involves a small town that the character Sazed comes across in his travels. He searched the few buildings in the town, finding dozens of emaciated corpses, as if the people locked themselves inside and died of hunger, refusing to leave. In one building, a single man is still alive, wild and feral. The first thing this man says is, “There is no food. We ate it. All except…the food.” Then he glances at a pile of gnawed human bones. The man has been keeping himself alive by eating the other corpses in the room. His brain is so addled that he doesn’t even appear to realize he is doing this. It’s a very disturbing scene, but also one that made me think: trapped in a house, unable to escape, no food, the dead all around you, and you yourself are dying…would you die, or break down and eat “the food”?
The second extremely disturbing-to-me scene came when Elend and Vin visit Elend’s father’s war camp. Straff (the father) is threatening the city, trying to become the new king. In the course of the conversation, Elend uses Vin’s powers as Mistborn to threaten his father in return. She takes control of Straff’s emotions, forcing him to feel nothing but anger, then fear, then passion, then calmness. Lastly, she takes his emotions and blankets them away altogether, so that he feels absolutely nothing at all. An empty, hollow shell. The moments pass, of course – the change isn’t permanent – but still, that last move felt…too much for me. Crossing the line into the unacceptable. Straff is a terrible man in every way, and I feel no pity for him when he later dies, but the removal of all emotions feels akin to using torture as a weapon, and isn’t something I would wish even on the worst of men. The question of course brings up many moral implications – what is and isn’t okay in war?
There is more in here. Tons more. I haven’t even begun to talk about the kandra, or Zane’s very disturbing character, or relationships, or the relationship of this book/story to Sanderson’s Cosmere as a whole. It’s too much to cover in a single post, even for a book that is my least favorite of the three in this series (though still a favorite of books in general – the whole trilogy is amazing!).