Welcome back to the Warbreaker reread! Last week, Vivenna viewed T’Telir with fear and revulsion, met Denth and Tonk Fah, and was promptly terrified by them. This week, she regains her footing, only to lose it again when she is confronted with new challenges to her view of the world.
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.
Click on through to join the discussion!
Point of View: Vivenna
Setting: T’Telir Marketplace & Lemex’s Lodgings
Timing: Immediately following Chapter 9
Take a Deep Breath
Vivenna’s mind races, trying to draw on her training to determine how to respond to the death threat, when Denth and Tonk Fah burst out laughing. As she attempts to sort out their weird humor and the things they’ve said, she realizes that they must work for Lemex. They give her a code message from Lemex which tells her they are legitimate (for a certain definition of the term), and despite their assumptions of her mistrust, decides to go with them immediately.
Lemex is indeed “not doing so well” as Denth had said. In fact, he’s dying, and she needs to pry out of him all she can regarding Idrian agents and passcodes. Before he becomes lucid enough to tell her anything, he begins to spasm, creating pulses of enhanced color. Denth explains that Lemex has acquired a lot of Breath, and his impending death is making it manifest irregularly. Vivenna is aghast at the thought of an Idrian holding the Breath of others, but Lemex confirms that he inherited some, and purchased more.
Denth reminds her of the economic value of that Breath, and that if Lemex dies without passing it on, the Breath dies with him. Her training wars with her conviction, the idea of financial independence opposing the horror of holding the Breath of others. She considers requiring Denth, Tonk Fah, or even Parlin to take it, finally settling on Denth—but it doesn’t work that way. Before he can explain, and even as she changes her mind about taking it at all, Lemex takes matters into his own dying hands, conferring all of his store of Breath upon her.
“My life to yours,” he said in an eerily clear voice, his grip tight on her arm as she jumped back. “My Breath become yours!”
A vibrant cloud of shifting, iridescent air burst from his mouth, puffing toward her. Vivenna closed her mouth, eyes wide, hair white. She ripped her arm free from Lemex’s grip, even as his face grew dull, his eyes losing their luster, the colors around him fading.
The Breath shot toward her. Her closed mouth had no effect; the Breath struck, hitting her like a physical force, washing across her body. She gasped, falling to her knees, body quivering with a perverse pleasure. She could suddenly feel the other people in the room. She could sense them watching her. And— as if a light had been lit— everything around her became more vibrant, more real, and more alive.
She gasped, shaking in awe. She vaguely heard Parlin rushing to her side, speaking her name. But, oddly, the only thing she could think of was the melodic quality of his voice. She could pick out each tone in every word he spoke. She knew them instinctively.
First lesson in Idrians Can Be Wrong: Breath cannot be taken by force; it must be given freely—and it cannot be refused.
Her experience confirms that Denth was correct in saying that Lemex held a “couple hundred breaths” at least; she has immediately acquired the Second Heightening.
Finally, we saw it once in the Prologue, but this time, Vivenna experiences the foreshadowing of Vasher’s secret weapon… which, of course, still didn’t register until my third reread. *sigh*
This week’s annotations focus much more on the planning of Warbreaker, and some of the changes that happened along the way. Lemex was originally going to live, but Sanderson needed Vivenna to be more vulnerable than she would have been with a competent mentor. So, like Mab, Lemex had to leave the scene early. Denth and Tonk Fah are intended to be amusing characters who can provide a certain amount of the humor and wittiness thematic to the book, but at the same time, they were always intended to betray Vivenna. Denth in particular is set up as a likable but ultimately untrustworthy person; you really should read the annotation on him. Favorite quote:
In some ways, even though he doesn’t have a viewpoint, a big theme of this book is the tragedy of the man Denth. He could have been more. At one time, he was a much better man than most who have lived.
Tonk Fah is a waste of flesh, though. Even if he is funny sometimes.
Snow White and Rose Red
For the first time in her life, Vivenna is well and truly out of her depth. She repeatedly manages to grasp a semblance of control, only to have it snatched away again. First, she finds herself in what appears to be a hostage situation; just as she begins to organize her thoughts to consider what to do, she finds out that it’s just a joke. She’s in control again quickly, with the crack about “mercenary humor?” and gains a reprieve when the mercenaries try to throw her off with the implication that the note from Lemex might be a fake. Since she knows he wouldn’t have given away both the real password and the fake one, she gets to throw them off balance for a moment by deciding to go with them immediately.
(Also, if that’s cioppino they’re eating, I’m with Vivenna on this. My husband loves the stuff, and I don’t even want to look his direction when he eats it.)
Anyway, her control of the situation is short-lived. Lemex is clearly ill, a frail stick of a man rather than the spry, witty mentor she’d expected. (Although she is currently unaware of it, Denth has poisoned him with the dual intent of holding Vivenna as a better pawn than Lemex had been, and hoping to manipulate her into giving him all of Lemex’s breath.) She gets hold of herself enough to go into Princess Mode, attempting to gain access to the Idrian spy network, but the discovery of Lemex’s heresy of holding multiple Breaths throws her right back into a spin.
Watching Vivenna struggle with her training—which urged her to take any advantage she could find, especially without Lemex to depend on—and her revulsion at the thought of holding Breath that should belong to someone else, she’s beginning to realize that her training wasn’t adequate to her clever plan. It might have been just fine for the God King’s wife, where the very confinement would give her a certain level of protection, but it certainly didn’t prepare her for life on the streets. It’s arguable that her aversion to everything about Hallandren which is not like Idris would have made her a poor bride, and it’s probable that her attitude would have been a perfect fit for the machinations going on in the Court of Gods, to the detriment of both nations. Nevertheless, she was more or less prepared for the political scene, and in that context could perhaps have done some good; at least, she would have tried to.
But… she’s not in the Court, and the political game she’s caught in is way over her head—so far over that she doesn’t even know what the game is. For now, though, what’s relevant is that just as she begins to exert some self-control and attempts to make a wise decision, it’s wrested away in a heartbeat as Lemex pours two hundred or more Breaths into her, shaking her to the core both physically and mentally.
Poor Vivenna. Life just got a lot harder.
As I Live and Breathe
“Breath, Princess,” he said. “I inherited it from my predecessor, and I’ve bought more. A lot more…”
God of Colors… Vivenna thought with a sick feeling in her stomach.
“I know it was wrong,” Lemex whispered. “But… I felt so powerful. I could make the very dust of the earth obey my command. It was for the good of Idris! Men with Breath are respected here in Hallandren. I could get into parties where I normally would have been excluded. I could go to the Court of Gods when I wished and hear the Court Assembly. The Breath extended my life, made me spry despite my age. I…”
He blinked, eyes unfocusing.
“Oh, Austre,” he whispered. “I’ve damned myself. I’ve gained notoriety through abusing the souls of others. And now I’m dying.”
Lemex gives us another glimpse into how Breath serves an economic purpose in Hallandren: you gain respect, you gain access to parties and to the Court, you get longer life… but I think his first reason is the one most tempting to most people. It makes you powerful. With a little training, you can make any object obey your command. That… that’s pretty heady stuff, right there. That kind of power can induce all sorts of rationalization to silence the conscience.
A couple of Siri’s earlier concerns are repeated here by Vivenna and Lemex. One, both Siri and Vivenna assume that Breath is taken from a person; in T’Telir, they’re both going to learn that it must be given… though Vivenna is learning this in a much more personal and immediate fashion right now. Two, Vivenna and Lemex both repeat the Idrian teaching which wholly conflates Breath and Soul—and the horror is real for all three of them, though Lemex found ways to numb himself to the idea. (Somehow the numbness tends to wear off on a deathbed, though.)
This brings up the question of Breath and Soul: Are the Idrians overreacting, or are the Hallandren ignoring an inconvenient truth? The answer, I think, is… “Yes.”
I spent far too long researching this, trying to determine just exactly what the relationship is between Breath and Soul. In one interview, Sanderson said that giving up your Breath is giving up a piece of your soul, and elsewhere he’s said that Drabs cannot be Returned. So I guess in one sense the Idrians are correct: Breath is a piece of someone’s soul. And yet, it’s only a piece, not the whole thing. When someone gives up their Breath, they don’t die, and they don’t become soulless, but they do become… less. One of these days, I am going to ask what Endowment thinks of all this. What do you think?
In Living Color
Denth is our only Returned this week, and at this point on a first read, we wouldn’t even know that much. I keep coming back to the quote above: “At one time, he was a much better man than most who have lived.” It’s mentioned in the annotations that he has become a mercenary in part to escape responsibility for his actions.
Denth was written to be likable and amusing, because most people—even those on the wrong side—aren’t evil through and through. They may tend toward actions that result in evil, and even do it knowingly, but they are still people with emotions and desires in common with all humanity. So Denth is introduced as someone a bit uncomfortable to be around, especially for Vivenna, but amusing enough once you get used to his sense of humor. By now, of course, I can’t remember at what point I began to distrust Denth again, but I do recall there being a stretch here where I thought he was one of the good guys.
That’s pretty much covered the chapter, by now. It’s sad to realize just how thoroughly Lemex was taken in by Denth—how he thought he’d hired a team of (relatively) trustworthy mercenaries, and advised Vivenna to trust them. Meanwhile, Denth was actually working for someone else, paid to attach himself to Lemex, and in the end murdered Lemex so that he could have full control of the Idrian princess on behalf of his real employers.
There’s one more question I’ve never seen posed in relation to Nalthis. What effect does it have on a person, to combine pieces of other souls with your own? We know what happens in Hemalurgy; how similar is this? Does it change who you are as an individual? Does it merely enhance your abilities and health, or do you end up with some of the personality of the people whose Breath you absorb? Discuss this, if you will—I’d like someone else’s interpretations!
And now, the comments!
Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan of many genres. 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.