Warbreaker Reread

Warbreaker Reread: Chapters 20 & 21

Welcome back to the Warbreaker reread! Last week, Vivenna was manipulated into approving Denth’s plans, thinking they would benefit Idris. This week, Siri’s new nighttime routine is disrupted, and Vasher begins some manipulations of … SQUIRREL!

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!


Chapter 20

Point of View: Siri
The God King’s bedchamber
About a week after Chapter 18

Take a Deep Breath

Siri waits to enter the bedchamber, no longer afraid of the nights. Bluefingers, uncharacteristically attentive and nervous, reveals that she is working toward exactly the wrong goal: an heir will put both herself and the God King in grave danger. Shaking off the encounter, Siri enters the bedchamber for what has become her nightly routine: remove gown, wait a few minutes, bounce and moan, then snuggle in for a good night’s sleep. As she settles in, she reflects on Bluefingers’s odd behavior and warnings.

Suddenly feeling something odd, she opens her eyes and screams to discover the God King himself looming over her. Oddly, he stumbles back, looking uncertain, and Siri instinctively speaks softly to calm him. Once they’re both over the shock, he sits on the bed—giving her a momentary fear that he’s going to decide to consummate their marriage now—and pulls out … a book of children’s stories. And he seems to want her to do something with it. Confused about his request, she finally asks out loud why he doesn’t just tell her what he wants. He opens his mouth to reveal the truth: his tongue has been removed. Siri’s thought race toward the inevitable reason, and she gazes at him in horror. He begins to withdraw, but she catches his arm and explains her reaction. He is clearly pleading for her to read to him, and the rest of the situation finally registers, to her dismay. Still, she sees strength and determination in his eyes, and realizes he’s pointing at the first letter of the first word; she resolves to teach him to read.


“You have to tell me something!” Siri said.

“Vessel,” Bluefingers said, leaning in. “I advise you to please keep your voice down. You don’t know how many factions shift and move inside the palace. I am a member of many of them, and a stray word on your part could… no, would… mean my death. Do you understand that? Can you understand that?”

She hesitated.

“I should not be putting my life in danger because of you,” he said. “But there are things about this arrangement with which I do not agree. And so, I give my warning. Avoid giving the God King a child. If you want to know more than that, read your histories. Honestly, I would think that you’d have come to all this a little more prepared.”

I really never can figure out just how much of what he says I should believe. His motives are so much different than she is intended to assume… But we do know that he wants to make sure she doesn’t trust the priests, and I’m guessing he’d prefer she didn’t trust the God King either. I’m not quite sure why he actually suggests reading the histories, though.

Also: I’m beginning to think that even if she’d paid more attention to her lessons, she wouldn’t have learned the right things to figure out what’s going on here. From what I can tell, their lessons were solely the Idrian perspective—which is to be expected, to some extent, but it’s like they completely forgot that there might be a Hallandren perspective which should at least have been acknowledged. Even Vivenna doesn’t seem to have any comprehension of the Hallandren view of their shared history, nor of Hallandren’s own history over the last couple of centuries. Really?

Local Color

Sanderson’s annotations for Chapter 20 address something we’ve talked about before—characters who deliberately don’t tell you everything they know. We all know it’s frustrating, so he really, really tries to make sure his characters have a very good reason for not telling. At this point in the story, we sort of have to take Bluefingers’s word that his life would be in danger if he revealed too much; later we’ll learn that his motives go far, far beyond his own personal danger. So, okay then.

The remainder of the annotations address the use of black and white in BioChromatic magic, the surprise of discovering the difference between perception and reality of the God King, and the origins of that plot.

Snow White and Rose Red

Siri’s rebellious streak comes to the fore in a big—and unusually helpful—way in this chapter.

She’d mostly been feeling smug that she’d maneuvered her way around the priests and the supposed danger of failing her wifely duties, so Bluefingers’s ambiguous warnings were… perhaps less effective than he’d hoped. Except, of course, that she really doesn’t trust the priests, which was one of his goals; I’m not sure how much credit Bluefingers gets for that, since it’s arguable that their own behavior has at least as much to do with her mistrust as his warnings.

Anyway… The revelation of what had physically been done to Susebron, combined with her observation of the politics of the Court of Gods,  leads her inescapably to a greater understanding—not of her precarious situation, but of his. Not only has his tongue been removed to keep him from using his Breath, he has been kept completely ignorant, not even taught to read, so that he is completely under the control of his priests. Now the cautions against touching or kissing him make even more sense, since clearly the priests would not want anyone to get close enough to him to learn of his limitations.

His unexpected decision to make himself vulnerable to her this night, and the resulting revelations and realizations, take her mind off herself in the best way. For what may be the first time in her life, flouting the immediate “authority” puts her firmly on the side of the one who’s supposed to be the actual authority—and, of course, eventually will be.

This moment, and the discovery of who Susebron really is, completely change the tone of Siri’s plot going forward.

As I Live and Breathe

Siri wonders why Susebron mostly wears black, when his aura does such impressive things with white. The answer (from the annotations) is that it’s all about Awakening—white provides no power source for an Awakener, and black provides more than any other color. There are two things that feel backward to me about this: Why would the priests want him to have such a strong potential? And why is black (the absence of color) a better source than white (all colors)? To the first, I can only assume it’s a matter of perception: most people don’t know the God King can’t speak to Awaken anything, but he has this magnificent aura, so those who know Awakening would see it as a very powerful display. To the second… well, I guess it would imply that wavelengths absorbed are used for Awakening, rather than wavelengths reflected?

In Living Color

Susebron. My stars. I suppose they removed his tongue before he was even given that massive supply of Breath, or immediately afterwards, so he doesn’t remember it happening? Still. What a monstrous thing to do to a child!


Chapter 21

Point of View: Vasher
Court of Gods
Undetermined, but presumably the same night as Chapter 20

Take a Deep Breath

Vasher stands on top of the God King’s palace, watching the sunset and pondering the nature of his sword. Once darkness falls, he goes into action: pulling color from the rooftop, he Awakens his trousers and shirt, then descends the massive stone blocks which form the pyramid shape of the palace. Reaching the ground, he carefully moves toward the palace of one Mercystar, a goddess involved in politics but without large influence—all the while, with Nightblood nagging that Vasher is bad at sneaking and should just attack, that being much more fun and all.

After brief reconnoitering, he approaches his chosen door doing a crazy-old-man routine (with Nightblood complaining all the while); the kindness of the guards’ offer to help him find a shelter makes him feel guilty for knocking them both out. Once inside, he proceeds down the servants hallway and prepares his rope belt for further shenanigans—which promptly appear in the form of a handful of servants. The rope grabs one, but awkwardly, so Vasher slings the sheathed Nightblood in the general direction of the group. Only one stops to pick it up, with predictable results, as the other two run away yelling for help.

Leaving the first two servants incapacitated but not dead, Vasher starts toward his goal, but realizes he’s not going to make it before others arrive. Frustrated, he removes a dead squirrel from his pouch and Awakens it. Sending it to wreak as much chaos as it can, he dashes to the place his informant indicated, and finds the object of his search: a trapdoor. He opens it and drops into a tunnel underneath the goddess’s palace.


The sword couldn’t see. But with its powerful, twisted BioChroma, it could sense life and people. Both were things Nightblood had been created to protect. It was strange, how easily and quickly protection could cause destruction. Sometimes, Vasher wondered if the two weren’t really the same thing. Protect a flower, destroy the pests who wanted to feed on it. Protect a building, destroy the plants that could have grown in the soil.

Protect a man. Live with the destruction he creates.

I… can’t really explain why this struck me so profoundly tonight, but there it is. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do when your task is to protect. For an Awakened sword commanded only to destroy evil but not really understanding what “evil” is, the task is impossible—but the sword, having no conscience, never feels guilty about the destruction, so it’s also easy. The human, though having far greater understanding, also has a far greater burden to bear when a difficult decision must be made.

Local Color

Y’all just need to read the annotations for this chapter, because any attempt at summarizing the key points would be worse than useless. I’ll just list them to make you want to go read about it, okay? Sanderson talks about how Awakening works, and some of the changes the procedure underwent during the writing process, with the result that someone who is really skilled can use simple commands to do extremely complex functions. Then there’s an interesting section on the personal background behind the whole crazy-person rationale, the kindness of the guards, and the general good-heartedness of most of the people who work in the Court. He concludes with further insight on creating Lifeless—particularly the squirrel—plus the various motivations of all the people in this web of deceit, none of whom understand nearly all they think they do about the others. Also, Vasher’s mysterious informant is Bluefingers.

In Living Color

Vasher, here in scruffy-form, isn’t obviously a Returned; in fact, first-time readers wouldn’t actually know that he was Returned at this stage, would they? I don’t think we’ve been told yet, anyway. Still, here he is, and I had to work out the answer to a question about him this week. As he’s Awakening his clothing, drawing color from the roof of the God King’s black palace, he makes a mental note that he’d never thought of black as a color until he became an Awakener. Since he claims that, like all Returned, he remembers nothing from his life before Returning, exactly when did he become an Awakener?

Just formulating the question made me realize that technically, Returned are not usually Awakeners despite their enormous single Return-Breath. They may have the Fifth Heightening, but they can’t use that Breath to Awaken anything unless they’re willing to die for it.  Here in the Court of Gods, all the gods and goddesses are carefully provided with their single life-Breath every week, so none of them have any extra Breath to use for Awakening. They’re super-beings with virtually no power. Weird.

Vasher, obviously, has a huge quantity of Breath; he already had a little of it when we met him in the Prologue, and then he gained a whole LOT more from Vahr. We’ll find out eventually that there was a time when he had thousands of Breaths and gave them all away. Apparently he makes a habit of accumulating a lot, using them for whatever mission he’s on, and then starting over if he needs to.  So presumably, he started acquiring Breath back in his scholarly days, and learned about Awakening then.

You know, an awful lot of people’s Breath have been held by this one man over the years…

As I Live and Breathe

This is seriously an Awakening-heavy chapter. Funny that, after the Chapter 20 commentary on black as a color, here we have Vasher using it and actually thinking about it. Like him, I’m amused to think of Treledees reaction when he sees a couple of grey patches on the roof of this proudly all-black pyramid. ::snicker::

So. One: he draws color from the roof of the palace where he’s kneeling to Awaken his trouser legs, with tassels wrapping around his feet and ankles and the legs stiffening to provide additional strength. This gets used almost immediately, as he jumps down the side of the palace. (Rock climber’s dream!) It also comes in handy when he needs to subdue two guards at once, and again  when he jumps blindly through the trap door into the tunnel under Mercystar’s palace.

Two: while still on the roof he Awakens his shirt so that he’s got what amounts to an extra set of fingers on each hand, which he expects he may need later in his expedition; this drains the color from more of the rooftop, and drops his Breath level to the Second Heightening. (Apparently the more complex the Command, the more Investiture it requires. Makes sense, I guess.) These extra fingers come in handy very soon, when he reaches the two guards at the door and uses the super-strength tassels on one hand to strangle the first guard while he uses his other hand and Nightblood’s hilt to knock the wind out of the second guard. With his super-strength legs sweeping the second man’s feet from under him, and cutting off his air supply, the poor guys didn’t stand a chance.

Three: in the servant’s corridor of Mercystar’s palace, he unwraps the trusty chunk of rope he always wears as a belt, and suddenly needs to Awaken it to grab a servant.  This uses most of his remaining Breath, as well as drawing all the color from his boots and cloak – the only things he’s wearing that aren’t already Awakened. All that grey, in a land obsessed with color, will instantly give him away as an Awakener; there are occasional hazards in any job.  At least he can recover the Breath from the rope before he moves on.

Don’t Hold Your Breath (Give it to me!)

Permanently Awakened Objects!! Nightblood is particularly mouthy today; he seems to be feeling underutilized (a.k.a., bored). I find myself ambivalent about this sword: on the one hand, his chatter is hilariously entertaining, but on the other… he really does one thing. He kills. If Vasher leaves him sheathed and brings him back under control fast enough, as with the servant in the palace, he causes damage that is not (necessarily) permanent. Once drawn, it would be a whole different story, but he never gets more than an inch or so out of the sheath this time. Which is a good thing, IMO, but he sure grumbles about it.

The truly entertaining one for this chapter, though, is the fourth Awakening, when Vasher pulls a dead squirrel out of his pouch, and we get to watch the entire process of creating a Lifeless:

“Awaken to my Breath,” he Commanded, “serve my needs, live at my Command and my word. Fallen Rope.”

Those last words, “fallen rope,” formed the security phrase. Vasher could have chosen anything, but he picked the first thing that came to mind.

One Breath was leached from his body, going down into the small rodent’s corpse. The thing began to twitch. That was a Breath Vasher would never be able to recover, for creating a Lifeless was a permanent act. The squirrel lost all color, bleeding to grey, the Awakening feeding off the body’s own colors to help fuel the transformation. The squirrel had been grey in the first place, so the difference was tough to see. That’s why Vasher liked to use them.

“Fallen Rope,” he said to the creature, its grey eyes looking up at him. The security phrase pronounced, Vasher could now imprint the creature with an order, much as he did when performing a standard Awakening. “Make noise. Run around. Bite people who are not me. Fallen Rope.” The second use of the words closed its impressionability, so it could no longer be Commanded.

I had to quote the whole thing, because it’s both informative and hysterical. It only takes one Breath, but it’s a Breath gone forever. The reason all the Lifeless are grey is that the color required for Awakening is drawn from their own bodies. I guess that’s a good reason to use a grey squirrel, aside from the general ubiquity of squirrel everywhere. The funny bit, though, is the Command itself—I laugh every time I read this.

Make noise. Run around. Bite people who are not me.

Nice. Why do I suspect that the last four words are the result of painful experience?


Well, there you have it. Two chapters this week! It’s a bit odd to think that while Siri is bouncing, Vasher is on the roof watching the sunset; while Siri starts teaching Susebron to read, Vasher sneaks into the tunnels underneath the Court complex. Bluefingers thinks he’s got a hand in each pie, though neither one is working out the way he assumes they are.

One other observation, regarding Vasher and Nightblood. Vasher very carefully tries not to damage anyone more than is absolutely necessary to get them out of his way. While his rationale is that “corpses cause more trouble than men who get knocked out,” I do get the impression that he honestly doesn’t want to hurt them. For one thing, he felt bad about hurting the guards at all, since they were actually trying to be kind to the crazy-dude-on-the-doorstep. For another, only one of the four servants showed any interest at all in Nightblood, which says that these are generally good people; Vasher would be highly aware of that detail too, and seeks to avoid injuring them any more than is necessary. Nightblood, on the other hand, spends half his time begging Vasher to just draw him already, and the other half critiquing every move Vasher makes.

You didn’t use me much. You could have used me. I’m better than a shirt. I’m a sword. I really am better than a shirt. I would have killed them. Look, they’re still breathing. Stupid shirt.

No wonder Vasher “lost” the thing!


Well, that’s it for the blog—now it’s time for the comments! Join us again next week, when we will cover Chapter 22, in which Lightsong and Vivenna play their respective games.

Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan. For those keeping track, the Oathbringer beta read has reached Part 4 now, and it continues to be a wild ride.


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