Oh, hey there! It’s Thursday again, and time for a new Cosmere Chicken-Scout gathering. This week in the Reread, at long last we reach the first of the flashback chapters. Through the viewpoints of both Eshonai and Venli, we begin to learn of the culture of the listeners, before it gets all messed up by the Voidspren and other meddlers. Come on in and join us!
Reminder: We’ll be discussing spoilers for the entirety of the series up until now. If you haven’t read ALL of the published entries of The Stormlight Archive (this includes Edgedancer and Dawnshard as well as the entirety of Rhythm of War), best to wait to join us until you’re done.
There are no Cosmere spoilers this week.
Heralds: Chana, (Chanarach), Herald of the Common Man, Dustbringers. Brave/Obedient, Role: Guard.
Battah (Battar). Elsecallers, Wise/Careful, Role: Counsellor.
A: Thinking of the title of this chapter and the personalities of the two sisters, here’s my guess: Chana, the brave one, maps to Eshonai, the sister with the bold heart. Battah, the wise and careful one, the counsellor, maps to Venli, the sister with the keen and crafty mind. At this point, they were both still pre-adult, which we’ll discuss further below.
P: I really like this thought. And I rather think that your guesses are generally pretty accurate.
Icon: New character icon! Actually, it’s not really new, since it’s a combination of two existing icons, but still… new icon, because now we’re doing flashbacks! I call this one The Sisters; it melds the black-and-white-inverse images of the icons for Eshonai’s and Venli’s POVs.
WHO: Eshonai, Venli
WHERE: The forest west of the Shattered Plains
WHEN: 1220.127.116.11—Nine years ago (I’m not sure how accurate the month, week, and day are, but it’s close enough—within a few months, anyway.)
RECAP: Eshonai is exploring the outer limits of the forest to the west of her people’s encampment. As she works her way along the river to rejoin her family’s lumber-harvesting expedition, she comes upon a group of near-mythical beings: humans. A short time later, Venli is practicing the songs with their mother, Jaxlim, in preparation for becoming the next keeper of songs for their family. During their practice, she tells Jaxlim of new progress in her effort to find other spren to bond, hoping to recover more forms for their people. Jaxlim takes her to present her research to the Five, but just as she begins, the meeting is interrupted by a disturbance, which turns out to be Eshonai arriving with the humans.
A: Oh, boy. We’re finally getting the flashback series for this book, clear back to the very first in-this-lifetime contact of humans and listeners. A lot of people wondered why Sanderson waited so long to get it going—I mean, Part THREE?? There are a lot of reasons, but it all boils down to “this is where it fits best with the story-telling. And I have to agree with him.
P: To be honest, I was so caught up in Kaladin’s story and the occupation of the Tower that I was frustrated with the appearance of the flashback sequences so far into the book. But once this chapter got rolling, I was caught up in seeing young Eshonai and Venli, and especially Venli’s interaction with their mother, who I fairly adore.
A: The specific placement of this chapter feels like an abrupt change, no denying that! But in general, we’re starting to get a lot more Venli POVs; her conversations with Raboniel, Leshwi, and Timbre are all the more revealing when placed next to the story of how she and her people got where they did.
P: I’m not much of a fan of Venli pre-Oathbringer, but I do enjoy her flashbacks in this book. It’s interesting to see her thought processes before she essentially sold out her people.
A: Yeah, I’m with you there. This opening is really hard to evaluate clearly, for me. Eshonai, not so much, but Venli! We had initially met Venli as a fairly nasty piece of work, and then as a new-minted Radiant working toward becoming (what we think of as) worthy of that role. Now we’re going back to her childhood, and through these flashbacks, we’ll see what she was like as a child as well as the changes that took place.
A: There’s so much about the previous life of the listeners in these first few flashbacks. I love seeing what it was like before the treaty catastrophe, and it makes me sad for their people and way of life. It was limited, yes, but it was also pretty uncomplicated. Basically, they lived in clans, and the strongest ten clans occupied the places we first met as the Alethi warcamps—the ten huge circles on the western side of the Shattered Plains. (We’ll see more about how the camps changed hands in a later flashback.)
P: It made me sad, too, to see how dramatically their lives would be altered by their interactions with the Alethi. They advanced a lot, of course, but out of necessity.
A: It’s quite possible that my appreciation is more of a pseudo-nostalgia than anything valid, though. Eshonai doesn’t see anything idyllic about the situation… but then, she’s young and energetic, eager to expand her horizons.
They spent their lives living in a very small region, dreaming of the day they could conquer one of the ten ancient cities at the perimeter of the Shattered Plains. Such a small-minded goal. Why not strike out, see what else there was to the world? But no. Only one possible goal existed: win one of the cities. Seek shelter behind crumbling walls, ignoring the barrier the woods provided. Eshonai considered it proof that nature was stronger than the creations of listeners. This forest had likely stood when the ancient cities had been new. Yet this forest still thrived, and those were ruins.
A: She’s not wrong, you know? They limit themselves to ten ruined cities (I have to break myself of calling them the warcamps!) and the forests nearby, and have no idea that there’s a whole huge world out there. I suspect it has to do with a way of thinking passed down through generations, though possibly without the information behind it that would have helped her understand it.
P: Possibly they were conditioned to isolate themselves after breaking from the singers, and it just became the way things were.
If the world consisted only of the land around the ten cities, then fighting over that land made sense. But their ancestors hadn’t fought one another. Their ancestors had turned their faces to the storm and marched away, abandoning their very gods in the name of freedom.
A: It’s fascinating to realize that in their oral history, it’s their gods who are the villains, not the humans. We know that before they were listeners, they were singers under the control of Ba-Ado-Mishram, fighting in the False Desolation against the humans. When they left, it wasn’t (primarily) to get away from the risks of battle; it was to get away from being used as cannon fodder by the Unmade. (Shardblade fodder?) They marched away, took on dullform, and refused all other forms for generations, all to get out from under that control. IIRC, the humans remained part of their ancient history (or mythology), but more as boogeymen rather than as actual enemies. It was the gods (in this case presumably the Unmade, since the Fused were all still trapped on Braize) who were the enemies.
In that context, and realizing that the listeners didn’t know what happened to the rest of their species when Melishi trapped Ba-Ado-Mishram, it makes sense to have inculcated an attitude of isolationism. When they found this place, uninhabited and rather inhospitable, but with remaining protection from the highstorms, it must have fit their desire perfectly. It would have seemed a place where the Unmade, the singers, and the humans would all just leave them alone, because no one else wanted it anyway.
P: Yeah, they found just what they were looking for in a refuge. It’s remarkable that they remained so isolated for so long. Did nobody before Eshonai want to explore the world?
A: Good question. On a guess, no one would have been interested as long as their only forms were dullform and mateform. It took the discovery of workform to break out of that isolationist mindset. Which brings us back to current events, and we see that Venli actually has similar thoughts about the limitations of their traditions:
Was this really what life amounted to? Fighting back and forth over the same ten cities? Surely there was more for them. Surely there was more for her. She had come to love the songs, but she wanted to use them. Find the secrets they promised… No. She had to have some kind of destiny. Something grand.
A: Interesting. Both of them want something more—and not merely for their people. They each want the credit and the glory of being The One to bring it about. But we’ll talk about that aspect of it in Relationships.
P: And they have such dramatically different ideas of what more their people need and how to go about achieving that goal.
A: More about the culture…
Venli’s mother continued weaving. She wasn’t required to do such work—her position as keeper of songs was lofty, perhaps the most important in the family.
A: It’s a little hard to know, at this point, whether “keeper of songs” really is seen as a “most important” role, or just something Venli likes to think because that’s supposed to be her vocation. I think it’s mostly true, though, from what we’ve seen elsewhere. Given that theirs has always been an oral history, it makes sense.
P: I’m positive that it’s a revered position in their culture, since it seems to be the only way they keep track of their history. Making paper is a rare thing so the songs contain the whole of their history, that they remember, anyway.
A: In other notes, we get the names of three of the clans in this chapter. There is the First-Rhythm family, to which Eshonai and Venli belong. There is the Pure-Song family (remind anyone of the “pure tones of Roshar”?) which was long ago shunned for trying to steal another family’s weapons. And there’s the Fourth-Movement family, the ones whose weapons the Pure-Songers were trying to steal.
Also, each is apparently led by their own council of Five—or I’m assuming they all have fives, and not some other number. And their battle preparation is… interesting:
That mostly equated to which boasts to make, and which warriors to let cast their spears first.
A: But we’ll talk more about that when we see one of these “battles” take place.
P: Listener rap battle still to come!
Relationships and Romances
A: Worth noting, before we talk about family relationships, is that the listeners mature much faster than humans. They reach full growth earlier, reach puberty by 7 or 8 at the latest, and are considered adults at age ten (from chapter 83). That means that in this chapter, Eshonai is 9, and Venli 7 (nearly 8). That seems… bizarre. But as I said, they do mature more quickly; they must, for Eshonai to be out exploring the forest alone! It’s yet another aspect that’s hard to wrap my head around.
P: Sad to say, this is something that I only became aware of recently.
A: Relationships. In this chapter, Eshonai doesn’t seem to think about her sister beyond the passing thought that she should tell Venli about the odd cremling, and even her mother gets only passing mention:
Her mother was one of the few among all the families who knew the Song of Making Paper, and with her help, Eshonai had perfected the process.
A: So, yay mom for knowing cool stuff no one else knows, but… that’s it? Most of her thoughts about family in general reflect her frustration with their limited ambition and their desire to keep her from exploring. I’ve always liked Eshonai, but the more we go through the flashbacks, the more I realize she’s got a funny mix of honor and selfishness.
We don’t get a lot of that here, other than her (apparently unusual) love of exploring and seeing new things, and her slightly arrogant dismissal of the concerns of her family.
P: It is interesting that we see Venli revering her mother so much more than Eshonai, though perhaps that’s because Venli is actually with her mother during the flashback while Eshonai is alone and lost in her own head until she encounters the humans.
A: Good point. When we were in Eshonai’s head back in WoR, she certainly had great reverence and respect for her mother, but… she was much older and wiser then. It’s something to watch for in the upcoming flashbacks.
Most of the sisterly dynamic in this chapter is from Venli’s perspective, and it’s not very flattering to either of them.
Fine? Venli had spent years memorizing the songs, while Eshonai barely did anything useful. Venli was better than fine. She was excellent.
A: And there’s our first clue that Venli resents something about her older sister. While she seems to take great pride in being the apprentice keeper of songs, which presumably she wouldn’t be if Eshonai were more inclined to the role, she also repeatedly expresses frustration that her sister is free to go exploring (a.k.a. “play”) while she stays home with their mother.
P: It also shows Venli’s arrogance—talking about how excellent she is—which I also mention later.
“She shouldn’t be off away from the family so much, being selfish with her time. She should be learning the songs like me. It’s her duty too, as your daughter.”
A: She denies it when her mother points out that she envies her sister, but it’s obviously true. It strikes me as particularly unnecessary, too, given Jaxlim’s obvious approval of and pride in her younger daughter.
P: It’s definitely obvious that Venli is resentful of Eshonai for her carefree wanderings while Venli is at home practicing.
A: One of the… ironies, I guess? is the contrast of physical resemblance and character resemblance to their parents.
[Jaxlim’s] complex skin pattern of wavy red and black lines was among the most beautiful in the camp—like true marbled stone. Eshonai took after their mother’s colorings.Venli, of course, took after her father—primarily white and red, her own pattern more like swirls. In truth, Venli’s pattern had all three shades. Many people claimed they couldn’t see the small patches of black at her neck, but she could pick them out. Having all three colors was very, very rare.
A: Eshonai physically resembles their mother’s coloring, while Venli takes after their father (why “of course,” though?). But it looks very much like their interests lie the opposite way—Venli follows in their mother’s footsteps as keeper of songs, while Eshonai seems far more similar to their father, who had left, seeking the eastern sea. The title of the chapter (one of my suggestions! whee!) was drawn from this contrast as well, with Eshonai having a bold heart (like their father?), and Venli a keen and crafty mind like Jaxlim.
These are among the very few mentions of their father in the books. I wonder why he left. Oh, also, I cracked up at the bit about Venli being able to pick out the “small patches of black at her neck”—which only matters because having all three colors is so rare. Anything to be special, our Venli…
P: Yeah, that little tidbit was funny because Venli so much wants to be special.
A: She’s so egocentric. Even at this age, she strikes me as someone who perceives a weakness in herself and claims that it’s a virtue or even a strength. Her physical cowardice is reframed as “too important to risk,” for example. Or her fear of failing publicly:
“This is like your refusal to perform the songs in public. You are afraid of exposing yourself to failure again, Venli.”
“No,” she said. “No, of course not. Mother, I just think this would be better if I knew for certain it worked. Before causing trouble.”
A: I wonder what she failed at before, that this would be “again.” Regardless, once again she frames it as “wanting to control the circumstances” of demonstrating her theory, rather than fearing ridicule if it didn’t work.
P: And she’s so young, what could she possibly have failed at considering her tender age?
If she did obtain warform, would it open her mind? Make her even more bold? Quiet the fears and worries she often felt? She hungered for accomplishments. Hungered to make their world better, less dull, more vibrant. Hungered to be the one who carried her people to greatness.
A: I suppose it’s not necessarily a bad thing to want to lead the way toward something better, but it grates on me when her desire to make things better for her people is sandwiched between her longings for accomplishments and recognition.
P: I’ve never been fond of Venli, especially after the way she was when we first met her.
A: Ain’t that the truth? I kinda-sorta-a-little-bit feel bad for her here, when her big moment is blown to pieces by Eshonai’s arrival with the humans in tow, but… she grows into such a weasel for such a long time, it’s hard to care.
P: I mean, I felt bad for her, too, but knowing to what extreme she takes things later, my sympathy was short lived.
It wasn’t until she was almost to the sounds that she realized something was very wrong with them. They were flat, no hint of a rhythm. As if they were made by the dead. A moment later she rounded a bend and found herself confronted by something more wondrous—and more terrible—than she’d ever dared imagine.
A: Oh, Eshonai, if only you knew…
P: ::sad sounds::
A: All things considered, of course, some such meeting would have happened soon enough, given the plans of Odium, the Fused, and the Voidspren to return to Roshar. Still, in the near term, it’s sad; I can’t help wishing she’d never heard them.
Music, Mechanisms, and Manifestations of Light
She drew in a deep breath and sat back in their tent, proud. All ninety-one stanzas, recited perfectly.
Her mother, Jaxlim, nodded as she worked the loom. “That was one of your better recitations,” she said to Praise. “A little more practice, and we can move to the next song.”
P: Even at this young age, Venli is arrogant and so sure of her own superiority that she goes on to argue with her mother about her mistakes and whether she forgot a stanza.
A: Right? “No I didn’t, and if I did it doesn’t matter.” Ugh.
Venli attuned Annoyance. And then, Jaxlim began to sing to the rhythms in a beautiful voice. There was something amazing about her mother’s voice. It wasn’t powerful or bold, but it was like a knife—thin, sharp, almost liquid. It cut Venli to the soul, and Awe replaced her Annoyance.
No, Venli wasn’t perfect. Not yet. But her mother was.
P: And then she redeems herself for the moment by her silent praise of her mother.
A: Honestly, her unabashed love and honor for her mother is the best thing we know of her. It’s so appropriate, then, that her return to her people at the end of the book will be largely in an effort to find her mother and try to heal her mind.
Oaths Spoken, Powers Awakened
A: While there are no oaths spoken nor powers awakened, the seeds of the Willshapers are there, now that we know what to look for:
Their ancestors had turned their faces to the storm and marched away, abandoning their very gods in the name of freedom. Eshonai would use that freedom.
A: Also of great interest…
Instead of sitting by the fire and complaining, she would experience the beauties Cultivation offered.
A: Not Honor, but Cultivation. They refer to the Unmade as the gods they abandoned, and they don’t seem to refer to Cultivation as a god at all, but this view of her sounds much more like a true god than the Unmade! ::is confused::
A: As noted, a clash between humans and listeners was inevitable, given the plans and influence of Odium and the Voidspren. If it hadn’t happened here and now, what might have happened? We can imagine that if they hadn’t met this early in the process, the listeners might well have found not only warform, but they’d have been led into the forms of power before the Everstorm arrived. Despite being considered traitors for having turned away from the Regal powers all those centuries ago, they might well have been the leaders of Odium’s forces—under the Fused, of course—while the slaveform parshmen would only have begun waking up. Hundreds of thousands of Regals, awake and ready to fight… and having lost everything that made them the listeners instead of the singers.
P: Considering where Venli was in her research and the fact that Jaxlim had taken her to the Five, it’s certainly interesting to imagine what the listeners might have become before the War of Reckoning if Eshonai hadn’t run into the Alethi that day.
A: Even without the Voidspren, she was getting close to at least one new form, and would probably have gone on to find others.
Spren and Shadesmar
A: In Eshonai’s section, there are a number of spren described, and I’m reminded that the listeners see more of the Cognitive form of spren than humans see. For example,
…the trees bobbing with lifespren, bright green balls with white spines poking out.
A: The humans just see tiny glowing green specks—not nearly as interesting! When Shallan and Adolin see them in Shadesmar, they merely note that they’re much bigger on that side.
Rivers and their carapace-covered spren excited her.
A: Near the beginning of the chapter, she mentions “swimming riverspren” which isn’t too surprising, but… carapace-covered? Huh! Humans just see them as “eel-like.”
P: It was enough to make me wonder if perhaps the listeners were seeing totally different spren than the humans.
…she put out her fire and scattered the flamespren before continuing on her way.
A: Once again, the old question: Do spren cause phenomena, or are they merely drawn by the phenomena? Why does she scatter the flamespren?
P: I was left wondering how she scattered the flamespren.
A: Venli has some thoughts on spren, too, but from a very different angle:
A painspren is the key. They’re always around during storms. If I can keep one close to me, I think I can adopt the form.”
A: This is in the context of trying to find warform. My first thought was “but they aren’t at war with the humans yet”—but that’s silly, because her family is making a lot of noise about trying an attack on one of the cities. Of course finding warform would give them an advantage! (Okay, given that their battles are mostly a matter of yelling at each other, maybe not so much, but they’d definitely provide an intimidation factor!)
P: A warform shouting at you would be much more frightening than a workform, I imagine!
Flora and Fauna of the Physical Realm
She stopped for lunch near one of the bends, and discovered a type of cremling that was green, like the trees.
A: Hey, it’s a cremling! An unusual one! It must be a Sleepless!! (Sorry, I can’t help it anymore. Every time there’s a lone cremling, especially if it’s an odd color, I’ve started to assume it’s a hordeling.)
P: But, of course. I think this is the point!
We’ll be leaving further speculation and discussion to you in the comments, so have fun and remember to be respectful of the opinions of others! Next week, we’ll be back in the tower with Navani and Kaladin, in chapter 46. It’s… not entirely pleasant, shall we say?
Alice is a Sanderson beta reader and administrator of two fandom Facebook groups. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two kids, with extended family out back. She’s pleased to report that the beta read for ReDawn is now complete, and it’s just as excellent as Sunreach. She is eagerly awaiting the beta for Evershore, which promises all sorts of cool adventures. Skyward autumn, y’all!
Paige resides in New Mexico, of course. She works full-time, goes to school full-time, beta reads part-time, mods/admins 3 Stormlight-themed Facebook groups part-time, and writes part-time. She wishes sleep wasn’t necessary because there’s just too storming much to do! Links to her other writing are available in her profile.