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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson: Read, Part 2 (Chapters 4-8)

Today, we resume our read of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, where we’ll highlight the major points of the story while learning from Sanderson’s work how to create compelling novels.

To catch up or review the first part of this read, click here.



Chapter 4: The Shattered Plains

Summary: Kaladin continues on in the slave caravan to be sold to he knows not whom. The windspren continues with him, despite the fact that such is contrary to typical spren behavior. She wants to know why Kaladin doesn’t cry like the others. Kaladin is a puzzle to her, as are her own reactions.

After a high storm, the intense storms that wrack the land and are often deadly to be out in, the caravan reaches its destination, the Alethi army camped on the Shattered Plains. Kaladin has reached where he wanted to be at the beginning of the story, but he’s nothing like how he imagined. He wanted to fight on the Shattered Plains as a loyal soldier in the king’s army. Now, he comes as but a slave, and one that isn’t likely to fetch a good price either.

Reader Comments: Kaladin is so cool. Even the mercenaries in the slave caravan won’t come near him because they’re afraid of him. And he has some wicked dialogue, especially when exchanging words with the slaver Tvlakv, but that’s counterbalanced with his deeper moments. The whole combination makes him a lot of fun to read. All this too has lifted Kaladin up to the level of my favorite characters, right up there with Perrin Aybarra from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Let’s see if he stays up there. I’m pretty sure he will.

Writer Comments: What purpose does the windspren serve? She hasn’t done anything obviously impactful to the plot. No one but Kaladin can see her. Why might Sanderson have kept her there at all?

Let’s just assume that Sanderson has a bigger purpose for her later and look at the spren in the context of the current scenes. What does she add? She adds an outside perspective to Kaladin, a lens through which we can view him that isn’t his own. She is the voice that asks questions and makes observations that reveal deeper layers to Kaladin. She also, by being something of a non-adversary and perhaps budding ally, keeps Kaladin’s dark situation from being too depressing. He has a companion, and that’s something. Too, he has someone, who breaks through her kind’s nature, who wants to be near him. That marks him important and worthy of our interest as readers. In essence, the windspren, is Sanderson’s way of grounding Kaladin while also highlighting him as someone special.

Chapter 5: Heretic

Summary: Shallan finally achieves her audience with Jasnah Kholin, the scholar princess/heretic of the Alethi. Jasnah agrees to interview Shallan on her way to perform some dire errand for the king of the city. Shallan does her best to answer Jasnah’s questions about her education, much of which Jasnah finds inadequate, but Jasnah has a blunt, no nonsense manner and expectations that Shallan finds shockingly unreasonable.

The errand for the king, apparently, is for Jasnah to use her soulcaster to remove an enormous stone that fell from the mountain that houses the conclave and has trapped the king’s granddaughter. Jasnah complies by transforming the stone into smoke. She then rejects Shallan as her ward, dismissing Shallan’s protests that her true skills lie in the feminine visual arts. However, Jasnah sees no point in such frivolities and leaves Shallan to grapple with the rejection alone.

But Shallan will not be dissuaded so quickly. After all, her whole House depends on her success, for only by becoming Jasnah’s ward is she in a position where to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster and whisk it away to save her family.

Reader Comments: Jasnah gives me mixed feelings as a reader. I don’t like her, but she’s fascinating to read. And poor Shallan, who’s trying so hard to save her family. Granted, Shallan is already planning thievery, but her motivation, to save her family, keeps her likable. I’m not sure if I hope she succeeds in stealing Jasnah’s soulcaster or not.

Writer Comments: This chapter is not full of battles or dramatic action scenes. The most dramatic element it has is when Jasnah turns the stone to smoke. However, the chapter is very tense, much like the previous chapters with Kaladin. Sanderson achieves this tension, and thus compelling narrative, by making the stakes high and the characters desperate. Shallan, like Kaladin, urgently fights for survival. Her arena is a cultured one, but it is no less fraught with danger. Whatever the trappings, fighting for the ability and right to live, is a primal and desperate motivation. It’s something readers understand. The constant threat to their survival from others and from the possibility of their own failure keeps the scenes tense even when big, dramatic actions aren’t necessarily involved.

Chapter 6: Bridge Four

Summary: Tvlakv sells Kaladin to Brightlord Sadeas’s army, but not as a soldier like Kaladin wishes. Rather, Kaladin is forced to become a bridgeman on Bridge Four. Instantly, he offends Gaz, the sergeant in charge of the bridge, and his given the worst position. Along with about thirty-nine other men, he must carry a massive bridge, thirty feet long and eight feet wide, on his shoulders and run. He can see nothing. He’s given no pads to protect his shoulders from the bridge’s massive weight digging into his flesh. He’s given no shoes to protect his feet against the cutting rocks he must charge across, blind, for the bridge’s wood shields him from all views but his running, tortured feet. For hours, he runs and run, placing the bridge so the army can cross the vast chasms that mark the Shattered Plain. While waiting for the army to cross each, he collapses in utter exhaustion, but that isn’t the worst part.

The worst comes at the end. To cross the final plain, Kaladin is given a position on the front row. It’s wonderful compared to before. He can see where he’s going, and that makes running easier. Until he spots the Parshendi army across the next chasm and their archers kneel and draw. Defenseless, forced to run under the bridge’s momentum, no escape in sight, Kaladin involuntarily charges as the Parshendi archers shoot down the bridge crew around him, their bodies trampled under bridgemen feet. A hell of a making he could never have imagined. At last, his companions mostly dead, he helps push the bridge across the chasm for the calvary to charge across, and collapses into unconsciousness.

His windspren forces him awake so that the army doesn’t leave him to die among the corpses. As he scavenges pads for his shoulders and shoes from the bridgeman who had shown him kindness before the first flight of arrows killed him, Kaladin asks if the windspren has a name. She says she surprisingly does, Sylphrena, Syl for short. She answers as though she is finding this out for the first time herself. And then, Kaladin must rise and carry the bridge back to camp with the other sorry, tortured souls of Bridge Four.

Reader Comments: Gruesome. They say an author should throw rocks at a character, but I think Sanderson went for asteroids instead. I feel so horrible for Kaladin, yet the horror is delicious. I’ve rarely before wanted to see a hero overcome his circumstances more, and at least, Kaladin has Syl. She is the one bright spot in his life and is like a little, strange ball of hope in this nightmarish darkness.

Writer Comments: Whatever you think up for your hero to face, think of ways to make it worse and what they fight for matter more. It must have been fun to be Sanderson sitting around thinking, “How can I make this harder for Kaladin?” Despite how awful it may sound, being a sadist to one’s characters is, in my opinion, one of the really enjoyable aspects of being a writer. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other writers, enough to know it’s fairly common. But that aside, whatever you think to do to your character, take a few minutes to find something worse. This creates higher tension, greater conflict, and compelling stakes.

Chapter 7: Anything Reasonable

Summary: Rather than give up, Shallan follows Jasnah to the Palanaeum, the conclave’s vast library, to petition Jasnah yet again for wardship. However, the Palanaeum requires an entrance fee well beyond what Shallan can afford. Instead, she chooses to wait for Jasnah in the Veil, a massive antechamber housing reading alcoves stacked so high that Shallan can’t see the end of them.

To give herself liberty to think of a plan, Shallan draws pictures, including one of Jasnah transforming the stone to smoke, a piece that proves one of her best. Her mind calmed by drawing, she composes a letter to Jasnah, making a logical argument that the fact that she had to teach herself rather than be taught by expensive tutors means she’ll value Jasnah’s knowledge far more than others. Too, she makes the letter its own work of art with stylized, beautiful writing to prove her skill.

Then, before she can lacquer the pictures, an ardent (a religious figure similar to a monk) comes looking for Jasnah. He’s handsome and charming and goes out of his way, even threatening to dance on the desk, to banish Shallan’s excessive, in his view, formality and respect. He departs with Shallan’s promise that she’ll let Jasnah know he wished to speak with the princess. Then Jasnah herself enters, looking very displeased.

Reader Comments: Brother Kabsal, the ardent, seemed to be flirting to me. I wonder if this is his normal disposition or if he was actually hitting on Shallan. Either way, Shallan seemed ignorant of it. She’s a curious character. She’s clearly quite innocent, yet she has this dark thing in her past involving her father’s death. I don’t know yet exactly what happened, but it was clearly horrific for her. Then, she’s quite feminine, refreshingly so for a fantasy heroine actually, but she also has her moments of boldness and is clearly in possession of a subtle strength that I suspect could get her through the worst life can throw at her. The complexity makes her seem real.

And, though Sanderson doesn’t outright state it, he pretty much has revealed that Shallan is now in possession of a shardblade, something I gather she shouldn’t have. It is one of her secrets, one kept ten heartbeats away.

Writer Comments: There are moments in stories when something needs to happen that, at the time, doesn’t seem important to the story. It might appear that the author could have saved time and space and just left it out. Brother Kabsal, even while being amusing and charming, is that. He doesn’t add anything significant to the story at this point. He doesn’t even stay in the scene long enough to fulfill the purpose he came into it for. Yet this doesn’t come off as odd or excessive, and a big part of that is because Shallan, along with the reader, finds his presence strange. When the POV (point of view) character experiences the same confusion as the reader, it eases the reader’s mind. It proves the author is aware of the oddity, and so we are willing to trust his purposes.

Chapter 8: Nearer the Flame

Summary: Jasnah is indeed displeased with Shallan and forbids her from ever coming into her presence again. Crushed, despairing, and humiliated, Shallan flees. Down the passage, she tries to compose herself, and then a servant comes to inform her that Jasnah wishes to see her. Shocked, she follows the servant back. Jasnah apologizes for her rudeness and points out that Shallan left her spheres (money in this world) in the alcove. Shallan collects them while Jasnah reads the letter she wrote. Jasnah is impressed that Shallan is self-taught and agrees to allow Shallan to petition her again in the future, once Shallan has filled the gaps in her education. However, for Shallan, whose family needs help now, the future isn’t really a possibility.

She departs, defeated, but Yalb, the sailor who initially helped her to the conclave, offers his aid again and encourages her not to give up. The third hand usually wins, he says. So, once more Shallan tries. She purchases weighty books from a book merchant and returns to the Veil to study as quickly as possible so she might petition Jasnah before the scholar princess leaves Kharbranth. However, she barely has her first book open when Jasnah interrupts. “I’m never going to be rid of you, am I?” She looks through Shallan’s belongings and finds the book where Shallan sketched plants and animals and made notations about them. This, she determines, that Shallan pursues scholarship in her free time, which is Shallan’s best argument yet. She does not extend wardship, but she determines to keep Shallan around. If she can’t be rid of her, she might as well use her.

Reader Comments: I’m glad to see this kinder, softer side of Jasnah. It makes me like her more. As for Shallan, I have a feeling she’s about to get in way over her head, especially since her true goal is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster. I’m looking forward to seeing how all these stories come together in the end.

Writer Comments: This chapter makes Jasnah come alive more and defines her as a full, three-dimensional character. Sanderson does this by demonstrating conflicting aspects of her personality that still make sense. She is exacting and abrasive, perhaps even harsh and unfair, but by the end, we get to see her soft and restrained, impressed. We see her extend fairness and, in an odd way, kindness. We see her apologize, which is not something commonly observed in royal characters of her nature. She is hard and resilient, but we also see her yield. The dichotomy of opposite personality traits makes characters interesting and appear more realistic. Granted, those traits must meld in a way that make sense to maintain believability, but no human is so simple as to always be a single way. The complex nature of a character should mirror that of real life.

Thank you for joining me today for these chapters of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Next Monday, we’ll resume this read. Until then, join me on Friday for the next segment of Worldcon Treasures.

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