Greetings, Cosmere Chickens! Are you ready for some SWORD FIGHTING? (I’m always ready for some sword fighting, personally.) This week is a Sarene chapter, and boy oh boy is it chock-full of meaty stuff to dig into. Fair warning (as you can see by the trigger warning below), we will be touching on some… shall we say, touchy subjects regarding how women are viewed and treated, not only in Arelon, but in our modern society as well. I’d beg you to remember that we’re never speaking in absolutes; it’s possible to recognize the disparities and realities of sexism and misogyny while also understanding that not every man is a thrall to the machine. With that said, let’s dive in, shall we?
(Non-)Spoiler warning: This week’s article has no spoilers from other Cosmere works. Read on fearlessly, chickens!
Trigger warnings: Misogyny
Last time on Elantris: Alliances of Anger and Aspirations
Hrathen meets Duke Telrii on the walls of Elantris and promises him the throne if he helps with Hrathen’s plans to overthrow the current government (hopefully peacefully). He also cuts a deal with the Elantris City Guard to bring him any runaways for “experimentation…”
Meanwhile in Elantris, Raoden finds another ally in Aanden.
POV Character(s): Sarene
“Well, you didn’t really expect us to fight in dresses, did you?”
L: As someone who does exactly that every weekend, I feel called out.
P: Not that I wear dresses, but I couldn’t imagine ever fighting while wearing one!
L: Honestly it’s not as bad as you’d think, depending on the type of dress, of course. But I could go on about this all day if you let me, and we’ve got more chapter to dig into!
Sarene’s clothing and actions might have mortified them, but their hunger for independence was greater than their indignation.
L: I’m 100% here for the Kae Suffragette Movement.
P: Same! I’m all for them developing a little independence, and learning how to fight!
“Fencing skipped Arelon, where the Elantrians frowned upon anything resembling combat…”
L: Hmm, well that’s an interesting little tidbit. Was it just because they were trying to craft a peaceful utopia, or did the Elantrians maybe have something to fear from people learning martial skills? The world may never know…
She considered herself a decent fencer, but it had never occurred to her that having knowledge was entirely different from explaining that knowledge to others.
L: Oh yes. Having a skill and having to teach a skill are two very, very different things!
P: This is so true. I like to think I know a lot, but teaching others is beyond me. I don’t know how the new person I trained at work is actually competent at her job! Like, did I do that?
This time is different, Sarene. If you fail, you won’t lose a trade contract or building rights. You’ll lose lives. The lives of real people. The thought was sobering.
L: Interestingly, this is exactly what Hrathen’s been struggling with. It’s just taken Sarene longer to get to the same conclusion. While smart as all heck, she’s also naive. Hrathen’s got the edge in age and wisdom for sure.
P: She may think she’s an old maid at 25, but she is quite young and inexperienced. Still, I’m glad she eventually got there. If only she knew Hrathen’s thoughts.
L: Yeah, if the two of them ever sat down and had a detailed, open communication I wonder how different this book might have been…
Lord Shuden stood near the back of the room. His eyes were closed as he moved slowly through a delicate set of motions. His taut muscles rippled as his hands spun in controlled loops, his body flowing in response. Even though his motions were slow and precise, there was sweat glistening on his skin.
It was like a dance.
L: Reminds me vividly of Tai Chi. Many fantasy novels adapt katas and kung fu forms for their books, such as The Wheel of Time. And who can blame them? It’s such a beautiful art form.
P: That’s precisely what I thought of, as well. Primarily, Adolin and Lan.
Sarene let the moment hang before mumbling, “Merciful Domi. Now I’ll never get them to focus.”
P: For all his talk of not wanting to draw attention, he sure knows how to draw attention!
Arelon was quickly becoming a nation of fervent, even terrified commercialism. Success no longer brought only wealth, and failure no longer only poverty—income determined just how close one was to being sold into slavery in all but name.
L: An absolutely terrifying thought.
P: And a despicable way to run a country. Seriously disgusting.
Other than his strikingly blue eyes, the only color on his body was a jade Korathi pendant at his neck, carved in the shape of Aon Omi.
L: Aon alert! According to the Coppermind, “Aon Omi is a common root in Arelene words such as affection, care, passion, piety, zeal, and loyalty.”
The severity of a widow’s Trial is an expression of how important she thought her union, and how much she respected her husband.
L: All sorts of ways a savvy socialite could use this to her advantage… and Sarene’s definitely that!
P: I can’t wait to get to where she actually begins. Though IIRC, it’s rather disastrous at first.
L: I remember what she does, but not the disastrous bit so I’m excited to have my memory refreshed.
“Sometimes we must fall, sometimes we will rise—some must be hurt while others have fortune, for that is the only way we can learn to rely on one another. As one is blessed, it is his privilege to help those whose lives are not as easy. Unity often springs from strife, child.”
L: This is hauntingly beautiful, and a better explanation for “why do bad things happen to good people” than any I’ve ever heard.
P: I do like Father Omin.
“Oh, Father, you could never see it. To you I was a delight—your beautiful, intelligent daughter. No one would dare tell you what they really thought of me.”
“What are you talking about?” he demanded, now speaking with the voice of a king.
“Father,” Sarene said, “I am twenty-five years old, and I am blunt, conniving, and ofttimes offensive. You must have noticed that no man ever sought my hand […]
The truth of the matter is, no man wants an intelligent wife.”
L: In a patriarchal society, this is often the case. Our modern world has come a long way, but we’re not immune to this mindset even now, in some cases. As long as women in positions of power are labeled as “aggressive” while their male peers are “displaying strong leadership,” as long as the wage gap is still as wide as it is… we still have a long way to go. Thankfully not as far as poor Sarene, though.
P: She definitely faces a steep incline when it comes to equality—something I could envision her working to level for years to come.
They say they give their women more freedom, but there’s still the impression that the freedom was theirs to ‘give’ in the first place.
L: OOF. Paige, you know… When I first read this (gods alone know how long ago) I remember being somewhat bored with Sarene’s chapters and constantly wanting to get back to Raoden. But now? I appreciate her so, so much more.
P: I adored her from the get-go! Her snark, her wit, her strength. This was the first of Brandon’s books I read and it was so vastly different from any fantasy I’d ever read. I know we’ve seen strong female characters… Polgara, Ce’Nedra, Moiraine, the Two Rivers girls, and others… but Sarene spoke to me.
L: For a long time in fantasy fiction (primarily in the ’80s and earlier) it did feel like female characters were pigeonholed into the maiden, mother, warrior, or crone slots, and little else. We’ve come a long way in this respect as well, and Brandon’s particularly good at showing a wide range of feminine characters who display their strength in many different ways.
“Should I chase after rumors of lands beyond the impenetrable mountains north of Teod? No, there is no one for me now, Father. The best I can do is make use of my situation here.”
L: How incredibly sad. Sarene’s pretty down to earth, not a die-hard romantic chasing after love in all the wrong (or right) places, but she has displayed some moments of longing for what could have been with Raoden. To have that possibility of a husband who truly loved her FOR her intellect (rather than in spite of it) ripped from her, only to leave her with no other options… what a blow. I really respect her for continuing on.
P: This! She’s adopted Arelon and is actively trying to save it, where I would think that many women would shy away from the task.
“Sending spies to Fjorden these days is almost the same as sending them to die.” […]
“I have to. What we find could end up saving thousands, though that doesn’t make it any easier.”
L: Sounds familiar to Hrathen’s reasoning, as we discussed last week, doesn’t it?
P: It really does. The good of the many, again.
“A king’s duty is to protect his people. When faced with the choice of conversion or letting my people be destroyed, I think I would have to choose conversion.”
L: Certainly not a decision I’d ever want to have to make!
P: Especially when the religion they’d be forced to convert to is so despicable.
Convert or die—both options were sickening, but conversion was obviously the more logical choice. However, a quiet voice inside her argued that it was worth dying, if death would prove that truth was more powerful than physical strength.
L: Easy to make that decision for yourself, Sarene. But could you make it for everyone else in the kingdom? For the wives, the elderly, and the children? Could you condemn them all to death rather than a peaceful conversion? I don’t think it would be such an easy decision.
P: Oh, merciful Domi… It would be a horrible decision to make. I get sticking to your guns but you’re so right—she has so many other people to consider.
“The official reports claim that the sinkings are the work of pirates, some remnant of Dreok Crushthroat’s fleet.
L: There’s a mention of Uncle Kiin’s past! (He was Crushthroat.)
P: Did I know this? I don’t think I knew this! ::boggled::
Not all men wanted a stupid wife—but there also weren’t a lot of men who felt comfortable around a woman they assumed was their intellectual superior.
L: I think this is still true for a good percentage of the cishet male population. Not all by any means, but many men are intimidated by a woman who’s more intelligent than they are.
P: Oh, I know this for a fact from personal experience, unfortunately.
Her self-recrimination was interrupted by a noise. It didn’t come from the hallway or window, however, but from inside her room. She sat up with a start, breath catching in her throat as she prepared to flee. Only then did she realize it wasn’t coming from her room, but from the wall beside her room. She frowned in confusion. There weren’t any rooms on the other side; she was at the very edge of the palace.
L: Oooooh. And just who’s sneaking around in the secret passages in the castle, hmmm?
P: Yeah, this really raised my hackles. Who’s being sneaksy?
We’ll be leaving further speculation and discussion to you in the comments, and hope to join you there! Next week, we’ll be back with chapter eighteen.
Paige resides in New Mexico, of course. Between work and school and the SA5 beta read, she’s trying to work on book 3 of a YA/Crossover trilogy with just a hint of the supernatural. Read book 1 on her Patreon. Links to that and to her other writing are available in her profile.
Lyndsey lives in Connecticut and makes magic wands for a living, as well as working as the costumer for two of her local Renaissance Faires. If you enjoy queer protagonists, snarky humor, and don’t mind some salty language, check out book 1 of her fantasy series. Follow her on Facebook or TikTok!