Readers, I speak to you today with the Rhythm of Caution (don’t go looking for it, I just made it up), as this article contains spoilers for the first two books of The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson. If you haven’t read them, why are you here again? Go, read, now. You’ll thank me. So, so much.
If you have read the first two installments of the series, but maybe not for a while and the details are kinda fuzzy, no worries. There are a LOT of details. Allow me to direct you to the excellent re-read articles for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, as well as the ‘Before Oathbringer‘ refresher article, all right here on Tor.com.
Note that this article contains no information from the Oathbringer preview chapters which have been released thus far. So if you’re avoiding those, this will still be safe. If you aren’t avoiding those, please keep spoilers out of the comments. KTHX!
Who are the Parshendi, anyway?
As we know from our numerous rereads of the first two books in the series, the Parshendi were discovered by Dalinar while hunting. He ran into Eshonai and her party of explorers in the uncharted lands south of the Shattered Plains. In the minds of the Alethi, they are the stronger, smarter, more vicious cousins of the dull-minded Parshmen slaves, who are found all over Roshar.
We’ve seen numerous descriptions of their alien black and red—or white and red—marbled skin. We know of their singing as they fight and how disconcerting this can be for the Alethi. They fight in pairs, and we eventually learn that the females fight alongside the males as half of a pair. This, of course, offends the tender sensibilities of the Alethi soldiers who have some odd views on gender roles.
The Parshendi are incredibly powerful; they can literally leap across the chasms. They have armor-like carapace which makes them tougher than their Parshmen counterparts. In fact, we see Kaladin and Bridge 4 morbidly use the skull-plate and carapace of dead Parshendi that they find in the chasms, turning them into helmets and breastplates for protection during bridge runs. This, of course, enrages the Parshendi, who focus their attacks on Bridge 4. Shen, Bridge 4’s sole Parshman, is also highly offended by the practice of using Parshendi carapace in such a way.
Still, knowing of their appearance and what they can do doesn’t tell us who they are, or why they would throw away their newly-signed treaty with the Alethi by murdering their king. Are they unrefined savages, jealous of the wealth of the Vorin kingdoms? Are they conquering Voidbringers, or a misunderstood people, trying to survive against superior forces? What information are we missing about these strange people the Alethi are tentatively, kinda-sorta united to destroy? Are there entirely too many questions in this paragraph? Possibly?
Let’s take a look at what we know thus far… and see what we see.
The Way of Kings
We begin seeing the word Voidbringers immediately in this introduction to The Stormlight Archive. As Szeth-son-son-Vallano hunts a king in the Prologue, he thinks on how he’d heard that they can hold Stormlight perfectly, while it leaks from the more porous human body. We also know immediately that the existence of the Voidbringers is not a certainty, though Szeth seems to believe in them.
Throughout the book, we see reference after reference to these horrific creatures. They’re described as “horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred.” They were said to haunt highstorms, steal hearts, and feast on flesh. They were even blamed for things going missing in the night, infected crops, stealing from the unlucky, and punishing the foolish. They stalked cities at night, “a kind of evil spren that invaded the hearts of men and made them do terrible things.”
Dalinar wonders if the Midnight Essence he encounters in a highstorm vision are Voidbringers, and later thinks he may have seen Voidbringer corpses in another vision. At one point, he even wonders if the Voidbringers are sending the visions, since stories told of them possessing the bodies of men and making them do evil. Jasnah is researching them, though Shallan doesn’t know why. Children’s tales call them “monsters of the dark” and Shallan was taught that they were superstitions, created by the Lost Radiants to justify their domination of mankind.
The ardents say different, that the Knights Radiant fought them off in order to hold Roshar. It’s even rumored that the Radiants betrayed mankind to the Voidbringers and that “the Voidbringers had conquered the Tranquiline Halls and cast out mankind to Roshar.” Kabsal tells Shallan (because we can totally believe everything he says!) that they were real, that they “were creatures of terrible destructive power, forged in Damnation, created from hate.” He claimed that they were an opposite to the Almighty’s good.
When spinning a tale for Kaladin at the Honor Chasm, Hoid talks of Derethil’s goal of finding the origin of the Voidbringers and taking his vessel, the Wandersail, to find it. But that’s just one of Hoid’s fanciful tales, yes? Navani tells Renarin that “The Voidbringers came again and again, trying to force mankind off Roshar and into Damnation. Just as they once forced mankind—and the Heralds—out of the Tranquiline Halls.”
Kaladin, when thinking on a tale of Voidbringers, had this lovely bit of insight: “It was just a tale, but tales come from somewhere.” Indeed, they do. So is it possible to determine the truth from all of the tidbits of legend, children’s stories, and darkeyes’ superstitions? What are Voidbringers, really? Are they chasmfiends? Are they myths?
Are they Parshendi? If so, why are they bouncing around on the Shattered Plains, squabbling against the Alethi for gemhearts? Why aren’t they ravaging and slaughtering, eating hearts and poisoning crops? Though the Parshendi are certainly alien in comparison to humans, they don’t possess eyes that burn with hatred, and they aren’t dozens of feet tall.
However, as Jasnah revealed to Shallan at the end of the book, something caused the legends. The “Voidbringers had a natural, real-world correlate,” she believed. Her notes commented on the Voidbringers as follows: “Suddenly dangerous. Like a calm day that became a tempest. Beings of ash and fire. Flame and char. Skin so terrible. Eyes like pits of blackness. Music when they kill.”
Flame and char.
Music when they kill.
Jasnah tells Shallan that the legends lied about mankind driving the Voidbringers from Roshar because humans don’t throw away something useful. “We didn’t destroy the Voidbringers,” she told Shallan. “We enslaved them.”
Oh, riigghht… slaves found all over Roshar. Oh, storms.
Words of Radiance
So, if Parshmen are tame Voidbringers, what are Parshendi? They aren’t towering beings, hunting humans for dinner, but they aren’t docile slaves, either. Maybe, as Jasnah suggested at the end of The Way of Kings, they’re simple Parshmen “turned suddenly from peaceful friends to ferocious warriors.” Something set them off, she surmised, as it did during the Heraldic Epochs. Does the existence of the Parshendi signal the onset of another Desolation? If so, the key to preventing said desolation would be to find what could turn meek Parshmen into warring Parshendi, and prevent the transformation. Easy-peasy, right?
It was not until Eshonai’s interlude in the second installment of the series that we saw the point of view of any of the Parshendi. That was when we learned of the “listeners”. The moniker made perfect sense, once revealed, what with all of the singing. They have the ability to attune their humming and their speech to different Rhythms, such as Joy and Peace, Anxiety and Reprimand. Listeners don’t wear their emotions on their faces, as do the humans. They attune Rhythms.
The listeners are also able to take different forms, and we saw Eshonai thinking on the features of each of the six known forms, all that’s left of the hundreds that they once knew, including slaveform, a form with no spren and no song. Sound familiar? It should. She spoke of the Parshmen, the dull “cousins” to the Parshendi which are used as slaves by the humans. We also learned that these terms are human in nature. They aren’t Parshendi, they are Listeners, and the slaves kept by humans are just another form.
So the only difference between what humans call Parshmen and Parshendi is the presence of a spren. And as we learn more about Eshonai and her people, we learn more about their ability to bond spren. As it happens, different spren are bonded by venturing into a highstorm—which Eshonai thinks of as belonging to her people, who are of the storms—with the proper attitude, while singing the proper song to attract the proper spren. Doing so changes their bodies, their purpose, even their way of thinking. Could a listener wearing slaveform, a Parshman, even do such a thing with no song?
During a talk between Eshonai and her mother, we discover that her people voluntarily gave up forms of power to separate themselves from their gods, which “set them back to primitive levels.” They have since regained knowledge of several more forms, such as warform, which is what Eshonai and many of the remaining listeners wear to fight the Alethi.
Other currently known forms include workform and nimbleform, along with the original forms they possessed after giving up the forms of power, mateform and dullform. Dullform appears to be relatively useless to current listener society, though they make handy spies. Though Eshonai had not been a leader of her people at the time the treaty with the Alethi was signed, they had taken her counsel and given her the right to vote. They had murdered Gavilar Kholin as an affirmation of the choice their ancestors made to give up their forms of power.
The listeners’ search for new forms is ongoing during the present day war. Eshonai’s Hall of Art contained listeners attempting to paint in hopes of drawing creationspren. She believed that finding artform would help her sister Venli, a scholar in nimbleform, to find other forms that may save their people. When we meet Venli, we learn of a new form she has found call stormform. Eshonai expresses frustration, as she hopes for peace with the Alethi and hesitates to use a form of power, which is of the gods.
Eshonai desired to speak with Dalinar Kholin, to negotiate a peace, but was mocked by her sister. The listeners murdered the Alethi king, after all, they won’t be forgiven. Venli insisted that the forms of power were their only hope of survival, the only way to avoid the total destruction of their people. This sentiment doesn’t seem very Voidbringerish, does it?
Venli explained that enough people wearing stormform could summon and control a highstorm and she took her idea to the Five, the decision-making council of their people. They voted to allow a test with Eshonai taking a captured stormspren into a highstorm to assume stormform.
Oh, wait. Summoning and controlling highstorms, using their power… that does seem somewhat terrifying. So, why would these seemingly peaceful, very un-Voidbringerish, relatives of the docile, sprenless Parshmen want to control highstorms? To annihilate the Alethi when they least expect it? When they’re defenseless on the plateaus, doomed to be swept into the chasms? Is this evil or is it a last resort, Hail Mary pass to save what remains of their race?
Eshonai and Venli: A Contrast
As we saw from Eshonai’s points of view, she regretted the murder of the Alethi king. She cared for her people and wanted peace with the Alethi, who had slaughtered the listeners to the brink of extinction. Even her willingness to bond a stormspren and assume stormform was intended to be a stalling tactic while she waited to sue for peace.
When facing the Rider of Storms with the stormspren free of its gemstone prison, Eshonai had a change of heart, though it didn’t much matter at that point. The Stormfather had given his reluctant blessing, the spren bonded with her, and the form took her mind. Or maybe, suppressed her mind. Supplanted her will? Whatever the case, she transformed and returned to Narak to speak to her people of the power they could wield, the storm they could summon. All the while, she “pointedly ignored the voice deep within her that was screaming in horror.” Further, her eyes were red. Maybe, “burning with hatred?”
Abronai, of the Five, saw the fundamental changes in her, as did her friend, Thude. We have a unique perspective, and we saw the struggle with the real Eshonai, lost somewhere beneath the will of the new and terrifying form. We rooted for her, for what’s left of the enemy Shardbearer that, amazingly, we grew to like and respect over the course of the second book. We wanted her to prevail against the horror that her sister made of her. We wanted her to overcome, to find a peace with the Alethi. We wanted her to be Eshonai again, if such a thing were possible.
And Venli, who mocked and manipulated her gentle-hearted explorer of a sister who was reluctantly bound by the chains of command…. Venli, who exulted in the power and essentially tricked Eshonai, what’s her story? She did not fear their gods, though Eshonai repeatedly shunned them, pre-stormform transformation.
Venli knew of the Everstorm while Eshonai thought the storm they would summon would be a simple highstorm, blowing off-schedule. Even with her mind altered by stormform, Eshonai thought that something felt wrong, that Venli was too comfortable in the form, and that her sister was hiding something. We realized, as Venli displayed that she was heartless enough to sacrifice those of her people who did not choose the new form, that she knew more than she was letting on. She knew what the form would do to her people. Knew of the power they would wield and the storm they would summon. She knew it could mean annihilation for the listeners… and still, she let it happen.
Has the True Desolation come?
What will we see in the next installment of The Stormlight Archive? Will the transformed Parshmen sweep across the continent, bent on the slaughter all of humankind? After all, that’s what the stories say the Voidbringers had always tried to do, in Desolation after Desolation. If the Everstorm has brought on the True Desolation, perhaps it is the beginning of the end of humankind on Roshar.
In the pages of Oathbringer, we shall see what the Everstorm has wrought, what it has done to the multitudes of Parshmen slaves across the continent. We shall see what horrors Venli has released on the world by introducing stormform and unleashing the Everstorm.
We shall know the Voidbringers for what they truly are.
What do you think? Share your thoughts, theories, questions, concerns, favorite colors, and non-spoilery comments!
Forms and Rhythms:
Forms we’ve seen:
- Dullform dread, with the mind most lost. The lowest, and one not bright. To find this form, one needs banish cost. It finds you and brings you to blight. (Final stanza of the Song of Listing)
- Mateform meek, for love to share, Given to life, it brings us joy. To find this form, one must care. True empathy, one must employ. (5th stanza of the Song of Listing)
- Nimbleform has a delicate touch. Gave the gods this form to many, Tho’ once defied, by the gods they were crushed. This form craves precision and plenty. (27th stanza of the Song of Listing)
- Slaveform, the form with no spren, no soul, and no song. (…) It wasn’t really a form at all, however, but the lack of any form. (Eshonai, Words of Radiance)
- Stormform is said to cause A tempest of winds and showers, Beware its powers, beware its powers. Though its coming brings the gods their night, It obliges a bloodred spren. Beware its end, beware its end. (4th stanza of the Song of Winds)
- Warform is worn for battle and reign, Claimed by the gods, given to kill. Unknown, unseen, but vital to gain. It comes to those with the will. (15th stanza of the Song of Listing)
- Workform worn for strength and care. Whispering spren breathe at your ear. Seek first this form, its mysteries to bear. Found here is freedom from fear. (19th stanza of the Song of Listing)
Forms we have not seen:
- Scholarform shown for patience and thought. Beware its ambitions innate. Though study and diligence bring the reward, Loss of innocence may be one’s fate. (69th stanza of the Song of Listing)
- Artform applied for beauty and hue. One yearns for the songs it creates. Most misunderstood by the artist it’s true, Come the spren to foundation’s fates. (90th stanza of the Song of Listing); Artform for colors beyond our ken; For its grand songs we yearn. We must attract creationspren; These songs suffice ’til we learn. (279th stanza of the Song of Revision)
- Mediationform made for peace, it’s said. Form of teaching and consolation. When used by the gods, it became instead Form of lies and desolation. (33rd stanza of the Song of Listing)
- Nightform predicting what will be, The form of shadows, mind to foresee. As the gods did leave, the nightform whispered. A new storm will come, someday to break. A new storm a new world to make. A new storm a new path to take, the nightform listens. (17th stanza of the Song of Secrets)
- Decayform destroys the souls of dreams. A form of gods, to avoid it seems. Seek not its touch, nor beckon its screams, deny it. Watch where you walk, your toes to tread. O’er hill or rocky riverbed. Hold dear to fears that fill your head, defy it. (27th stanza of the Song of Secrets)
- Smokeform for hiding and slipping between men. A form of power, like human Surges. Bring it ’round again. Though crafted of gods, It was by Unmade hand. Leaves its force to be but one of foe or friend. (127th stanza of the Song of Histories); Smokeform for hiding and slipping ‘tween men. A form of power—like Surges of spren. Do we dare to wear this form again? It spies. Crafted of gods, this form we fear. By Unmade touch its curse to bear, Formed from shadow—and death is near. It lies. (51st stanza of the Song of Secrets)
- Amusement – Annoyance – Anticipation – Anxiety – Awe – Appreciation – Betrayal – Confidence
- Consideration – Curiosity – Derision – Excitement – Irritation – Joy – Lost – Mourning – Peace – Pleading
- Praise – Remembrance – Reprimand – Resolve – Satisfaction – Skepticism – Supplication – Tension – Winds
- Craving – Destruction – Fury – Ridicule – Spite
Paige spends her ~41 minutes of leisure time a day writing for flash fiction competitions and working on several trunk novels. She’s equally fanatical about reading fantasy and watching Yankees baseball. She lives in Truth or Consequences, NM, which is a real, weird place.