Revisiting the Wheel of Time: The Great Hunt
On the assumption that I would be halfway out of my tree on Vicodin, I decided to spend this past weekend reading The Great Hunt, as part of my revisiting the Wheel of Time project.
In retrospect, I find it ironic that this is the book which got me interested in the series (after I’d bounced off the first volume), because I don’t think it’s nearly as well-executed. But I can spot the things that probably hooked me, and despite me remembering this as the Book of God I Hate Mat, he isn’t nearly as prominent in the story as I thought. So anyway, onward to the analysis, starting with some thoughts on how and why the series started to grow so large.
(Kind of like this post . . . .)
I think I can see the structure this was originally supposed to have, back when Jordan pitched a trilogy to Tor. The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn; that last one sounds like a final book, so I’m going to guess those were the original titles. In which case, the big events ending the volumes were, respectively, the confrontation at the Eye, the use of the Horn to call the heroes back, and the Last Battle itself. (I would have expected TGH to be about the finding of the Horn, and save its actual use for TDR, except that Jordan just hands it to them at the end of TEotW. So he must have always intended for the “Great Hunt” to be chasing the the theft of the Horn, rather than its discovery.)
I don’t know when exactly he changed his mind about the series length, but he must have done so by the time he got halfway through TGH, because this is when he starts introducing major new material for later use. I think it’s Thom who brings up Callandor and the Stone of Tear — the plot of the third book — and Urien makes a cameo solely to bring up Rhuidean and He Who Comes With the Dawn — the plot of the fourth book. Those elements are too big to be knocked off in a few pages on the way to Tarmon Gai’don. The interesting question is, why?
TGH came out ten months after TEotW, so we can say with a fair degree of confidence that it wasn’t a matter of “wow, that first book sold really well; we’ve got something profitable here.” My sense, based on the way TGH operates, is that Jordan just wanted to explore his world more. The Aes Sedai and prophecies and so on were enough to support a trilogy on their own, but he had also thought up the Aiel and the Sea Folk and the Tinkers and maybe the Seanchan were in his mind from the start, too, plus the Forsaken and the Black Ajah and more besides, and three novels just weren’t enough to delve into all those different corners. I say this because of the way Jordan takes his time in this book: the Egwene-and-Nynaeve side of the story enjoys a leisurely pace between Fal Dara and Liandrin spiriting them out of the Tower. Stuff happens, but it’s stuff exploring saidar and the structure of the Aes Sedai, which is interesting but not necessary to the forward movement of the plot. We’re not yet to the abysmal pacing of the later books; this is, for my money, still in the “feature not bug” territory of epic fantasy, that it can and will take the time to flesh out the world it’s presenting, rather than hurrying on to the next Event.
And I think that may be part of why this book hooked me, when TEotW didn’t. There were a lot of factors; this time I was paying attention, and I knew there was a glossary, and I had friends to geek with, all of which helps. But I was struck, on this re-read, by the depth the story acquires when the pov shifts to Moiraine in her conversation with the Amyrlin: suddenly the world opens up. She isn’t a rural bumpkin just beginning to learn about the bigger picture; she’s a savvy politician, talking to another savvy politician, and their conversation moves the story from “follow the dotted line” questing to a more complex footing. Add in the fact that Egwene and Nynaeve get their own strand of the plot, complete with nifty worldbuilding, and I think I see why I started to get interested.
Having said that . . . this book has problems. For one thing, this time around I think the male characters come off worse than the female ones. The women haven’t yet all turned into the same person, and while we start to get the squicky bdsm motifs with them — plus more of the “if a woman convinces a man to do something, it’s bullying” notion — they manage to have their own agendas and do competent things and on the whole don’t suck. The guys, on the other hand, do suck. Rand finally gets told, on page 108, that he’s the Dragon Reborn, and promptly commences 470 pages (just counting this book) of insisting that he isn’t. Perrin goes around angsting about wolves. Mat is at least partially excused on account of Evil Dagger, but is bitchy about Rand’s attempt to drive his friends away, and doesn’t stop being bitchy for, like, the next five books. And they all do some truly stupid things, Rand’s interactions with Selene being among the worst.
(And can I just mention how much I hate Selene? Lanfear should have been awesome. Instead she’s a hosebeast. Such a disappointment. Also, does she use the Power to shave her legs or something? Because Jordan keeps going on about how smooth they are.)
Speaking of characters I don’t like, good gravy, Padan Fain. I don’t know anybody who likes him. And I don’t even know why, unless maybe it’s that he was set up for a role that doesn’t sustain itself well over more than a dozen books — correct me if I’m wrong, but as of Crossroads of Twilight I think he’s still alive, yes? My assumption is that Jordan intended him to kind of be a Gollum figure, but Fain’s various disappearances and reappearances start to seem annoying when they go on for book after book after book. I just want him to die already. But I’ve never found villains to be Jordan’s strong point anyway; as it says in my notes for TGH, “Repetitive Ba’alzamon is repetitive.” Seriously, he reminds me of Baltar and Six in the first season of Battlestar Galactica: constantly showing up, but always doing more or less the same thing as before, and not really moving the plot forward. I wonder, but don’t really know, whether Ba’alzamon was always supposed to be Ishamael with delusions of grandeur, or if Jordan retconned that round about this book, deciding to save the actual Dark One for later. Either way, his schtick is getting old.
Other problematic character things: our five little Emond’s Fielders kind of have the Mary Sue thing going on. They’re all awesome at whatever they do; three are super-powerful channelers, Nynaeve picks up any trick she sees on the first try, Mat’s got amazing luck, Rand turns into a blademaster after a month of training, etc. And Jordan just can’t resist the aura of nobility, either. Where I left off reading, aside from Rand being the Dragon Reborn and all the rest of it, Mat was a kickass general and married to the heir of the Seanchan empire, Perrin was the Lord of Manetheren, Egwene was the Amyrlin Seat, and Nynaeve was the uncrowned Queen of Malkier. Even before they pick up all those titles, though, everybody thinks Rand’s a lord, no matter how much he insists otherwise. Why? Apparently he just seems noble. And we’re given no explanation why — except the unspoken implication that blood will out. He’s descended from Aiel clan chiefs on one side, and the royal line of Andor on the other; clearly that makes him inherently awesome.
I don’t want to rag unceasingly on the characters, though, because this book has some touches I actually like. Verin’s fairly cool; let’s face it, if I were dropped into Randland and made an Aes Sedai, I’d totally be a Brown. I like the friendship between Rand and Lan, and the relationship between Lan and Nynaeve, because in both cases it seems to be built on a foundation of mutual respect. I also like the scene we get between Moiraine and Lan, because it hints at a greater depth of history between characters than we usually get in this series. Lan actually seems to be the common denominator of most of the relationships I like, here. Sadly, those first two kind of fall by the wayside until, oh, Winter’s Heart or so, and since as of where I stopped reading Moiraine still hadn’t shown up again, we don’t get much more of the third, either.
Thinking in structural terms again, the trick with the Portal Stone is interesting. This strikes me as Jordan killing two birds with one, uh, stone. First of all, if he wants to explore his whole geographical canvas, he’s got to cut down on the travel time; TEotW sets up the Ways, but if he leaned on those too much then Machin Shin would stop being remotely scary. The references to Traveling in TGH suggest he knew he’d be going there eventually, but also knew this was too early to let the protagonists do something so impressive. Portal Stones let him solve that problem while tossing in some neat character-building what-ifs. Second, he needs Egwene and Nynaeve (and Elayne also, I suppose) to build their skill with saidar, and while he puts them all on an accelerated schedule to begin with, they still need time to improve. So he uses the Ways to get the girls out to Toman Head, while using the Portal Stones to forcibly time-lapse the guys. It’s a bit clumsy, perhaps, but it gets the job done.
On the topic of clumsiness . . . I have very mixed feelings about the rhetoric that gets used for the Pattern. On the one hand, I like how it screws over the characters’ plans: Moiraine lays out to Siuan exactly what she intends to have happen (Rand will take the Horn to Illian, declare himself the Dragon Reborn, get started in style), and then absolutely none of it happens. On the other hand, you get statements like this one, from Verin:
“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills [. . .] With ta’veren, what happens is what was meant to happen. It may be the Pattern demanded these extra days. The Pattern puts everything in its place precisely, and when we try to alter it, especially if ta’veren are involved, the weaving changes to put us back into the Pattern as we were meant to be.”
Which bugs me. It feels like an explicit statement on Jordan’s part, that he can arrange any sort of narrative contrivance he wants and we’re not allowed to call him on it, because it’s built into the metaphysics of the setting. Then, a little later, Rand’s perspective gives us this:
There was an odd feeling in his head, as if the pieces of his life were in danger. Egwene was one piece, one thread of the cord that made his life, but there were others, and he could feel them threatened. Down there, in Falme. And if any of those threads was destroyed, his life would never be complete, the way it was meant to be.
We know, because Ba’alzamon specifically tried to take out Egwene and Nynaeve, that they’re critically important to “saving” Rand in the long run. Also, Min and Elayne are down there, and it’s hammered pretty hard in this book that the two of them (plus Aviendha) will be sharing Rand, so he’s got a lot of threatened threads in Falme. But I’m bothered by the statement that his life is “meant to be” a particular way — and then bothered again by the contradiction between this and what Verin said. There are some passing mentions to the effect that the Shadow lies on the Pattern, and therefore all predestination bets are off, but I feel too much like Jordan’s trying to have his cake and eat it, too.
I should mention, though — because I brought it up in the post for TEoTW — I’d forgotten that Mat is the one who blows the Horn. Which is at least one instance of the “three ta’veren instead of one” thing coming into play. I’m still not sure what caused that, though, or where it’s ultimately going.
A few smaller notes, in closing. First, since I said the prologue of TEotW was effective, I should take a moment to contrast it with the one here. TGH likewise tries to provide us with a character and a scene, but the conflict is lacking, and Jordan tries to be way too coy, hiding information he should be sharing, and not doing nearly enough with the scene. All we really get is that Ba’alzamon isn’t dead (surprise, surprise), there are Darkfriends among various groups (ditto), and they’re being set to hunt the boys (oh I’m so very shocked). And Jordan spends twelve pages telling us this. Not worth the effort, in my opinion.
Second, and by contrast, there are lots of little touches I do like. The terms “gentling” and “stilling” are quite effective, especially the former; it has echoes of castration that are very appropriate. The Seanchan setup with the damane is suitably horrific; the revelation of sul’dam also being channelers is both logical and cool. I also approve of the test for Accepted, with the silver-arches ter’angreal. And, since I forgot to mention it last book, I’ve always liked the chapter symbols: they’re tiny bits of foreshadowing, and fun to play guessing games with.
Discussion welcomed; other entries here. And in a month or two, I’ll be back with The Dragon Reborn (aka the Book of Hey Mat Stopped Sucking).