Welcome back to the Words of Radiance Reread on Tor.com! Last week, Carl pointed out the Wile E. Coyote moment and a lot of disrespecting going on up on the training grounds. This week, we go back in time to a twelve-year-old Shallan and her deeply dysfunctional family life. Get out the tissues.
This reread will contain spoilers for The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and any other Cosmere book that becomes relevant to the discussion. The index for this reread can be found here, and more Stormlight Archive goodies are indexed here. Click on through to join the discussion.
Chapter 19: Safe Things
Point of View: Li’l Shallan
Setting: The Davar Estate, Jah Keved, Six Years Ago
Symbology: InversePattern, Shalash, Nalan
IN WHICH Shallan is silent and perhaps invisible; her mind goes blank at the tiniest of hints; Helaran returns with a gift; Shallan draws corpses; Helaran insists that she draw safe things; Lord Davar shouts; Helaran summons a Shardblade; Lord Davar manages not to reveal the truth; Shallan speaks to stop Helaran from hurting their father, but also manages not to reveal the truth; Helaran leaves; Lord Davar smashes the furniture but returns to sanity and sorrow at the sight of his daughter.
Quote of the Week:
Shallan caught mention of her name again. The maids apparently thought that because she didn’t speak, she didn’t hear either. At times, she wondered if she was invisible. Perhaps she wasn’t real. That would be nice. . . .
Oh, my aching heart. My daughter is eleven and a half. I can’t even.
Commentary: Knowing all that we know now, and guessing about some things we still don’t know, this chapter (like most of Shallan’s flashbacks) hurts my heart. This scene takes place about a week after Shallan’s twelfth birthday, five months after the events of her first flashback. (Note: This means that she was eleven and a half at the time of that event.)
Start with this:
Her mother and she . . .
Her mother . . .
Shallan’s mind went still. Like a candle suddenly snuffed, she stopped thinking.
Or this one:
When he was around, she could almost pretend . . . Almost pretend . . .
Her mind went blank.
Anything about her mother or the events of that night crosses her mind, and she just stops thinking. In a way, it may be one of the better ways for a child to deal with something like this: block it so thoroughly that dwelling on it or worrying about it is simply impossible. It beats nightmares, anyway? Obviously, talking about it with her father and brothers, dealing with the truth, would have been better… but the cultural situation makes that awkward at best, and the personalities make it nearly impossible. If they’d had any real understanding of the spren bonding, the positive aspects of it, the necessity it would soon become; if the whole concept weren’t tainted by the Recreance, the lack of information and the deliberate misinformation about it; if her mother simply hadn’t been involved with a group that demanded her daughter’s death; all the ifs just make this every bit as painful as it’s intended to be.
By the way, there’s an odd little coincidence here. Last time we hung out with Shallan (in Chapter 17), she was restarting her collection, slowly replacing the drawings she’d lost at sea: “Pattern had been right. She could not stop.” Something in her requires the outlet of drawing, even though she had thought she didn’t want to draw ever again. In the current chapter, she has apparently not been drawing (or speaking) since her mother’s death, but now, with Helaran’s gift, she begins drawing again. And speaking. I’m not sure how significant the juxtaposition is, but I couldn’t help noticing. Also, did the drawing help make her able to speak again? Or was it the shock of seeing her brother on the verge of killing her father?
It’s interesting to note that Helaran is painted as Shallan’s Ideal Person. Was he really that wonderful, or is there something wrong with this picture? I’ve read too much fiction; any time someone is presented so ideally, I automatically get niggling doubts. On the other hand, as the little sister of a wonderful brother (three, actually, but at age 12 one of them was definitely My Favorite!), I can easily and reasonably understand Shallan’s attitude toward Helaran.
(Let me tell you about my brother. Tall (6’5”), dark, handsome, naturally athletic, competitive and a good sport, lovely bass voice, smart, kind, generous, friendly, respectful… Everybody loves him. Yeah, he’s still my Ideal Person, I guess. And yes, I know he’s not perfect, but that’s okay too. Also happily married for many years now, before you ask.)
So, see, I understand Shallan’s hero-worship, but aside from the fact that our first glimpse of Helaran was slaughtering darkeyed soldiers to reach Amaram, his anger and hatred toward their father makes me doubt him. A lot. I know, I know. Everyone, including Helaran, was set up to think Lord Davar was the killer, and he deliberately allowed it to protect Shallan. If even her mother was willing to kill her for what she was, how could anyone else be trusted with that knowledge? So the brothers weren’t allowed in on the secret. But… honestly, I’m more than a little suspicious that if Helaran had learned what she was, he might just have turned on her, too. Given that Amaram and company were trying to restore the supremacy of the Vorin church, and Amaram was happy to assume the title of Knight Radiant Leader to do it, whoever sent Helaran to kill Amaram might well be opposed to the Radiants—and expect him to kill his sister, since his mother failed to do so. Which may (or may not) be an argument that whatever their mother’s affiliation, it probably wasn’t the same group of people Helaran joined. Either that, or they were of the “right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing” persuasion. Secrets upon secrets.
I guess Helaran’s sterling character, whether spotless or tarnished, doesn’t really matter in the long run, since he’s dead, but Shallan had him on such a high pedestal that I can’t help wondering if it’s going to come back around to bite. The events of Chapter 88 may affect my expectations in this regard.
Speaking of family, there’s definitely evidence here that even before That Night, not everything was sugarplums and stardust in the Davar home. Shallan’s thoughts about her brothers, and Helaran’s words about Balat, give no indication that their shortcomings are solely a recent thing. The fact that they so easily believe that Lord Davar was the killer doesn’t speak well either—or that they believe that their mother had a lover, for that matter. At the same time, there is evidence that things weren’t terrible; Shallan and her mother had obviously had some fun planning her future wardrobe, and the love between Shallan and her father is equally manifest. (I still can’t find the place where I was sure it was mentioned that their mother was teaching Shallan to draw. Maybe that impression was based on Balat’s comment that “You’re better than Mother ever was.”)
Well, whatever the past, they’re a mess now.
Lastly, regarding the confrontation between Helaran and his father: As noted, Helaran completely believes the fiction regarding his mother’s death. I think Lord Davar would have told him, here, if Helaran had been even the slightest interest in hearing it. Fortunately (I think) he was at least interested in hearing Shallan, even though she could only manage to ask him not to kill the man who bears all the blame and all the shame for the actions of both mother and daughter. (Once again, I find it heartbreaking that, for all his numerous faults, the greatest burden he bears is none of his own doing.) And did you catch his reaction to Helaran’s Blade? “He glanced suddenly upward.” Presumably, in the direction of his study, where he’d placed Shallan’s Blade in the safe… but this Blade is “different.” I’ll let y’all discuss the implications of that one.
Ars Mechanica: There’s a broad hint here—well, it’s broad in retrospect—that Helaran’s blade is, in fact, a dead Blade: It has a gemstone set at the pommel. Okay, once we learn that it was indeed Helaran who was killed by Kaladin and his Shards misappropriated by Amaram, it becomes even more obvious, since the death of the bearer doesn’t turn a living Blade into a dead one. The more significant implication, refuting some speculations I’ve seen, is that Helaran was not, in fact, a genuine Skybreaker. He did not have a spren bond. It does not run in the family.
Heraldic Symbolism: This is the first chapter in Words of Radiance which is graced by two Heralds. Is that Significant? Shalash is present as Shallan’s namesake, her Order’s patron, and for the drawings she begins again. I’d suggest that Nalan is present partly as the number 2—the sobriquet “Nan” for Helaran is clearly the identifier of the heir*—and also for the “Skybreakers” that Helaran is said to have sought out. Perhaps Nalan-the-Ideal also represents the Justice that no one can face up to, or even knows about—that the event which tore this family apart was not, in fact, the rage-induced murder of a wife and her lover, but the justifiable self-defense of a daughter attacked by her mother.
*Just in case you hadn’t caught this yet… in Veden society, the birth order of the males appears to be significant, and a title identifying each one’s place in the hereditary line is so much part of the name that it is sometimes used even among family. At this point, Shallan’s brothers are Nan Helaran, Tet Balat, Asha Wikim, and Van Jushu. Incidentally, Wikim and Jushu are twins.
And that’s it for this week. Due to American Thanksgiving, there will be no post next week. The week after, Carl will take us back to Shallan, Illusions, and attempted banditry in the Frostlands. Meanwhile, we’ll see you in the comments!
Alice Arneson is a long-time Tor.com commenter and Sanderson beta-reader. She has been a fantasy lover since the age of eight, when her third-grade teacher loaned her his copy of The Hobbit. (Thanks, Mr. Hamilton!) She’s also a full-time wife & mom with degrees in engineering, literature, and chemistry. She also needs to think of something more interesting to say about herself.