Welcome back to The Way of Kings reread on Tor.com. This week brings us to chapters 25 and 26, two chapters that explore the Thrill, first from the uninformed perspective of young Kaladin, then during our first view of Dalinar clashing with the Parshendi. The Shardblades are out, and eyes are burning before them in this carnage-filled reread. Let’s get down to it.
Chapter 25: The Butcher
Setting: Hearthstone, Seven Years Ago
Point of View: Kaladin
What Happens: Kal overhears two women gossiping about his father, saying that “it ain’t right” to be poking around inside human bodies, and claiming that he stole the goblet of spheres from Wistiow. They claim Lirin falsified the will that bequeathed the spheres to him and his family. There was no woman there to scribe a proper testament.
Having heard enough, Kal steps out into sight of the women, glaring at them before stalking home. There he finds his mother, Hesina, clearing stalactites that had formed like icicles on the eaves. He and she discuss how Hearthstone feels about Lirin. Hesina maintains that they don’t hate him, as Kal thinks, but that they do feel uncomfortable around him. They fear his learning, they blame him when he fails, and they resent that his high rank provides him and his family with the potential for social mobility. They may not hate Lirin and his family, but they’ll never accept them as their own. She says this is part of the price of being a surgeon, along with “an uncomfortable responsibility” over others’ lives.
Kal wonders aloud whether he even wants that responsibility, or whether he’d rather have a normal life, where he could have actual friends. Privately, he continues to wonder whether he wants to buck his father’s ambitions and become a soldier, thinking about the charge he felt the first time he picked up a weapon. Since that day, he has been surreptitiously training with a quarterstaff.
Kal’s mother reveals that, in the past, their family had considered the possibility of marrying him to Laral, Wistiow’s daughter, and Kal realizes this might be why she wanted him to go off and be a soldier. As a soldier he would have a chance to become a true Lighteyes, and marry her without her family losing face. His half-guilty musings are interrupted by Lirin, calling to tell him and Hesina that the new citylord’s caravan has arrived.
Lirin, Hesina and Kal join Tien in the town square to watch the caravan arrive. Lirin is anxious, wondering whether Roshone, this new administrator, will bring good luck or calamity. At last, Roshone steps out of his carriage. He is a flabby man, and doesn’t fit the expectations Kal had built up. He had been expecting some great warrior, a hero from the military. Instead he sees this sour man, who looks unhappily at the gathered town and makes to return to his carriage without saying a word. Before that can happen, Lirin calls out to him.
Lirin stepped forward, raising a hand. “Brightlord. Was your trip pleasant? Please, can we show you the town?”
“What is your name?”
“Lirin, Brightlord. Hearthstone’s surgeon.”
“Ah,” Roshone said. “You’re the one who let old Wistiow die.” The brightlord’s expression darkened. “In a way, it’s your fault I’m stuck in this pitiful, miserable quarter of the kingdom.”
With that, Roshone steps back into his carriage and rides away, leaving a susurrus of gossip in his wake. Lirin says that it’s too soon to know what to make of that. There could be good fortune coming with this new citylord, or he could be a disaster.
Quote of the Chapter:
“And if I don’t want that responsibility? What if I just want to be something normal, like a baker, or a farmer, or…” Or a soldier, he added in his mind. He’d picked up a staff a few times in secret, and though he’d never been able to replicate that moment when he’d fought Jost, there was something invigorating about holding a weapon. Something that drew him and excited him.
Li’l Kal is incredibly wrong if he thinks that becoming a soldier is going to absolve him of responsibility for other men’s lives. I read Kaladin’s early experiences with staves and spears very similarly to how I read the thrill. He has some kind of adrenal addiction to fighting, which first flared up in connection to losing control and going much further with a fight than he intended to.
Most of this chapter is devoted to how poorly Kal fits in among the people of Hearthstone. Every conceivable factor is conspiring against him here. His father is a knowledge worker in a community of farmers. He used to enjoy the special favor of the now-dead citylord, and was treated as a near-equal by his daughter. He’s not really her equal; if he were he’d have a small community to belong to. But neither the nobility nor the common folk can accept him. Even if he weren’t deeply awkward and dissatisfied, this would put him at an advantage.
Although you can’t really call the opportunity for social mobility a disadvantage, especially when compared with the crushing hopelessness of the lower nahns, Kal’s in-between position does prevent him from having any meaningful long-term relationships. I can’t help but think this is one of the contributing factors to his inability to decide between being a soldier and training to be a surgeon in Kharbranth. The Alethi army sells itself as an equalizer. Any common soldier supposedly has the chance to win a shard and become a lighteyes. In the meantime, Kaladin would effectively level his status with other darkeyes, giving him a group of soldiers to rely on and be on equal terms with. Going to Kharbranth would send him in the opposite direction. He would maintain his rank, but be even more knowledgeable and skillful than his father, with a better position from which to marry into the lower ranks of nobility.
We see the extent to which Tien is ostracized in this chapter, as well. He has all of Tien’s disadvantages, along with being a second son, a very small child, and a happy child with simple tastes that might be considered slow. We see the boys of the town laugh at him. It doesn’t seem like Tien pays much mind to this, but it really gets under Kal’s skin.
Sanderson spends a lot of time in this chapter setting up the breakneck analogy. Breakneck is a kind of non-predictive gambling game. I don’t think we see enough of the rules to figure out how the game actually works, although if I’m wrong, please tell me in the comments; I might like to try the game out. The important thing about breakneck is that at no point are you betting about will happen in the future, since trying to predict the future is a major heresy in Vorinism.
The last thing to note is that Roshone’s arrival marks one of the points at which Kaladin’s life took a major turn for the worse. We are not going to like you, Roshone. We are not going to be friends.
Chapter 26: Stillness
Setting: The Shattered Plains
Point of View: Dalinar
What Happens: Dalinar listens as a scribe reads him a section from The Way of Kings, alongside Renarin. Adolin is absent, due to his recent argument with Dalinar. The section compares human lives to candle flames; fragile, beautiful, and each containing the seeds of unspeakable destruction. The passage speaks to Dalinar, who knows how easy it is to let a human flame go out, and has seen the destruction that men can unleash. He wonders, not for the first time, if the words of the ancient text are the cause of his visions. He wonders if he should give up these philosophical pursuits and return to being the dreaded Blackthorn.
Renarin asks if he can help his father, but Dalinar can think of nothing. He asks who to approach next, now that Aladar and Roion have refused his offered alliance, but Renarin changes the subject to Sadeas’s “ploy to destroy [them.]” That rapidly kills the conversation.
Horns sound to announce that the scouts have spotted a chrysalis, and this time it’s well within range of Dalinar’s warcamp. Knowing that his soldiers and his son both need him to do this, he orders his armies to prepare to move out, sends for Adolin, and gets suited up in his Shardplate. Teleb, one of his lieutenants, asks him whether Dalinar has given any thought to his bridge suggestions, using man-carried bridges to carry the chull-bridges across, and only using the heavily armored bridges to cross the final plateau. Dalinar initially declines, then says to give it a try.
The Thrill rises in Dalinar as he prepares for battle, and leads him to race down the hallway and leap into the open. The sight of Renarin, in “his uniform that had never seen battle,” reminds Dalinar that he’s not playing a game, and he settles back to work as the battalions form up around him. Adolin joins him for a brief but heartfelt reconciliation, followed by further Awkward Father Explorations of Adolin’s love life.
An officer approaches them and says that Sadeas has arrived and is demanding to inspect Dalinar’s camp. Dalinar admits him and soon sees him approaching. Despite their insistence that this is a bad time for an inspection, Sadeas remains persistent, but volunteers to perform his duty while they march towards the chrysalis.
They slowly approach the target plateau, hindered by their chull-pulled bridges, giving Sadeas plenty of time to interview soldiers and return to mock Dalinar. He asks if Dalinar still wants to release his pent up emotions, if he still feels the Thrill, and Dalinar admits to both. But he doesn’t let those drives out: “A man’s emotions are what define him, and control is the hallmark of true strength. To lack feeling is to be dead, but to act on every feeling is to be a child.” They bicker further, this time about the Knights Radiant, and Dalinar loses his cool.
Having arrived at the plateau, Dalinar and Adolin charge across to engage the Parshendi and clear a way for their army. Dalinar kills wave after wave of Parshendi, reveling in the violence, letting the Thrill overwhelm him, until he suddenly is overcome by revulsion at all the death he’s caused. A voice in his head chastises him: “Once these weapons meant protecting […] Life before death.” He finds a reason to fight on, dedication to leading his men through the rest of the battle, but the fighting is not the same.
Having won, Adolin remove the gemheart from the chasmfiend chrysalis, while Dalinar wonders what is happening to him. Most of the Parshendi have gotten away, and Dalinar sees their armies retreating, including a distant Parshendi shardbearer who didn’t participate in the battle. It turns and flees back towards the center of the Plains.
Quote of the Chapter:
Dalinar said nothing. Battle was a masculine art. A woman wanting to come to the battlefield was like…well, like a man wanting to read. Unnatural.
Thanks Dalinar! I wanted to feel unnatural today!
This may be my favorite line of my second read of this novel. Yes, I am absolutely serious. The assumption Dalinar makes here, the claim that a man wanting to read is “unnatural,” is so incredibly far away from the readers’ experience that it demands that we more deeply assess all of Dalinar’s premises. How do we judge that a woman wanting to come to the battlefield is any way different from a man wanting to read? Dalinar’s preconceptions are obviously arbitrary, and this is a wonderful way to remind us to question him and his culture.
We see a lot of new things from the Parshendi this chapter. We see them up close and personal—rather than from Kaladin’s distant perspective—fighting in warpairs, tying gemstones into their beards, etc. We see their rage when their dead are disturbed and the way they sing in battle, perhaps as some method of communication. We even see the Parshendi shardbearer, who is going to be a viewpoint character in Words of Radiance. Of course, we see all these things from the point of view of the increasingly messy edge of Dalinar’s sword.
Shardblades are truly terrifying weapons. As cherished as they are for being potential sources of upwards mobility, seeing a Shardblade in battle must be a horrific experience. Even the Alethi, who lionize Shardbearers above all other warriors and treat Shardblades as the most cherished of all prizes, claim that someone who is killed by a Shardblade has their soul burnt out. I’d like to posit that if you’re burning the souls directly out of your enemies, you might be the bad guys. Just a possibility here.
The Thrill is very much the same way, and I don’t think the placement of this chapter right after a chapter in which Kal longs to regain his youthful equivalent of that battlelust can be considered accidental. We later see Syl’s distaste for Shardblades, and I look forward to hearing her describe the Thrill. I think the Thrill is an instinct sent from Odium, and that this revulsion Dalinar is developing is Honor’s way of trying to reclaim him for the good fight. Which is good, I’d much rather have Dalinar become a paladin than remain a berserker.
The chull-pulled bridges sound incredibly slow, but actually quite cool, and clearly demonstrate Dalinar’s attitudes. They’re not only safe, they’re thickly armored, providing shelter for his soldiers. They’re reliable, mechanically sound, and generally seem to be of excellent craftsmanship. They’re much like Dalinar in this way, but, like Dalinar, it’s easy to see why they’re being totally outmaneuvered in the field.
The way that Dalinar and Adolin reconcile warms my heart. Dalinar wins so many personal battles by recognizing that other people might have something worthwhile to contribute, and he really does try to see his way to their perspective. It makes me really wish he could actually get there, instead of always deciding that he was right all along.