Welcome back to The Way of Kings reread here on Tor.com. I can’t believe we’re already this far down the Stormlight hole with the second set of Interludes. You all were getting a little tired of being stuck on the Plains for the entirety of the last sections, weren’t you? I know I was! No matter how much I like Kaladin and Dalinar’s points of view, Roshar is a big and strange world that I love getting a chance to explore, which the interludes provide us. These are some very special chapters in which we learn some answers to basic questions like what is up with the Shin? Of course those answers don’t clear everything up, and just lead to more and more questions—and I think I have at least a few dozen questions after reading the Axies chapter. What a lovable weirdo.
The first interlude gives us a very brief look into life in Shinovar. In the second, we meet a cataloguer of spren—who is perhaps the most unique characters in The Way of Kings. Lastly, we catch up with Szeth, whose worst dream comes true.
Interlude 4: Rysn
Point of View: Rysn
What Happens: Rysn, a young Thaylen merchant at the beginning of her apprenticeship to merchant Vstim, arrives in Shinovar for the first time. She sees grass and dirt for the first time in her life, and notes how strange it is that no spren are visible here. Vstim is familiar with the area immediately surrounding the border in Shinovar, and is steeped decently in the customs of the Shin.
As the caravan settles, Vstim orders Rysn to setup a fabrial to act as a warning device should anyone approach the caravan. As a Shin farmer and his guards approach, the fabrial does its job and pulses brightly from a gem. Rysn questions the usefulness of the fabrial as they knew the Shin would be coming, but Vstim tells her it will more than pay for itself to warn of bandits when they are camped for the night.
As the Shin group approaches, Rysn notices a man in front wearing a bright multicolored robe, which surprises her as the Shin she’s seen before always wore dark clothing. The colorful Shin is also accompanied by four others who, while not as brightly dressed as their leader, also wore bright colors. Surrounding them are a few dozen guards in brown outfits. Vstim tells Rysn that the leader is actually a farmer—that being the highest level of Shin society—and the men in brown would be considered warriors, which is the lowest position their culture. Warriors could also be traded with a stone to someone else. In Shin culture, a farmer is referred to as “he who adds,” and farms are considered holy places where outsiders aren’t allowed to visit.
Vstim walks out to greet the Shin leader, Thresh-son-Esan, and they exchange pleasantries. Vstim says he has brought Thresh branches, shells, and other detritus that has been Soulcast into metal and none of it was mined out of rock, as requested. Thresh signals for his men to bring out a crate containing chickens. He wonders why Vstim is interested in them instead of horses, which is what most merchants come to Shinovar for, and Vstim explains that chickens are much easier to care for. Thresh expresses that the chickens he trades Vstim aren’t worth nearly as much as the metal, yet Vstim insists the opposite, as Soulcasters use their skills on the shells and branches during training. After a bit of this back and forth the two come to an agreement and make a trade.
Vstim asks if any of the soldiers are for sale, but Thresh says none can be sold besides the one he sold to Vstim nearly seven years past; only a Truthless could be traded away, and Thresh hoped they would never have another.
After the Shin depart, Vstim asks Rysn what she learned. She replies “that Shin are odd.” Vstim counters that they are not odd, but different and goes on to say:
“Odd people are those who act erratically. Thresh and his kind, they are anything but erratic. They may be a little too stable. The world is changing outside, but the Shin seem determined to remain the same.”
He again asked her what she learned, and she says the Shin style of negotiation seems to be to discount the value of your trade goods. It seemed a strange tactic to her, but it was the way to get the best deal for them. Vstim added that you should never cheat or lie to a Shin and they’ll give you a more than fair deal in the end.
As they were leaving, Vstim has Rysn collect some of the abundant grass and soil around them—he wants her to care for it so that she can learn to stop thinking of it as odd, which will make her a better merchant.
Quote of the Chapter:
It was as if the entire land were slow of wit. Like a man who was born without all his brains, one who didn’t know when to protect himself, but instead just stared at the wall drooling.
A very interesting and deliberate use of the word “wit.” This passage to me means the land doesn’t have the spirit since it is devoid of Spren, but it could just be referring to how it doesn’t have the type of vegetation that Rysn is use to seeing as Shinovar would be consider lush compared to most of rocky Roshar. It really is just a matter of perspective as Vstim points out.
Commentary: The Misted Mountains is a lovely nod to J.R.R. Tolkien by Sanderson, and I bet there are other references that went over my head. Sanderson is the type of author who is trying to forge new roads in Epic Fantasy while still paying homage to the spirit of the genre.
Unlike the other viewpoints introduced in the interludes, Rysn is the most forgettable to me. Szeth is very much a mystery, Ishikk is just plain fun, Axies as we’ll see is a wild and strange guy, and Shallan’s brother just deepens the mysteries of the Davar clan plus he’s got that whole weird psychosis going on. But Rysn is just an observer, and the only thing that makes it notable is what she witnesses—even if much of it is still a bit baffling. She does see her self as a progressive person, but that doesn’t draw her apart as well as the other interlude characters. I know she’ll be appearing in Words of Radiance, so she may liven up yet, but for now she is just a watcher.
But this is a Shin chapter, so let’s get back to that. The Shin definitely want metal to forge with, but they don’t want metal that has been mined, which goes along with the whole “we don’t touch stone” Stone Shamanism facet. So do they not know how to Soulcast? Is that verboten in Shin society? In a way, wouldn’t being able to make something out of nothing be the epitome of “he who adds”? Also, I’m keen to know what they’re forging. Probably just farm tools, but maybe they have a darker purpose. Shardblades somehow? Doesn’t seem likely, but since there aren’t definitive answers, my mind wanders to what could be. Plus outsiders are not allowed near fields or farming villages since they are such holy places for “he who adds” to toil away, so they could definitely be hiding something.
One theory: could Shinovar be protected from the Highstorms through some deal with Odium, such as supplying solders when needed or equipment such as Shards? That could play into why Szeth is released into the world to bring chaos. It could also explain why Shinovar is grassy and lush, whereas the rest of Roshar is a rocky landscape.
From Thresh’s reaction about the Truthless, we can gather a few things. It had to be Szeth—by the timeline and language used there aren’t many Truthless in existence. Szeth could very well be the only one alive. This makes Szeth very unique not only in the world of Roshar, but also in the society that created him. He’s an outcast. He is lost in the world and the only thing he holds to are his oaths and beliefs.
Interlude 5: Axies the Collector
Setting: Kasitor in Iri
Point of View: Axies the Collector
What Happens: Axies the Collector awakens early in the morning in an alleyway, naked and unbalanced due to a night of excessive drinking. After checking himself to see if he has any injuries, he finds he has been slumbering in rotting vegetables and other refuse. As he wills his headache away, a voice from behind asks for payment for letting him stay in the alley for the night. The voice belongs to a disturbed beggar who considers the alley his territory. Axies learns he is still in Kasitor, after being robbed of everything he had, beaten, and left for dead.
Axies the Collector seems to end up in situations like this quite often in his pursuit of cataloging all spren in the world in person. After getting a sack from the beggar to cover his nakedness, he ventures out of the alleyway and immediately draws stares. Axies is an Aimian with the characteristic blue nails and crystal blue eyes, along with many tattoos as well as a shadow that casts towards the light instead of away—all of which make him off-putting to those who notice his differences. Like all Aimians, he can also write on his skin—which is a useful skill for Axies, considering he would have lost his notebook along with his other possessions.
Last night’s drinking was meant to draw a specific rare type of spren, which he calls alespren, that have only been heard of in Iri. According to his tattooed notes, he successfully saw alespren the previous night, though he may have to go through with the experiment again to prove that it wasn’t simply a hallucination caused by the alcohol.
Axies found himself with a group of Iriali near the docks, which is right where he wanted to be. At seven forty-six in the morning, a giant sea-blue spren appears to rise out of the ocean as a column of water around 100 feet high, which Axies describes as one of the largest spren he has ever seen. The spren appears to grow arms. The locals call the spren Cusicesh, “the Protector,” which some worshipp as a god. This is the only known spren of its type ever recorded, and it appears like clockwork everyday for 10 minutes. After rising, the spren looks towards the Origin of Storms and continually shifts its face to resemble those of many different humans of both sexes. Axies notes that he cannot tell if any of the faces repeat because they changed so swiftly. As Cusicesh submerges itself again, Axies experiences a draining of his energy—said to be a common occurrence around the giant spren.
Suddenly the bag Axies wears is ripped from him by a young street kid, who runs off with it laughing. Axies stands in the crowd completely naked as four guards approach to arrest him, affording him of the proper jailed environment to continue his long search for captivityspren.
Quote of the Chapter:
“I’m still trying to decide how you fit into things. Are you a Voidbringer or a Herald?”
“Voidbringer, I’m afraid,” Axies said. “I mean, I did destroy a temple.”
Sanderson’s writing is known to be opaque at times. A sly comment like this could be a red herring about Axies’ allegiances and possible future. His shadow also being backwards points in that direction as well though that could be more related to the curse he speaks of. I almost wonder if he is the Hoid of Roshar. He’s clearly a wanderer, too—a gatherer of knowledge, and someone who always ends up in trouble but somehow lives through it.
Commentary: How about that giant spren? While Axies seems likely to be important later in the series, the giant spren that may also be integral. Could it be some sort of embodiment of one of the Gods of Roshar? A defensive spell wrought by the Heralds? Tanavast’s partner perhaps? The face changing is curious, and shows the spren is connected to other beings in some fashion. If only someone described the faces, we might be able to connect them better to people we meet.
There is also the power drain people feel around it. It is leeching off of them, but to what end? The spren is known as the Protector and is definitely considered ancient, so it may be responsible for keeping Highstorms away to a degree. Most of the other locales described come with a something specific about how the area weathers Highstorms—buildings made of rock, the high cliff surrounding Kharbranth, the mountains around Shinovar, etc. With Kasitor, precious little time is given to describing how the city survives, though it is clearly next to water and therefore open to Highstorms (albeit weaker storms, as Kasitor is farther from the Origin).
One thing I gleaned from these chapters is that spren are only found in the rocky parts of Roshar. Could this be because the rock provides some sort of connection to Tanavast which helps them conduct energy through the emotions of humans (since spren are clearly attracted to emotions)? The idea strikes because of Cusicesh's clear power drain effect. It could be channeling that power to the Origin, which could quite possibly be the shattered Tanavast trying to reform itself somehow.
Now back to Axies, who I didn’t think of much the first time through besides as comic relief, but he grows on me the more time I spend with him. His cheery, playful disposition in the face of adversity seems designed to play off of Szeth’s fated dourness. There are apparently two races of Aimian, with Axies being part of the Siah Aimian. (We’ll discuss the other much later when they are brought up.) Either Aimian type is quite rare, apparently, as his people had gone through some sort of purge and nowadays people have heard of them mostly through stories or legends. Those legends aren’t given to us, so it is only through the reaction of people who see Axies that suggests the Aimians are people you don’t want to really hang out with.
The Aimians have some superpowers, such as the power to banish a headache, keep your sense of smell inhibited, and of course the ability to write on skin almost like a chameleon shapeshifter. So nearly complete control over his body functions. But can he change shape?
Axies’ abilities also relate to a theory that has been coming up in the comments. Namely, that Parshmen/Parshendi can somehow transform into Chasmfiends. Axies can clearly change things about his body, though until this point it seems limited to changing the color of his skin—but that doesn’t mean his abilities couldn’t do a lot more, since they seem to do plenty internally. So the Aimians could possibly be one of the races of the Voidbringers, or perhaps are in their service somehow.
And to what end is he cataloging all of the spren types? Is it merely scientific research, or is it a more purposeful mission he was set upon by someone? Maybe by King Taravangian, who seems very interested in knowledge of all types.
Axies is a few centuries old, but just how old could he be? It certainly seems like he’s been alive since this “purging.” There is also the whole reverse shadow thing. Bad luck seems to find Axies wherever he goes which he is very cognizant of calling it the Curse of Kind, but it isn’t clear if that curse is merely on his head or that of all Aimians. The Curse of Kind could be why his shadow is reversed as well his longevity. Maybe a connection to the Nightwatcher is here somewhere. Say Axies wanted to live long enough to see all the spren in the world, but the downside is bad luck follows him wherever he goes. Even with all the silly happenstances that befall him, you can’t say he doesn’t look on the bright side.
A trip to the Shattered Plains seems inevitable to Axies as he alludes to some Spren that can only be found during war.
Interlude 6: A Work of Art
Setting: Bavland in the town of Bornwater
Point of View: Szeth
What Happens: Szeth is in Bornwater where his latest master, Makkek, had move to from Staplind in order to increase the size of his criminal activities. For the last few months, Makkek has been using Szeth to make the local criminals fall under his rule either by intimidation (including assassinations) to show what happens to those who oppose him. Szeth even had to kill the men who were with Makkek the night he found Szeth’s Oathstone in order to keep his power over Szeth quiet.
Szeth is ordered to take out a new competitor named Gavashaw, who has the local lord’s favor in competing with Makkek underworld empire. Szeth stalked his way across town to the mansion Gavashaw lives in. Breathing in Stormlight and using his Surgebinding skills, he easily scales the building, entering through the domed roof by using his Shardblade to cut an entry hole. Szeth hates using his Shardblade for this work, but does so when needed so as not to cause greater loss of life. He worries Makkek would find out about the blade and try to take it from him, as Szeth knows he cannot turn it over nor kill himself to pass it on—after Szeth's death, Stone Shamans from Shinovar will come to recover the blade no matter who holds it.
Upon entering Gavashaw’s chamber he sees what looks to be the man’s head on the table. Suddenly, a male voice speaks the name Szeth-son-Neturo. The voice seems to know a lot about Szeth, and believes Szeth’s skills are being “squandered.” Szeth is upset at the use of his father’s name, as he feels he has sullied it by association with his own.
Szeth turns to leave and return to Makkek when the stranger throws another head—Makkek’s. The stranger says his head was taken moments after Szeth left by servants of Szeth’s new master. The stranger then reveals a sheet of paper that lists Szeth's targets for assassination, including the manner in which they were to be killed. Listed are 24 names, including many Alethi highprinces, the king of Jah Keved, and many other powerful names—killing the people listed would upset the balance of the world. This is Szeth’s worst nightmare, that he will be used as a tool of destruction by someone who knows exactly how dangerous and effective he is.
Quote of the Chapter:
And yet they thought nothing of walking on stone or using Stormlight for everyday illumination. They ignored the spirits of things that lived around them, and they ate whatever they wanted on any day they wanted.
Strange. So strange. And yet this was his life. Recently, Szeth had begun to question some of the prohibitions he had once followed so strictly. How could these Easterners not walk on stone? There was no soil in their lands. How could they get about without treading on stone?
Dangerous thoughts. His way of life was all that remained to him. If he questioned Stone Shamanism, would he then question his nature as Truthless? Dangerous, dangerous. Though his murders and sins would damn him, at least his soul would be given to the stones upon his death. He would continue to exist. Punished, in agony, but not exiled to nothingness.
Szeth is, above all things, a man of faith. He is not only prepared to do terrible things to keep to his faith, but readily admits he has done abhorrent things because that is his lot in life. But doubts begin creeping in to Szeth's mind— doubts which could never arise if he stayed in the Valley of Truth where soil and grass rein supreme instead of rock. This seems to be foreshadowing some kind of break with the faith in Szeth. Perhaps it will grow deeper once he is confronted by Kaladin. Again, this section leads to more questions, as we know so little about the details of Stone Shamanism, but the fact that Shin bodies are left on rocks leads me to assume their beliefs center around their spirits becoming the spren of the world. Szeth does refer to them as spirits, after all.
Commentary: How many names can I guy have? Szeth-son-son-Vallano, the Assassin in White, and now Szeth-son-Neturo. Let’s not forget Truthless, which seems to also be “he who takes away,” to go along with Thresh’s “he who adds.”
We see how tightly Seth grips his beliefs and oaths, but his time in exile forces him to begin questioning them. Could he have a breaking point? Or could it be something much simpler—with someone asking the right question at the right time—for him to reveal all? It would certainly be interesting to see Szeth and Wit run across one another for a chat.
Szeth is a prime example of religion gone wrong, where those overzealous in their belief cause great harm in the name of their religion. The Shin are as much at fault for unleashing Szeth into Roshar as the Parshendi were for ordering him to kill Gavilar. Szeth is doing what he considers penance for something that caused him to be Truthless in order to still have a chance at his soul being given to stones upon his death because being punished for eternity is better than “exiled to nothingness.” Is Szeth a weird sacrifice from the Shin to keep the Voidbringers at bay? Dangerous, dangerous questions.
For most of The Way of Kings, Szeth has been letting his skills slumber, but the perfect killing machine is about to be unleashed. Szeth’s new master sets him upon upsetting the balance of Roshar life by killing many upper echelon members of its leading kingdoms. Szeth’s greatest fears have been made a reality, but at least in terms of the story he’ll be actually doing something—even if he is literally crying all the while. Why was Szeth given these powers? A dangerous question I’d like an answer to.
Next week Carl returns along with the long absent Shallan.
Michael Pye (aka The Mad Hatter) runs The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Review where he shares his views on genre books. He can also be found nattering on Twitter or in search of the perfect piece of bacon. He is currently working on an anthology project and is hoping to find a good publishing home for it soon.