Welcome to the Warbreaker reread! This first week, we’ll meet Vasher and Nightblood, and receive our introduction to the magic of BioChroma and the world of Nalthis.
This reread will contain spoilers for all of Warbreaker and any other Cosmere book that becomes relevant to the discussion. This is particularly likely to include Words of Radiance, due to certain crossover characters. The index for this reread can be found here. Or you can just search on the tags “Warbreaker Reread” and “Stormlight Archive” if you prefer.
Click on through to join the discussion!
Point of View: Vasher
Setting: T’Telir – the God King’s dungeon
Timing: The Beginning
Take a Deep Breath (Recap)
Vasher is locked in a dungeon cell; the guards examine his possessions and find a sheathed sword. They depart for the guard room with their distraction; as the shouting begins, Vasher Awakens a straw man to fetch the cell keys. As the shouting dies out, he lets himself out of his cell and proceeds with his plan. His quarry, Vahr, is in a cell designed to thwart an Awakener; he has survived two weeks of torture, refusing to give his store of Breaths to the Hallandren priests. Vasher proposes a bitter deal to Vahr: the Breath for a quick death, keeping the power from those against whom he’d been leading a rebellion. Hating Vasher every moment, Vahr gives Vasher all his Breath, nearly overwhelming him; in return, Vasher kills Vahr. On the way out, he stops at the guard room to retrieve a very self-satisfied Nightblood from the dead guards.
Breathtaking (Quote of the Week)
Vahr Breathed. The color drained from him. The beautiful Iridescence, the aura that had made him look majestic despite his wounds and chains. It flowed from his mouth, hanging in the air, shimmering like mist. Vasher drew it in, closing his eyes.
“My life to yours,” Vahr Commanded, a hint of despair in his voice. “My Breath become yours.”
The Breath flooded into Vasher, and everything became vibrant. His brown cloak now seemed deep and rich in color. The blood on the floor was intensely red, as if aflame. Even Vahr’s skin seemed a masterpiece of color, the surface marked by deep black hairs, blue bruises, and sharp red cuts. It had been years since Vasher had felt such… life.
He gasped, falling to his knees as it overwhelmed him, and he had to drop a hand to the stone floor to keep himself from toppling over. How did I live without this?
One, this is a vividly beautiful description of BioChroma. Two, it pictures the passing of Breath from one person to another. Three, it’s a blatant foreshadowings… when you read it the second (or third or fourth) time. The key to Vasher’s ultimate success is hidden right here in plain sight.
Local Color (Annotations)
There are a LOT of annotations for this prologue, I tell you!
First, an explanation for why this became the prologue instead of the first chapter: It doesn’t make a good first chapter, Vasher isn’t a major player in the main story arc until much later. On the other hand, it makes a great hook, and works excellently as an introduction to the magic system and (to some extent) Hallandren culture and the political issues of the day. So… make it a prologue, and you keep the hook while sidestepping the concerns with flow.
Then there are sections on how Vasher got his name, how the first line morphed from its original to its final form, and the problem of Vasher stupidly failing to hide his Breath in his clothing. The first two are interesting, but there’s not much to say. The third is an example of making sure there’s a plausible rationale when a character does something stupid, and it’s well worth reading. None of the rationale actually makes it into the book, but he worked it out to make sure it existed and held together. (That must be why he writes so slowly, eh?)
One detail that did make the cut was Vasher Awakening his cloak to protect him, and then not requiring protection. This one does double duty: it provides further demonstration of the magic, and it scratches that itch created when characters never do anything that doesn’t Matter.
Sometimes you pack yourself a lunch, but then just don’t end up needing it.
There’s a section on why Vasher needed keys instead of Awakening a thread for a lockpick. In a society where Breath is a present magic, of course someone will design a lock that can’t be easily picked by any Awakener who happens along. And while these locks would naturally be more expensive, of course the God King’s dungeons would use them.
Finally, there are notes on Vahr and Vasher. While we only see Vahr at the end of his life, he’s critical to the main plot of the book. The Pahn Kahl rebellion and its repercussions are what created most of the present situations with which Siri and Vivenna are involved. Additionally, in the process of becoming a rebel hero, Vahr collected a huge stash of Breath, which Vasher will then use in a variety of extraordinary ways… not least of which is to continue to hide the fact that he’s a Returned.
As I Live and Breathe (Magic activities, using Breath, Investiture under Endowment)
As per the annotations, the Prologue provides our “Intro to BioChroma” seminar. The colors of the guard’s uniform brighten when he gets near Vasher, though the guard doesn’t have enough Breath to notice the change. Vasher’s construction of the straw man feels like an infodump on the fourth reading… but the first time through it’s a delightful exhibition of how the local magic works. The concept of fashioning a small creature to do a task for you, using Breath, color, and Command to fuel the magic, is completely new in the Cosmere.
Awakening the cloak to for protection reveals more of the magic: what it feels like to be devoid of Breath, and what a relief it is to retrieve his Breath from the straw man. Finally, Awakening the scarf to strangle Vahr portrays the contrast when a large amount of Breath is available: it’s no longer necessary to use the little tricks like approximating a human form or using a piece of his own body as a focus.
Just before the end, there’s the Breathtaking scene – where we learn how Breath is passed from one individual to another, and the effect of suddenly receiving a large amount of Breath. (Dun, dun, dun…)
Clashing Colors (Cultural clashes and peculiarities, wars, rebellions)
Without much detail, the Prologue contains intriguing hints about local culture. Hallandren is the “land of Returned gods, Lifeless servants, BioChromatic research, and— of course— color.” The people here “take their religious figures very seriously,” though we’ll wait to learn what those religious figures are.
The Pahn Kahl dissatisfaction is introduced only by the brief reference to “your failed rebellion.” At first glance, it’s a minor thing, but it reverberates throughout the book.
In Living Color (Returned: Court of the Gods, religion in general, priests)
All we see of the Gods is that Vasher is in the God King’s dungeon and that he got there by striking a priest in a bar fight. So… they exist and are taken seriously, and that’s about what we get here.
Don’t Hold Your Breath (Give it to me!) (Permanently-awakened objects)
From Vasher’s bag, a guard pulled free a long object wrapped in white linen. The man whistled as he unwrapped the cloth, revealing a long, thin-bladed sword in a silver sheath. The hilt was pure black.
I love this picture by Eileen Bowen, who graciously gave me permission to use it. When I found it on deviantart, I knew I had to ask, because I NEEDED it for the prologue. This thing gives me the chills.
There are clear indications from the start that Nightblood is unusual in several ways. Having just observed the aura of a person with extra Breath, when the clasp of Nightblood’s sheath is undone,
The colors in the room deepened. They didn’t grow brighter— not the way the guard’s vest had when he approached Vasher. Instead, they grew stronger. Darker. Reds became maroon. Yellows hardened to gold. Blues approached navy.
“Be careful, friend,” Vasher said softly, “that sword can be dangerous.”
(Understatement FTW!) So here’s an object with an aura, but an aura which has a different effect than that of a human. The words seem designed to create a sense of foreboding: deepened, not brighter but stronger, hardened… there’s something strange and perhaps terrible about this sword.
Vahr refers to Nightblood as “That… thing you bear.” On first reading, one may or may not link this with the sword, but by the end of the chapter I’d say it’s pretty clear. As Vasher leaves, stopping to retrieve his belongings,
The three guards lay dead. One of them sat in a chair. Nightblood, still mostly sheathed, had been rammed through the man’s chest. About an inch of a dark black blade was visible beneath the silver sheath.
Vasher carefully slid the weapon fully back into its sheath. He did up the clasp.
I did very well today, a voice said in his mind.
Vasher didn’t respond to the sword.
I killed them all, Nightblood continued. Aren’t you proud of me?
Vasher picked up the weapon, accustomed to its unusual weight, and carried it in one hand. He recovered his duffel and slung it over his shoulder.
I knew you’d be impressed, Nightblood said, sounding satisfied.
This sword not only has a weird aura, it talks. In your mind. It claims to have killed the guards – and who’s going to argue? – while still mostly sheathed. Be wary of this one, my friends.
Background Color (Ancient history: Manywar, Five Scholars)
While the Manywar isn’t mentioned yet, nor are the Five Scholars, Vasher drops a raft of hints at things we’ll eventually recognize as ancient history.
Vasher had around fifty Breaths, just enough to reach the first Heightening. Having so few made him feel poor compared with what he’d once held, but many would consider fifty Breaths to be a great treasure.
Fifty is a lot for most people, but for Vasher it’s a pitiful few. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ancient, but he’s Somebody, right?
In Vahr’s cell, Vasher remarks on the difficulty of Awakening metal, thinking that
Even during the height of his power, Vasher himself had only managed to Awaken metal on a few, select occasions.
Without going into the analysis, this wording suggests that Vasher has been around for a long time, that he was very powerful, and that if it was hard for him to Awaken metal, it would be nearly impossible for almost anyone else. Though it’s only in retrospect that we’ll realize just how long past that time is, or how high “the height of his power” was, this implies that both are Significant. The discerning first-time reader might also make the connection to Nightblood by the end of the Prologue, but I almost certainly didn’t.
Vasher could, of course, have up to the fifth Heightening at any time, if he wished. That would require certain sacrifices he wasn’t willing to make.
Again, this will only become noteworthy when we read more of the gods, and learn that the Divine Breath grants the Returned the fifth Heightening. When we do find out, and connect it to this thought, we’ll eventually figure out that Vasher has learned to suppress the effect of the Divine Breath.
For now, it adds up to a man with a mysterious and probably most interesting past.
Like Fresh Blue Paint on a Wall (Just Sayin’ – idioms and suchlike)
“Colorless fool.” This is one of the guards, sneering at Vasher. Of course: on Nalthis, and in Hallandren especially, “colorless” would be as much of an insult as “fool.”
This seems a good place for quotations on the subject of idiomatic speech in the Cosmere. First, a quote from Peter:
For the Fresh Blue Paint heading, you may not see any metaphors like this in the book, or at least I don’t recall any that stood out. The issue here is that since these metaphors are natural there, and the language is translated into English, the metaphors were translated as well.
When Zahel talks on Roshar, he is translating his metaphors word-by-word into Alethi, where they’re meaningless. Then the translation from Alethi into English retains the meaninglessness.
This is expounded in a Reddit discussion about using the magic of Connection to speak a local language:
It’s a strange thing, because in most cases, you’re actually SPEAKING the language, not speaking your own and having it translated. The magic pretends you were born and grew up in that place.
So you can speak in puns, and riddles, and so forth. However, there’s latency from where you actually grew up that causes a kind of “blip” when you try to force through something that just doesn’t translate. If you just let the magic do its thing, you’ll naturally use idioms from the world you’re in. But if you lock on to one from your past, it causes a kind of disharmony in the magic–reminding your spirit web that you don’t actually speak the language. It will spit out a transliteration or verbatim phrase in this case.
You will rarely see Hoid having the trouble that Vasher does in using the language and magic, as Vasher doesn’t really care. But you will still see even the most expert slip up now and then.
There’s an extra layer on this that I don’t focus too much on, in that the books themselves are in translation–so when Hoid’s using a pun, he’s filtering his intent to pun through the magic, into Alethi, creating a local pun that works in the language–then that is in turn translated to one that works in our language.
What was happening with Zahel’s colorful metaphors on Roshar was a matter of forcing a direct, verbatim translation of the words of his metaphor rather than translating the metaphor into one with the same meaning in the local vernacular. The bit about why puns work isn’t relevant to this chapter, but since we’ve talked about it before, I left it in.
This can also be used to detect Worldhoppers in general: when someone uses a figure of speech, or even a single word, that just doesn’t fit the world, it’s probable that they are using something from their home planet. (The example given was Hoid using the word “coin” on Roshar, where there’s no such thing as a coin.) Since we’ve been told that there’s an unnamed Terriswoman on Nalthis, let us all by all means watch for this! I want to figure out who she is – and not just by someone telling me because they’ve already found her.
Exhale (Commentary, or Anything Left To Say?)
Interesting. There really isn’t much left to say – at least, not this week.
One thing that didn’t get much attention yet was Vasher’s plan to get to Vahr. He found a tavern frequented by priests, started a bar fight, and made sure he hit one of the priests. Everyone else in the fight would spend the night in the local clink, but hitting a priest made sure he’d go to the God King’s dungeon. I guess when the goal is “hundreds upon hundreds” of Breaths, the personal risk is pretty minimal – especially when you’re already immortal.
There’s no housekeeping needed just yet, so that’s it for the blog. Join us next week when we encounter the Idrian royal family, culture, and religion; discover political intrigues; and launch into the main plot. It’s not a long chapter, but we’re not in a big hurry, and there are plenty of cultural and character issues I want to examine at leisure. So just Chapter 1 with annotations for next week. (Note that the link takes you to the chapter 1 annotations PART 1; don’t miss that there’s a Part 2. You can click the forward-arrow link at the bottom of Part 1 to get there.)
Now it’s time for the comments! Have fun, and I’ll see you there!
Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan. If you Facebook, you can join her in the Tor-Sanderson-rereader-specific group known as the Storm Cellar; since it’s a closed group, you have to ask to join. Identify yourself as a Tor friend, and one of the moderators will add you.