Dec 17 2013 11:00am

The Stormlight Grimoire, Part 4: Soulcasters of Catan

As I open another chapter of the Stormlight Grimoire, my in-depth exploration of the many magical systems of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I find that it is time to turn to a new topic. There are volumes more to be said about Surgebinders, and even, I’m sure, more to be discovered about the Windrunners, to whom I paid special attention last time, but that will have to wait for future books. In the meantime, let’s talk about Soulcasting, the magical process of transforming rocks into wheat, Settlers of Catan style.

Oh, I’m sorry, maybe I forgot to mention that I’m a huge nerd. Deal with it?

Soulcasting, in broad strokes, is the ability to turn just about any substance into one of ten categories of substance by focusing stormlight through gemstones. So far as we can tell it is limited to only ten substances, although if the Mistborn trilogy has anything to teach us it is not to be satisfied with the established body of knowledge in one of Brandon Sanderson’s universes. New gemstones might be discovered with unknown soulcasting properties, just as Vin discovered new allomantic alloys. For now, however, here is the list of gemstones, with their associated properties:


Soulcasting Properties


Translucent gas, air


Opaque gas, smoke, fog




Quartz, glass, crystal


Wood, plants, moss


Blood, all non-oil liquid


All kinds of oil




Rock and stone


Meat, flesh

Sadly for my Catan analogy, it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to turn rocks into sheep using this system.

The Chemistry of Soulcasting

These designations seem arbitrary at first. In fact, it was this arbitrariness that made me suspect that there were more Soulcasting-enabled gemstones. As I attempted to think of a substance that would fall outside one of these categories, however, I found myself mostly at a loss. I’m eager to hear if any of you can think of some simple substance (so, not a sheep) that would fall outside all of these categories. Given that lead-in, I think I might be able to figure out the underlying physical/chemical reasons that define these categories and make each of them worthy of being separate.

Let’s look first at Sapphire and Smokestone. Both can Soulcast specific kinds of gasses. What separates them is their opacity. Really? That can’t be right. Looking into it, I don’t think that any of the standard elemental gases are technically “opaque” in normal conditions. The other things that Smokestone can Soulcast, smoke and fog, are both mixtures that contain not only gases, but also airborne solid and liquid particulates. Air, on the other hand, is by pure definition a mixture of gases. I’d bet you anything that Soulcast air contains no airborne solid or liquid particulates.

With this separation in mind, I think it’s possible to detect that the different categories of Soulcasting are actually separated chemically, rather than the somewhat impressionistic categories we currently have. So blood, in this example, is a bit of a red herring. It’s metaphorically charged, for certain, and Jasnah soulcasting Shallan’s blood to remove the poison is certainly striking, but the fact that blood is listed first covers up the fact that garnets can Soulcast any non-oil liquid. Oils, on the other hand, have a totally different chemical structure than blood, or water, or fruit juice, or what have you. They’re hydrophobic, actively repelling water, and lipophilic, making them capable of mixing with other oils and fats. And it makes perfect sense to separate quartz and crystals from other kinds of rocks and stone: molecules in crystals form a crystal lattice, arranging themselves in an ordered pattern in three dimensions. Most rocks and metals are instead polycrystals, made up of many microscopic crystals fused together. It also explains why fire is its own category. Unlike everything else on this list, fire isn’t a solid, a liquid, or a gas. It is, instead, a plasma. I’m sure that if the people of Roshar could conceptualize any other plasmas, they could Soulcast them using rubies.

Words of Radiance Brandon Sanderson US cover Tor BooksI’m very curious about the Soulcasting of plants. At face value, plants are a lot more complicated than the other things on this list. We know a lot more about Soulcasting plant matter, though, since it’s the most common task that Soulcasters perform. Soulcasted food is apparently very bland and mushy. Perhaps there are people who can Soulcast things into a complicated living system like an oak tree or a prickletac, but that must be a task of monumental difficulty. Likewise with heliodor, which can craft meat or flesh. There might someday be a Soulcaster who can make a bunch of rocks into a real sheep. I’ll hold onto hope.

Actual Practice

There are a lot of different ways to Soulcast. Because Jasnah and Shallan are potential initiates to two different orders, the Elsecallers and Lightweavers, if I remember correctly, we know that at least two orders of the Knights Radiant were able to Soulcast. In addition, fabrials have been devised that allow non-Surgebinders to Soulcast.

Shallan, who discovered Soulcasting entirely by accident, managed it through communication with a spren. While she was panicking about the symbol-headed invisible beings that she thought were driving her mad or coming to kill her, one of them spoke into her mind, asking her what she was. She told it the truth, that she was terrified, and was instantly transported to a vast sea of glass beads. While flailing about, she grabbed one of them, which corresponded to a glass goblet in the room around her, and convinced it to change. Stormlight which she had unwittingly drawn in flowed from her into the goblet, and it melted into blood.

I’m fairly certain that the process of buying access to that sea of glass beads with a personal truth is unique to the order of Lightweavers. The journey to that location, which is DEFINITELY the Shadesmar, in the Cognitive Realm, is also requisite for the Elsecallers, since Jasnah follows Shallan there. I’m not certain that both orders require specific gemstones to Soulcast specific essences. Jasnah called for a garnet when she needed to Soulcast Shallan’s blood, and Shallan had one when she turned the goblet into blood, so I think it’s likely. It’s the only magical art that care at all whether its Stormlight comes from gemstones, let alone specific kinds of gemstones.

What’s fascinating about all this is that, although the distinctions I made above are based on differences in chemical and physical arrangements, the process of actually Soulcasting seems to be much, much fuzzier. Shallan wasn’t thinking about the difference between a crystal lattice and blood. She wasn’t even thinking about blood. She was talking to a little bead that decided it was happy to change from a cup into a pool of blood. Soulcasting involves interacting directly with objects as they are represented in the Cognitive Realm. It doesn’t just have to change their physical structure, it has to convince them to occupy a different conceptual space. It seems to require more persuasion and bribery than artistry. I expect, however, that watching Shallan practice will reveal depths of possible artistry to Soulcasting.

Words of Radiance Brandon Sanderson UK cover GollanczI know almost nothing about the real experience of Soulcasting using a fabrial. Throughout the entire course of The Way of Kings I don’t think we even see anyone have a conversation with someone who Soulcasts using a Soulcaster fabrial. Interlude I-8: Geranid, gives us a hint, though. The ardent Ashir speculates as to whether people can eat in Shadesmar, and decides to look to see if anyone’s written about the experience. The ardentia knows about Shadesmar, and also controls the Soulcasters, so the fabrials might also involve this same journey and bargaining process. It seems too… polite, though. So much of the artifabrian’s task seems to involve forcing order onto a disordered state and finding creative ways to break the rules.


Next time in the Stormlight Grimoire I’m going to discuss fabrials, the many uses and construction thereof. In the meantime, I wish you all a splendid Middlefest, which is about as  Mayclose as I can come to a seasonal winter holiday from Roshar. May you have good company and good, non-Soulcast food.

Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant and Way of Kings rereader for Tor.com, as well as its resident Stormlight correspondent. He can lose a game of Catan within two moves. He dares you to beat his record. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Scott Wallace
1. wallyrocket
Flame is just a type of plasma or ionized gas containing positive and negative ions. Another common type of plasma is lightning. So maybe it's possible to soulcast lightning.
It seems reasonable that some orders of the Knights Radiant could shoot lightning using stormlight, whether by soulcasting or not.
2. Tenesmus
to answer your question, I think "bone" is outside of the list, and given the Parshendi and thier organic armor, perhaps there is a stone that when soul cast is associated with changing things to bone? That would beg the question, would a fabrial with one of these stones then be called a,"boner?"
Carl Engle-Laird
3. CarlEngle-Laird
@2 I considered bone, hair, horn, and other such tissues as a possible Soulcasting category. The essence associated with Topaz, however, is Talus, a kind of bone (or a geological term, I'm not sure which), and Bone is its body focus. Topaz soulcasts stones and rocks, so it's possible that bones fall, in a very complicated way, into the domain of rocks, since they're largely composed of mineralized tissues. It's a stretch, though. Bones also play a big role in blood production, so they're related to garnets.
Scott Wallace
4. wallyrocket
What about ice or other common liquids in their solid state? We have the gases covered and heat covered with fire. Since there is no such thing as cold, just a lesser degree of heat compared to the surroundings, the only way to make something cold is to absorb the heat into something else.
Surgebinders create frost on themselves when they use large quantities of stormlight. Where does that heat go? Does it get turned into the energy that creates the lashings?
I have no answers just four years of thermodynamics plaguing me with questions.
Jeremy Guebert
5. jeremyguebert
Wait, you mean to tell me, Carl, that you've been co-writing a re-read of an epic fantasy series, and have furthermore been writing a separate series of posts on the magic of that fantasy world, and you're a huge nerd? No way, I never would have guessed! ;)

*goes back and finishes reading the rest of the article*
Jeremy Guebert
7. jeremyguebert
Something worth noting, that was discussed in this week's re-read post: apparently, the type of gemstone is vitally important in Soulcasting, regardless of whether it's through a fabrial or not. See the post here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/12/the-way-of-kings-reread-chapter-48#397210, although I'm not sure of the original source.

Extremely interesting how the type of gemstone used is so precise, but the actual method of Soulcasting seems (from what we know so far) relatively imprecise.
8. flyleaffan
I'm glad I'm not the only one who lazily refers to "wool" as "sheep" when playing Settlers.
Jordan Hibbits
9. rhandric
I wonder if it's possible to use multiple gemstones to Soulcast something that's neither one essence nor another, but has parts from each essence/gemstone. That'd be something interesting to see, as Shallan explores Soulcasting.
10. Jasuni
I don't think there will be another gemstone with soulcasting properties (based on the recurrence of the number 10 in so many places, I doubt that soulcasting is going to break that pattern.) Also, I recall a quote in WoK that states that they can't create gemstones. (don't remember the exact spot, but I think its in one of Shallan's chapters)

These magical arts might not care where the stormlight comes from, but I don't know of any other way that most surgebinders would be able to acquire stormlight. (I seriously doubt that Kaladin, Szeth, the heralds, or any other surgebinder are able to do what Lift can to acquire stormlight).
11. a.v willis
One thing I noticed, there are 10 stones listed and 10 books in the planned series. It could be argued there is a connection of air/sapphire, with windrunning, I wonder if that's going to be a running theme to the series
12. Jasuni
We-beasties (as my mom refers to sheep in Settlers of Catan), would be difficult to soulcast as a we-beastie includes multiple essences. If that is possible, it would be difficult to do so.
Adam S.
13. MDNY
I'm not sure I agree that there will be more than 10 essences in the end. Anything is possible with BWS, of course, but 10 seems to be a pretty firm number on Roshar: 10 heralds, 10 order of Radiant, 10 essences, etc... In the Mistborn series we started with 10 metals, then discovered more, and eventually ended up with the full 16 metals of allomancy/feruchemy/hemalurgy. There are no holes in the system of 10 on Roshar, however. Everything seems to be in groups of 10 (even the number of books).
Nadine L.
14. travyl
@10 Jasuni, I tend to agree with you about the number 10 and its relevance for this series. Though Brandon broke his established pattern before. (This doesn't spoil anything, but I'm still white-ing it out for those who haven't read Mistborn: first 8, then 16 metals, then (likely because 16 was established as relevant) excluding one of the "known" 16 metals in exchange for another.)

@11 av willis: it most likely will be a running theme: at JCon this year they (I don't remeber who exactly, not Brandon, but Peter Ahlstrom maybe) told us that they went even further than you suspect by choosing the color of the Hardcover book (beneath the book-wrapper) for a specific reason, and that they will likely change with each book, to correspond to a color/gemstone. - I'm curious if they manage that actually or if it was just a wish of them.
Robert Dickinson
15. ChocolateRob
The fact that Shallan was not thinking of a crystal lattice or blood is the reason why the goblet did become blood. As Jasnah said "the pure form of an essence is quite easy to make" the goblet defaulted to blood because it had no real instructions, just garnetlight. Once she has practiced maybe she can use garnets to produce black pudding.
16. Chrispy
I have a feeling it's going to extend to 16 essences, 10 known, and 6 to be discovered/revealed as in mistborn, as 16 is the number of shards in the cosmere. Just speculation though
Jeremy Guebert
17. jeremyguebert
@10 - I was going to point you to the Lift interlude, then I caught on the word most, and the fact that you already referenced Lift. Observation skills for the win.

I very much noticed the hardcover for WoK being blue (or, more appropriately, sapphire), after Kaladin's burgeoning Windrunner abilities. I strongly suspect that WoR will be similarly colored garnet, after Shallan's Lightweaver abilities.
18. SilverMonarch
I'm sorry for the long post, but I have to strongly disagree with your comments regarding the difference between the casting regarding diamond, amethyst, and topaz. A few comments from a material scientist:

Although you are partially correct regarding the crystal lattice aspect of quartz and crystal, glass completely disproves that theory. Glass is amorphous, meaning it has atoms arranged in no crystal lattice. And although most metals and rocks are polycrystalline, it is theoretically possible to make a single crystal of both (although you could also argue that rock and stone are composed of multiple crystals of various chemistry).

What I propose instead is that the differentiation relies more on crystal bonding type:

Diamond would soulcast objects that are primarily covalently bonded, in which neighboring atoms share electrons. Perhaps this only extends to bonds that are 50% covalent and greater, since the Si-O bond is roughly 50% covalent and 50% ionic in nature. A few other objects could be soulcast with diamond, then, including sapphire, single crystal silicon, germanium, etc. to name a few.

Amethyst would soulcast materials primarily bonded by metallic bonds, where electrons are shared between all the atoms.

This would leave Topaz to soulcast materials which are primarily bonded by ionic bonds, where electrons are donated to neighboring atoms. This includes many stones.

The one problem with this hypothesis is that most stones are aluminosilicates, which are composed of layers of aluminum-oxygen and silicon-oxygen bonded planes, which are both ~50% covalent. There is a component of ionic bonding between planes, so perhaps this is not too big an issue.

Although, if you take topaz to be an issue, perhaps it indicates that different stones can be used for similar bond types (or perhaps elements??) with a different level of complexity. This would match with some of the other stones.

Perhaps topaz should be listed with zircon and garnet, as in there you are focusing on the secondary bond type instead. All three make materials with covalent bonding as the primary bond type, but each has a different bonding for the secondary bond. Topaz is ionic, garnet is polar, and zircon is dipole-dipole van der Waals type bonds. This would leave diamond to soulcast materials with a single type of ionic / covalent bond and amethyst to soulcast materials with metallic bonds.

In a similar vein, sapphire and smokestone would be with an even lower level of complexity than diamond and amethyst, where only at most a couple atoms are bonded for diamond and individual molecules are bonded with no secondary bonding for smokestone. Ruby would be an even lower complexity, where atoms are not bonded at all.

On the other hand, emerald and heliodor are used for an even higher order of complexity than topaz, zircon, and garnet, where they can be used to form plant and animal matter formed together from base components.

The complexity argument indicates that if other gems exist, they would likely result in lower complexity than plasma, as in breaking atoms apart instead of just changing electric charge, or higher complexity than a basic neutrient-rich mush.

This framework also provides an opportunity to look for holes in this "periodic table" of soulcasting. Perhaps garnet only soulcasts near-neutral pH liquids, while another stone will soulcast highly acidic (dissolve rock?) or highly basic liquids.

However, this framework also indicates that on the border between one type of material and another, either type of stone might work to soulcast the object. Think of smokestone and garnet: both can soulcast water, but in one case you have to wait for it to condense, while for the other you have it right away.
19. silvermonarch
Whoops, as an edit to my last post, it's clear from the complexity-based framework that garnet would soulcast liquids of any pH. However, I stand by the rest of the theory.

In argument to you who think there are only 10 gemstones, I thought there was a comment in one of the epigraphs in a book on Scadrial about how there were so many more allomantic elements than previously known. This might have been in the Hero of Ages, but, regardless, I don't think 16 is as sacred a number as you might think. Remember that by this time there is Harmony, so there are more or less 15 shards, depending on your opinion on Splintered shards on Sel, Roshar, etc.
Carl Engle-Laird
20. CarlEngle-Laird
@18: Thank you so much for your thorough disagreement. Your regrouping has organized my thoughts along a more useful and scientifically meaningful rubric than I could have produced unaided.
Alice Arneson
21. Wetlandernw
@Carl - Hi there, fellow nerd. :) Thanks again - I love these posts, and your work in putting them together. This is the kind of stuff that rattles around in my brain, but I never quite get around to documenting (or attempting!) and really figuring out. Good stuff! Not sure I have anything useful to contribute tonight, but I enjoyed the read.

Have you been reading the WoR manuscript yet?
Leeland Woodard
22. TheKingOfCarrotFlowers
I have something of a confirmation for the topaz/bone theory, though it may be grounded in the Growth surge rather than the Transformation one.

If you look on page 303, the female Knight Radient heals Dalinar and Taffa with what appears to be a fabrial using topaz and heliodor crystals to power it. Now, I'm not sure what order of the Knights Radient this woman is from (the fact that she seems to be using a fabrial for Growth indicates to me that she's probably not one of the ones that has that as a surge), but the fact that the fabrial, meant for healing, uses heliodor (likely for skin and muscles) and topaz (likely for bone) seems to suggest that topaz works for bone.
Scott Wallace
23. wallyrocket
@18 - Very well thought out and scientific. Material science is awesome. However, there is another problem with your hypothesis that is bigger than the one you mentioned.
You are assuming that Mr. Sanderson understands as much about material science as you do and took all of these facts into account in creating his magic system. While certainly not out of the realm of possibility, I highly doubt that the level of detail that you have provided has any bearing on soulcasting simply because the creator of soulcasting does not have that knowledge.
Carl Engle-Laird
24. CarlEngle-Laird
@21 Expect an announcement after the break, muahaha.
25. jeffryferson
Aw, man...I really want to play Soulcasters of Catan now. I've done a few home-brew mods on Settlers already with varying degrees of success, and this may have to be the next project. Roshar and Catan aren't that different in appearance, after all.
Daniel Holm
26. dholm
Fungi are a relatively simple organism that cannot be soulcast. Bacteria follows as well, I suppose, and they are even simpler. But I doubt anyone on Roshar know of bacteria in the first place.
Dixon Davis
27. KadesSwordElanor
You know what the mushroom said about her date?

He was a real fun gi.
Jeremy Guebert
28. jeremyguebert
@23 - Yeah, that's kind of what I was thinking the entire time I was reading SilverMonarch's original post. It's very cogent and well put-together, but I'm not entirely sure Brandon would have the background to plan it out like that. On the other hand, he *did* change one of the allomantic metals (silver to tin, iirc), in order to make it so it fit better as an alloy with pewter, so it's also possible that he put in the necessary research.

@24 - Ooh, exciting!
29. Yook
Happy Middlefest you b******
30. silvermonarch
@23,28 - Yes, I agree that this is a long-shot. However, I would also like to say that the typical properties that you see and think about when comparing basic material classes (metal vs. plastic vs. ceramic) come down to bond type. Therefore, the previous description using bond type and complexity could be altered to fit a laypersons definition of material types instead. I am also surprised no one mentioned that blood doesn't fit at all, since it is a rather complex substance.
31. Quantumplation

Brandon Sanderson started his career as a Biochemistry major, and only during his Mormon Mission to Seoul did he realize that he didn't miss Biochemistry, but he did miss writing. When he got back, he switched his major. He is also on record as saying he spends a lot of time very meticulously researching his magic systems to make sure they are extremely internally consistent. I don't think it's much of a stretch at all for him to have come up with an extremely rigorous subdivision of the 10 essences.
This speculation about the chemistry and structure of the various gemstones, and how they correlate with soulcasting properties is of some interest to a physical chemist like me. However, Sanderson's intent may have been less scientific and more focused on things like the color of the gemstones. A clear gemstone reminds one of quartz or glass, one with a slight bluish tint reminds one of air, a smoky colored gem; of smoke, a ruby; of fire, a red garnet; of blood, and an emerald; of green plants. Moreover, the soulcasting properties refer primarily to air, smoke, fire, blood, glass, and plants as the objects or products, more than the subjects. Thus, Jasnah soulcasts a massive fallen rock to smoke using primarily her smokestone gem. Later, she soulcasts one would-be assailant to fire using a ruby; another to glass, using her diamond; and 2 others to smoke, using her smokestone. Jasnah subsequently saves Shallan from the effects of the ingested poison by soulcasting the poison to blood using a garnet. Soulcasters are used by the various armies in the Shattered Plains to create food using large emerald gems. On the other hand, the female radiant in Dalinar's vision uses a combination of topaz and heliodor gems to regrow the torn flesh of a victim of the midnight monsters. These gems have the body focus of bone and flesh, respectively. Such regrowth appears to be related to but distinguishable from soulcasting (the object of topaz soulcasting is rock and stone).

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