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Monday, February 3, 2014

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson: Read, Part 13 (Chapters 37-41)

Welcome back to our read of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, where we review a great story and examine the techniques of a successful novelist. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 37: Sides

Summary: Five and a half years before...

Kal has decided to become a soldier, but before he goes, he has to truly understand if his father is a weak man or truly courageous. When the new citylord, who has been intentionally trying to make Kal’s family starve, invites Lirin to dinner, Kal accompanies his father to the manor to lend his support. At dinner, the citylord tries to force Lirin to relinquish the spheres the previous citylord willed to him on his deathbed. When Kal keeps jumping in to defend his father, Lirin sends Kal away to the kitchens.

In the kitchens, Kal encounters the citylord’s heir, an arrogant snob, and Laral, the lighteyes girl Kal’s parents once hoped to marry him to. Laral is changed. She treats Kal coldly and as though he were a petty darkeyed boy, but she does at least draw the citylord’s heir away from his worst harassments of Kal.

When Kal’s father comes to collect him, Kal knows he bargained away a good many of the spheres, but he’s changed his mind. He realizes that his desire to join the army is childish. Rather, he’s determined to become a surgeon, learn the ways of the lighteyes, and prove that he won’t be dismissed or pushed around. But in the dark of the carriage ride home, Kal realizes that his father did indeed steal the spheres from the previous citylord as the current citylord accuses him. Kal isn’t sure how to feel about this. Does that mean his father did something heroic or wrong? But the one thing he’s still certain of is that he will become a surgeon.

Reader Comments: Oh dear, something bad must happen to send Kal into the army. I wonder if Lirin ends up dead. (As a side note, Kal’s father didn’t actually bargain away any spheres. He continued to resist the citylord.) And, no wonder Kal hates lighteyes now with the way the citylord, his son, and now Laral treat him.

Writer Comments: Signifiers are important in fiction. They help demarcate significant moments or shifts. In this case, Kal insists he now go by his full name, Kaladin. The change in his address stands as an obvious sign to readers of his shift from childhood to manhood.

Chapter 38: Envisager

Summary: Kaladin hangs in a haze, seeing deathspren and Syl wielding a sword of pure light against them. But once a man sees deathspren, death is very near.

Teft, one of Kaladin’s bridgemen, comes to take his turn watching over Kaladin. He’s angry. How can Kaladin survive the storm only to die of his wounds? Why is Teft put in this position? But he suspects something of Kaladin, and alone in the barrack, he places a few spheres in Kaladin’s hand to see what will happen. He’s stunned when Kaladin, unknowingly, drains the spheres of Stormlight and some of his wounds begin to heal. Teft knows he must tell the Evisagers, but as he caused the death of the Evisagers he knows, he doesn’t know how to reach others. But he determines to bring more spheres so that Kaladin’s life might at least be spared.

Reader Comments: First off, Teft just became far more awesome and more interesting. But who are the Evisagers, and what exactly did Teft do? Clearly, his backstory is far more interesting than I first assumed. And him now knowing what Kaladin is will undoubtedly get very interesting. I suspect he’ll be the one to explain it to Kaladin eventually.

Writer Comments: This chapter is full of unexplained implications. It opens up dozens of questions. Sanderson hints, but never explains. This is a tricky balance for a writer, but Sanderson does it well here. By the end of the chapter, as a reader, I was vastly more intrigued and eager to go on to discover the answers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a hard and fast rule of how to strike this balance, but if you study this chapter, you might start to glimpse how it’s done.

Chapter 39: Burning into Her

Summary: Guilt torments Shallan. Her study of philosophy and her haunted drawings of when Jasnah killed the murderers are of no help, for while the philosophies exonerate Jasnah, Shallan cannot escape the sense that it was gravely wrong. Too, her hand keeps drawing disturbing things of its own accord: this time, a luscious dining chamber and a dead lord lying in his own blood.

She flees outside to the gardens with her sketchpad. Aside from being paranoid that someone will discover the stolen Soulcaster, she needs fresh air and sunlight. After sketching for a while, she determines she’s alone and pulls out the Soulcaster in an attempt to learn how to use it. But her every attempt fails. What if she can’t figure out how to use it? What moral options are left her then? Her choices are becoming more and more complicated and difficult.

Reader Comments: I like the fact that Shallan feels guilty. It assures me that, even while she faces difficult and some dark choices, she still clings to the good person she is. I don’t want that fundamental aspect of her to change.

However, she clearly has dark secrets of her own. It’s already fairly obvious that she is in possession of a Shardblade and that something horrible happened the night her father died. I’m starting to wonder if she killed her father but for what would seem a justified reason. I’m willing to bet that her brothers don’t really know what happened that night, not even Nan Balat.

Writer Comments: Facing difficult more decisions seems to be a theme in this book. All the characters are faced with hard choices that help define what sort of person they really are. What means are justifiable? Is intent or action more important in determining the rightness or wrongness of a person? I don’t yet know if Sanderson will actually answer these. Rather, I suspect they are questions he himself asks through his stories. Part of writing is exploration. It’s one of the big ways writers work through mental, emotional, and moral issues. They put their characters through scenarios that help them uncover their own beliefs. Now, this is rarely conscious, and it doesn’t necessarily result in clear answers. But as writers, we shouldn’t fear the exploration of our questions, doubts, fears, or anything else. It is part of our nature to tell stories to help ourselves work through these things, and the stories that result from them are, perhaps, a truer reflection of ourselves. That reflection can be the difference between a decent story and a really excellent one.

Chapter 40: Eyes of Red and Blue

Summary: Despite all logic that he knows, Kaladin wakes and walks out to his men who are practicing with the bridge. They are overjoyed and reverently greet him. But on the bridge run that day, on which Kaladin goes to carry water rather than the bridge, Kaladin realizes the bridgemen’s true purpose: to die so that one of the real soldiers doesn’t have to. And in that, he realizes that he cannot do anything to change it. He cannot save his men because, by living, they are a failure in Sadeas’s eyes. This truth eats at him, even while his men celebrate their victories that they still live, and he realizes that the crushed man he thought he’d left at the chasm is returning, and he hasn’t the strength to ward him off and carry the hopes of all the bridgemen.

Reader Comments: Ah, this is sad. I don’t know how Kaladin is going to move past this, but when he does, it will undoubtedly make him stronger. However, I suspect that this battle will be one he wages for a long time. Despair is not something easily banished, particularly in a situation impossible to win.

Writer Comments: Sanderson does a curious thing here. He takes Kaladin backward, at least in part. Sure, Kaladin is fighting, but he still is reverting. This could come off as bad, but it has one saving grace. Even while Kaladin shifts toward a place readers thought him past, his accomplishments in reviving the bridgemen remain. Within the loss, there is still victory. In fiction, success and loss must be carefully balanced. Too much success creates a boring story. Too much loss creates a depressing one.

Chapter 41: Of Alds and Milp

Summary: Five and a half years before...

Kaladin comes into his father’s surgery, and the place is soaked in blood. The new citylord and his son are wounded from going after whitespines, the son with a tusk in the gut, the father with one in the leg. Kaladin helps his father treat them. The son they end up leaving because he cannot be saved. The father, they save, but in the process, Kaladin realizes how easy it would be to let him die. For just a moment, he sees Lirin come to that some conclusion and the temptation of letting his surgery knife slice just a little farther and sever the artery that would end all their troubles. But Lirin withdraws his knife and saves the citylord.

That night, Kaladin talks to his father. Lirin insists that he could not have actually killed the citylord, despite his temptation, because he is not a killer and because someone has to start doing the right thing so others can follow. But Kaladin realizes that he could have killed the citylord had the decision been his. Sometimes, certain people just need to be removed.

Reader Comments: Nicely vivid and harsh. Roshone, the citylord, is likely to seek true vengeance for the death of his son. Laral too will probably be furious with Kaladin and his father. Things are beginning to boil.

But more interesting is this interplay inside Kaladin. He’s starting to sound more like the Kaladin of the chapters set in the present. There is a war within him of darkness and light, despair and hope, and through that tumult, he’s trying to find and do what is right. Unlike his father, his answers do not always result in the continuance of life.

Writer Comments: For this section, let’s take a step back and look at the whole of the story so far. In actuality, Sanderson is telling five separate stories simultaneously. There’s Kaladin’s present story, Kaladin’s past story, Shallan’s story, Dalinar’s story, and Szeth’s story.

A friend of mine, who is also a Sanderson fan, expressed some frustration with this type of structure. He felt like he was reading three separate stories at once and would have preferred them in three separate books. I can see his point. The Way of Kings is complex and could conceivably be broken into separate books. However, I personally wouldn’t want that. I enjoy the complexity and the dynamic nature of the story, most of which would be lost if it were broken into pieces.

Preferences in structure style aside, The Way of Kings is not actually about Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, or Szeth. If it were, one of them could rise to the fore and simplify the story. In actuality, The Way of Kings is the story of a world on the edge of destruction. More specifically, it is the story of goodness struggling to find a place in the midst of Desolation and despair. Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, and Szeth represent different aspects of that world, for Sanderson could not actually tell a compelling story starring rocks or even highstorms. Readers are drawn to people because we are people and that’s who we identify with, so this story must be enacted through the actions of human beings. On the surface, it may appear to be several stories smashed together, but in truth, it is but one story acted at through the facets of four separate lives.

However, Sanderson must still be careful how he manages and balances this complex storytelling style. Each sub-story, or facet, if you will, must contain all the elements of a true story. Each characters must have a goal, opposition, obstacles, growth, and ultimately a climax and resolution. Yet, more than that, each of the various sub-stories must reflect each other. It is as if the story as a whole were a gem, the sub-stories its facets. When Sanderson casts a light on the gem, each facet refracts that light in a different way, yet it is still the same light shining on them simultaneously. That is why each sub-story hit their midpoint at about the same time. That is why each of the four main characters are facing the most difficult choices of their life right now and why they all are confronted with moral quandaries that are potentially crushing. It is why all four characters are at the moment trying to define themselves within that framework. Sanderson is casting a certain light through the gem of the story. Later on, he will undoubtedly cast another.

This goes back to other times I’ve discussed reflection and mirroring within stories. Though many stories are not nearly as complex as this one, the basic elements remain the same. The Way of Kings, for all its labyrinthine nature, follows the basic story structure of all novels. And as it is like a gem which refracts light through the facets of its characters, so too should less complex stories.

Thank you for joining me for today’s chapters of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into books, the speculative, and life.

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