With Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, we have another Mormon writer of speculative fiction with something to say about marriage. Warbreaker manages to capture some ironies that won’t be lost on readers who have noted the discrepancy between the ideal of eternal marriage, and the reality of the dating scene at BYU.
In Warbreaker, Idris is a mountain kingdom that could almost function as an allegory for modesty. Adornment and ostentation are considered gauche, even for members of the royal family, and fashion runs the gamut from Puritan to Benedictine. Even the houses—modestly sized, of course—are kept colorless. Administration is efficient and good works are necessary to maintain respectability. Any similarity to an exaggerated and one-dimensional view of Mormon adolescence or life in Utah is probably intentional.
Hallendren, the powerful southern neighbor of Idris, equal parts Hollywood, Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Babylon, is everything that Idris is not: colorful, opulent, excessive, corrupt, alive, fun. It’s the kind of place that would make the Venus of Willendorf blush. Any similarity to the parties they warned you about in Seminary is probably intentional.
To preserve peace with Hallendren, Princess Siri of Idris is sent to marry Hallendren’s immortal god king. As the consort of the god king Susebron, Siri is expected to begin a life of conspicuous luxury that conflicts with everything she had been taught in Idris. The transition is as awkward as that moment in one’s life when one’s highest priority is rudely changed from strenuous chastity to feverish baby-making. Soon enough one realizes the advantages of the new situation, but there can be a bit of whiplash from shifting gears—from “reverse” to “turbo overdrive”—so quickly.
The marriage between Siri and Susebron is doomed, of course. Their marriage is so freighted with familial, national, and religious concerns that any husband and wife would be crushed beneath it, even if one of them is a god. Under all those institutional pressures, their marriage initially combines all the worst aspects of patriarchy and pornography. As far as the Hallendren courtiers are concerned, Siri is merely the Vessel for the god-king’s heir, and her orders are, almost literally, to lie still and think of Idris. She dons a series of expensive and revealing outfits, and drops them on command, in an unsuccessful attempt to get her husband to notice her. For the truth is that the god king Susebron is in fact an uncommunicative and sheltered man-child whose ideas about the world are based primarily on children’s stories and who has only the vaguest notions of romantic love or female anatomy. (Would a Mormon bride ever find herself with such a mate? No, of course not.) A marriage that only fulfills the requirements of dynasty or society is an awful thing, and no mortal or immortal could hope to resolve the contradictions in the institution.
But then Siri breaks all the rules and starts talking to Susebron. It turns out that he’s not such a bad guy, plus he’s got a divine body, and talk is the surest love elixir known to man. During their visiting hours, Siri and Susebron do not keep their feet on the floor. Thus begins a marriage that is not a guarantee of alliance or dynastic succession but rather (in Joe Haldeman’s phrase) a “conspiracy of two.” There is no way for Siri and Susebron to fulfill all the contradictory expectations that their societies have for their marriage, but they can carve out a space—for two people, not two nations—for friendship and romance between them.
Fans of Sanderson’s Elantris or Mistborn series won’t be disappointed by Warbreaker. He’s created another original magic system, an intriguing back story, and a twisting plot with something serious to say about religious belief. There is necessarily some forthright discussion of the use and misuse of sex, but no narration of intimacy, marital or otherwise. Readers who were shocked by Breaking Dawn probably are not the ideal readers of Warbreaker.
As Brandon Sanderson was revising Warbreaker, he posted drafts of his work online so fans could see how the novel took shape over time, and this preview is based on the latest available draft. The published novel goes on sale today, June 9. Let’s hope his strategy of online availability pays off.