The ethics of creativity as explored in Sanderson’s Words of Radiance

How do you confront the existence of evil in the world? What do you do when those who are supposed to be leaders have weaknesses and failures? Why is there injustice in society, in our institutions and governments? And ourselves too? And do you confront your own imperfections and weaknesses? You’re own brokenness?  Can you justify the means with the ends? These are all questions that are explored in-depth through the eyes of a beautiful cast of characters in Brandon Sanderson’s second novel in The Way of Kings series, Word of Radiance. My review of the first book focused on the complexities of faith explored through each of the characters. Now that the main protagonists have in essence committed to a faith and a path, they now face the challenges of committing to that path.



One aspect of the world of Way of Kings is the oaths of the Knights Radiant. It perhaps echoes the days of chivalry in the age of the Crusades. And it reminded me of the covenantal theology at the core of Mormonism. The three oaths are as follows:

Life before death
Strength before weakness
Journey before destination.

It is a reminder to defend those who can’t defend themselves, and to never let the means justify the ends. They defy rationalization and moral laxity and inspire creativeness in the moral life. They are beautifully exemplified in Sanderson’s cast of characters, and similar to my last review, I will arrange my comments on the topic of morality by character. There are SPOILERS, and part of the motive in my writing is to preserve the inspiring quotes and thoughts for later. It is amazing that in the form of a novel, Sanderson is able to more clearly outline the good life better than most treatises or book on ethics and morals.

Kaladin, now the head of the king’s guard, sees firsthand the moral swamp of the ruling class, the lighteyes. He has a hard time not letting his personal hatred to his former general who betrayed him, Amaram, be projected on all lighteyes. Kaladin’s bond to his honorspren, Syl, depends on his own personal honor, and when he sees a chance to abandon his duty to protect the royal family by participating in a plot to assassinate the king, he nearly loses loses his power as a Surgebinder.

You have to learn when to care, son. His father’s voice. And when to let go. You’ll grow calluses.
He never had. Storm him, he never had. It was why he’d never make a good surgeon. He couldn’t lose patients.

Syl couldn’t see why his decision was the right one. She was a spren, and had a stupid simplistic morality. To be human was often to be forced to choose between distasteful options. Life wasn’t clean and neat like she wanted it to be. It was messy, coated with crem. No man walked through life without getting covered in it, not even Dalinar.

It’s the fault of your entire class. Each time one of us is defrauded, enslaved, beaten, broken, the blame rests upon all of you who support it. Even indirectly.
“Oh please,” she said. “The world isn’t fair? What a huge revelation! Some people in power abuse those they have power over? Amazing! When did this start happening?”

“I worry something awful is going to happen.” Kaladin said. “I can prevent it, but the awful thing… it might be best for everyone if it does happen.”
“Huh,” Zahel said.
“No advice?” Kaladin asked.
Choose the option,” Zahel said, rearranging his pillow, “that makes it easiest for you to sleep at night.” The old ardent closed his eyes and settled back. “That’s why I wish I’d done.”

“Fleet kept running,” Kaladin growled, getting back under Elhokar’s arm.
He couldn’t win, but he kept running. And when the storm caught him, it didn’t matter that he died, because he’d run for all he had.
“Sure. All right.” The king sounded groggy, though Kaladin couldn’t tell if it was the alcohol or the blood loss.
“We all die in the end, you see,” Kaladin said. The two of them walked down the corridor, Kaladin leaning on his spear to keep them upright. “So I guess what truly matters is just how well you’ve run. And Elhokar, you’ve kept running since your father was killed, even if you screw up all the storming time.”
“Thank you?” the king said, drowsy.

Dalinar has committed himself to saving his people, but struggles with not becoming a tyrant while doing so. His visions from the Almighty seem to imply that God is dead, but he is nevertheless committed to his people:

Something is either right or it’s wrong,” Dalinar said, feeling stubborn. “The Almighty doesn’t come into it.
“God,” Navani said flatly, “doesn’t come into whether his commands are right or wrong.”
“Er. Yes.”
“Careful,” Navani said. “You’re sounding like Jasnah. Anyway, if God is dead—”
“God isn’t dead. If the Almighty died, then he was never God, that’s all.”

“Listen to me, Dalinar,” she said, turning him to meet her eyes. “Has any good ever come from a father hating his children?
“I don’t hate them”
“You loathe their excess,” she said, “and you are close to applying that emotion to them as well. They live the lives they have known, the lives that society has taught them are proper. You won’t change them with contempt. You aren’t Wit; it isn’t your job to scorn them. Your job is to enfold them, encourage them. Lead them, Dalinar.”

Aladar extended his hand, but hesitated. “You realize that I’m stained through and through. I’ve got blood on these hands, Dalinar. I’m not some perfect, honorable knight as you seem to want to pretend.
“I know you’re not,” Dalinar said, taking the hand. “I’m not either. We will have to do.”

In that instant he knew a truth he should have always known
If I’d been there, on that night, awake instead of drunk and asleep… Gavilar would still have died.
I couldn’t have beaten this creature. I can’t do it now, and I couldn’t have done it then.
I couldn’t have saved him.
It brought peace, and Dalinar finally set down the boulder, the one he’d carried for over six years.

Shallan probably does the most character development throughout the book. Starting out as a nervous girl trying to save her family’s reputation, she tries to embody the confidence, composure, and strength of her dead mentor, Jasnah Kholin. Her Surgebinding abilities of illusion even more so cause her to question whether she is leading a double life. Is the good that we strive to be all a lie? Something we dress us as that can leave us exposed if someone pulls it off?

[Epic moment where she confronts the trader Tvlakv and demands his aid] Standing before him, feeling radiant in the glow of the flames—towering above him and his grubby machinations—she saw. Expectation wasn’t just about what people expected of you. It was about what you expected of yourself.

[Shallan uses lies to convince a band of deserters to aid her and give them a second chance at a life of honor]
“You are lies and truth,” Pattern said softly. “They transform.”
“What does that mean?” It was hard to sketch with only the light of Salas to see by, but she did her best.
“You spoke of one Surge, earlier,” Pattern said. “Lightweaving, the power of light. But you have something else. The power of transformation.”
“Soulcasting?” Shallan said. “I didn’t Soulcast anyone.”
“Mmmm. And yet, you transformed them. And yet. Mmmm.”

What separates the heroes from the villains? One speech in the night?

“It’s not your fault,” Kaladin said. “I’d rather be like you. I’d rather not have lived the life I have. I would that the world was only full of people like you, Shallan Davar.”
“People who don’t understand pain.”
“Oh, all people understand pain,” Kaladin said. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Its…”
“The sorrow,” Shallan said softly, “of watching a life crumble? Of struggling to grab it and hold on, but feeling hope become stringy sinew and blood beneath your fingers as everything collapses?”
“The sensation– it’s not sorrow, but something deeper– of being broken. Of being crushed so often, and so hatefully, that emotion becomes something you can only wish for. If only you could cry, because then you would feel something. Instead, you feel like nothing. Just… haze and smoke inside. Like you’re already dead.”
He stopped in the chasm
She turned and looked at him. “The crushing guilt,” she said, “of being powerless. Of wishing they’d hurt you instead of those around you. Of screaming and scrambling and hating as those you love are ruined, popped like a boil. And you have to watch their joy seep away while you can’t do anything. They break the ones you love, and not you. And you plead. Can’t you just beat me instead?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
Shallan nodded, holding his eyes. “Yes. It would be nice if nobody in the world knew of those things, Kaladin Stormblessed. I agree. With everything I have.”

Contradictions. Those were what made people real. Jasnah exhausted, yet somehow still strong– stronger, even, because of the vulnerability she revealed. Jasnah terrified, yet also brave, for one allowed the other to exist. Jasnah overwhelmed, yet powerful.

“It frightens me,” Shallan said, “because we all see the world by some kind of light personal to us, and that light changes our perception. I don’t see clearly. I want to, but I don’t know if I ever truly can.”

Sadeas betrayed Dalinar in the last book, and he continues to defy him, waiting for a chance to strike and take the throne. Even when he knows that he is wrong, he blatantly spreads lies to undermine any good Dalinar seeks to come about.

I’ve learned to accept the world as it is, Amaram,” Sadeas said, turning his horse. “That’s something very few people are willing to do. They stumble along, hoping, dreaming, pretending. That doesn’t change a single storming thing in life. You have to stare the world in the eyes, in all its grimy brutality. You have to acknowledge its depravities. Live with them. It’s the only way to accomplish anything meaningful.”

Wit who puts on a facade of cutting humor always leaves a story that inspires the protagonists. I’m still not sure what to make of him, what his role is, but he is quite the philosopher.

“What think you? Can beauty be taken from a man? If he could not touch, taste, smell, hear, see… what if all he knew was pain? Has that man had beauty taken from him?”
“I…” What did this have to do with anything? “Does the pain change day by day?”
“Let us say it does,” the messenger said.
“Then beauty, to that person, would be the times when the pain lessens. Why are you telling me this story?”
The messenger smiled. “To be human is to seek beauty, Shallan. Do not despair, do not end the hunt because thorns grow in your way.”

“Expectation. That is the true soul of art. If you can give a man more than he expects, then he will laud you his entire life. If you can create an air of anticipation and feed it properly, you will succeed.”

Pai is a passing character in an interim chapter, but she has a powerful moment. She cannot accept the hypocrisy of the ruling classes as the low and poor starve and suffer.

Don’t you even wonder?” she asked, staring at those piles of refuse, rain pattering just beyond. “Don’t you stop to think about the cost of your gluttony?”
“Cost?” he asked. “I told you nobody starves because we–“
“I don’t mean the monetary cost,” she whispered. “I mean the spiritual cost. To you, to those around you. Everything’s wrong.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” he said, settling down.
“It is. Lhan, it’s bigger than the queen, and her wasteful feasts. It wasn’t much better before that, with King Gavilar’s hunts and the wars, princedom against princedom. The people hear of the glory of the battle on the Shattered Plains, of the riches there, but none of it ever materializes here.
“Does anyone among the Alethi elite care about the Almighty anymore? Sure, they curse by his name. Sure, they talk about the Heralds, burn glyphwards. But what do they do? Do they change their lives? Do they listen to the Arguments? Do they transform, recasting their souls into something greater, something better?”

Taravangian is the mastermind king of Kharbranth convinced that he is the only way to save humanity, and he must do so by taking over the world by assassination and intrigue. He doesn’t believe in the Almighty, only in the scribbles of a mad version of himself copied down in a book.

“I was smart on that day,” he said. Smart enough that Mrall had declared he needed to be locked in the palace, lest he reveal his nature. He’d been convinced that if he could just explain the condition to the city, they would all listen to reason and let him control their lives perfectly. He’d draft a new law requiring that all people of less than average intelligence be required to commit suicide for the good of the city. It had seemed reasonable. He had considered they might resist, but thought that the brilliance of the argument would sway them

Better that that anything else in this world. Gods and religion had failed them. Kings and highlords were selfish, petty things. If he was going to trust one thing to believe in, it would be himself and the raw genius of a human mind unfettered.

Amaram is convinced that he is carrying out the will of the murdered king Gavilar to save humanity, and it willing to do anything to see it through. He is willing to kill innocents and hide it all to maintain his image, and he does it without a twinge of regret.

“I did it,” Amaram said, “and I would do it again. The Voidbringers will soon return, and we must be strong enough to face them. That means practiced, accomplished Shardbearers. In sacrificing a few of my soldiers, I planned to save many more.”
“Lies!” Kaladin said, stumbling forward. “You just wanted the Blade for yourself.”
Amaram looked Kaladin in the eyes. “I am sorry for what I did to you and yours. Sometimes, good men must die so that greater goals may be accomplished.”
Kaladin felt a gathering chill, a numbness that spread from his heart outward.
He’s telling the truth, he though. He… honestly believes that he did the right thing.

Elhokar is the king who can’t seem to do anything right. His subjects and his highprinces all see him as weak. He constantly lives in the shadow of his uncle, Dalinar. And yet he is actually trying.

“How did you know,” the king asked him, “how to be a hero?”
“Your Majesty?” Kaladin asked, sagging against his crutch.
“A hero,” the king said, waving flippantly. “Everyone loves you, bridgeman. You saved Dalinar, you fought Shardbearers, you came back after falling into the storming chasms! How do you do it? How do you know?”
“It’s really just luck, your Majesty.”
“No, no,” the king said. He began pacing. “It’s a pattern, though I can’t figure it out. When I try to be strong, I make a fool of myself. When I try to be merciful, people walk all over me. When I try to listen to counsel, it turns out I’ve picked the wrong men!” When I try to do everything on my own, Dalinar has to take over lest I ruin the kingdom.”

Szeth was banished by his people for claiming the Voidbringers were returning, which his people absolutely rejected. He was told he was Truthless, and he was doomed to obey whoever held his Oathstone. But when he finds out that he was right, his whole world collapses. All the murders he performed for others had all been done in vain. And he nearly goes mad.

“You were banished by petty men with no vision. I will teach you the path of one uncorrupted by sentiment. You will bring back to your people, and you will carry with you justice for the leaders of the Shin.”
Szeth opened his eyes and looked up. “I am not worthy.”
Nin cocked his head. “You? Not worthy? I watched you destroy yourself in the name of order, watched you obey your personal code when others would have fled or crumbled. Szeth-son-Neturo, I watched you keep your word to perfection. This is a thing lost to most people– it is the only genuine beauty in the world. I doubt I have ever found a man more worthy of the Skybreakers than you.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: