Revisiting the Wheel of Time: The Dragon Reborn
In my anecdotal experience, there’s a distinct cadre of people who stopped reading this series at The Dragon Reborn, on the grounds that “I could tell it was never going to end.” While that turned out to be rather prophetic, I don’t think it had to be; as of TDR, there was no obvious reason to believe the series wouldn’t be, say, five or six books total, instead of the fourteen-and-a-prequel we’re getting in the end. While long, that isn’t endless.
But I think the people who made comments to that effect were onto something, even if it wasn’t quite the something they articulated. Namely, not only did this book establish that clearly this wasn’t a trilogy (which was what most people probably expected), it transformed the work as a whole into a very odd beast: an open-ended arc plot series.
Most open-ended series are done on an episodic model: the characters may grow and change over time, but there isn’t a metaplot trending toward a definite endpoint. (Mystery series exemplify this type.) Conversely, series with metaplots and defined endpoints usually have a planned length — think Harry Potter — even if that planned length changes in the execution — think Martin. But TDR sends the clear message that, while we’re still heading for Tarmon Gai’don, the length of the journey is now anybody’s guess, Jordan’s included. It won’t be four books; will it be five? Six? Nine? Who knows.
The problem with this is that it pretty much sacrifices structure on the spot. A trilogy is a well-recognized structure in fantasy; experienced readers will have a sense of when the action is going to rise and fall, and take delight in (successful) variations from that pattern. Quartets and quintets and so on are less familiar, so reader expectation plays less of a role, but there’s still something guiding the author. The number, whatever it is, provides a standard by which to judge when the plot should be allowed to branch, and when it should be drawn back inward again. Abandon that metric, and you make it much harder to balance your story. Inasmuch as you succeed, it will be by instinct and good fortune, neither of which can sustain you forever.
TDR does not, in and of itself, set up an endless series. But it removes the plot brake, which leaves the author in less control of the vehicle than he was before.
And as a corollary, the writing relaxes into a degree of inefficiency. It’s not the degree seen later in the series, where hardly anything seems to happen, but you can see one major pattern emerge here: the establishing info. Some of which is very repetitious — like Min and her visions, which get explained for the third time in the opening scenes of TDR. While that might be useful for people reading these books a year or more apart, at any faster pace — or on a re-read, when these things are abundantly familiar — it gets old. And that’s paired with a prose-level inefficiency that requires me to read these books at speed, because if I slow down I’ll start mentally rewriting every other sentence . . . but hey, you know, these books sell like hotcakes despite flabby prose. From a cost-benefit perspective, I’m not sure it would have even been worth Jordan’s time to copy-edit his words down to something tighter. Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable that this is not a tight book, and neither is anything that comes after.
But that’s enough macro critique; on to the specifics of TDR.
If Rand is the reason you showed up for this novel (hi, unforth!), then TDR is understandably a massive disappointment, as he is Sir Not Appearing in This Book. Two brief exchanges with him in the mountains, both from Perrin’s perspective; then he bails and we get a grand total of six scenes from his pov, the first four ranging from half a page to a whopping two pages in length. Rand is basically absent from the story until page five hundred fifty-four. Which is an odd choice: Dunnett may not give us Lymond’s pov very often, but at least he’s around. Rand spends less than 5% of this book onstage.
In previous books, Rand’s pov has dominated. If memory serves, Jordan only diverged when the party split, so he could show what was happening elsewhere (Tar Valon, the Seanchan encampment, etc). If Rand was present for a scene, his were the eyes through which we witnessed that scene. But with this book, we get Perrin’s perspective even when he’s talking to Rand, and I suspect that’s because Jordan really wanted to spring the whole “bailing for Tear” thing as a surprise. It has the unfortunate effect, though, of really distancing us from the protagonist, because we don’t get to see him make his decision, and then we mostly don’t see him in the process of carrying it out, either. Not until he gets to Tear, and that takes quite a while. (This is what happens when Jordan doesn’t use Portal Stones and Waygates to cut down on transit time. No wonder he soon introduced Skimming and Traveling.) Even if the logic on Jordan’s part was that he wanted to start featuring Perrin, Mat, Egwene, and Nynaeve as major protagonists in their own right, cutting Rand out so thoroughly seems an odd way to do it.
Mind you, I’m personally just as happy not to be hanging out with Rand here, because what’s going on with him just doesn’t work for me. Despite the events of TEotW and TGH, he still needs further verification that he is, indeed, the Dragon Reborn. And that doesn’t work for the simple reason that I the reader have not the slightest doubt on that front, so this feels like an entire book of Rand dragging his heels.
In part, I think it’s an artifact of the loss of structure. If this were a standard-issue trilogy, his arc from farmboy to Dragon would probably go like this: First book, he fumbles around, and at the end he gets told he’s the Dragon Reborn. (Rather than Moiraine saying it in a garden where nobody can hear.) Second book, he’s in denial, but events force him to acknowledge the truth, and at the end he accepts it and proclaims itself. Third book, he kicks ass and takes names on his way to destiny. (Hopefully by some road more interesting than just following the breadcrumb-trail of prophecy.) But instead he hears the news at the beginning of Book 2, and kind of sort of but not quite accepts it at the end, so that here we are in the third book and still he hasn’t stepped up to the plate. The delayed evolution would be fine if it felt like there were a clear structure of some non-trilogy sort underlying it, but instead it feels like we’re stuck in second gear, not quite managing to shift into the next stage.
It could have worked, I think, except for one thing: I trust Moiraine and Siuan. I don’t think I’m supposed to; none of the Emond’s Fielders do, and they’re the protagonists. But while I may disagree with some of M&S’s intended methods, their goals seem perfectly admirable. After all, they’re possibly the only two people in this series (as of TDR, anyway) who both accept what Rand is, and want to help him do what he must. Where’s the harm in that? Sure, he doesn’t want to be an Aes Sedai puppet, yadda yadda yadda, but I already know they aren’t trying to make him into a false Dragon, and the other supposed ill consequences of their interference are too vague to be persuasive. What exactly would go wrong if he cooperated with them?
The error, I think, was in providing Siuan’s pov so early. It makes her agenda perfectly apparent, and undermines attempts to make that agenda seem untrustworthy. If we hadn’t gotten inside her head, it would have been easier to win me over to Rand’s fears that they want to use him as a false Dragon, even if (as a reader) I’m perfectly aware that he’s probably the real one. Or at least I could have been persuaded that, while they’re right about what he is, there’s no guarantee that their intentions align with those of the protagonists. Instead I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Moiraine and Siuan are better-informed about everything than our bumpkin heroes and heroines are, and the sketchiest thing they do is not telling everybody what they’re planning. And Jordan is not good enough at characterization to really make me empathize with doubts that I as a reader don’t share. So when Rand drags his heels and questions what they say and tries to rebel, my sympathy for his actions wears thin very quickly.
Plus, he’s rather more batshit crazy in this book than turns out to be sustainable in the longer run, which is almost certainly an artifact of Jordan not knowing what his pace should be. That makes him not very good narrative company.
Ergo, it’s a good thing for my enjoyment of this book that Rand is not the reason I showed up. As in The Great Hunt, I’m here for the girls. Their characterization may often suck, too, but at the moment they’ve got the far more compelling plot. Perrin chasing Rand halfway across the continent? Not interesting. (Notice that Jordan skips most of it.) Neat magic and backstabbing politics in the White Tower? Much more interesting indeed.
Since I was just ranting about his failure to make me question things I think he wanted me to question, I have to give Jordan props for greater success here. Both the girls and I have valid reason to start looking askance at every Aes Sedai, wondering if she’s Black Ajah. (Nice background cameo by Alviarin.) Alanna’s probably the best example here: Egwene rightly questions why she campaigned to be allowed to scrub pots, and it’s believable that Alanna might have nefarious reasons for wanting to keep an eye on her. I particularly like this because in general, I don’t find the whole “OMG ANYBODY COULD BE A DARKFRIEND” thing very effective. Darkfriends aren’t just evil people; they’re people who have actively sworn themselves to the Dark One, and I find myself wondering just how the hell their recruitment operates. Is it, like, something you do on a dare when you’re drunk, and then a Myrddraal shows up and you’re like WTF DID I JUST DO? Speaking of Myrddraal, there’s way too much speaking to Myrddraal going on; it’s like every Darkfriend has their own personal Halfman giving them orders, which takes a lot of the scariness out of it all. Anyway, the sense that anybody could be a Darkfriend kind of backfires, because I end up feeling like anybody could be a Darkfriend; there isn’t a pattern I can be paranoidly trying to detect. Jordan can just grab a random character and tell me they’re sworn to the Shadow, and I’ll shrug and say, “oh, another one.”
Back to the White Tower. I like this section for its elaboration of channeling and related issues. The introduction of Tel’aran’rhiod, Nynaeve’s demonstrated ability to pick things up on first sight balanced against her inability to use those things unless she’s angry, the weird problems with the Accepted ter’angreal. This is the book that really starts talking about the nuts and bolts of channeling — different weaves, the kinds of things the different powers are good for, etc — and me, I like that kind of stuff.
Digression on that ter’angreal test: I feel like Jordan missed a chance here. In general, I’m a sucker for this kind of alternate-reality character-testing trial, but I think he didn’t make as good use of it as he could have. To explain why, I’m going to have to take a moment to summarize the pieces he’s laid out.
Nynaeve’s three visions were fighting Aginor; Emond’s Field gone wrong; and happily-ever-after with Lan in Malkier. Egwene’s are semi-HEA with Rand in Emond’s Field; abandoning Rand in a destroyed Caemlyn; and abandoning Rand when he’s about to be gentled following a Tower coup. Each test is also bracketed by ritual statements: they are for (respectively) what was, what is, and what will be; and afterwards the novice is washed clean of sins/crimes committed by and against her, false pride/false ambition, and all ties that bind her to the world.
But I don’t think those three layers (intro, test, and outro) match up nearly as well as they could. The intro lines up semi-okay with the third tests, in that it does predict where the characters are going; Nynaeve will become Queen of Malkier when she marries Lan, and Egwene will become Amyrlin Seat. Egwene’s first test lines up with “what was” in that it shows the life she might have had if she stayed in Emond’s Field, and Nynaeve at least did encounter Aginor in the past. I don’t remember if Emond’s Field really turns out to have a crappy Wisdom in her absence — but how exactly can we justify a post-apocalyptic Caemlyn and “Egwene Sedai” as “what is”? (Rahvin is not sufficient explanation for me.) And then there’s the outro to contend with, which lines up much less well. The tests should feature the characters having to decide that being an Aes Sedai matters to them more than their sins/crimes, pride/ambition, and ties to the world. Nynaeve’s third test works, but Egwene’s first one feels more like the pure “ties” kind; and while you could spin trying to kill Aginor as a sin, it seems like more of a pride thing to me. Etc. Basically, the washing-clean stage fails for me as ritual, because I don’t think it matches very well at all to what the characters have gone through. And while you can justify that on the grounds that the Aes Sedai admit they probably don’t use the ter’angreal for its original intended purpose, that feels like a cop-out for something that could have been more interestingly constructed.
(Also, I liked that Nynaeve’s three tests were varied: kicking Forsaken ass, Emond’s Field, and HEA with Lan. Egwene’s being All Rand, All the Time was kind of a disappointment.)
Mat is the other reason I show up for this book, because this is where he stops sucking. (Hallelujah!) And on this readthrough, I was able to put my finger on why. It isn’t just the removal of the dagger, though that’s 90% of why he sucks in TEotW, what with the paranoia and all. But the dagger doesn’t really warp his personality in TGH, and I still don’t like him there . . . because he’s an immature jerk. Mocking Rand over the “acting like a lord” thing, etc. In TDR, though, not only does he take a level of badass — I knew the luck started going into overdrive here, though I’d forgotten his military memories began, to a faint degree, before Rhuidean — he gains some maturity. His gambler nature starts to be harnessed to a purpose, and he repeatedly puts himself at risk to help other people. Most of which can probably be credited to the expansion of the narrative; once Mat stops being “sidekick to the protagonist” and starts being “protagonist in his own right,” with accompanying pov rights, he naturally acquires a greater degree of depth. Whatever the cause, I’m glad of it, because as of Book #10 he was one of the few characters left that I was much interested in at all.
And then there’s, y’know, the plot. Forsaken, everywhere you look! (I’d totally forgotten Mat encountered Rahvin/Gaebril before anybody else knew about that.) Lanfear, macking on everything male! (God, she annoys me so much.) Be’lal, going down like a punk! (I misremembered Rand nuking him, and was pleased to see it was Moiraine instead.) Ba’alzamon, turning out to not be the Dark One after all, making some readers wonder if that was a retcon on Jordan’s part to accommodate a longer series! But boy howdy, Convoluted Backplot is Convoluted; trying to figure out the logic behind Lanfear’s manipulations (why does she need to send the girls to Tear, when Rand’s already heading there? does she just not realize?), or pinning down just who’s responsible for various Trollocs and Myrddraal and Grey Men and Darkhounds falling out of the trees at every turn, just doesn’t seem like a good use of my time. Forsaken: not worth the effort of figuring out their schemes.
But I guess Myrddraal weren’t very scary enemies at this point, so it was time to upgrade to something that could channel. Speaking of which, Rand figures out how to do an appalling number of things by instinct alone. You can explain that by way of Lews Therin, but then how do you explain Egwene doing the same thing? Oh well; I like watching them all get more capable. I also like the introduction of the Aiel, since I found them one of the more interesting parts of the setting; I just wish Jordan’s hints about Tigraine could have been a bit less anvilicious. But hey, next book is Everybody Goes to Rhuidean, and that will be fun.
There. Got that out of the way before the Victorian book could eat my head. If the post for The Shadow Rising doesn’t show up before late August, don’t be surprised.