How ‘Oathbringer’ (2017) Failed Shallan Davar

Oathbringer, Brandon Sanderson’s third gargantuan book in the planned ten-book fantasy epic “The Stormlight Archives,” came out near the end of November of 2017. While I don’t read as much classical fantasy as I used to, Sanderson’s work tends to be inventive, epic, and compulsively readable – I think I read his Mistborn trilogy in a single sublimely relaxing weekend – and Oathbringer is no exception. And while there are plenty of things to discuss with the book, both good and bad, this is a blog about love, sex, and relationships, so I’m going to focus a bit. What I want to talk about is the book’s treatment of its main female character, Shallan Davar, and how a mistake in framing an internal conflict can accidentally send some mixed signals.

For some background: In the world of Roshar, the kingdom of Alethkar are at war against the Parshendi, a nomadic race the Alethi use as slaves, to avenge the Parshendi assassination of the Alethi king years ago. The two groups have been locked in a brutal stalemate for years on the Shattered Plains, a hellish wasteland of plateaus and chasms that makes combat a nightmare. It looks like the fighting may never end. But on both sides, ancient secrets are bubbling back to the surface. Alethi general Dalinar Kholin is plagued by strange visions; Shallan Davar, a minor noble from a small nation looking to marry rich and save her family, finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy; and Kaladin, a brutalized human slave, begins to exhibit strange abilities that just might turn the tide of the battle.

In the series’ highpoint thus far, Words of Radiance, background player Shallan Davar took center stage in a way that took the book in fascinating new directions. Shallan is an artist with a troubled past – an abusive homelife that led to a moment of violence that has shaped her to this day – who came to be the ward of Jasnah Kholin, a renowned heritic and sister to the sitting king. Initially, she sought to save her family from ruin by their abusive father, but throughout The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, she slowly realizes that she has a part to play in the resurrection of an ancient order of heroes known as the Knights Radiant and their battle against a recurring calamity known as the Desolation. The second book found Shallan battling her timidity and uncertainty in the face of these much more powerful nobles while also having to come to terms with her role in a family tragedy that haunts her to this day. It was a complex and memorable character arc that solidified Shallan as my favorite character in a series with an… expansive cast, we’ll say.

Unfortunately, the third book, Oathbringer, doesn’t entirely live up to the second when it comes to Shallan. On its face, this makes sense; Dalinar Kholin is the main character of this one, which means that Shallan has to take a bit of a backseat. I’m actually okay with that. But the question becomes, how should she take a back seat. To discuss my issues with Shallan’s arc here, I’m going to change pace for just a moment.

Kaladin’s arc continues each book to be about the evolution of his ideals as a Windrunner. In The Way of Kings, his point-of-view book, he discovered those ideals. He took a step back in Words of Radiance, but his arc was still fundamentally about the evolution of those ideals, as he was asked to protect a man he despised. His vow – called an ‘Ideal’ – is what gives him his power, and it forced him to choose between being a Windrunner or getting revenge; he could not do both. This was a fairly meaty conflict, and it continued in Oathbringer, as his recently made Third Ideal – “I will protect even those I hate, so long as it is right.” – was tested as he spent time with the Voidbringers and realized that, by and large, they were people just like his own, trying to survive and not particularly looking for war. In a way, Kaladin’s Ideals give his story, even when he is a background figure, a strong structure that keeps it compelling.

Shallan, however, is a Lightweaver. She doesn’t make Ideals in the way Kaladin does, so there is less of a natural backbone to her arc. That said, Sanderson hit on an interesting idea: As an illusionist, she has the unique ability to get almost completely lost in her own lies and identities. This pairs well with the trauma brought up in Words of Radiance, where she came to realize her part in the abusive mess of a family relationship that had sent her on this journey to begin with. Her powers are intimately linked with the death of her mother, who tried to kill her as a child, and the trauma of this realization often causes her to subsume her guilt and self-loathing within a series of increasingly intricate identities. She’s losing herself.

This is actually really good stuff, in my opinion. Like Kaladin, it’s a slightly smaller conflict than in her point-of-view book, but one that is tied to her powers and the unique challenges they represent. And it provides a unique challenge. Kaladin’s story runs the risk of becoming repetitive, a sequence of samey power-ups, where Shallan’s more formless, internal conflict opens a lot of potentially interesting doors. Where Oathbringer runs into trouble for me is in the way Sanderson decides to represent Shallan’s search for identities: As a love triangle.

Now, on its surface, this is a pretty typical usage of a love triangle, and I can see why Sanderson chose to use it. Love triangles are often used in stories to indicate a character conflict, typically with each person in the triangle representing a choice the character has to make. Do they want stability or passion? Do they want safety or adventure? Do they want respectability or love? The love triangle itself is an external representation of an internal conflict.

Oathbringer does things a little differently. Essentially, Oathbringer breaks Shallan into three semi-distinct personas: Radiant, Veil, and Shallan. Radiant is a persona explicitly crafted to appeal to her betrothed, Adolin Kholin, and walk comfortably in his world; Veil, her more rough-and-tumble, streetwise identity, begins to develop feelings, of a sort, for former slave turned soldier, Kaladin. The way love triangles typically work, then, the choice is: Does she want to be Radiant, or Veil — that is, does she want the upper-class responsibility and power, or the fun and freedom of Veil’s hard-drinking tavern life. But that’s not where the book goes. The core of her arc here is not about which man she will wind up with, but about which identity will prove dominant. In other words, it’s not about picking either lifestyle, but about finding her own self-worth divorced from them both.

But here’s where I think Oathbringer runs into a problem: By framing it as a choice between two men, each of whom is represented by one of the personas, any choice she makes automatically¬† becomes a victory for that persona (and what it represents), rather than the reclamation of her own self worth. To his credit, Sanderson seems to recognize this, and has a last-minute twist where one of the personas changes her mind, allowing Shallan to defy both and still make a choice… but this really does kind of come out of nowhere, a last-minute fix that papers over the issue without really resolving it. The framing of the question necessitates a rejection of the options as presented, but the book doesn’t go there.

As a quick note, it is possible that I’m wrong, and that Sanderson doesn’t intend for Shallan’s decision to be a victory for Shallan, but rather an example of her being further subsumed by her identities. I don’t think there’s much evidence for that in this book, however, and I don’t think that’s Sanderson’s intention. In a way, this is a standard disclaimer when discussing an interpretation of a series in progress… but in part, this is the natural outcome of the confusion created by method chosen to tell this story.

Now, this is mostly a fairly minor quibble in a book I largely quite liked, but I do think it’s worth considering the way we contemplate and frame internal conflicts differently for men and for women. Sanderson is a sharp writer and “The Stormlight Archives” have, thus far, been a big, epic blast, and one I highly recommend to readers looking for an old-school fantasy series that’s willing to pair its enormous action setpieces with equally large ethical considerations about imperialism, violence, and honor. But in Oathbringer, I admit that I was a little disappointed that he took one of the series’ most complex and fascinating characters and reduced a fairly profound internal conflict into a love triangle that doesn’t even work as a proxy for the story Sanderson ostensibly wanted to tell. It’s not just down to issues of gender in storytelling, but also clarity of storytelling. Oathbringer does a lot of strong character work, but with Shallan, the book slips up.

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