Welcome back to the Way of Kings reread! We’ve reached Chapter 11, and with it the end of Part One. As such, I’ll only be covering one chapter this week, but will also offer my impressions on the entirety of Part One. I’ll discuss the characters introduced, how they developed, how the Part functions as a whole, and more.
In addition to that, I have stories from Brandon Sanderson’s visit to Tor headquarters, a special (and incredibly limited) giveaway of The Rithmatist, and more, all below the cut.
Brandon Sanderson was in New York on Tuesday to kick off his signing tour for The Rithmatist. I got to meet him for the second time, and discuss how pleased I was that Tulsa, my home town, is an independent Island in the alternate United States featured in The Rithmatist.
At the end of the meeting I told him how much we’re all looking forward to Words of Radiance, and he confirmed that he’s working hard on it. It’s about 80% done, so we’ve got some time left to wait, but also a lot to look forward to.
And now, with no further ado, the reread.
Chapter 11: Droplets
Setting: Sadeas’ Warcamp, The Shattered Plains
Point of View: Kaladin
What Happens: The highstorm subsides, and Kaladin slips on his sandals and leaves the barracks, passing soldiers using their one allotted blanket as either a covering, a pillow, or a headwrap to block out the world. Outside the rain is falling in sheets and the wind is still strong, as the highstorm has just barely passed the point of danger. Kaladin walks through the lumberyard, through waves of chilling rain, and is accosted by Gaz.
The sergeant is retrieving charged spheres from a metal basket on the leeward side of a barrack, where he put them out before the storm for infusing. This is a risk, since baskets can be torn free in storms, and some people believe that the Lost Radiants steal spheres as well. Kaladin thinks that it’s more likely these spheres are stolen by desperate and greedy men willing to risk a highstorm. Gaz threatens to string Kaladin up if he’s among these thieves, but Kaladin turns away from him without answering. Gaz is not pleased:
“Storm you! I’ll have you strung up anyway! Don’t think you can run away; there are still sentries. You—”
“I’m going to the Honor Chasm,” Kaladin said quietly. His voice would barely be audible over the storm.
Gaz shuts up, letting him walk away as soon as he’s left behind his sandals and vest. Kaladin walks down to the Shattered Plains along a now-familiar path, considering how many men spent the time between runs stunned, almost catatonic. Kaladin himself has noticed difficulty making decisions after being shocked in battle, but the boy who died on the last run finally jolted him out of his pattern, let him decide to come to the Honor Chasm, the last honorable decision a bridgeman could make, the choice to kill himself.
As he travels along the wide, deep chasm, Kaladin thinks that the plains can’t possibly be natural, that the land has been broken, and now breaks the people who come to it. He reaches his destination, then sits to watch the raindrops “plunging into the dark depths…little suicidal jumpers. Thousands upon thousands of them.” After admitting that his father was right, that you can’t save by killing, he prepares to join them, and puts one foot over the edge of the abyss.
At that moment, Sylphrena’s voice pierces his malaise. She is calling to him as she staggers through the rain, flying erratically, as if she is carrying something heavy. Kaladin pulls his foot back and reaches out to greet her. She has brought him blackbane, one of the most deadly poisons available, the leaves that he lost in Tvlakv’s slave caravan.
As Syl explains how she thought that losing those leaves was a turning point, and that she thought that if she found them she’d be able to bring back the old Kaladin, the fighter, Kaladin almost laughs.
She had no concept of what she’d done, fetching him a leaf of one of Roshar’s most deadly natural poisons because she’d wanted to make him happy. It was ridiculous. And sweet.
Despite this, and how far Syl flew, how she risked forgetting who she was, Kaladin insists that he has failed, that it’s too late for him to help anyone, especially the others in his bridge crew. Besides, “they’re dead. They’re all going to die, and there’s no way out.” If they’re already dead, Syl replies, what could one more try hurt? After all, if they’re all going to die, Kaladin can’t make things any worse for them. She begs him to try one more time.
Kaladin thinks of the men in his barracks. He thinks of himself, “crying at the death of a boy he hadn’t known. A boy he hadn’t even tried to help.” He crushes the blackbane leaf in his hand, and walks away from the chasm.
Back at the camp, Gaz mocks him for being too cowardly to kill himself, but before he can finish his thought Kaladin grabs him by the neck and slams him to the ground. He tells Gaz that he’s taking control of Bridge Four. He’ll still accept tasks, but he’s bridgeleader, and he decides how the bridge will be run. He also says he’s going to start bribing Gaz, one clearmark every five days, in exchange for staying out of his way.
Kaladin returns to Bridge Four’s barrack and looks at the men hunkered down inside, men who look much more pathetic now that he’s no longer suicidal. He draws on the memories of the man he used to be, and begins approaching each bridgemen. Starting with a man named Teft he asks their names, tells them his own, and grasps them by the hand. Many resist, not wanting to give him their names, but in the end he has learned each and every one. He holds them in his mind, as an affirmation that his men matter, and promises himself that, even though he might fail again, he will find a way to protect them.
Quote of the Chapter:
“The world just changed, Gaz,” Kaladin said, leaning in close. “I died down at that chasm. Now you’ve got my vengeful spirit to deal with.”
This is more than just Kaladin proving he’s still a badass warrior. It’s more than an action movie one-liner. It’s the realization of Kaladin’s changed understanding of himself. Kaladin believed, quite possibly rightly, that he was stuck, with nowhere to go. The man he was had died. Kaladin Stormblessed, the leader of men, the peerless warrior, honorable leader, who gave everything of himself for everyone in need, is gone. And in a way he’s made himself the avenger of that dead man. He’s echoing who he used to be without tying himself to all the same choices he made. It’s a very thorough way to start over, philosophically.
We’ve reached the absolute bottom of Kaladin’s arc, but thankfully not the absolute bottom of the Honor Chasm, and from here on it will mostly be upward, with a few notable regressions. I must say that I’m very glad that Kaladin has pulled himself back together, but it’s fascinating to see what it took for that to happen. Let’s unpack this.
First, there came his perception that his father was right, that you can’t save anyone by killing people. As I said last time, I’m not sure we can consider this to be strictly true, but it’s important for Kaladin. Kaladin has to live this contradiction. He has been trained as a healer, and he values saving lives above just about anything. But it may not be inaccurate to say that Kaladin was born to be a fighter. We see more of this later, but soldiering was always Kaladin’s ambition, and he is remarkably good with a spear. He takes to violence with a natural ease that is frankly terrifying. How does a natural killer handle a drive to save and preserve lives? Kaladin will need to find more answers to this problem before he’s done.
Second, there is his acceptance of his own death. Kaladin frames this as the end of a journey, one in which he grew in understanding but not wisdom. He earned the scars along that path, fought difficult battles, has seen the darkness in the hearts of men, and, essentially, lost his innocence. He accepts that the truth of the world has broken him, and takes the step that will end his life, even if he’s interrupted before the very end.
Then, Syl returns. She is his conscience, his savior, his honor. She is his companion at the worst of times. Most importantly to this moment, she is the one who remembers what was so great about him, the fighter, the leader, the man who cared about what happened to the weak. She sees what he could still be, and now that she’s back, she can remind him.
But she’s brought something with her: blackbane. Poison. There is a duality to many weapons, a use beyond killing humans. Spears can be used for hunting. Axes can fell trees. Hammers can break up rocks and clear roads. Blackbane lacks this duality. It is the purest weapon, the purest form of death, because it can do nothing but kill. But Syl has delivered this to Kaladin because to her it’s not so simple. It has a symbolic duality as the thing that used to give Kaladin hope that he could change the world around him.
Kaladin could have killed himself with the blackbane. Or he could have killed Gaz with it. He could become a weapon himself. But he crushes the blackbane again, intentionally this time. He turns his back on that, and accepts that although he has been broken, he can rebuild himself into something else.
Again, Syl is the one who reminds Kaladin who he’s supposed to be, and who gives him the kick in the pants necessary to do the honorable thing. If not for her, he would have died an abject and broken man. She brought him back to life, back to honor.
After he puts himself back in gear, Kaladin is remarkably effective. He bullies Gaz into letting him have his way and then gives him a minor incentive to keep him alive while he does his work. He assesses the bridgemen and, despite the vastness of their despair, he starts at the beginning. He learns their names, and teaches them that they matter to him. He still has that remarkable sense of what his followers need from him.
Gaz continues to be built up as a greedy, short-sighted, cowardly man. He’s very one-dimensional at the moment, and will remain so until we see the world from his viewpoint, but that’s okay for now. We need someone to represent the system, so that we know who to hate in the short term while Kaladin figures things out.
We learn more about the currency of Roshar. Spheres are worth more when infused with Stormlight, which can be accomplished through moneychangers, or by taking an economic (and physical) risk by putting your spheres out in a highstorm. I like that spheres are worth more when they’re magically and practically useful than when they’re just pretty. It’s probably a relic of the old days when people remembered how to do magic, although there are still Soulcasters who need their spheres infused.
We see, again, the divide between cultural and personal honor. The Honor Chasm—should we really believe that suicide is an honorable course of action? Better, I think, to call Kaladin honor when, in the face of repeated failure, he takes the emotional risk and commits himself to helping the helpless.
It seems like bridge runs give bridgemen PTSD. “Many of the runs were so draining, so horrific, that they left the bridgemen stunned, almost unresponsive for the days between. Many bridgemen had trouble making decisions. The same happened to men who were shocked by battle.” It makes sense that in this fantasy world, which understands medicine so well, they would have a rudimentary theory of PTSD, which is often observed but rarely medically examined in other epic fantasies.
Last of all, the epigraph: “Three of sixteen ruled, but now the Broken One reigns.” This is almost certainly a window into the Realmatic underpinnings of this world. There are 16 Shards, three of which resided on Roshar. Honor, Cultivation, and Odium. Now only one reigns: The Broken One. I think it’s possible to interpret this as saying that there used to be three Shards, and then Odium arrived, driving out one and defeating the other two, but I don’t think we have much evidence to support that at the present.
Part One Breakdown: Above Silence
Part One started slowly, but built up a lot of powerful and fascinating momentum. It introduced two of our viewpoint characters, Kaladin and Shallan, as well as presenting us a third-person perspective on Jasnah. By taking the entire Part to develop these two characters, Sanderson gave himself more than ample time to lay his foundations. I think that, by and large, this strategy worked, especially where Kaladin is concerned. By the end of Chapter 11 we are fully committed to Kaladin. We’ve seen him go as low as possible, and then resurge as who he is supposed to be. But, again, would it have been possible to have developed this more quickly? To have introduced his flashbacks slightly earlier, and get into the core conceit of the book sooner? Could we have spent less time in depression town? I would have liked to spend less time in depression town.
Shallan’s chapters, I felt, were less purposeful, less driven, than Kaladin’s. Sanderson uses Shallan as an inquisitive young mind, an explorer, so that he can engage us with his world. And that definitely worked. I feel extremely engaged with Sanderson’s worldbuilding in Shallan’s chapters. I don’t, however, think that she does as well in this introduction as Kaladin does. It took longer for Sanderson to get into her character, and to differentiate her voice from the other snarky protagonists he has written before.
Shallan will blossom into something much greater, the window into the intellectual life of Roshar, now that she has been accepted into Jasnah’s wardship. Providing access to Jasnah would almost be enough on its own to make Shallan my favorite viewpoint character in this novel, but we barely get that in the first section.
These quibbles aside, I believe that Part One did what Sanderson needed it to do. It built strong foundations for Shallan and Kaladin, made them characters we wanted to know more about, established the mysteries surrounding them (Shallan is a thief! Kaladin attracts mysteryspren!), and turned them loose in a deliciously realized world. Part One is the slowest portion of the book, and that is a good thing. There is so much more to come. Indeed, you could argue that the main plot has yet to begin. While Kaladin and Shallan bear the brunt of the emotional journey in The Way of Kings, the most significant elements of the plot are developed through Dalinar’s chapters.
The best aspect of Above Silence, in my mind, was the ease with which it establishes the non-character aspects of the world. We learn so much about the creatures of the world, Vorin society, spren and more, with a minimum of infodumps. By the end of Part One Roshar feels real, and vivid, which is a triumph. We need to accept Roshar to care about its geopolitics, which is what Part Two will expose us to.
Next week Michael will return, with coverage of the Interludes between the parts. The Interludes show us far-flung places in Roshar, and are a fertile swath of worldbuilding, so get ready for a real treat.