Welcome back to The Way of Kings reread on Tor.com. Last week we saw a flurry of activity, both on the Shattered Plains and in Kharbranth. Fire and lightning, storms and smoke, noise and excitement all abounded.
Since I think we all need a bit of a breather (hard to breathe a thunderstorm, after all), this week I’ll transport you to Kal’s past, to the quiet town of Hearthstone, where—well, okay, where things are also really bad. Can the damning revelations of Chapter 37 vie with the chapters that preceded it? Read on and find out.
Chapter 37: Sides
Setting: Hearthstone, five and a half years ago
Point of View: Kaladin
What Happens: Kal is chopping longroots, a cheap but unpleasant root vegetable, with his mother and little brother. Longroots have been all the family has been able to afford recently, since Roshone has been cracking down on them. As they work on the stew, they talk about spren, with Kal expressing skepticism about his mother’s explanations. He says that he “just want[s] everything to make sense,” which his mother claims is a little much to hope for.
Kal sees a carriage out the window, and sets a plan he had previously concocted into motion. He asks to go rinse off his crem-covered hands, volunteering to wash the rest of the roots off as well. Once he’s out the door, however, he races over to where Lirin is waiting for the carriage. Kal knows Lirin is going to speak with Roshone, and demands to be taken along. He wants and needs to see if his father is cowardly or courageous. Lirin grudgingly agrees.
On the ride over they discuss how Lirin has been considering relocating his family. He thinks he could find work as a surgeon in almost any small town, and is skilled enough to become a physician’s assistant in Kholinar. Despite that, it’s hard for him to imagine leaving Hearthstone. It’s his home, and he’s spent his life serving and healing the people there. Kal claims to grudgingly understand, even though he’s still hurt that the villagers would try to steal from them. But Lirin says the village still appreciates him. They’ve been leaving food for them in secret, which is how the family has been able to keep eating.
The carriage arrives at Roshone’s estate, and Lirin and Kal proceed to the citylord’s dining table. Roshone is already eating a meal of spicy meats, vegetables, and flatbread—foods that Lirin’s family hasn’t been able to afford for months. Although he has a servant indicate that Lirin is to set at a table in a sideroom and speak to him from there, Lirin takes a place at Roshone’s table instead; he claims it is his right as an invited guest and citizen of the second nahn. Kal sits as well, eating some food that is spicier than any meal he’s had before. Lirin does not eat.
Roshone and Lirin verbally spar, Roshone trying to pressure the surgeon with his family’s starvation, Lirin calmly rebutting that he would win an inquest, and can leave with his family any time he wants. Roshone accuses Lirin of stealing spheres from Wistiow, although admits that he would probably lose an inquest. Lirin continues to insist that he is not intimidated. Finally, when Roshone offers to leave Lirin 10% of the spheres if he gives up the remainder, Kal butts in. He begins to protest that his father will never take that offer, but Lirin cuts him off, suggesting that he should go to the kitchens and find less spicy food. Children’s food.
Shamed, Kal leaves, fleeing to the kitchen where he is immediately offered a meal fit for a child. Kal feels like a child. He realizes that his plan to run away and join the army is a childish rebellion, and that he deserves the meal he’s being punished with. He is sitting waiting for the flatbread and fruited tallew rice when Rillir Roshone, the citylord’s son, walks into the kitchens, Laral on his arm. Kal’s childhood friend (and potential bride) has grown into a young woman. She received the remainder of her father’s wealth in inheritance and had a large dowry bestowed upon her by Highprince Sadeas in compensation for the loss of her lands.
Kal stands and greets her, but is rewarded with only a faint blush. Rillir, however, notices him, and commands him to fetch them supper. Kal refuses, saying he’s no kitchen servant, but that doesn’t seem to bother Rillir. They go back and forth, Rillir trapping Kal with spurious arguments, until Laral asks him to leave the subject. He humors her, and leads her out of the kitchens.
Lirin collects him, gently chastising him for not eating his meal. After all, it was free. They return to the carriage, where an awkward silence grows. Kal breaks it by telling his father that he wants to be a surgeon, revealing in the process that he had been planning to run away to become a soldier. Now, though, he realizes that he needs to be smarter, needs to be able to think like a lighteyes so that he can “face them and talk back at them. Not fold like…”
Lirin hears the unspoken accusation, and knows that Kal thinks he folded under Roshone’s pressure. He explains that that’s far from the truth. He didn’t accept Roshone’s offer and never intended to. Instead, he gave the appearance of desperation, knowing that this would distract Roshone for a few months. He plans to string Roshone along for as long as he can.
Kal doesn’t understand why his father did this in the first place. He realizes that this game is a distraction, that Lirin is trying to keep Roshone focused on breaking him. Finally, he realizes why Lirin needs Roshone distracted: Lirin did steal the spheres.
Lirin admits that Wistiow was not lucid when he made his last will, although he does not see what he did as theft, but instead as an assurance of promises made. His family had been banking on a betrothal between Laral and Kaladin, and since that was doomed by Wistiow’s illness, other assurance was necessary. Kal doesn’t know what to think, can’t decide if what his father did “was incredibly brave or incredibly wrong,” but he knows he still wants to go to Kharbranth. Even if it means using stolen spheres.
He also knows that he wants to start using his full name. He’s tired of thinking and acting like a child.
Quote of the Chapter:
“Spren appear when something changes—when fear appears, or when it begins to rain. They are the heart of change, and therefore the heart of all things.”
I’m quite sure that this is just folk knowledge on Hesina’s part. Kaladin’s mother is superstitious, believing firmly in glyphwards and the like. In this case, however, I think she’s close to the mark. Many kinds of spren seem to be attracted to changing states. The rest of the questions raised in this section are also worth considering. Do spren live in rocks? Rocks change infrequently. Do you get more spren if you cut up a longroot? Maybe! Or maybe you get different kinds of spren that are attracted to the cutting. I think that Syl suggests that some kinds of spren are individuals, so chopping up a longroot spren into many, smaller longroot spren seems…unlikely. I can answer one question with confidence, though. Dungspren exist. Brandon said so on reddit. You’re welcome, world.
Commentary: The boy becomes a man! Well, not that it’s really that easy. This episode shows Kaladin making some important progress, but he’s still failing to understand something essential about himself. He’s putting aside soldiering as an option in order to pursue surgery. This is the mature choice for him to make, but it’s not the choice that most fully expresses who he is. You can’t understand Kaladin-the-healer without acknowledging Kaladin-the-warrior any better than you can define Kaladin as a common worker or an educated elite. He’s both and neither. We can forgive him for thinking he needs to make a choice, though, and for thinking it’s possible to give up a life of violence. He’s still never held a spear, and doesn’t know how natural battle is to him. All in all, he made the best choice available at this point, and it’s the perfect time for him to accept his full name.
I will miss li’l Kal, though. It was a very convenient shorthand.
Less useful is Kaladin’s obsession with his father’s courage or cowardice. I’m of the opinion that bravery is a totally inappropriate axis on which to judge Lirin. His choices have never been motivated by fear or courage, but rather by a mostly-mechanistic determination of how best to take care of his family. It’s much more useful to consider whether his choices were well-thought-out and well-executed. At some points I think Lirin is unhelpfully motivated by pride, and has his decision-making twisted by his desired self-image. At other points he plays a delicate game with as much skill as can be expected. In fact, his plan to manipulate Roshone and buy more time is good. He has a good understanding of what moves Roshone will make and how to usefully display weakness. He doesn’t, however, have a particularly achievable endgame.
Lirin’s goal, at this point, seems to be to hold out for just long enough that he can spend all the stolen spheres on Kaladin’s education. Where would that leave him? His family would have nothing except a vengeful citylord. He could travel to another city, but that costs money and risks travel through lands wracked by highstorms. His younger son, who is not as talented as Kaladin, is apprenticed to a carpenter, but that’s not going to keep the family alive. Is Lirin’s goal to sacrifice himself and his family to give Kaladin a chance at a better life? Is that noble?
This chapter is an excellent follow-up to Shallan stealing Jasnah’s Soulcaster, I’d just like to say.
Food is huge in this chapter. We see Kaladin’s family scraping by on what I’m pretty sure are fantasyland carrots. They’re too poor to afford meat, let alone gender-differentiated meals. Then we see Roshone, feasting on spicy meats. He may be the poor lord of a poor district, but he can still afford an adjoined dining room to entertain lower-class citizens. And we see Kaladin in the kitchens, surrounded by people dedicated to the production of food, and in danger of being suborned as a food-fetcher to Rillir. Food is presented as necessity, display of power, livelihood, politics, and culture.
Now I’m hungry. Thanks, self.