Welcome back to the Way of Kings Reread on Tor.com. I’m Carl Engle-Laird, and I’m happy to announce that as of this week, I’ll be joining Michael Pye as a second rereader. This will be my third time reading the novel, and I’ve previously written two articles about spren for Tor.com. From now on Michael and I will be alternating weeks; I’ll cover chapters 5 and 6 this week, and next week we’ll be back to Michael.
These are two exciting chapters for me to begin with, as they introduce some excellent elements to the story. Chapter 5 brings us into contact with Jasnah Kholin, scholar, historian, and atheist, and Chapter 6 introduces Kaladin to Bridge Four, the personal hell that will become his family. The Way of Kings reread index can be found here. For news about Words of Radiance and opinion pieces about the series generally, you can check out the Stormlight Archive index. Now, without further ado, let’s get to the reread!
Chapter 5: Heretic
Setting: The Conclave in Kharbranth
Point of View: Shallan
The epigraph presents a grave omen: “I have seen the end, and have heard it named. The Night of Sorrows, the True Desolation. The Everstorm.”
Shallan examines Jasnah Kholin, the woman she has chased across the world and who she hopes will accept her as a ward. She takes note of Jasnah’s unexpected beauty, her regal bearing (“Stormfather! This woman was the sister of a king.”), and the unmistakable jewelry on her wrist: a Soulcaster. Walking with Jasnah is a kind, elderly man who Shallan belatedly realizes must be Tarvangian, the king of Kharbranth. They are discussing some matter having to do with the ardents and the devotaries, and after Jasnah agrees that Taravangian’s terms are agreeable she motions for Shallan to join them.
Although Shallan is worried that Jasnah will be angry with her for being so late, Jasnah says her tardiness was no fault of hers. Instead, she is impressed by Shallan’s tenacity, admitting that she’d “presumed that you’d have given up. Most do so after the first few stops.” The chase was the first of several tests that Jasnah subjects potential wards to, and having passed it, Shallan is allowed to petition.
Jasnah tests Shallan’s command of music (good), languages (passable), and writing (persuasive enough). Shallan’s grasp of logic is less sufficient, as Jasnah rattles off half a dozen logicians that she is not familiar with. Worst of all is her knowledge of history, where Shallan has only a minimal grounding. Shallan tries to defend her ignorance, but is harshly rebuffed, and when they move on to the sciences she loses her temper and mouths off.
Jasnah is less than impressed, and reveals a surprisingly deep understanding of Shallan’s family history. On hearing that her stepmother has recently died, she suggests that Shallan should be with her father, “seeing to his estates and comforting him, rather than wasting my time.” Shallan begins to lose hope, especially when Jasnah reveals that she is the twelfth woman to petition her this year.
At this point their party reaches its destination, a caved-in chamber far underground. Attendants are everywhere, waiting anxiously, and Taravangian reveals that a recent Highstorm had brought down a section of the ceiling, trapping his grand-daughter within. Jasnah prepares to fulfill her end of a bargain with Taravangian by clearing away the caved-in stone, but first asks Shallan how she would ascertain its mass:
Shallan blinked. “Well, I suppose I’d ask His Majesty. His architects have probably calculated it.”
This is clever and concise, and Jasnah recognizes as much, praising her for not wasting time, showing that no verdict has been reached on Shallan’s wardship. She gets the weight from the king, steps up to the stone, and Soulcasts it:
Jasnah’s hand sank into the rock.
The stone vanished.
A burst of dense smoke exploded into the hallway. Enough to blind Shallan; it seemed the output of a thousand fires, and smelled of burned wood.
Soulcasting, dear readers! Having performed this immense magical service, Jasnah calmly returns her attention to Shallan and tells her that she is not going to like what Jasnah has to say. Despite Shallan’s protest that she hasn’t yet demonstrated her artistic talents, Jasnah scoffs. The visual arts are useless and frivolous to her, which is too bad for Shallan, because they’re easily her greatest strength. She decides she cannot accept Shallan, and leaves her behind on her way to the Palanaeum.
Shallan is rocked, but determined. Six months ago, she thinks, she might have given up, but things are different. She follows after Jasnah, determined to become her apprentice:
She would apprentice herself to Jasnah Kholin, scholar, heretic. Not for the education. Not for the prestige. But in order to learn where she kept her Soulcaster.
And then Shallan would steal it.
Quote of the Chapter:
“I have read through the complete works of Tormas, Nashan, Niali the Just, and—of course—Nohadon.”
“Gabrathin, Yustara, Manaline, Syasikk, Shauka-daughter-Hasweth?”
Shallan cringed and shook her head again. That last name was obviously Shin. Did the shin people even have logicmasters? Did Jasnah really expect her wards to have studied such obscure texts?
And just like that Sanderson establishes a deep and rich academic community. Not only is the body of knowledge she expects Shallan to know vast, indicating a long history of academic scholarship, it is international and not limited to the Vorin states. Syasikk sounds like a name from Tashikk, or one of the other nations in that region, Shauka-daughter-Hasweth is definitely Shin, as well as obviously female. I’d really love to know how many of these scholars are women; we discover later that Gabrathin is male, perhaps from a time before men were not allowed to write, so Shauka-daughter-Hasweth is really the only demonstrably female member of this scholarly community. It must be very difficult to write a logical treatise by dictation, so I assume that most logicmasters are female now.
Jasnah Kholin: Princess, scholar, heretic. This chapter only gives us a brief look at who she is, but it still reveals a lot of her personality. Her requirements for pupils are exacting and she doesn’t suffer fools. She’s rather stiff and doesn’t really brook humor or attempts to lighten the mood, much less whining, unfortunately for Shallan. That being said, she’s always willing to praise Shallan when she actually deserves it, which I think we need as an audience. Her praise, because it is rare, is very potent, and has a big impact on Shallan. She has to earn it, which makes us enjoy it more, and respect her more. During my first read-through I found Jasnah to be a very welcome opposition to Shallan. It’s nice for your viewpoint not to always be the smartest person in the room
The relationship that will emerge between Shallan and Jasnah is going to be rocky, but very interesting and rewarding, although I think we should wait to delve into it until it’s begun to unfold a bit more. At this point Jasnah is still a rather mysterious figure. Why is she a heretic? What does that even mean? And how did she get that magical Soulcaster?
Speaking of Soulcasters! They are a truly fascinating magical technology. Soulcasters, or at least major Soulcasters, can turn anything into anything else. The limiting factor that keeps this from being totally, ridiculously overpowered are gemstones, which can be burned out through strenuous use. That being said, the ability to turn rocks into smoke, or food, or gold, or anything else you can imagine, is a pretty wonderful thing for a society to have access to.
Jasnah’s tests show us much more concretely what count as “feminine arts” in Vorin culture. Women are expected to be masters of mathematics, logic, art, history, music, and science, to be able to speak and write persuasively, to balance budgets, and above all to think critically. It’s not just scribing, but also scholarship that is woman’s work. Men handle money, and hit things with sticks and stick-shaped objects, while giving over all intellectual activity to women. There’s a definite power imbalance between the genders, with both sides having very different but very significant realms of influence. I’m going to be keeping a close eye on how Vorinism constructs gender roles and how those roles are viewed by various characters and societies as we go forward. I look forward to discussing debating the issue with all of you in the comments.
This chapter also introduces Taravangian, the kindly old king with the terrible secret. He doesn’t do very much here. He dodders down a hallway, strikes a bargain with Jasnah, and displays concern for his granddaughter. There is one moment, however, that hints at his greater influence; when Jasnah worries that the ardents have a lot of influence in Kharbranth, he confidently assures her that they will be no issue. He’s not always so confident, so I’d consider this to be something of a tell. That being said, we’ll later see that the devotaries are mostly toothless, and normally wouldn’t pose a threat to civil authorities anyway.
The epigraph for this chapter names what I assume will be our final confrontation with all bad things: The Night of Sorrows, The True Desolation, The Everstorm. This is an extremely intimidating message, and there’s a lot to unpack from these names. I don’t know what to think about the Night of Sorrows, although creatures of the night feature prominently in Dalinar’s highstorm dreams. The True Desolation is a little more transparent; now that the Heralds have abandoned the fight, the upcoming Desolation will be a final confrontation, a climactic and decisive battle. And, finally… the Everstorm. A Highstorm that lasts forever? That’s certainly an ominous message.
And, finally, the chapter ends with the revelation of Shallan’s true mission: to find and steal Jasnah’s Soulcaster. Our wonderful, witty young woman, a thief? A deceiver? Who would have thought she had it in her? This unexpected motivation is a great starting point to build contradictions into her character, and will be at the root of all of her most interesting personal developments for the rest of the book.
Chapter 6: Bridge Four
Setting: The Shattered Plains
Point of View: Kaladin
At the Shattered Plains warcamp, Tvlakv releases Kaladin and his fellow slaves from the cages so that they can be presented to a female lighteyes. The warcamp is large, and well-settled, filled with signs of long occupation. It’s also full of disorderly-looking soldiers, with unruly uniforms. Kaladin is disappointed by the force he hoped to join, but decided that even if it’s not what he hoped it would be, fighting for that army could give him something to live for.
The lighteyes approaches and barters with Tvlakv over the price of the slaves. She singles Kaladin out, noticing that he “is far better stock than the others,” and has him remove his shirt so she can examine the goods. By his scars she presumes him to be a military man, and he confirms this, then spins a lie about how he earned his shash glyph; he claims to have gotten drunk and killed a man.
Tvlakv steps forward and gives the lighteyes the truth, telling her that Kaladin is a deserter and leader of rebellions. He says she cannot trust him with a weapon, and that he fears Kaladin might have corrupted the rest of his stock with talk of escape. She buys them all up anyway as a reward for his honesty, commenting that “we need some new bridgemen.”
Before he’s led away, Tvlakv apologizes to Kaladin, but this doesn’t go far with him. The lighteyes orders her guards to tell someone named Gaz that Kaladin “is to be given special treatment.” Kaladin is brought through the camp, where he sees the banner of Highprince Sadeas, ruler of his home district, as well as a number of children, camp followers, and parshmen.
Finally, Kaladin finds himself presented to a one-eyed sergeant named Gaz. After Gaz laments that the new slaves will “barely stop an arrow” and treats Kaladin to some petty verbal abuse, a horn blows, and the camp springs into action. Kaladin is assigned to Bridge Four, and made to carry a massive wooden bridge, “about thirty feet long, eight feet wide,” on his shoulders. He has not been assigned the leather vest and sandals that the other bridgemen wear as a kind of pathetic uniform.
The bridges begin running across the Shattered Plains, the army behind them, spurred on by Gaz and other sergeants. The weight presses down on Kaladin, and the wooden supports bite deeply into his shoulders. He soon finds himself tripping on rockbuds underfoot and gasping to catch his breath. A leather-faced man working the bridge near him gives him advice, telling him to focus on counting his steps, and Kaladin manages to trudge on for a long time. After over an hour, they reach a chasm, drop the bridge, and push it across, then collapse to the ground as the army passes over. Kaladin watches a man in red Shardplate ride a horse across the bridge at the center of the army, and wonders aloud if he’s the king.
The leathery bridgeman laughed tiredly. “We could only wish.”
Kaladin turned toward him, frowning.
“If that were the king,” the bridgeman said, “then that would mean we were in Brightlord Dalinar’s army.”
After a brief break Kaladin mutters that he’d be glad to get back, but his leathery friend corrects him. They aren’t anywhere near their destination, and Kaladin should be glad of that. “Arriving is the worst part.”
The bridgemen cross the bridge, pull it up, and jog across the plateau to the next crossing point. They lower the bridge, and the army crosses. This goes on a dozen times or more, becoming a mechanistic routine, until Gaz issues an unfamiliar command: “Switch!”
Kaladin is pushed from the back of the bridge to the front, switching places with those who had been in the lead. As they jog towards the last chasm, Kaladin begins to realize how this new position, with its fresh air and clear line of view, is actually a curse in disguise. The Parshendi are waiting ahead of them, and they have bows trained on the bridges.
The Parshendi fire on the bridgemen, and Kaladin’s friend dies immediately. Arrows fall all around him, killing many at the front of the bridge. Kaladin is grazed, but not badly hurt, and he and Bridge Four manage to place their bridge before he falls unconscious.
His windspren wakes him from his stupor, despite his desire to slip away and not return, by giving him a brief, energetic slap. This saves his life, as the army would have left him behind otherwise. He asks the spren’s name, and she replies that she is Sylphrena, and has no idea why she has a name. She even has a nickname, Syl.
On the plateau across from them Kaladin sees a hacked-open chrysalis with slimy innards, but he has little time to examine it, as he harvests his dead friend’s vest and sandals, as well as his shirt.
Gaz sees him, and tells him to get back to carrying the bridge, clearly upset. Kaladin realizes that he was supposed to die. As he takes the bridge slowly back to the warcamp, he realizes that when he thought he’d reached rock bottom before, he was wrong.
There had been something more they could do to him. One final torment the world had reserved just for Kaladin.
And it was called Bridge Four.
Quote of the Chapter:
He was growing delirious. Feet, running. One, two, one, two, one, two
He raised his hands up.
He stepped back, then lowered the bridge.
He pushed the bridge.
That last command was his own, added each time.
It’s amazing how fast this torment reduces Kaladin, a sensitive, thoughtful man, into a machine for lifting bridges and feeling pain.
Welcome to the Shattered Plains, where the bridges are heavy and lives don’t matter.
We’re getting closer to the bottom of Kaladin’s arc. He’s reached hell, but it’s going to take more time swimming in the fire lake before he’s actually as low as he can go. Even after this chapter, in which he revitalizes his dream of fighting in the army and then has it snatched away AGAIN, has to carry a bridge with no protection and no armor for miles and miles, and loses a friend within one day of meeting him without even learning his name, there are still worse things in store. I can’t wait to see them again.
The bridge system is the kind of atrocity that you wish only existed in fiction. It is designed purposefully to grind down human lives and transform people into ablative armor. Someday Sadeas will hopefully pay the price for inventing this terrible system, but that day may be a long time coming.
Although Kaladin is now in position in Bridge Four, he isn’t actually part of the group that will give that name meaning for us. None of the people who he will come to care about have made it to Bridge Four yet. We’ll be seeing them soon.
We learn more about Syl in this chapter. We learn her name, her nickname, we realize that she already had that name and has just remembered it, and we see her slap the sense back into Kaladin, literally. This is one of many times when Syl will pull Kaladin back from the brink of death.
We also see fearspren and anticipationspren in this chapter. Both of these spren are relatively straightforward, so I won’t talk much about them. A lot of intense emotions get stirred up in battle, and that attracts spren like moths to flame.
Something I never noticed before is that, during the charge, leather-face invokes “Talenelat’Elin, bearer of all agonies.” Bearer of all agonies is a remarkably accurate epithet for Taln. Why would they believe that the Heralds won the last Desolation, but still have a legend of Taln bearing all the suffering of all the Heralds who abandoned him?
Gaz is an incredibly hateful character. He is bitter, suspicious, petty, and cruel, and he would rather hurt those below him than take steps that could lead to his own promotion. As we’ll learn later, he’s also very greedy, and more than a little corrupt. Kaladin recognizes his leadership style immediately, and disdains it. What Kaladin respects and does not respect about others’ methods of leading, of organizing a military contingent, is an excellent metric for what we should appreciate. Sanderson has positioned him to be the last word in personal, caring leadership, a natural manager who really feels his subordinates’ pains, and gives him plenty of worse leaders for an enlightening contrast.
What I find most impressive about this chapter is the frame that Kaladin’s ignorance gives the war against the Parshendi. Kaladin doesn’t know anything about chasmfiends, gemhearts, or Highprince politics. He doesn’t know why Sadeas has pushed his people so hard to be faster in exchange for bridgeman safety. He doesn’t even realize that bridgemen aren’t supposed to survive. Every aspect of the bridge system is mysterious to him, and therefore seems to him, and to us, nonsensically cruel and wasteful. If we had seen the war from Dalinar’s eyes first, instead of Kaladin’s, it would have been a very different picture. Dalinar knows the whole situation. He sees why his fellow Highprinces push themselves for ever greater speed, understands Alethi competitiveness, and, although he despises Sadeas’ bridge crews, he recognizes them as a conscious trade-off. Kaladin’s unfamiliar viewpoint lets us be shocked, confused, and disgusted along with him, as we struggle alongside him to determine how the bridges could be anything but a senseless waste of life.
It’s also impressive how Kaladin still manages to be impressed by the disorderly nature of Sadeas’ warcamp. I guess that he and Dalinar would agree that a messy camp indicates a dishonorable commander. I hope that’s not a real principle, because I tend to value honor and the tidiness of my desk on entirely different scales.
That’s it for this week! Next week Michael will be back, but I look forward to talking with you in the comments, and will have another reread post for you two weeks from now.