[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome, but please, no spoilers for books after Crossroads of Twilight, as that’s the last book I read before starting this project.]
In my post on The Fires of Heaven, I said that we were beginning our journey into the swamp of bad pacing.
With this book, we jump into it feet-first.
This is rather worrisome, since my recollection was that this aspect didn’t get really bad until The Path of Daggers (two books from now). I’m hoping that was just when I took off the rose-colored glasses, as the alternative is that the pacing tanks twice: once here, and again there. I’m rather afraid to see the result, if that’s the case. But it cannot be denied that the story starts wandering badly in this book, much more so than previously. Stuff happens — this isn’t Crossroads of Twilight, thank whatever deity you like — but it’s padded out with a whole bunch of crap that doesn’t deserve nearly so much page time.
We get off onto the wrong foot with the prologue. The funny thing is, back in the day, I quite liked the prologues. Remember that I didn’t pick the series up until just before the publication of A Crown of Swords; by then, Tor had gotten into the habit of posting the prologue online, some time before the book’s street date, as a kind of “trailer” to get people excited. It worked, at least for me; the prologues touch base with a lot of characters, reminding you of where they are and what they’re doing, and providing hints of what’s to come.
The problem is, outside of that context — a pre-publication goodie — they really don’t work at all. They fundamentally aren’t prologues, not in any meaningful sense; the only thing separating them from ordinary chapters is their (increasing) length and the number of points of view packed into them. Furthermore, they rarely contain anything truly exciting: their main function is to remind you of the current state of affairs, rather than to launch anything important. The significant content of most of these scenes could be condensed to a single sentence — and not a complicated one at that.
While I was reading this book, I kept picking out scenes I would use as my example of unnecessary padding, and kept choosing new ones as I went along — not a good sign. Ultimately, I settled on the opening scene of Chapter 45, which introduces the character of Vilnar Barada, an underlieutenant to Davram Bashere. If the Wheel of Time Wiki is to be believed, this is the character’s sole appearance in the entire series. (Speaking of which: no sign of Alteima in this book. My opinion that she was unnecessary in TFoH is reinforced.) Vilnar’s scene accomplishes two things of any relevance whatsoever: he gives us an outsider’s perspective on Perrin’s Two Rivers posse, and he recognizes Faile.
For this, the man gets point of view rights and two pages of scene, which are mostly filled with irrelevancies: musings on the girl Vilnar would like to marry, comments on the Aes Sedai, reflections on how thieves in Caemlyn would rather be taken by the Saldaeans than the Aiel, etc. Basically, stuff that has no purpose being in the story, except to justify switching to this guy’s pov in the first place. Furthermore, of those two “relevant” things, the latter one is flubbed. It would work if we the readers knew Faile had been spotted, and that her father was in Caemlyn, while Faile herself remained ignorant; that would create a bit of narrative tension, as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Unfortunately, it drops a couple of paragraphs later, when we switch to Perrin’s pov and Vilnar introduces himself to the group, greeting Faile and announcing her father’s presence. So why exactly did we need that scene, with a new character and a new perspective? We didn’t. And I regret to say that decision is symptomatic of the entire book.
Even when we’re in more central points of view, there’s lots of unnecessary crap. Mat’s dance scene early in the book is fun, but what does it accomplish? There’s too much scene-setting in general, and not just of the sort everybody usually cites, i.e. Jordan’s tendency to describe what every Aes Sedai is wearing. It’s good to know that Mat keeps discipline in the Band, but do we need to know the entertainment in every tavern he reviews? (Maybe it’s meant to set up a contrast with their sudden departure later, but it doesn’t need that much setup.) When Rand departs from Cairhien in Chapter 19, we get an entire paragraph describing the Aiel who show up to see him off, another paragraph for the Cairhienin, and a third for the Tairens, with a fourth to cover how they’re all interacting; there are eighteen named characters in those four paragraphs. Then more fluff, telling us how all of them respond to his departure. If the story were more closely focused on the politics, it would be worth spending time on this stuff: all the tensions of who says what and when and in what tone, and what they’re wearing at the time (okay, maybe not that) — but there’s too much, and it isn’t relevant enough for me to care. I’m left with a sense of fatigue, rather than intrigue. By the time Meilan dies, near the end of the book, all I really remember about him is that he was Tairen.
Jordan is, by this point, leaning far too heavily on multiple points of view. Sometimes it’s the gimmick of rapid-fire scenelets, each only a couple of paragraphs long, trying to do the something like a movie montage: showing us Egwene’s allies manipulating the Salidar Hall, or the Tower embassy doing the same to Cairhienin nobles, or whatever. What works in a film, though, does not work in a book. More often it’s a matter of showing us things the protagonists don’t know, i.e. what the villains are up to. During the course of this book, we get the pov of every single living Forsaken (Demandred, Mesaana, Sammael, Graendal, Semirhage, Moghedien) and one of the resurrected ones (Osan’gar). Also Katerine (who gets all of two pages in the prologue, serving only to tell us that btw she’s Black Ajah and so’s Galina), Galina herself (likewise about two pages in total), and Sevanna (who gets only one page in the prologue, and another half-page later).
The funny thing is, the Forsaken don’t even do much. I find it funny because it reminds me of something Shekar Kapur says in the commentary track for his film Elizabeth: when you get down to it, the Duke of Norfolk does very little in the story, and so Kapur deflects you from noticing this by having him constantly in motion. Damn near every time you see Norfolk, he’s energetically striding somewhere, with other men following along at his heels, which conveys the impression that he’s very busy with something important. The Forsaken scenes in this book serve the same purpose, I think, only less successfully — and with the net effect of making them a lot less scary, as I’ve said before. Getting into their heads makes them human, and petty, which would be an interesting device if I thought Jordan was out to depict the banality of their evil. Alas, I don’t think he is.
Also, if it’s a bad idea to give your ubervillians pov? It’s an extra bad idea to give the Dark One a speaking role in the story. (Especially in the opening scene of the prologue.)
Other bad ideas: resurrecting villains. I can’t help but feel this was a decision driven primarily by the expansion of the story. Our Heroes have been killing off Forsaken at a good clip (two in TEotW, two in TDR, three in TFoH); at this rate, we would run out of them before long. Not to mention that the top ones, by which I mean Ishamael and Lanfear, are already gone. I could could forgive bringing those two back — especially Lanfear, who’s not even properly dead — but Aginor and Balthamel? The obvious interpretation is that Jordan regretted bumping them off so early, and never would have done so if he’d known the series would run so long.
(As for the plot-convenient but ideologically problematic ramifications of Aran’gar, the resurrected Balthamel, channeling saidin, see my post on gender.)
More maybe-villain stuff: I don’t remember whether the books I read back in the day settled the long-standing fan question of whether Taim is Demandred in disguise — don’t spoil it for me; I’d rather not know — but holy anvilicious hints, Batman. Whether it’s the case or not, Jordan clearly wanted you to think it. Demandred, who until this point has been a non-entity, features prominently in the prologue, right before Taim shows up; he also gets the final tag in the epilogue, asking if he has not done well, right after Taim deploys the Asha’man meat grinder at Dumai’s Wells. Lews Therin starts screaming about Sammael and Demandred the instant Taim shows up; Bashere doesn’t immediately recognize him; he hasn’t gone mad, and knows how to do things with the Power; and finally, there’s an implied irony when Rand lists the crimes of the Forsaken, asking if Taim did anything that bad. All of the ones he names are women . . . except Demandred. (The only counter-hints here are that he seems willing to play second string to Rand, and his shocked reaction at Rand nearly breaking the seal. Which impulse I still don’t understand, anyway: why, aside from general lunacy, does Lews Therin want to do that?)
Because I mentioned it before, I should add that the “bubbles of evil” thing does make a reappearance here — but as we said at the time, it doesn’t do so correctly; from what Moiraine said, they should flock most closely to the ta’veren trio, but instead they mostly happen to random extras offstage.
Returning briefly to the topic of women, Rand’s comments about the benefit of men bringing their families to the Black Tower reminded me a lot of something I noticed when I went to my sister’s law school graduation. A handful walked across the stage with babies in arms or toddlers in tow . . . but all of those who did so were men. How many women can spare the time to raise kids when they’re busy with law school? How many have husbands who can and will take over primary childcare duties? I agree that it’s not good for the White Tower to close itself off from the world the way it does, but I don’t know that they have much choice; no woman could take care of her family while dealing with life as a novice — and that presumes her husband could put up with his wife devoting all her attention and energy elsewhere, not to mention having such power over him when she was done. It’s an interesting contrast, a fruitful bit of worldbuilding; I just wish I felt more that Jordan recognized it as such, rather than meaning it as an actual criticism he set the White Tower up for.
On a brighter note where gender is concerned — it may be plot-device-y, but truth be told, I like Egwene being raised as Amyrlin. Aside from the fact that it gives her an Awesome Title like the boys’, it sets her up for what I remember as some very pleasing bits of political badassery. Siuan’s reflection that training Egwene to be a first-rate Amyrlin is the next best thing to being Amyrlin herself always makes me smile, especially because it’s one of the few instances of honest political alliance in the series. Plus, that team-up allows Egwene to be cool without it falling full on into Mary Sue territory (though the critical will say she’s there anyway.)
Also, I actually kind of like Berelain in Cairhien, at least when Perrin isn’t around. If you overlook the lingering echoes of her encounter with Rhuarc in Tear, back in TSR — echoes I’m more than happy to ignore, since they’re pretty damned offensive — the relationship between them in this book doesn’t suck; Berelain is politically effective, and seems to work pretty well with Rhuarc, with a degree of partnership we rarely get between men and women in positions of power.
(On the other hand, when she’s around Perrin? FAIL. Which makes me kind of glad that Perrin is very nearly Sir Not Appearing In This Book Either. I can’t help but wonder if Jordan got bored with him, compared to Mat and Rand, and for that matter all the women. Aside from Faile’s pov scene in the prologue — in which Perrin only shows up at the end — we don’t see him until Chapter 45, nearly six hundred pages into the book. Whereupon, for those playing the “what the hell is wrong with Faile” game at home, he immediately falls into the pit of Berelain, and the completely unanswerable question of what logic — I use the word loosely — determines when Faile smells jealous, and when she smells hurt.)
A few random things, before I get to the end of the book:
The whole not-sweating thing really perplexes me. I’m not sure why Jordan decided to say it was a trick of concentration, rather than the Power, but being a native Texan, it makes my head explode; Taim comments on how he’s taught it to the men at the Black Tower so they don’t “sweat themselves to death,” and I’m over here going “your body sweats so you WON’T die, idiot!” Seriously, how do they not all keel over of heat stroke?
With the secondary characters multiplying like kudzu, I find myself noticing something odd in the realm of names: to whit, they are all unique. It’s a disjunct between fiction and history, really; my poor copy-editor for the Onyx Court books is forever querying whether Edward Fitzgerald is supposed to be the same person as Edward Greville or Edward Carey, whether I meant the church of St. Laurence Pountney when I said St. Laurence Jewry, whether St. Giles-in-the-Fields is a typo for St. Giles Cripplegate. We don’t tend to repeat names in fiction because it can be confusing for the reader. But with the cast of thousands in this series, not to have any repetition starts to look decidedly odd. Even in the absence of a homogenizing force like the Church with its saints’ names, there really isn’t a tradition of naming boys after Artur Hawkwing? Or lots of Andoran girls bearing variants of Eldrene or Ishara?
On a broader sociological front, the more I look at this world, the more obviously I see that it’s in decline. Like Middle-Earth, it has large stretches of essentially uninhabited wilderness, with an even clearer sense that those stretches were once populated, and are slowly falling away. It makes sense in the Borderlands, where they’re constantly fighting the Blight, but why areas like the Plains of Maredo or the Caralain Grass, further from the Trolloc threat? Since the fall of Artur Hawkwing’s empire, it seems like the main continent has undergone a population drop more severe than, if also more gradual than, the Black Death in Europe. Wars can’t explain it all — not even the Trolloc Wars; those were centuries ago, and the real world had plenty of wars of its own without depopulating a continent. We don’t hear a lot about high infant mortality (and not enough of the population is urban for that death rate to get truly grotesque), nor are there plagues on a scale with the Black Death. But the decline is real; entire kingdoms no longer exist not only because of political disintegration, but because there’s no longer anybody there to rule. It’s a puzzle — and a disturbing one, from an in-story perspective; one gets the sense that even if the Blight went quiet for a thousand years, humanity might still die out, at least on that continent.
Okay, so the end of the book: the big throwdown at Dumai’s Wells.
I remembered a hell of a lot more lead-up to this than there really is. I seriously expected Rand to get grabbed a hundred pages sooner, with a lot more scenes of him being stuck in the box. In retrospect, it’s probably good I’m wrong, since that whole plan is kind of OMGWTFBBQ anyway. Okay, so Galina’s Black Ajah and they have a vested interest in making Elaida’s end of things go spectacularly badly (I snerked at the line about how Elaida has become a “strong and capable” Amyrlin — my ass, she has), and moreover Galina’s also Red Ajah of the worst man-hating sort, but jeebus, her treatment of Rand. I don’t know if it’s just an overloading of the villain circuits (there were no puppies handy to kick?), or Jordan’s penchant for characters beating each other going off the rails, or what — I should note in passing that while Nynaeve calls their treatment of Moghedien “just short of torture,” I would say it is torture, though I allow that by the standards of a society that regularly practices physical punishment it probably wouldn’t count as such. Anyway, it might work better if Jordan showed us the scene where Rand goes batshit and kills two of Erian’s Warders; then we’d see the ramp-up that leads to him being stuffed in a box and beaten twice a day. Once we’re there, I like the interactions with Lews Therin; for the first time, I feel like there’s a real relationship there, one that’s rather creepy and disturbing. But we go from zero to systemic torture awfully fast.
As for the battle itself, I can’t help but think of the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of Good Omens, which, after listing all the named characters, ends with “Full Chorus of Tibetans, Aliens, Americans, Atlanteans and other rare and strange Creatures of the Last Days.” In this case, we have a Full Chorus of Aiel, Wise Ones, Mayeners, Cairhienin, Two Rivers bowmen, Aes Sedai, Warders, Shaido, Asha’man, and wolves. To be honest, it’s a trope I’m occasionally weak for; I like it when the plot causes motley assortments of people to ally together for some great battle. (This happened once in a D&D game I was in; by the time we were done calling in favors from people we’d helped in the past, we had half the Forgotten Realms there.) And in this case, you can justify it with ta’veren, though it’s never explicitly said. The result . . . again, it’s shorter than I remembered, but on the other hand, the ending is far more horrifying than I recalled. The Asha’man “meat grinder” was a nifty trick when I was sixteen; revisiting it now, holy shit is that appalling. I’m curious to see what fallout that has in A Crown of Swords; I suspect the answer will be “not enough,” for what is functionally the Power equivalent of deploying a machine gun for the first time.
(Back in high school, I think A Crown of Swords was my favorite book; I waited just long enough for it that I had anticipation, not long enough that I grew jaded, and if memory serves it’s pretty Mat-centric. (Part of my dislike of The Path of Daggers stems from the total absence of Mat thererin.) I doubt I’ll think ACoS is better than The Shadow Rising, now that I’m looking more critically at the story, but I hope I still enjoy it this time through.)
. . . whew. I’ve made it through a whole year of this: six books’ worth of blogging, plus a couple of side posts. A bit terrifying to think that’s less than half of the way, but still, it’s a good start. I know one post every two months or so isn’t the best pace, from a blogging point of view, but it seems to be right for sustaining my momentum — fast enough not to fall off, slow enough not to burn out. Look for the ACoS post in January, most likely, and then we’ll see how the series fares when I’m simultaneously mired in the WoT books I don’t like as much and a new book of my own.