Welcome back to the Warbreaker reread! Last week, we observed growing relationship between Siri and Susebron as they continued their quest to understand the politics surrounding them. This week, Vivenna reluctantly breaks more of her own standards in her quest to guard her people from invasion.
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!
“All right, then who were you?”
Point of View: Vivenna
Setting: Various locations in T’Telir
Timing: About one month after her arrival
Take a Deep Breath
Vivenna strolls through a square in T’Telir, deeply uncomfortable with much of what she sees around her and what she herself does to avoid notice, yet also acknowledging the beauty of some things she’d always considered ostentatious. (Gardens, for example.) The normal business of the shopping district is disrupted by cries of “Help! Fire!” and she recognizes the first distraction of Denth’s plan for the day. As traffic comes to a halt, Clod steps forward and breaks the leg of one of the carriage horses, causing the carriage to tip; a trunk on the top slides off and splits open, spraying gold coins across the street and causing a very effective second distraction. Vivenna walks away, knowing that in the chaos, Denth and some hired thieves are raiding a nearby shop.
Back at their lodgings, Vivenna waits with Jewels for the others to return. Eventually, she begins to ask questions, but Jewels rejects her attempts at conversation. Attempting to understand the abrasiveness, Vivenna extends her sympathy for Jewels’s loss of her Breath as a child, but her sympathy is rejected even more forcefully than her conversation.
Several hours later, Vivenna looks out over the city, pondering the contradictions inherent in Jewels’s beliefs as well as her own. Her self-evaluation is interrupted when Denth joins her on the balcony. She asks after the job, which she hadn’t understood, and Denth explains what they did and why they did it. She finally asks him if Jewels really believes in the Hallandren religion (she does), and how that fits with working for Vivenna to undermine her own people’s ability to make war. Denth’s answer is all about how people just don’t understand mercenaries, and she turns to asking about his beliefs. He claims not to believe in anything, but Vivenna finally gets a reaction when she mentions Vasher; the conversation ends abruptly.
“No price is worth a soul,” Vivenna said. “You—”
“Stop judging me!” Jewels snapped. “Kalad’s Phantoms take you, woman. I was proud to sell my Breath! I still am. A part of me lives inside the God King. Because of me, he continues to live. I’m part of this kingdom in a way that few others are.”
Jewels shook her head, turning away. “That’s why we get annoyed by you Idrians. So high, so certain that what you do is right. If your god asked you to give up your Breath—or even the Breath of your child—wouldn’t you do it? You give up your children to become monks, forcing them into a life of servitude, don’t you? That’s seen as a sign of faith. Yet when we do something to serve our gods, you twist your lips at us and call us blasphemers.”
They’re both right, and they’re both wrong, as is so often the case.
The annotations for this chapter concern the effectiveness of the break-in, with additional comments on the Tears of Edgli and their effect on the economy and the setting; Vivenna’s conversation with Jewels and notes on the religions in the Cosmere thus far; and Vivenna’s reflections on her own beliefs as well as real world application of those thoughts.
These last two sections form the meat of the discussion today. The first one is well worth reading, too, though I won’t dig into it. I especially enjoyed the comment on designing Hallandren as the exotic “other” place—the other end of the silk road, as it were—and then making it the setting for the majority of the book.
Snow White and Rose Red
The first few times I read this chapter, I mostly rolled my eyes at Vivenna. This time, not so much; I guess I was looking more at her character development. She’s still got a long way to go, but … well, I really enjoyed this one.
So she’s been in town for a month, and is working out how to blend in without compromising her own standards too much. I find this a little heart-wrenching, actually. Whether or not you agree with those standards, they were sincerely held; now she’s wearing garish colors and yellow hair, though she’s at least managed to find a style that at least allows her to remain covered, and is maintaining an awkward balance between cognitive stability and physical discomfort. It’s important for her work that she not stand out as Idrian (much less a princess), but it’s important for her integrity that she not abandon her principles. At the same time, she is abandoning principles by paying Denth’s team to do illegal stuff: arson, destruction of property, and theft (that she knows about—we’ll wait to discuss the other purpose of this event until she learns about it). It’s an uncomfortable situation all around.
Once the job is done—and she didn’t participate, she just hung out where those who were participating could keep an eye on her at the same time—there’s some waiting to be done. This requires Vivenna and Jewels to share space… which they do very uneasily. Ultimately, Vivenna concludes that Jewels’s irritability must have something to do with being a Drab… Oops.
At twenty-two years old, having lived a very education-heavy but still very sheltered life, it hasn’t sunk in that people in other places really view Breath differently than Austrism teaches. Sure, she’s learned that the Hallandren people—the wealthy ones—are accustomed to using Breath as an economic commodity, but that’s from the perspective of those who can afford to buy extra. It’s natural, if naive, for her to expect that those who had to sell their Breath might resent its loss. Which is not to say that I think she’s right to expect it, but it makes a lot of sense given her background.
The Chapter 22 annotation explains that “most Hallandren are looking for justifications when they say that giving up one’s Breath isn’t all that damaging to them” – and that the Idrians are correct in believing that you really do lose part of your soul. Nonetheless, it’s pretty tactless to simply assume someone’s attitude, so in a way she does deserve the smackdown Jewels gives her. A question or two might have been a better approach than claiming to understand something which she clearly doesn’t! While she ends that section with a slightly sanctimonious-sounding retreat, the conversation does have an impact.
The next section has her wrestling with a concept she’s never considered before: how do you reconcile the requirement of humility with firmness of convictions?
Vivenna was trapped. The Five Visions taught that she must try to understand others. They told her not to place herself above them. And yet, Austrism taught that what Jewels had done was an abomination.
The two seemed contradictory. To believe that Jewels was wrong was to place herself above the woman. Yet to accept what Jewels said was to deny Austrism. Some might have laughed at her turmoil, but Vivenna had always tried very hard to be devout. She’d understood that she’d need strict devotion to survive in heathen Hallandren.
Heathen. Didn’t she place herself above Hallandren by calling it that word? But they were heathen. She couldn’t accept the Returned as true gods. It seemed that to believe in any faith was to become arrogant.
Also known as “caught between a rock and a hard place.” The fact that she’s facing this head-on, even if only in her own thoughts, is a sign of her maturing. She’s taking out her beliefs and assumptions, a little at a time, and reevaluating both those beliefs and herself. It’s often a valuable lesson.
Eventually, when Denth comes back, she asks him about it, and here’s where I think the underlying strength of her personality comes to the fore. Naïve as she may be, she sees through Denth’s claim that he doesn’t believe in anything. (People like to claim this, thinking they’re pretty tough because they don’t need religion, but the truth is, everyone has a set of beliefs that governs our actions. It might not be something recognized as a formal, organized religion; it might be as venal as narcissism, or as dismal as nihilism, or as vague as humanism, but everyone believes something.) Anyway, Vivenna acutely points out that Denth isn’t really the mercenary he claims to be, because she can see that he doesn’t really care about the money; in fact, the only thing that triggers genuine emotion in him is… Vasher. She doesn’t yet know why, of course, but she’s observant and insightful enough to put that much together.
She hasn’t reached a point yet where she can comprehend someone else’s perspective, but she’s got to the place where she realizes that her lack of comprehension doesn’t necessarily invalidate that perspective.
The colors definitely clash in this chapter. Vivenna’s “understanding” and her bewilderment that Jewels actually believes in the Iridescent Tones create a convincing clash indeed.
“But surely you can’t still worship those so-called gods,” Vivenna said. “Not after what was done to you.”
“What was done to me? I’ll have you know that I gave away my Breath willingly.”
“You were a child!”
“I was eleven and my parents gave me the choice. I made the right one. My father had been in the dye industry, but had slipped and fallen. The damage to his back wouldn’t allow him to work, and I had five brothers and sisters. Do you know what it’s like to watch your brothers and sisters starve? Years before, my parents had already sold their Breath to get enough money to start the business. By selling mine, we got enough money to live for nearly a year!”
Even if you didn’t believe in the Returned as gods, that would be pretty good incentive to sell your Breath, especially if you believe (or have convinced yourself) that you’re really not losing anything by it. Jewels insists that her family was blessed because of her sacrifice; whether anyone else accepts it as a miracle or not, the fact remains that her father recovered and was able to reopen the family business, and it’s still going.
Jewels has some valid points against Vivenna:
“You don’t have to believe in my miracles. You can call them accidents or coincidences, if you must. But don’t pity me for my faith. And don’t presume that you’re better, just because you believe something different.”
She doesn’t quite cross the line, at least here, but it’s worth pointing out that this demand should go both ways. If Vivenna shouldn’t presume superiority because of her beliefs, so too Jewels shouldn’t despise Vivenna for those beliefs. It comes up a lot throughout the book—every time there’s a difference in belief, and there are many, each person considers themselves the superior one. Very true to life.
In Living Color
The more I think about Denth during this reread, the more I get irritated by him. I know that the first time through, I thought he was the good guy and I was totally flummoxed when he turned out to be such a dirtbag. So now, of course, realizing what a plausible case he makes for pretty much every horrible thing he does, I just get angrier for having been taken in before.
He tells a nice tale about how mercenaries can compartmentalize their lives, and how no one understands their ability to separate themselves from the jobs they do. While Vivenna isn’t completely taken in by his line this time, it’s almost frightening to look at it in light of later events. It’s not so much that his crew is able to view themselves as tools in the hand of the employer who is ultimately responsible for the things she tells them to do… it’s more like they just don’t care about anyone or anything outside their own little group—all Jewels’s noise about serving her gods notwithstanding.
Don’t Hold Your Breath (Give it to me!)
Not really anything to say about Lifeless in this chapter, except that Clod is large and intimidating. Also, he breaks the carriage horse’s leg. Bad Clod.
Welp. I hope that all made sense…
This particular heist will come up again later, and Vivenna will learn just how badly she underestimated Denth, but I’ll wait to address that until it comes up again. On the surface, it looks like this chapter is mostly about Vivenna’s discomfort and arrogance, but these conversations and the fallout from them will play an important role in the things to come. The “job,” the religious differences, Vivenna’s uncertainty about her role and the contradictions inherent in belief—all these will Matter as we proceed.
That’s it for the blog—now it’s time for the comments! Join us again next week, when we will cover Chapter 26 (and maybe 27) in which Lightsong attempts to continue his investigation (and Siri looks for ways to get information that don’t involve priests).
Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan. Did you see that new progress bar for Oathbringer’s fourth draft? If it still says 4% this morning, don’t believe it; reliable authorities indicate it’s quite a bit higher than that, and will be updated soon.