The Well of Ascension is the sequel to Mistborn: The Final Empire, picking up a year after Vin and her friends overthrew the tyranny of the Final Empire. A young nobleman, Elend, has helped the people set up an Assembly to govern themselves, its membership split evenly between noblemen, peasants, and merchants. Elend is King, but he wants the Assembly to have the real authority in the land.
Unfortunately, in surrounding regions, autocratic rulers have stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by the demise of the Lord Ruler. Seeing Elend and his Assembly-led government as weak, an army led by Elend’s father has marched on the city, prepared to defeat them and restore the former way of government and life. Another army soon arrives from another direction, and before long a third army, made up primarily of monsters called koloss, also threatens the city.
Much of the book deals with what it means to be a good leader, and what kind of leadership is good for the people. There is also the issue of whether Elend and Vin are really right for each other, and the meaning of the ancient prophecies about the Hero of Ages and the Well of Ascension, but the book revolves primarily around the political power struggle.
As with Mistborn, I found it surprisingly hard to really “get into” the book. I enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t compelling until pretty near the end. There are all sorts of subplots, but action on the main plotline seems to move very slowly. Vin can’t decide what kind of life she really wants, and Elend is frustrated with people’s unwillingness to accept his leadership, even as he affirms his desire for them to make their own decisions.
In steps Tindwyl, a woman from Terris whose special area of study is biographies of great men of the past. She sets about teaching Elend how to act kinglike so that people will respect his authority. From the way he dresses and wears his hair to his manner of speaking and of reacting to opposition, she teaches him to have confidence in himself and to project confidence in what he says and does.
In this she is surprisingly successful – before long Elend has shed both his sloppy looks and his tendency to apologize and accept insults too easily. In fact, he soon reaches the point where, when he does not agree with Tindwyl, he firmly asserts his position and does not back down. I don’t know just how realistic I found this development. Sanderson portrays Elend as someone who always had these traits within him and would sooner or later have become a good leader, even if Tindwyl had not hurried up the process. As author, he can say that is so. But I’m not sure I’m convinced.
When Vin had first met Elend (when she was pretending to be a young noblewoman herself), she was at first pleased to see that he read books that were considered subversive by the Lord Ruler’s government. To her disappointment, however, she found that he and his friends, who enjoyed reading and discussing political philosophy, were all talk and no action.
After the demise of the Lord Ruler, Elend has the opportunity to implement all those fine ideas he and his friends had talked about. Things go well enough until the city is threatened, and people are looking for stronger leadership than they see in Elend. He wants them to be able to make decisions rather than having decisions forced on them from above. But they care more about safety than having a voice in the government.
I have always found it difficult enough to make my own decisions; I hate being in a position to have to tell other people what to do as well. I can easily understand Elend’s reluctance to force his will on others, even when he thinks he is right. (His Assembly meetings reminded me a good deal of my classes when I tried to teach high school.) I enjoy reading books and discussing them, but the only ones I would be eager to work at implementing would be those that involved myself and any willing volunteers.
Over the years, especially since becoming a pastor’s wife, I have found myself in situations where I needed to take a leadership role. I have pushed myself to develop the skills and traits that help in leadership roles, but I have never become really comfortable in them. I am still quick to doubt myself, and I never quite know what to do with someone who does not accept my leadership. I am more comfortable in the role of assistant to a trusted leader.
Back to the novel itself – it ends with some big threats dealt with, and an even bigger threat apparently at large. I look forward to seeing how Sanderson resolves it all in The Hero of Ages.