Revisiting the Wheel of Time: The Shadow Rising
I misspoke when I called this the Everybody Goes to Rhuidean book: it is, in fact, the Most People Go to Rhuidean, But Elayne and Nynaeve Go to Tanchico and Perrin Goes Home Book. For the first time in the series, the main characters don’t all draw back together for a single finale.
Which is kind of key, from a structural point of view. I said in my discussion of The Dragon Reborn that Jordan’s decision to not decide on series length was tantamount to taking the brake off the plot; to continue that metaphor, now he’s removed the steering wheel. There’s no longer any kind of balancing factor to keep the various parts of the narrative properly in harness. If the series had a predicted length, Jordan could have used that to decide when to complicate and when to conclude different strands; if he kept everybody together, that would have restrained the fractal growth and kept the length in check. Dump both of those, and you’re pretty much relying on instinct and a healthy dose of luck to make the whole thing hang together.
And we all know how well that worked out.
It has other ramifications for pacing, too. I’m indebted to John Scalzi for pointing out the natural consequence of multiple points of view: if you write a 120K book about one character, that’s 120K words of forward progress on that character’s plot, but if you split it among three points of view, now you’ve got only 40K devoted to each. Naturally it will feel like “less happens,” in terms of forward movement. The beginning of this book shows how you can partially get around that; a Rand pov scene will advance Rand’s plot, but a Perrin pov scene can do the same thing if Perrin’s hanging out with Rand. In fact, if you step back and look through The Shadow Rising, Rand doesn’t actually get much perspective — more than in TDR, but that’s not saying much — but the difference is that Perrin and Rand and Elayne and Egwene and various other characters spend time around him, so despite that lack of perspective, he doesn’t reprise his role as Sir Not Appearing in This Book. He appears; you just mostly aren’t in his head. Once people separate, though, it’s going to start slowing the plot down.
I think the splitting is why I never remember that TSR may be my favorite book. I remember the events in it, but I never remember that they are in it. I thought the Tanchico thing was part of TDR, until I re-read that one; then I reassigned it to TFoH. I thought the Tower schism happened in TFoH; holy crap it’s earlier than I remember. I kept half-assuming the first red stone doorway thing was in TDR, because in my head that’s the Tear book; then I assumed the second doorway was at the end of TSR, because in my head the entirety of TSR was the journey to Rhuidean. Imagine my surprise when they spend 200 pages in Tear, and then by page 300 they’re already at Rhuidean. Portal Stones for the win!
It’s my favorite book mostly because of Mat, but not entirely. Let’s start with the “bubbles of evil” at the beginning: random, sure, but they make for some pretty dramatic scenes. (Does anybody remember how much this reappears later on? I seem to recall it kind of falling by the wayside over time, even though by the explanation we get here they should increase in frequency and scope with each successive book. If they do fall away, well, this is what happens when you throw all your pacing controls out the window.) The ta’veren pull is likewise dramatic, especially when Perrin leaves during Rand’s Callandor scene. This book also starts to really develop the Aiel and (to a lesser extent) the Sea Folk, whom I’ve always liked. Admittedly, they’re problematic in that they’re “exotic;” if I recall correctly, the Sea Folk are the only non-white people that appear in the entire series. And the Aiel are treated much the same way, even though their coloration is northern European. (I wonder how long regional adaptation takes to evolve in the real world. They’ve been living in the desert for thousands of years, yo.) But they serve to partially counter one of the objections I have to Randland, which is that there isn’t much cultural variation: the differences between the countries are not as large as they should be, especially without a dominant institution like the Church to serve as a homogenizing force. (Whitecloaks and Aes Sedai really aren’t the same.) Aiel and Sea Folk society come across as genuinely different, in ways that make the setting feel more real to me. Now if they only spoke another language . . . but even the Seanchan don’t get that distinction, and they’ve been isolated for two millenia.
But anyway, Mat. He is, as I’ve said before, my favorite character, and this book has my favorite Mat bits of the whole series. I quite frankly love his two doorway trips. Both the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn come across as genuinely creepy, and Jordan pulls a nice stunt with the Old Tongue: like Mat, whose perspective we’re in, we have no idea he’s speaking the Old Tongue until Rand and Moiraine mention their language difficulties, after the fact. And these are the scenes where Mat’s nature becomes fully apparent, in the epic/mythical sense: the way he breaks the rules by getting more answers from the snake-people than he ought to get, the way they call him “trickster” and “gambler,” the military knowledge he gets from the fox-people.
And the Odin imagery. People have asked about this on previous posts, so here’s the rundown. The core component of it is what happens to Mat in Rhuidean: Rand finds him hanging from the World Tree. (Which I personally find to be one of the most dramatic moments in the whole series. Partly because I like Mat, and partly because it’s so unexpected and shocking.) On its own, that would be only a faint echo of Odin hanging from Yggdrasil, but remember also that Mat comes away from the experience with knowlege — battle knowledge, and Odin is, among other things, a god of war. Furthermore, the object Mat’s hanging from is a spear marked with two ravens and a verse in the Old Tongue that mentions thought and memory, which also happen to be the names of Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Backing up a little bit, we’ve known since Book 1 that Mat’s going to lose an eye — elegantly phrased by the snake people as “to give up half the light of the world to save the world” — heck, Mat even picks up a wide-brimmed hat, which is pretty common in artistic depictions of Odin, especially Odin-as-Gangleri (“the wanderer”). He’s Odin and Loki, rolled into one.
On to the rest of the characters. (Which will take a while. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this is actually the longest book in the series — longer even than Lord of Chaos, though not by much.)
Rand’s end of things, we mostly get through other people’s pov: Mat and Egwene. I suspect this is partly because Jordan decided to develop the secondary characters more, but also because now we dive headfirst into Rand’s obsession with not letting anybody know what he thinks — including, it seems, the reader. (He also starts obsessing about being hard, which is doing to drive me crazy over the next few thousands of pages.) Harking back to something I was complaining about last book, Jordan at least gives us a reason why Rand shouldn’t listen to Moiraine, even if the text still falls short on convincing us he shouldn’t trust her: she’s totally wrong about meaning of the “forsaken city” prophecy. It kind of goes with the genre territory that Rand’s better off listening to his own instincts, since after all, he’s the one who’s destined to fulfill those prophecies. Still, it annoys me a little, because in reality, you’re better off listening to people most of the time.
The major thing here is what Rand sees in Rhuidean. And here, I have to give Jordan some props. Those chapters basically amount to an INFODUMP O’ DOOM: all the history of the Aiel and the Tuatha’an, their deal with the Cairhienin, the origin of all those ter’angreal — even the drilling of the Bore. It’s interesting and relevant to the story, but if Jordan had tried to deliver it in lecture form, via Rhuarc or Amys or whoever, it would have been tedious as hell. Fortunately, he hasn’t forgotten what he knew when he wrote the prologue to TEotW: to give a scene rather than a summary, with characters and conflict. I don’t think it’s perfectly executed, but the idea is solid, and the Memento-style structure, going successively backward in time, helps add a degree of mystery that keeps things moving. All in all, it’s a decent solution to the problem.
Perrin next, to finish off the boys. This is where the time spent building up Emond’s Field and its people pays off. I don’t think Jordan had this plotline in mind when he wrote TEotW — there’s nothing to indicate it, aside from the bare establishment of Manetheren = awesome — but it works pretty well. From a critical standpoint, I like how Perrin takes shape as a leader, even if it’s kind of blatantly wish-fulfillment/ta’veren ex machina that everybody follows him so readily. I also think Jordan pulls off a bit of a deft trick in the scene where Perrin finds out his whole family is dead. The inevitable grief needs to be postponed for structural reasons; as soon as it kicks in, the scene is pretty much over, and it would break narrative momentum to have that happen before various other things get dealt with. But you can’t delay Bran giving him the bad news for too long; it just wouldn’t make sense. Perrin’s shell-shocked delay comes across as plausible, and also lets the scene do what it needs to, all without seeming contrived.
The Luc/Slayer/Isam aspect of Perrin’s plot strikes me as an example of what I think of as the series’ Fractal Problem: Jordan’s continual tendency to complicate his narrative, to the detriment of his pacing. Is the idea interesting? Yes, and it gives Perrin something to do in the wolf dream — but in a hypothetical world where Jordan hadn’t removed both the brake and the steering wheel, I suspect this is the kind of idea that might have been left out. It isn’t like Perrin has nothing else to occupy him in the Two Rivers, with Bornhald and Fain/Ordeith both running around.
<obligatory pause to hate on Fain>
Faile . . . my core problem with her is that she doesn’t make sense. Seriously, I’ve spent time trying to figure out what personality traits and set of assumptions would give rise to her behavior, but I can’t find any coherent answer to that question. When she gets angry with Perrin, when she forgives him; when she goes along with his ideas, and when she digs her heels in — none of it follows any pattern I can see. It’s like half the time, Jordan asks himself what he thinks would be the rational response to the situation . . . then has Faile do the exact opposite. And then he (apparently) has Perrin spank her in retaliation — that’s all I can surmise from the aftermath of their altercation while traveling the Ways — which, really, just makes my head explode.
It annoys me all the more because I want to like Faile. On the surface of it, she’s the kind of character I usually enjoy. But Jordan doesn’t seem to have the faintest grasp what makes a character like that tick, and so the result is more often frustrating than entertaining.
Onward to the pov ladies. Not much to say about Egwene, except that I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading more of her training with the Wise Ones; I love digging into the nitty-gritty of the magic (both channeling and non-channel stuff like dreamwalking), but I know it means more rounds of humiliation and physical punishment, which Jordan seems to think are the inevitable pattern for female societies.
Elayne and Nynaeve are more interesting. What I find myself thinking about here is Jordan’s decision to give us pov for both Egeanin (twice, I think) and Jaichim Carridin (once). I’m not sure, but I think this section would be stronger if we were restricted to the protagonists. Most of what Egeanin’s pov conveys — her discoveries and conflicted feelings about sul’dam — comes through in her interactions with El and Nyn; the rest is either unimportant (so she hired Florian Gelb to search, so what) or covered by Suroth’s bit in the not-a-prologue Chapter One (the Seanchan haven’t given up). As for Carridin, we see the consequences of his actions play out in this book. The interesting part that doesn’t come out is the fact that he’s scheming (separately) with Liandrin and the King. What I want to know is, why couldn’t El and Nyn find that out? I don’t remember if there’s some later plot it would screw over if they knew, but I find that to be a weak answer anyway. It surely wouldn’t be unreasonably badass for them to find out, not with Thom and Juilin and Bayle Domon working for them, and not compared to the crap the boys are doing. Ultimately, I think it’s a consequence of the splintering pov situation: Jordan can use other perspectives to get this info across, so he does, instead of figuring out how to get his protagonists to discover it.
But I forgive him for it at least somewhat, because Nyneave freakin’ KICKS ASS against Moghedien. (And then apologizes for letting a Forsaken slip away while she was dodging balefire. Yes, Nynaeve, clearly you’re inadequate. <headdesk>)
Min’s an odd choice for perspective on the Tower, but the Accepted trio is busy elsewhere, and Siuan has what I (from personal experience) think of as the queen problem: she’s mostly busy doing the work of ruling, which means she gets her news through people reporting to her, rather than actually wandering the Tower, which is the more narratively interesting method. And Min, of course, has her viewings, which add a strong degree of tension. I think the reason I’m surprised to find the Tower splits in this book is because I — biased by later books — expected Jordan to spin it out for much longer. Seriously, I feel like four books from now, this would have taken three times as long, with lots of Siuan scenes showing her doing her thing, and lots of Elaida scenes showing her running around plotting, and lots of Min scenes showing her not being able to do much about it. Instead, it strikes almost out of nowhere. It’s almost too fast — Siuan doesn’t come off looking too savvy, being taken that much by surprise — but it’s a lot more horrifying because it happens so abruptly. More Elaida pov would have ruined the effect.
I was going to conclude by talking about women in general — the girls, Lanfear, Faile, Min, the Aiel and the Sea Folk — but the more I think about it, the more I think that’s a post in its own right. (Especially since this one is already so long.) That may or may not happen before I get to The Fires of Heaven (which is the book where I really don’t remember anything that happens in it) in a couple of months; we’ll just have to see.