Welcome to the Stormlight Grimoire, a mini-series of articles dedicated to explaining and exploring how magic works in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Most kinds of magic have been lost to the people of Roshar for countless years, but as Sanderson’s story unfolds that knowledge and power is beginning to flow back into the world.
There is still much to be revealed, but there’s also a lot available to those who are willing to dig for it. This week I will cover what I think are the fundamentals of Sanderson’s many magic systems: Stormlight and the Nahel Bond. I believe these two mechanisms to be essential to all the kinds of magic Sanderson has shown us so far, so there’s no better place to start.
Stormlight is the energy that makes magic on Roshar possible. Both of the major forms of magic we’ve encountered so far, Surgebinding and Soulcasting, are fueled directly by Stormlight. In the case of Soulcasting, Stormlight is siphoned out of gemstones and into Soulcasters. Surgebinders are somewhat more direct; they can inhale Stormlight directly, or absorb it during highstorms.
The people of Roshar store Stormlight in cut and polished gemstones, suspended in glass spheres. While even uncut gemstones catch Stormlight, worked gems hold a much higher quantity, and also make far better decorations and light sources. Capturing and holding Stormlight in this way is so essential that spheres have become the basic unit of currency across Roshar, and infused spheres are de facto more valuable than uninfused spheres, although officially speaking this is just because uninfused spheres might be counterfeit. I imagine this system of currency developed long ago, when people still knew all the things they could do with Stormlight, and has persisted into the modern era of magical ignorance.
Stormlight is clearly highly energized, as can be determined by how it invigorates those who inhale it. When Kaladin or Szeth hold Stormlight inside themselves, they can run faster and hit harder. The Stormlight warms them from within. It even supercharges their natural healing processes. While they’re holding Stormlight, Szeth and Kaladin don’t have to breathe, which is good, because exhaling would release the energy back into the air. Sadly, humans are way worse at holding Stormlight than gemstones, since their porous, fleshy exteriors are more permeable than a crystal lattice. As a result, they start glowing.
Stormlight is carried in Highstorms, which sweep across the continent from east to west. The people of Roshar believe that the storms come from a single location, far to the east, which they call the Origin. If they are right, the Origin likely contains something incredibly powerful that is generating Stormlight. I have a few theories on what that something could be, obviously.
1) The Stormfather: “Stormfather” is an Alethi epithet for Jezrien, the King of the Heralds. They seem to believe that Jezrien rides the storms, although the theological import of this is somewhat confusing. Sigzil, a Worldsinger devoted to spreading the stories of Roshar, also describes Jezrien this way, calling him “Master of the storms, bringer of water and life,” which could easily be stretched to imply bringing Stormlight. I think this is really unlikely, though. Jezrien walked away from his earthly duties at the end of the last Desolation, and he did so as a human, not as a thunderstorm. It’s possible he could have traveled to the Origin, but I doubt he would have forsaken his responsibilities just to pick up some new ones somewhere else.
2) A Dimensional Rift: Brandon Sanderson once described the Pits of Hathsin, where Atium is mined in the Mistborn series, as a leak between the spiritual and the physical realms. That’s how Atium is formed in the first place. Sanderson also said that a leak between the spiritual and physical realm is part of how gemhearts are formed. This actually ties into my third theory.
3) Honor: It’s revealed late in The Way of Kings that Dalinar’s dream-visions are being sent to him by Honor, the dead Shard. His dreams occur during Highstorms, so it makes sense to think that Honor is traveling in the storms. So, like the Pit of Hathsin or the Well of Ascension, it’s possible that Honor’s liquid body is waiting at the Origin. This would be an especially exciting possibility, because it almost guarantees a journey to the Origin at some point in the series.
Stormlight coming from Honor is my current favorite theory, especially because of how much longer Kaladin can hold Stormlight than Szeth. In the Prologue, Szeth says that a person can only hold Stormlight for a few minutes at best, whereas Kaladin later fights for tens of minutes while full to the brim. Which brings me to the second half of this article.
The Nahel Bond
“Alakavish was a Surgebinder. He should have known better. And yet, the Nahel bond gave him no more wisdom than a regular man. Alas, not all spren are as discerning as honorspren.”
—Nohadon, author of The Way of Kings
It’s very possible that a reader of The Way of Kings wouldn’t remember the Nahel bond. It is mentioned only once, in one of Dalinar’s dream visions, amid a torrent of other unfamiliar information. If it refers to what I think it does, however, it is one of the most important mechanisms in the series. The quotation above suggests that the Nahel bond is something that links humans and spren together, empowering the bonded human and transforming him or her into a Surgebinder. This is what happens between Kaladin and Sylphrena over the course of The Way of Kings, and there are hints that he is not the only one to be developing such a bond.
There are many different kinds of spren, even without considering how small a proportion of them we may have seen, and it’s not clear yet whether all of them can form Nahel bonds. Honorspren definitely seem to be the most likely to make such a bond; I doubt it’s a coincidence that Nohadon mentioned honorspren specifically as Kaladin was forming a bond with the honorspren Syl.
Spren are beings formed by an intersection of the cognitive and physical realms, so it seems strange to me that bonding with them would give humans access to enhanced Stormlight abilities, especially if my previous theory about Stormlight coming from a spiritual realm link is correct. On the other hand, it provides a somewhat poetic completeness for the bond to connect all three realms in this way.
The Nahel bond seems to extend beyond imparting Surgebinding. Kaladin and Syl have a well-developed relationship and partnership. They inform each other’s experiences of the world. Whether or not this leads to altered mental states for Surgebinders is still in question, of course, but the bond definitely enhances the spren’s intellect. It’s also possible that the Nahel bond is what enables humans to inhale Stormlight.
If this all seems extremely hazy, it’s because almost no one has known what a Nahel bond is or does hundreds if not thousands of years. The main exception to this rule are the Envisagers, a secret society that the bridgeman Teft used to be a member of. It seems that they awaited the return of the Knights Radiant, who formed Nahel bonds and were much more facile with Stormlight and Shardplate, but according to Teft even they only had “stories and legends” to guide them. I’m not able to provide much more information at this point, but I’m sure that the Nahel bond will feature prominently in Words of Radiance. We’ve already seen how Syl respects Dalinar, making it likely that he will soon attract a spren of his own, and the Parshendi have their own unique connections to the spren that may result in entirely new forms of magic. Plus, I have my suspicions that the Nahel bond is just as critical to Soulcasting as it is to Kaladin’s abilities.
Kaladin finalized his bond with Syl by speaking the second vow of the Knights Radiant. This is suspiciously similar to how Shallan unlocked her ability to Soulcast: she shared an important personal secret with a mysterious spren that only she could see. My suspicion is that she formed a Nahel bond with that spren, which would mean that Jasnah has one as well. It also means that Elhokar, who sees the symbolheaded spren around him, is a candidate to become a natural Soulcaster.
But more of that next time, when I investigate the mechanics of Soulcasting in-depth.
Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant, Way of Kings rereader, and Stormlight Archive correspondent for Tor.com. He laments his porous, fleshy exterior, but his application to become crystalline is lost in red tape. You can follow him on Twitter here.