Broken oaths and dead gods: Book review of Sanderson’s Oathbringer

I finished Oathbringer in between camping trips during my short summer break, and I’m writing this on our camping trip to Crater Lakes National Park early enough in the morning that everyone else is asleep. Many of my friends praised Oathbringer to the skies considering it the best of the Stormlight Archives novels. I was skeptical, and chalked it mostly up to the fact it was the most recent one they read. But now having read it, it is pretty darn good.

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I won’t give any spoilers in this review, but I will hint at some overarching themes as usual. I will also refer to events from previous books, so in that case, there could very well be spoilers. While discussing Oathbringer with a friend of mine prior to my reading it, he remarked that each of the three main characters (Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan) and possibly a few others could technically be described in modern parlance as having a mental illness. This is already apparent in the previous books, but becomes increasingly obvious in Oathbringer. This is a very interesting aspect of the books that I find very empowering. Sure, most heroes deal with challenges and have to overcome obstacles, but heroes still are often portrayed as heroic and a little too “shiny” so to speak. Each character here is deeply flawed and scarred, and yet they do heroic things.

One major theme throughout Oathbringer that was present in Words of Radiance and The Way of Kings, and is present in the title, is oaths, covenants, or promises. The mechanics of a Radiant bonding to a spren involves taking an oath, the first of which is “Journey before destination.” But much of the character development and plot revolves around how humans are imperfect and cannot fully keep their oaths:

I respect all oaths, the Stormfather responded.
“What about foolish oaths? Made in haste, or in ignorance?”
There are no foolish oaths. All are the mark of men and true spren over beasts and subspren. The mark of intelligence, free will, and choice.

“That is true,” Ico said. “You are all human—and so none of you, regardless of birth, can be trusted with oaths. A contract to travel, this is fine. But humans will betray trust if it is given to them.” The spren frowned, then seemed to grow embarrassed, glancing away. “That was rude.”
“Rudeness doesn’t necessarily imply untruth though.”
“I did not mean an insult, regardless. You are not to be blamed. Betraying oaths is simply your nature, as a human.”

The ancient Radiants didn’t abandon their oaths out of pettiness. They tried to protect the world. I blame them for their weakness, their broken oaths. But I also understand. You have cursed me, human, with this capacity.

In the third book, much of the Sanderson’s cosmology is fleshed out a lot more. You get hints in books one and two, such as the ten Heralds, the betrayal of the Radiants in an event called the Recreance, and the repeated Desolations that occur throughout human history. But Sanderson only reveals it in bits and pieces, often including mysterious scenes with little explanation of what is going on. The most blatant example is Chapter 1 of the first book, which documents a mysterious conversation among apparently divine beings and their betrayal of one of their own as they condemn him to Damnation. Oathbringer brings many of the pieces together, but I’m sure Sanderson has left plenty unsaid to fill in in future books as well. His back story of the Heralds oddly reminded me of a theological discussion by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamasov: what if your perfect utopia depended upon the constant torture of a single child? This is the critique of Christianity and faith in general by Ivan:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

Also on the theology/cosmology thread, and continuing from the previous two books, Sanderson confronts deep theological issues by centering the conflict around the death of God. Honor, the Almighty, the God that the people of Roshar worship, was killed in the distant past by the evil God Odium (if you didn’t know this, you haven’t read the previous books. Otherwise, oops! Surprise). What are the consequences of spreading such knowledge? Much of this conflict centers around Dalinar, the de facto king of the Alethi, and an extended debate between him and his ardent (priest), fleshes out many of these thorny issues. My favorite is an allegory Dalinar uses to illustrate the weakness of relying entirely on tradition:

“Don’t throw out everything we’ve believed because of a few dreams, Dalinar,” Kadash said. “What of our society, what of tradition?”
“Tradition?” Dalinar said. “Kadash, did I ever tell you about my first sword trainer?”
“No,” Kadash said, frowning, glancing at the other ardents. “Was it Rembrinor?”
Dalinar shook his head. “Back when I was young, our branch of the Kholin family didn’t have grand monasteries and beautiful practice grounds. My father found a teacher for me from two towns over. His name was Harth. Young fellow, not a true swordmaster—but good enough.
“He was very focused on proper procedure, and wouldn’t let me train until I’d learned how to put on a takama the right way.” Dalinar gestured at the takama shirt he was wearing. “He wouldn’t have stood for me fighting like this. You put on the skirt, then the overshirt, then you wrap your cloth belt around yourself three times and tie it.
“I always found that annoying. The belt was too tight, wrapped three times—you had to pull it hard to get enough slack to tie the knot. The first time I went to duels at a neighboring town, I felt like an idiot. Everyone else had long drooping belt ends at the front of their takamas.
“I asked Harth why we did it differently. He said it was the right way, the true way. So, when my travels took me to Harth’s hometown, I searched out his master, a man who had trained with the ardents in Kholinar. He insisted that this was the right way to tie a takama, as he’d learned from his master.”
By now, they’d drawn an even larger crowd. Kadash frowned. “And the point?”
“I found my master’s master’s master in Kholinar after we captured it,” Dalinar said. “The ancient, wizened ardent was eating curry and flatbread, completely uncaring of who ruled the city. I asked him. Why tie your belt three times, when everyone else thinks you should do it twice?
“The old man laughed and stood up. I was shocked to see that he was terribly short. ‘If I only tie it twice,’ he exclaimed, ‘the ends hang down so low, I trip!’ ”
The chamber fell silent. Nearby, one soldier chuckled, but quickly cut himself off—none of the ardents seemed amused.
“I love tradition,” Dalinar said to Kadash. “I’ve fought for tradition. I make my men follow the codes. I uphold Vorin virtues. But merely being tradition does not make something worthy, Kadash. We can’t just assume that because something is old it is right.”

Another theme throughout the books that is linked to the concept of oaths and broken oaths is taking personal responsibility for your actions. How do you overcome guilt for past mistakes? Do you drown them in drink? Do you try to forget them by pursuing a favorite past time? Do you try to find a scapegoat and hand someone else the blame? Many of Sanderson’s characters are weighed down by extreme amounts of guilt, and their character comes out by how they deal with it. This discussion seemed very relevant today, where I would say many are trying to find something to blame for their guilt. Men can’t be blamed for their circumstances, their genes, how they were raised, etc. It is even popular today to deny the existence of free will, portraying it as an illusion. How can man be responsible for his actions if he can’t truly choose?

Szeth, the Assassin in White, seeks to follow his personal creed to the T. But now without a sense of what is right or just, he seeks someone out who, to him, appears righteous and just:
“I serve Dalinar Kholin. I cann’t know truth, so I follow one who does.”

Amaram: “I hurt, once. Did you know that? After I was forced to kill your squad, I… hurt. Until I realized. It wasn’t my fault. None of this is my fault.”

Amaram: “I made you! I forged you!”
Kaladin: “Ten spears go to battle, and nine shatter. Did that war forge the one that remained? No Amaram. All the war did was identify the spear that would not break.”

Kaladin: “The oaths are about perception, Syl. You confirmed that. The only thing that matters is whether or not we are confident that we’re obeying our principles. If we lose that confidence, then dropping the armor and weapons is only a formality.”

Kaladin: “I know how it feels.”
Teft: “Aye. I suppose you do. But isn’t it supposed to feel better? The longing for my moss is still storming there.”
Kaladin: “It doesn’t change us, Teft. We’re still who we are.”
Teft: “Damnation.”

Another excellent book and exercise in philosophy.

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