Length: 763 pages, standard paperback page size/font
Described simply, Mistborn was basically the original Star Wars trilogy rolled up into one single book. Vin was Luke Skywalker, Kelsier was Obi Wan Kenobi, and the Lord Ruler was Palpatine. Obviously, a lot of the specifics are different between those two works, but at a high level, I think it's a fair comparison. The Well of Ascension, then, takes on a simple question: what next?
I haven't seen The Force Awakens, so I can't say how well the parallels run between that movie and The Well of Ascension, so the comparison ends here. And yes, I know that Star Wars isn't the original source of that general story setup (if nothing else, the stories of Robin Hood predate it by a handful of centuries), but it's probably the most popular one now, and anyway, that's beside the point here, which is that The Well of Ascension basically takes on the post-modern thought experiment of tackling what happens in the setting after the heroic coup d'etat story is over.
After the death of the Lord Ruler, the Final Empire doesn't suddenly turn into a skaa utopia. Instead, people more or less try to continue doing what they've been doing for their whole lives, with the elite few at the top trying to make moves to take control of the empire for themselves. I've said in my review of Mistborn that Sanderson did a good job of having a setting where things (including how people act) fit together in a sensible way, and this is yet another example of that. I mean, I know it's not the exact same situation, but the way that things were handled seemed to be pretty well in line with my experiences when it comes to what happens when upper executives depart in large corporations, so if anything, it added a touch of relatability to the world. For the most part, there are four factions that are vying to fill in the power vacuum.
First and most obvious, there's Elend Venture. While he was an annoying character in the first book, he was also one of the very few who thought that nobles and skaa could actually coexist peacefully, which made him an alright guy at his core. In this book, most of his more annoying traits get pushed aside (either by presentation or by virtue of how often his idealism gets abused), and the end result is a much more enjoyable character.
Elend is obviously the "good" option, so he's aligned with Vin. Unfortunately, where Elend improved between the two books, Vin very much did not. As I'd said in that review, Vin's mental/emotional baggage in the first book kept her from being a Mary Sue. Those are still present to some degree in The Well of Ascension, but they seem diminished, and even if not, the gap in power between her and just about everyone else is pretty ridiculous. If it had been a case of most people acting like she was practically a demigod but the action in the story showing her to not be nearly so invincible, that'd be one thing, and I do think that that's what Sanderson was trying to do. The problem that he didn't really pull it off well enough to be believable. Instead, we get a woman who can pretty much fight through an army on her own, and the only character able to stand against her reliably is a mysterious Mistborn who's rather literally touched by a god.
In a lot of stories, that would kill the tension in the plot. Fortunately, Sanderson took an approach similar to what Superman writers learned to and made the tension not be linked directly with Vin's survival in any given fight. Instead, the tension is about how the protagonists can succeed without compromising their morals, because frankly, the other factions facing them are all various degrees of "asshole".
Foremost among these factions is the one led by Straff Venture, Elend's jackass father who's far and away the brownest of the assholes. He's a blatant Hate Sink, seeing as there's really nothing remotely redeeming about him, which is actually an interesting contrast to the Lord Ruler, who was also evil but in a more human way. The Lord Ruler oppressed the skaa as a backlash reaction to his own upbringing and personal history, whereas Straff does it just because...well, does he need a reason? If The Well of Ascension had been a more flamboyant work with exaggerated characters, along the lines of The Hollows series or WH40K, Straff would've been just another character. However, since the vast majority of the characters are humanized and rounded, Straff sticks out by contrast and fills his role perfectly. As a whole, The Well of Ascension falls into much of the same "good, not great" pitfall as Mistborn did, but Straff is one of the few points about it strong enough to reach towards greatness.
In contrast to that, there is the third faction, led by Ashweather Cett. Despite his great name, imposing beard, and solid charisma, he's basically just a rich old guy who represents the conservative mindset of people who want to stick with the status quo because change is scary. This earns him support from the established nobles for obvious reasons, and as for most of his other follows, the main argument is that he's not Straff Venture. I suppose it's notable in some superficial way that he's handicapped, and the fact that that's used for fueling a bit of paranoia about how he could be so powerful despite that obvious weakness makes it slightly more than just window dressing, but really, Cett's about as memorable as a bowl of oatmeal (which is something that I haven't eaten in years, but I imagine it still tastes about the same now as it did back then). Honestly, from the perspective of a reader consuming an artistic work, the sheer monotony of what he represents as compared to either Elend or Straff makes it pretty obvious that he's got no real chance of succeeding.
Lastly, there's Jastes, a dumb traitor to Elend who decides that bringing an army of bio-engineered sentient war beasts to the largest population center on the planet is a brilliant idea. It was cool to see the koloss in action after the fearful hints about them given through Mistborn, and the concept of a race that's born with oversized skin that they grow within until they get large enough to burst out of it seems original (even if incredibly stupid, though I assume that was intended to show that they're flawed creations). Really, though, similar to the situation with Cett, as the reader, I didn't feel like there was ever a credible chance of the koloss army emerging as the victorious faction. However, at the very least, they provided some good action scenes and killed more major characters than any other faction, so that counts for more than Cett.
Sadly, the whole plot of the showdown between the four factions goes about how siege plots always do, which is to say that there's a whole lot of time where nothing happens, spent in large part talking about how much shit everyone is in and broken up on occasion by brief probing incursions or attempts to poison food/water/etc. until there's finally a big battle in the end. Fortunately, in order to pick up the slack until then, there's also a secondary plot about one of the members of Elend's faction having been replaced by a kandra named TenSoon (something like a doppelganger who's extremely loyal to its master and eats the remains of whoever it's replacing in order to wear its bones). I won't say anything further about this since it's very easy to spoil and the truth of the situation was one of the best examples of this type of plot that I can think of. Along with Straff's over-the-top villainy, this is the other part of The Well of Ascension that reaches towards greatness.
So, if it's got those two points in its favor as things that it did a lot better than Mistborn, why did I give The Well of Ascension a lower grade? I'd say there were two main areas of disappointment that made it a significantly weaker experience overall.
First, despite having a more varied cast, mostly from the perspective of having nobles take a lot more narrative attention than they did in Mistborn thanks to the amount of time dedicated to Elend/Straff/Cett, the character interactions just weren't as enjoyable. When Vin wasn't running around being a one-woman army, she was kind of an annoying bitch. She was a pretty dull shadow of her former self, and the whole side plot between her and the other Mistborn was a complete bore, aside from where it crossed over with the TenSoon secondary plot. The rest of the old crew were mostly trying to find ways of dealing with Kelsier's death, and while that's understandable in a realistic sense, I think it's a case where trying to be too realistic hurt the entertainment value of the end product, which is what the value of a book ought to be judged on. The increased role for Sazed was good, but even factoring in his own side plot romance with Tindwyl (which was done quite well), it wasn't enough to make up for what everyone else was lacking compared to the first book. The other factions introduced some new characters of their own, obviously, but frankly, aside from TenSoon and the other Mistborn, none of them really mattered.
The second major disappointment was the ending. Mistborn had ended in a way that had a satisfying climax, and while the conclusion left the door open for a sequel, the work felt complete enough in and of itself to stand on its own. The Well of Ascension, on the other hand, seemed to be written with the intention of having a sequel, so it substitutes a lot of flashy but ultimately superficial action in place of a meaningful climax, and what plays out from there leaves it rather obviously incomplete. It's certainly possible to have a Sequel Hook without leaving the ending feeling hollow. Hell, Sanderson did it just one book earlier in this very series!
In the end, though, those disappointments weren't enough to cripple my overall enjoyment of the book. There are obviously things that could've been better, but it was still pretty good. I wouldn't suggest reading it without being committed to also reading The Hero of Ages, since that's rather necessary for a complete experience, nor would I suggest reading it without reading Mistborn first since that background is rather necessary to really appreciate it. Really, The Well of Ascension is the lowest point of the trilogy and doesn't stand well on its own, so there's no point in reading it without reading the other two books. However, if you're willing to do that, it's worth the effort.
Length: 763 pages, standard paperback page size/font