Today, we return to The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, the popular fantasy epic and our current guinea pig to pull apart for insights into how to write well.
To catch up or review previous segments of this read, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.
Chapter 19: Starfalls
Summary: Dalinar’s vision during the highstorm drops him into the past during an attack on a village by creatures made of smoke and shadow. He is a man named Heb, though he has none of Heb’s memories, and he must protect Heb’s daughter and wife. With naught but a fire poker and his training from his own time, Dalinar fights off their assailants, but there are too many and he gets wounded. At last, stars fall from the sky, glowing. They unfold and prove to be the legendary Knights Radiant, come to fight off the menace. Dalinar fights at their side, then quizzes one of them, the first female Shardbearer he’s ever known of, about this time and place. She says a Desolation is near. Then the voice that always speaks to Dalinar in visions enters Heb’s wife and urges Dalinar again to unite the highprinces. Dalinar demands clearer answers and gets one, that he should indeed trust Sadeas.
Reader Comments: Time for theorizing. So, clearly, a Desolation is coming in Dalinar’s time, and nobody is aware of it, or practically nobody. It makes me think that, perhaps, this Desolation will be the worst ever. Also, since Dalinar has now met a female Shardbearer in his vision, I wonder what part he’ll play when Shallan is revealed to be a Shardbearer, which will undoubtedly eventually happen. I have to think that, based on Dalinar’s reaction and his character, he will be supportive of her, even if she’s known by then to have betrayed Jasnah.
Writer Comments: Visions and prophesy are tricky things to write well, yet they’re common in fantasy. There are so many examples out there, so right now, I’ll just look at Sanderson’s use of visions.
First of all, the assumption is naturally that Dalinar’s visions are, in fact, truth. He believes them, but we as readers have just seen enough to presume that they are sent from some being who’s trying to nudge events in a specific direction. Unlike a lot of visions, they are also fairly straightforward. Their ultimate purpose isn’t clear, but they aren’t heaping with imagery, metaphor, and vague clues. As a reader, I find this somewhat refreshing. It lends a more visceral feel to the visions and a sense of verisimilitude. So if you use visions or prophesy in fiction, consider the affect you want to have as a reader. Choose your level of imagery and metaphor, directness and grit carefully.
Chapter 20: Scarlet
Summary: Seven years before...
Kal (Kaladin at thirteen) comes upon a little girl who fell and broke her leg. In the process, it severed one of her major leg arteries. Kal does all he can, insisting he can save her. He get the leg treated, and looks up to find her already dead. Though he did his work well, he couldn’t save her, and it tears at him. He father offers some assurance and insists that, over time, he will grow callouses and learn when to care and when not to. But it’s still too much.
Reader Comments: This chapter is sudden, sharp, and intense. It sort of falls out of nowhere, but it fits Kaladin. He first confesses to his father that he doesn’t want to be a surgeon in it. I wonder if Sanderson will reveal scene by scene how Kaladin escaped that fate.
Writer Comments: This chapter is a great example of starting in medias res. There’s very little context given, almost no scene setting. It’s all motion, emotion, and dialogue. This sort of chapter would not work at or near the beginning of a story. The reader would be too confused, but this far in, 31% specifically, when we already know Kaladin, it can be pulled off. Everything we need to know to understand the essence of the chapter has already been set up in previous scenes, and we’re already invested in the character. However, put a scene like this too early, and without the built up context and investment in the character and story, a ready might well give up from confusion.
Chapter 21: Why Men Lie
Summary: Though aching and beaten down, Kaladin forces himself to rise the next morning, tend to the wounded bridgemen, and workout once more by carrying the plank. Gaz informs him after that Sadeas has decided that, rather than stringing Kaladin up in a highstorm, he will instead refuse to pay or feed the wounded bridgemen, in essence forcing them to slowly starve to death and make an example out of Bridge Four. Kaladin is furious, and has very few options.
He tries to get the other bridgemen to agree to share their food with the three wounded men, but they laugh at him. They also refuse to contribute spheres to purchase medicine. However, Rock, the man whose place Kaladin took the previous day, thus saving his life, agrees to help. He will give a part of his food for the one man he thinks might survive. But it isn’t enough.
All that means that Kaladin has to go beyond the usual to fight for his bridgemen’s lives. He arranges with Gaz to switch duties with another bridge crew. Instead of scrubbing pots that day, Bridge Four will instead quarry rocks, a much more difficult, more detested task. But it means getting out of camp and possibly collecting plants that might help. Only Rock and Teft agree to help him.
Reader Comments: Rock is going to be an interesting guy. He can see Syl, unlike the other bridgemen, and he insists Kaladin is different. Apparently, all the bridgemen see this difference, even if Kaladin refuses to see it.
However, it’s the title of this chapter that most intrigues me: Why Men Lie. Syl asks this question at one point, but it isn’t obviously significant. So why does Sanderson choose this name for the chapter? He’s too careful a writer to do that casually. I wonder if it’s a bit of foreshadowing that Kaladin shouldn’t trust everyone he is? Perhaps it’s something else. In either case, it makes me wonder how many men are lying in this chapter.
And then, there’s the discussion between Syl and Kaladin about lighteyes. Kaladin speaks of them disdainfully, claiming lighteyes always lie and are always corrupt. It’s an odd moment for Kaladin. Prejudice doesn’t seem like his usual manner, yet here it is. At the same time, his rant doesn’t seem entirely truthful to him, like he only half believes it. As I have hopes that there will eventually be some sort of romance between Kaladin and Shallan and, as Kaladin is clearly starting to draw some lighteyed attention, this could get interesting.
Writer Comments: I believe that was the longest commentary I’ve left in a Reader Comments section, but that’s good. It means I’m speculating. It means the story is consuming my thoughts and attention. If an author can get a reader speculating, he’s done well.
Chapter 22: Eyes, Hands, and Sphere
Summary: Dalinar attends a feast, which Elhokar hosts, one of the rare times even the highprinces get food that isn’t soulcast. But there, rumors abound. Dalinar is warned, first by Wit, then by Adolin, that claims of his cowardice for wishing to break the Vengeance Pact are all over the place. However, Adolin is at least willing to trust his father and thinks Dalinar’s plan to actually win the war is a sound one, if challenging since it requires all the highprinces working together.
Then Navani, King Elhokar’s mother, arrives, and Dalinar is clearly, inappropriately in love with her. Her presence makes his already complicated position that much more difficult. While they talk, Elhokar announces that he is naming Sadeas to the position of Highprince of Information, the man now in charge of the investigation into his supposed assassination attempt, an act that places Dalinar in greater danger and essentially shows that the king suspects Dalinar. When Dalinar confronts Elhokar, asking why he wasn’t made Highprince of War despite his request while Sadeas is made Highprince of Information, Elhokar explains that it was all Sadeas’s idea. And that is even more dangerous, for Sadeas has very cleverly outmaneuvered Dalinar right under the king’s nose.
Reader Comments: I can certainly see how Jasnah and Navani are related. They’re both very direct women. And it looks like I was right about Dalinar facing a coming fall of some sort. His life is going to get really difficult.
Writer Comments: This chapter shows some cultural characteristics of the Alethi. Men and women eat separately and different types of food. Women eat sweet flavored food, and men eat spicy. (My husband, the guy who’s been practically drinking salsa since six months old, particularly liked that detail of Sanderson’s world.) It’s good to include unique features of a culture and world, invented or extent. They make a world feel more real. Choose details with care and show them rather than inundating a reader with long descriptions and lists.