Welcome back to Explaining The Stormlight Archive! I hope you all enjoyed Deana’s incredible Rosharan recipes from last week. Check them out if you haven’t had the chance. This week we’ll be exploring Shadesmar, the uncanny and confounding Cognitive Realm.
Warning: This series will contain spoilers for all of The Stormlight Archive published so far, and will occasionally draw on Words of Brandon for supporting information. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for other series, or to mark them if they really need to be included. I make no promises about the comment section; however, I’d request that if you want to include spoilers in a comment, please try to white-text them or at least tag them as spoilers so people can skip your comment.
What is Shadesmar
We hear tales of Shadesmar and get brief glimpses of it since The Way of Kings. But we truly dive into Shadesmar when Kaladin, Shalan, Adolin, Azure, and their spren visit in Oathbringer.
Let’s start with Adolin’s description of the place when he gets unceremoniously dropped into Shadesmar by Sja-Anat via the Kholinar Oathgate:
The sky overhead was wrong. Pitch-black, it was streaked with strange clouds that seemed to stretch forever into the distance—like roads in the sky. They led toward a small, distant sun.
The ocean of beads extended in every direction, and tiny lights hovered above them—thousands upon thousands, like candle flames.
So it’s got a black sky, a “road of clouds” towards a “sun,” beads where ground should be, and apparently breathable air. We learn that the tiny lights are the souls of living things while the beads are the souls of objects. In Shadesmar, shadows point towards the “sun” rather than away from it.
Land and sea are reversed in Shadesmar on Roshar. Wherever there is land in the Physical Realm, in Shadesmar instead there is a sea of beads. And wherever there is significant water in the physical realm, Shadesmar has land made of a black glass that looks like obsidian. Trees and other “plants” grow in the obsidian ground but are extremely delicate to the touch:
Growing along its edges were small, brittle plants that looked like ferns. When he asked, Syl told him they grew exactly like plants in the Physical Realm.
Most were black, but occasionally they had vibrant colors, blended together like stained glass. None grew higher than his knees, and most only reached his ankles. He felt terrible whenever he brushed one and it crumpled.
This hints at a whole separate ecosystem existing in Shadesmar with plants, trees, spren, and who knows what else. As far as we know, lifeforms from the Physical Realm don’t grow naturally in Shadesmar, so food and water are hard to come by. Though Shallan believes there is water vapor in the air which Captain Ico uses in Oathbringer to create liquid water from condensation.
As mentioned above, Shadesmar is the name of the Cognitive Realm. Sanderson says that the word “Shadesmar” is his translation of the colloquial name Rosharans and many other folks use for the Realm. It’s certainly what most of our characters call the place.
On other planets the Cognitive Realm is very different from what I’ve described here. I won’t say too much about other planets because that’d require spoilers for Sanderson’s other book series, but check out Drew’s post on worldhoppers for more.
Now that we know a bit about what Shadesmar is like, let’s dig into its geography.
The first look we get at Shadesmar’s geography is this map from The Way of Kings. We can see that the continent of Roshar here is mirrored by the Sea of Regret, the Sea of Souls, and the Sea of Lost Lights.
The Expanses at the four corners of the map are particularly intriguing. The Expanse of the Vapors is the planet Scadrial from the Mistborn series and the Expanse of the Densities is Sel from Elantris (WoB, WoB). The fourth corner that the word Shadesmar is covering is the Expanse of Vibrance (WoB). This is theorized to be Nalthis from Warbreaker, though that’s unconfirmed. Some folks theorize that the Expanse of the Broken Sky is Taldain from White Sand, but Sanderson hasn’t confirmed it. What do you think?!
You might be asking: Wait these Expanses are other planets? How’s that work? Well, Sanderson has said that, because this is the Cognitive Realm, it is shaped by conscious beings. And where there is no one to think the place into existence, like in the empty space between solar systems, Shadesmar…doesn’t really exist. Lightyears of empty space are compressed, making it possible to travel, indeed walk, from solar system to solar system through Shadesmar. You may have already noticed some characters who traveled from other planets appearing in The Stormlight Archive if you were paying close attention (or perhaps are just a Cosmere fan).
I wish I could tell you something about the three Nexuses on the map, but we know nearly nothing about them! Their only mention is by an ashspren in Celebrant:
Voidspren have arrived mysteriously just west of the Nexus of Imagination. Near Marat or Tukar on your side. Hmm … and they have sailed up and seized the perpendicularity.
Which really doesn’t tell us much!
We also don’t know much about this map of Shadesmar. Since most, if not all, of the pieces of art in The Stormlight Archive books are in-world artifacts, who created this map and why? Who’s the woman? Why are the parts of Shadesmar named as they are and who might have named them? (Sanderson has given some hints on the subject!) Anyone got theories?
We don’t know much about the Sea of Regret or Sea of Souls, but we got a glimpse into the Sea of Lost Lights as the protagonists traveled through it. We even got a map! (Courtesy of Nazh; for more on Nazh, again see Drew’s post.)
In the Physical Realm, this area coincides with Alethkar, Jah Keved, the Frostlands, the Unclaimed Hills, and Thaylenah. In Oathbringer, Kaladin, Shallan, and company went from Kholinar at the top of this map to the spren city of Celebrant then down to Thaylen City. Along the way they stop at a lighthouse, presumably at the tip of the peninsula south of Kholinar.
Other important places we’ve heard about from our characters that aren’t on this map include Lasting Integrity and Cultivation’s Perpendicularity. Lasting Integrity is described as the honorspren capital and is said to be southwest of Celebrant. Cultivation’s Perpendicularity is in the Horneater Peaks and, as the quote above mentions, is said to be captured by Voidbringers. We’ll get into perpendicularities a bit later. First let’s discuss all the beings that live in Shadesmar.
The beings native to Rosharan Shadesmar are the spren. They are Splinters of a Shard or perhaps of multiple Shards who represent particular ideas. The spren seem to divide themselves into what the Stormfather calls subspren and true spren.
Subspren are non-sapient spren, usually of emotion (e.g. fearspren) or nature (e.g. windspren). These spren mostly reside in Shadesmar when they are not being pulled into the Physical Realm. Windspren are noted to be an exception and are not often seen in Shadesmar. Otherwise, the manifestations of spren in the physical world that humans often see are usually small parts of the larger spren. One example is anticipation spren which appear in the Physical Realm as red streamers and in Shadesmar as bulbous four-legged creatures the size of a toddler with long red tongues they wave in the air (see Shallan’s lovely sketch of these).
Separate from the subspren are the true spren. These are conscious and usually represent higher concepts like honor or truth. Syl and Pattern are both true spren as are all Radiant spren. The true spren build cities in Shadesmar and create their own cultures and nations. Interestingly, Sanderson has said that the locations of these cities and nations are most often chosen for political and geographical reasons rather than because certain spren have a natural affinity for certain areas of Shadesmar. Unlike humans, true spren are effectively immortal. Syl says that many are thousands of years old and that spren reproduce very infrequently. There are nine types of true spren that can enter the Physical Realm to form Nahel bonds with humans. There may be other types as well, though we haven’t met any I can recall except perhaps the Oathgate spren (if these are in fact different from Radiant spren). True spren seem to use boats to “sail” around Shadesmar. These boats are pulled by subspren they call mandras and that Shallan thinks are called luckspren in the Physical Realm. She believes luckspren somehow help skyeels fly and chasmfiends keep from being crushed by their own weight.
I guess we can also call the Fused a type of spren. They now inhabit Shadesmar as we saw when they attacked the group in Celebrant. For more on the Fused check out our comprehensive article on the topic.
The last of Shadesmar’s known inhabitants are humans, our protagonists for example, and other worldhoppers. We meet one of these, Riino, in the lighthouse near Kholinar.
We are told that it’s actually pretty hard to access Shadesmar under most circumstances. The easiest way is to use a Shard’s perpendicularity. In the Cosmere a perpendicularity is a junction between the Spiritual, Physical, and Cognitive realms. We’ve mentioned Cultivation’s Perpendicularity which Azure says she used to access Roshar. It’s very likely that Hoid used this path as well. From Rock we get this description:
“Is not just water,” Rock said. “Is water of life. It is connection to gods. If Unkalaki swim in it, sometimes they see place of gods…”
“On top, is water. Beneath, is not. Is something else. Water of life. The place of the gods. This thing is true. I have met a god myself.”
It seems likely that beneath the water in one or more of the lakes in the Horneater peaks is the liquid Investiture of Cultivation. And this creates a stable perpendicularity which allows travel across realms. In contrast, Honor’s perpendicularity is not stable and must be summoned by Dalinar as a glowing pillar of light as we see him do at the end of Oathbringer.
Another way to enter Shadesmar is elsecalling. Jasnah says:
But my order has special control over moving between realms. I was able to shift to Shadesmar to escape my would-be assassins.
We don’t really know how elsecalling works, except that apparently it allows travel between the realms. With Ivory’s help, Jasnah is able to enter Shadesmar completely but not return to the physical realm quite so easily, as Ivory says that requires a junction (though, perhaps it doesn’t!).
An Oathgate is another way to access Shadesmar as we see in Oathbringer. Though we have no idea if this is a capability of all Oathgates or some special effect of Sja-Anat’s corruption of the Oathgate spren.
Short of completely entering Shadesmar, quite a few characters have the ability to peer briefly into the realm. Shallan and Jasnah do so to soulcast and Venli also demonstrates this ability. Even Kaladin briefly sees Shadesmar, so perhaps it is simply an effect of Investiture.
There’s a related ability we should mention. The honorspren Captain Notum calls it manifesting which is to make a soul physically appear in Shadesmar. Shallan does this when she makes a wall appear during the battle at the Thaylen Oathgate.
That’s just about everything we know about Shadesmar! Excitingly, we do have some hints that artwork for the next book will include more sketches of spren in both realms. So hopefully we will learn more about Shadesmar soon or, at the very least, get some lovely drawings. I, for one, always look forward to more art.
But sure to share your theories in the comments. There’s so much yet to learn!
Next week Deana will be back with part 2 of her Rosharan food deep dive and recipes. And in a few weeks I’ll take you on a tour of the people and places of Roshar (in the Physical Realm this time). Don’t miss it!
Megan is a Sanderson Beta-Reader and longtime fan.