Welcome back to The Way of Kings reread on Tor.com. Previous articles can be found in the reread index, and opinion pieces and other news can be found in the Stormlight Archive index. This week we’re reading chapters 9 and 10, both of them Kaladin chapters. Our favorite bridgeman continues his deep slide into depression, and gets to a place so low even his resident spren-companion gets fed up and leaves. We learn some tantalizing tidbits about the relationship between Kaladin and Syl, see the horrible attrition rate of Bridge Four, and experience our first flashback to Kaladin’s youth. See just how cute li’l Kal can be below the cut.
Chapter 9: Damnation
Setting: Sadeas’ Warcamp, The Shattered Plains
Point of View: Kaladin
Kaladin thinks about why he was assigned to Bridge Four: to make sure that he will die expediently. Bridge Four has the highest casualty rate of any bridge, even in an army where a third to a half of bridgemen die on any given run. As he waits listlessly in the light rain, too apathetic to take shelter in his barrack, Syl hovers above his shoulder. He’s not sure how long he’s been a bridgeman now, but it might have been two or three weeks. Or perhaps an eternity. In that time all but one of his fellows from his first run have died, as have many of their unfortunate replacements.
Kaladin hasn’t bothered learning other bridgemen’s names, hasn’t bothered figuring out why the Alethi armies fight on the plateaus (“Something about those large chrysalises…But what did that have to do with the vengeance pact?”), but he has wondered why the bridge runs have to be so terrible. In the past he asked to let a few bridgemen run in front with shields, but had been denied, on threat of death. As far as he can tell the lighteyes think this whole arrangement is just some game.
Syl tries to engage him, clearly worried that he hasn’t spoken in days. Eventually she gets a thought out of him:
“My father used to say that there are two kinds of people in the world,” Kaladin whispered, voice raspy. “He said there are those who take lives. And there are those who save lives.”
“I used to think he was wrong. I thought there was a third group. People who killed in order to save.” He shook his head. “I was a fool. There is a third group, a big one, but it isn’t what I thought.”
“The people who exist to be saved or to be killed…The victims. That’s all I am.”
Understandably disheartened by this, Syl continues to try to cheer Kaladin up while he works in a lumberyard. She thinks back to when he was “vibrant,” when his soldiers, fellow slaves, enemies, and even lighteyes looked up to him. She says she used to watch him fight, which strikes Kaladin as odd, since as far as he can recall she didn’t appear until he’d already been made a slave. He doesn’t say anything, though.
He thinks about the ways bridgemen can be punished. If you’re a lazy worker you’ll be whipped. If you lag behind on runs you’ll be executed, the only capital crime a bridgeman can commit. “The message was clear. Charging with your bridge might get you killed, but refusing to do so would get you killed.”
A soldier named Laresh approaches Gaz with a batch of replacement slaves, including an especially pathetic group for Bridge Four. One of them is a young teenage boy, “short, spindly, with a round face.” He immediately catches Kaladin’s attention, and he whisperes “Tien?” to himself.
But no, he failed Tien, and Cenn, and everyone else he’d tried to protect, so this couldn’t be Tien.
Syl says she’s going to leave, which finally gets Kaladin to care about something. She will try to come back, but she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to. She thinks that if she leaves Kaladin she might lose herself. Despite all that, she can’t watch Kaladin like this anymore.
The kid who reminds Kaladin of Tien dies in the next bridge run, which was a very bad run that drops four bridges. Kaladin survives, and finds the boy’s body in a small hollow. Death surrounds him.
That night in the barracks Kaladin finds himself crying.
Quote of the Chapter:
Kaladin charged the chasm, not even flinching as men were slaughtered around him. It wasn’t bravery that drove him; it wasn’t even a wish that those arrows would take him and end it all. He ran. That was what he did. Like a boulder rolled down a hill, or like rain fell from the sky. They didn’t have a choice. Neither did he. He wasn’t a man; he was a thing, and things just did what they did.
Oof, that’s rough. This echoes Kaladin’s first run, in which the mechanizing ritual of the bridge runs began. It’s hard to tell if the grinding down of the spirit and resulting total dehumanization of the bridgemen is a desirable outcome of the bridge runs. It’s clearly not undesirable enough for Sadeas to give a flying, ahem, care, but I just don’t know whether I can believe that Sadeas is that moustache-twirlingly evil. Perhaps we should instead see this as the inevitable consequence of removing all human empathy in order to chase maximum efficiency.
Interestingly, this sequence also echoes a later passage, the one in which Kaladin first demonstrates his prowess with a spear in chapter 27:
You were not shocked when a child knew how to breathe. You were not shocked when a skyeel took flight for the first time. You should not be shocked when you hand Kaladin Stormblessed a spear and he knows how to use it.
The similarity is that in both cases what Kaladin is doing is physically inevitable. Rocks roll downhill, he runs across plateaus, skyeels take flight, he swings a spear. The difference is in necessity versus capacity. The former is dehumanizing, the latter empowering. But I think that the fact that these moments are set in such similar terms is interesting. Perhaps we should be less comfortable with how easy, how natural Kaladin is with a spear. Perhaps wielding a spear is not so different from running a bridge.
Brandon Sanderson has probably devoted more energy to Kaladin’s personal development than to any of his other protagonists to date. He experiences more growth, more maturation of who he is, more redefinition of his ideals, and therefore becomes a much fuller and rounder individual. I think that’s why I feel more for him than for most other Sanderson characters, although I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s my favorite character in The Way of Kings. This comes at a price, and we’re living it: in order to build Kaladin up, Sanderson has to break him down. This isn’t as low as he’s going to go, I’m afraid. I sometimes wish that Kaladin’s downward arc could have been somewhat foreshortened, as it does drag a bit, and in a particularly painful and depressing way. That being said, I don’t know where I’d suggest Sanderson cut, exactly, and I do appreciate the tradeoffs.
That doesn’t mean that watching Kaladin be the most apathetic is fun. But hey, it is what it is. (It’s not fun.)
Kaladin’s number one trigger is small, vulnerable, round-faced boys. They all remind him of Tien, his number one failure to protect the weak. I can understand why this is, and I accept it as a motivating factor. It reminds me a bit of a similar mental self-torture, however, from another epic series that Sanderson has been involved with. Kaladin, I’m not always going to compare you to Rand al’Thor, but I am going to right now. And let me tell you, beating yourself up over those you couldn’t keep from dying is never going to pay off. You have to learn, grow, and accept, or you’ll never be as great as you could be.
Such easy advice to give from a world in which I don’t have to watch all my friends get killed in front of me.
Kaladin acknowledges, at least, that he can’t keep going like this. He knows he’s “dead inside,” and he doesn’t want to stay that way, but at this point I don’t think his solution is to buck up and learn to live, somehow.
What is fun is trying to figure out what’s going on with Syl. She drops a lot of bombs this chapter, and they’re arguably more surprising and intriguing than the massive revelation that she has a name. A spren with a name is something Kaladin would never expect, but one that we as readers can pretty easily accept, since we don’t know much about spren to begin with. The idea that she used to be something fundamentally different, occupying a less-complex mental state, is much weirder and more interesting to me. And the idea that if she gets further away from Kaladin she’ll lose what she’s gained is huge. Kaladin and Syl have a bond, as we’ll come to see, one that gives things to each of them.
I think that it’s arguable that the bond between Kaladin and Syl doesn’t make Kaladin more honorable than he would normally have been, although I don’t believe that myself. What I think isn’t arguable is that the bond between them gives both access to realms of experience they wouldn’t normally get to experience. This is to some extent true of any two characters (or people) that are sufficiently close and from sufficiently different origins, but is literalized here. Syl makes Kaladin more magical, more potent, while Kaladin makes Syl more human, more thoughtful. It’s a lovely process to watch.
I wonder if we’ll ever have a viewpoint from Syl’s perspective. Maybe a few books down the line, but probably not any time soon.
I also wonder how it came to be that Bridge Four was designated Worst Bridge Ever. It’s sound policy, as evil policies go. You need to make sure that even your most downtrodden slaves have someone to look down on, or it’ll be harder to keep them downtrodden. But I wonder if it was an executive order or developed organically as the result of endemically terrible leadership. I wonder if I can find a way to blame Gaz.
Lastly, the epigraph. “A wall of black and white and red” suggests the Heralds facing off against an onslaught of Parshendi to me, but I’m still really hesitant to believe that our first explanation of the Voidbringers should be the definitive answer. My tinfoil hat remains firmly lodged upon my head.
Chapter 10: Stories of Surgeons
Setting: Hearthstone, nine years ago
Point of View: Kaladin
Young Kal enters his father’s surgery room, tardier than he’d like to be. His father, Lirin, is preparing a young woman for surgery. He instructs Kal to close the door. Kal inspects the young woman’s injured hand, which has been shoddily bandaged but is clearly very badly mangled. It doesn’t look life-threatening, however. Kal assesses his father’s workplace, which is clean and orderly, brightly lit by a goblet of diamond broams.
Lirin tells his son to wash his hands with soap and water, calling it the “Wisdom of the Heralds,” and that “deathspren and rotspren hate water.” Kal demonstrates his terrible comprehension of theology, mistaking Heralds for Radiants and Demons equally.
Kal continues to think about his odd father, who believes in deathspren but not Voidbringers, who the villagers think spends too much time with books and the sick, who is treated with discomfort and, perhaps, resentment. He also notes that he’s gotten used to the sight of torn flesh, and no longer grows sick in its presence. This will be useful, he thinks, when he goes to war.
Sani has three broken fingers, one worse than all the rest. Kal asks his father if it will have to go, and is rewarded by a nod and a hint of a smile. Kal cleans the wound and Lirin quickly amputates, together repairing the hand as best they could. Even though the girl’s parents are liable to be disappointed by their daughter’s disfigurement, Kal expects that they will make a donation and that his family won’t starve.
Lirin tells Kal that he has to work on his nerves. “It is good to care,” he says, “But caring—like anything else—can be a problem if it interferes with your ability to perform surgery.”
Kal thinks this is a little rich, coming from a man who is so selfless that he never charges a doctor’s fee.
The surgery over, Lirin asks Kal why he was late. It comes out that Kal had been with Jam, and older boy, learning how to use a quarterstaff. This sparks an argument. Kal believes that there’s nothing better than being a soldier, while his father looks down on this desire, saying that saving lives is always better than taking lives, and rebutting all Kal’s arguments about how badly soldiers are needed to defend against Thaylenah, an island kingdom that shares no borders with Alethkar and is primarily composed of merchants and traders.
To diffuse the argument, Lirin quizzes Kal on medical matters: the properties of winterwort and how to diagnose fiddlepox. Kal answers quickly and correctly, and Lirin fondly praises his son’s mind. He tells him that he’d like to send Kal to Kharbranth when he turns sixteen to train to be a surgeon.
“You have a gift from the Heralds themselves,” Lirin said, resting a hand on Kal’s shoulder. “You could be ten times the surgeon I am. Don’t dream the small dreams of other men. Our grandfathers bought and worked us to the second nahn so that we could have full citizenship and the right of travel. Don’t waste that on killing.”
Kal hesitated, but soon found himself nodding.
Quote of the Chapter:
“Who put these ideas in your head? Why would you want to learn to hit other boys with a stick?”
“For honor, Father,” Kal said. “Who tells stories about surgeons, for the Heralds’s sake!”
“The children of the men and women whose lives we save,” Lirin said evenly, meeting Kal’s gaze. “That’s who tells stories of surgeons.”
Kal blushed and shrank back, then finally returned to his scrubbing.
“There are two kinds of people in this world, son,” his father said sternly. “Those who save lives. And those who take lives.”
“And what of those who protect and defend? The ones who save lives by taking lives?”
His father snorted. “That’s like trying to stop a storm by blowing harder. Ridiculous. You can’t protect by killing.”
Whew, perhaps that’s more quote than you asked for, but it’s a fascinating back and forth that bears close examination. First, there’s the issue of honor. I personally find most honor-driven societies ridiculous. Honor tends to be a value that is most prominent in cultures driven by war, and goes hand in hand with dueling, extreme aggression, and all manner of ways to be a jerk. But honor is obviously a huge deal in The Way of Kings, and a quality that deserves respect in the way Kaladin and Dalinar adhere to it. Perhaps what I react against is the way honor tends to be interpreted as societies approach the extremes.
The idea that you can’t kill in order to protect is… well… very modern. And one that perhaps some of us want to believe, but which is generally provably untrue in epic fantasy. Your protagonist is going to swing a sword, he or she is going to try to protect people, and that is going to require killing, right? The fact is that, if you kill someone who’s going to kill other people, it’s arguably true that you’ve protected those people. Your hands will still be stained, though.
Finally, the point about telling stories. This is a pretty beautiful contrast between the stories society says are worth telling and the moments that can actually deeply define a person’s life. Perhaps it’s not true that you talk about surgeons around a campfire years after the fact, but the result of a successful surgery will enhance a life immeasurably.
“Stories of Surgeons” is the first flashback chapter, the beginning of what is arguably the primary organizing principle of the book, and, indeed, the series at large. Brandon Sanderson plans to weave flashbacks into each of his novels, a different character each book, which I think is a very interesting way to structure a series. Words of Radiance will be Shallan’s book, and I’m really looking forward to that. I wonder how people liked this for Kaladin.
To start with, this chapter is primarily important in my mind as the chapter in which we learn about surgery, medicine, disease and rotspren in Roshar. I’ve already written a couple of thousand words on that subject for Tor.com, which I suggest you check out here. I can wait.
Okay, for those who don’t actually like clicking links, the tl;dr. Rotspren: you can see them! That means you can see germs! That means you get the germ theory of disease. Whoa!
This is really advanced, but on Roshar the knowledge is ancient. So fascinating. I wonder if the Heralds literally gave this information to humanity, or whether they figured it out for themselves and let the origins of that knowledge pass into religious myth and folk knowledge, like folk remedies or, in some cases, religious dietary laws.
It’s so interesting that Kal dislikes his full name as “sounding like a lighteyes name” even before he comes to hate lighteyes. At this age it’s indisputable that Kal idolizes lighteyes heroes. He wants to see “a real lighteyes, not stuffy old Wistiow. A soldier, like everyone talked about, like the stories were about.” I guess this comes down to the very familiar desire not to be distinguished from one’s peers as a teenager. It’s no good to stand out based on your name, to be perceived as holding yourself above your peers, and to be shunned as a result. Still, it’s neat to notice that Kaladin accepts his full name as his opinion of lighteyes begins to slip, not when he idolizes them.
In many ways we can see how hyper-sensitive Kal is to how others see him. I don’t think this is a trait that ever goes away, and is perhaps necessary to be a good leader, although being sensitive to what others think and letting that move you to action are two very different things.
Lirin is an interesting character. I have to love him for the love and respect he shows Kaladin, and for the values and instincts he instills in him, but he’s certainly not flawless. He wants to turn his son into an improved version of himself, a surgeon, but better, in a better city, with a better standard of education. He wants him to go to where he visited as a courier, not to deliver messages, but to actually gain in knowledge. And these are totally commendable parental ambitions, don’t get me wrong here, but they’re also a little stifling. That’s setting aside the question of theft, of course.
In general I think that Lirin is a man at odds with the time he lives in. He doesn’t respect soldiers in a time of war, in a society that holds them up as the supreme masculine ideal. This is perilously close to religious iconoclasm: Vorinism teaches that being a soldier is the very highest Calling, so saying that it’s worthless is tantamount to heresy. This, combined with his lack of belief in the Voidbringers, may bespeak a secret agnosticism. He strives for education for himself and his son, bucking gender norms to a certain degree. And he’s a social climber in a society of very limited social mobility. On top of that he rejects greed for himself, relying on donations to survive (mostly, aside from the theft,) and just generally goes around trying to shame people into being better by, well, being better than them.
He’s a very impressing man, and we see this by how deeply he impressed himself on Kaladin, who still automatically recites cures and diagnoses in his head, and who can’t help but want to treat every injury. My last word on Lirin, and on this chapter, is that Kaladin’s father is an incredibly strong man, but his strength is of a sort that Alethi society is not entirely ready to recognize. This made him strange, and has made Kaladin stranger, but I think that he, and we, are the better off for it.
Deviating from the normal schedule somewhat, next week I’ll be covering Chapter 11 and wrapping up Part One: Above Silence. Michael will return for the week after that, when he’ll read the first three Interludes. See you all then!