Revisiting the Wheel of Time: A Crown of Swords
[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.]
Back in the day, I think A Crown of Swords was my favorite book in the series. As I’ve said before, it’s the one I waited the right length of time for (enough to build anticipation, not enough to become annoyed); furthermore, it has a lot of Mat, and also some really good moments for both Elayne and Nynaeve. In retrospect, it isn’t as good as The Shadow Rising — which will probably remain the best-constructed slice of this sprawling narrative, unless Sanderson really knocks my socks off — but it’s okay. Its major weakness is probably the fizzle of confrontation at the end. (A lot of people apparently complain about how little time passes during the book, but a) man, that must take obsessive work to figure out, since there are no dates given and b) I don’t care about time so much as plot elapsed. And while this one is firmly in the throes of “too many new plots, not enough resolution,” stuff does happen.)
I’ll get to the plot construction in a minute, but first: exciting news! I think I’ve figured out Faile. But I need other people to check my characterization math, because I don’t have a copy of Lord of Chaos around to see if I’m correctly remembering her behavior there, and I don’t remember what happens later well enough (especially the bits from Faile’s pov).
So, my epiphany started with a rare moment of sympathy for Faile. For once, I understood where she was coming from, after the showdown with Colavaere; she put herself at risk to get evidence against the woman, only to see her evidence ignored and Berelain’s (by way of her thief-catchers) taken as damning. Yeah, I’d be pissed too. Of course, right after that moment, there was a much less rare moment of wtfery, as Perrin yelling at Faile makes her melt. Pondering it this time around, I thought that maybe this was Jordan trying to do the old-skool romance thing — that what Faile wants is an “alpha male.” But an alpha male, in the romance-genre sense, would probably try to keep her safe, and that clearly isn’t what Faile’s after. In fact, she gets annoyed and/or hurt when Perrin’s idea of protecting her means keeping her away from danger.
. . . and, if memory serves, she likewise feels hurt when he tries to speak uber-gently to her. Furthermore, she again feels hurt, and jealous, when he yells at Berelain to stay away from him.
I think, to Faile’s way of thinking, gentleness and protection = disrespect. The message she takes from it is that Perrin thinks she’s fragile.
Whereas when he yells at Berelain, it shows a kind of respect for the other woman. I don’t think Faile believes Perrin is in love with Berelain, but — let me make an analogy. Pretend they are all ordinary people in the real world. Perrin does not like his job, and so when Faile asks him about it, he brushes her off, thinking he’s sparing her boredom and/or annoyance. Berelain, however, is a colleague of his, and so he regularly talks about work to her, sometimes when Faile is around. To Faile’s eye, this looks like her husband has no respect for her intelligence: “oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” But he does respect Berelain. Replace “intelligence” with “toughness” and “talking about work” with “being forceful in his opinions,” and I think that’s what’s going on here.
The thing is, I could actually get behind this dynamic . . . if Jordan were able to execute it in a way that didn’t come across as borderline abusive. The whole “leopard” metaphor between Faile’s parents does not cast it in a good light, especially when physical confrontation is apparently not only an acceptable but a desirable way to make one’s point. But I can see Faile being frustrated by her husband treating her as if she’s made of spun glass, when she prides herself on her strength. It’s a common enough trope when it comes to physical danger — Min yells at Rand, later on, for his “I have to keep you safe” bullshit — and it isn’t unreasonable to extend it to conversational arenas as well. There are people out there with perfectly functional relationships whose bedrock is top-of-the-lungs disagreements (often followed by great sex). The problem here is that Perrin doesn’t realize that’s Faile’s game.
(And she won’t tell him. But refusal to tell anybody anything is possibly the single most endemic illness among characters in this series, only occasionally going into remission, so she’s hardly alone in that.)
Aside from that epiphany, there are other moments with female characters that I quite enjoy in this book. Birgitte, for one; this marks the start of her friendship with Mat, and it’s such a freaking breath of fresh air — largely because Jordan doesn’t use the usual female cookie-cutter on her. She likes drinking; she likes pointing out women for Mat (and having men pointed out for her), and she actually says what she means. THANK GOD. More like her, please? Also two fleeting touches with other characters, that please me entirely out of proportion to their size: the first is Sulin’s reaction when they tie Rand’s hands for sneaking into Caemlyn (she realizes Galina’s crew tied Rand up, and almost cuts him free on the spot), and then Samitsu’s response to Flinn’s Healing of Rand (“I will pay you, have your babies, anything, just TELL ME WHAT YOU DID”). I want more characters like Samitsu, too: women who have something they’re really passionate about, to the extent that they will chuck scheming and secrecy and everything else out the window to get at their target.
Unfortunately, this book also has Tylin. And, erm. Problems.
The really frustrating thing is, I think I see what Jordan was trying to do, and if he hadn’t completely overshot his target and fallen into the abyss of Wrong Wrong Just NO, it would have been great. Mat says it himself: he chases women, not the other way around. Making him the object of desire — a feminized position — with Tylin calling the shots could have been hilarious. In fact, it’s pretty evident by the reactions of the other characters that Jordan thought it was hilarious. But even in high school, when I first read this book, I know Tylin’s single-minded pursuit bothered me; revisiting it now, I realize that her actions wander close to — possibly over — the border of rape.
The only reason I don’t call it rape outright is that we don’t get much detail — Jordan fades to black very quickly — so Mat’s exact mindset during the festivities is unknown. But let’s summarize the context: Tylin fancies Mat. He thinks she’s pretty, but is a) worried about consequences to snogging the Queen of Altara and b) put off by her approach. He communicates his lack of cooperation by measures including but not limited to hiding from her and locking the door of his room. Tylin responds by trying to starve him out, then breaks into his locked room, holds him at knifepoint, cuts off his clothes, and has her way with him. Mat’s response to this afterwards is not “whee, that was fun, let’s do it some more,” but rather to go on hiding from Tylin. She, in turn, uses his scarf to tie him up (without asking), has her servants move his stuff into her rooms (again without asking), and makes plans to dress him according to her own desires (does she ask? Of course not). In general, she treats all of his refusals as part of the game, and uses her social power to coerce him into playing.
This is not okay.
Mat’s line later on about how he’ll miss her after all does not take the skeeve off the situation. Gender-flip the relevant scenes, and it becomes obviously horrifying; furthermore, it becomes the kind of thing we are repeatedly assured Mat himself does not do (nor have we been given reason to doubt him). The women he flirts with flirt back, in unambiguous fashion. I don’t mind Mat holding back from flirting with Tylin because she’s the Queen of Altara; that’s an objection that could be dropped once it became obvious that she’s game if he is. I don’t mind him being initially uncomfortable with his role as the hunted one, rather than the hunter, if that faded away under the realization that the roles don’t matter so long as they both enjoy the outcome. But his objections don’t go away. He resists becoming Tylin’s boy-toy, and goes on resisting, and Tylin doesn’t care whether she has his consent or not. I think Jordan would have seen the problem in a heartbeat if a male character had treated a female one that way — but in his attempt to flip Mat’s usual pattern on its head, he goes too far, and doesn’t seem to notice.
Grargh. Okay. Let’s move on and talk about story structure.
The thing I really noticed, reading this book, is how Jordan tends to work in narrative blocks. After the usual prologue montage, we get a hundred pages of Perrin and Rand, a hundred pages of Egwene and the Salidar crew, sixty pages of Ebou Dar, etc. Aside from three chapters in the middle — “Mindtrap,” with Moghedien, “The Irrevocable Words,” with Morgase, and “To Be Alone,” where we cut briefly back to Perrin — once the focus shifts to a particular corner of the plot, it generally stays there for a while. Given that the various sub-plots don’t intersect with each other that often, but rather go off on long, looping arcs that don’t touch Rand directly for books at a time, I think this actually makes sense. Intercutting is most effective when the thing you see in one strand somehow connects to or comments on the next, and that doesn’t happen too often here. (In fact, sometimes it could and doesn’t: we leave Rand on a “please Mat get Elayne here soon” moment, and cut to . . . Egwene.)
But the consequence of this, of course, is that it plays merry hell with the usual structure of a novel. Rand’s central position dictates that whatever he does will generally be the focus of the final chapters; therefore, climactic moments in other plotlines have to happen elsewhere in the book. The action rises and falls and rises and falls and rises and — you get the idea. No smooth curve of growing tension here. The necessity of timeline management complicates this further; I have no idea how much Jordan restricted himself from stepping back in chronology when he switches strands, but he uses a trick here, several times, of a half-page italicized flashback to cover something that happened before whatever chapter we’re actually reading. It’s not terribly effective, I’m afraid, especially since sometimes what he’s skipping mostly over would have been a scene worth reading. He does this a lot with Perrin, for whatever reason, and I really wish he’d written out the staged confrontation with Rand. I understand why he didn’t; it would have been impossible to make us believe the confrontation was real, the way he tries to do with the actual chapter (“To Be Alone,” which gives us the aftermath). But since the confrontation is more exciting than its aftermath, I don’t think the deception is worth the effort. Much better to have us be afraid that Perrin’s pissed Rand off a little too convincingly.
He’s also still way too fond of cutting away for brief, unnecessary villain pov. We get a scene for Carridin, Mili Skane, and Sammael; another one for Joline and Teslyn; a third for Falion and Ispan. Aside from reminding us of who some of those characters are (seriously, I’d half forgotten the Black Ajah pair), these scenes do . . . what? Tell us there are people scheming to take out Elayne and Nynaeve? What a shocker. Honestly, these feel to me like the kind of scenes Jordan might write for his own benefit, to keep track of where his villains are and what they’re doing — but that doesn’t mean they’re worth the reader’s time.
Oddly, there’s another flaw in this book, that I don’t remember seeing in previous ones: Jordan has begun shoehorning in expository paragraphs in the oddest (and least successful) places. Seriously, early in Egwene’s bit, there’s a four-paragraph stretch that goes, “blah blah” <exposition> <exposition> “blah blah,” she went on without pause. As in, that second bit of dialogue follows immediately on the first. Contrary to what the two intervening paragraphs (which take up most of the page) would have you believe. And the second bit of dialogue involves something shocking, but apparently we have to stop for two more paragraphs, these describing what Siuan and Leane are wearing, before we actually get their reactions. It’s possible Jordan did this occasionally before, but it’s all over the place in this book, and really creates a sense that his basic craft is slipping while he juggles all the balls he’s put into the air.
Having said that: stuff actually does happen, to a much greater extent than I feared. It gets off to a slowish start, with the usual scattershot prologue and then a moderately tedious (and not quite shell-shocked enough) aftermath to Dumai’s Wells — but Niall gets gacked in that prologue, and then there’s Colavaere’s attempted coup, and Egwene learning about Moghedien’s escape from the previous book, and the blackmail from Nicola and Areina, and the confrontation with Myrelle, and so on. All of the major plot strands involve the characters accomplishing something meaningful (bar the fact that Perrin is largely pov to Rand’s actions, rather than acting in his own right). If those random expository paragraphs were shuffled off to better locations, and the villains didn’t all suck (seriously, Elaida, palace, wtf), it would be structurally pretty sound. Weak ending confrontation, but really, how many Power battles with Forsaken can you have before it gets to be old hat? I’m looking forward to Winter’s Heart, where (if I recall correctly) Rand spends the entire final showdown busy with his pet project while everybody else has a running slap-fight through the forest.
One worldbuilding thing: I feel increasingly as if Jordan plays favorites with the Ajahs. Clearly he’s fond of the Blues, what with Moiraine and Siuan, and there are enough cool Greens in the story — especially with Elayne and Egwene choosing that Ajah — that I think it’s safe to say Jordan finds them interesting, too. And the Reds, of course, are largely there to be antagonists (though I do so appreciate the introduction of Pevara, a non-bitchy, non-evil, non-man-hating Red). In the case of Brown and Yellow, I think his investment ends at a few characters, basically Verin and Nynaeve; beyond those two, the Ajahs are mainly plot devices for exposition and Healing. And I don’t think he has much use for the Grays and the Whites at all. Seriously, I’m not even sure why those Ajahs exist; why not fold the Grays into the Blues, given that both do political work? Or, if you want them to be more impartial than the Blues, why not merge the Grays and the Whites? I can see a role for mediators, but I fail to understand why there’s an entire Ajah of philosophers. How do they justify their existence? Why isn’t that work done by Browns instead? Seriously, if I were running a WoT game, I would probably house-rule two Ajahs together, and come up with a new one to fill the gap. Not sure what they would do, but I could think of something.
Sadly, I’ve had to give up reading Leigh Butler’s recaps over on Tor.com; I’m starting to hit way too many spoilers for Knife of Dreams (and in another book or two of recapping, there would be Gathering Storm spoilers, too). Unfortunately, I’m also beginning to think I need to avoid the Wheel of Time wiki, too; an injudicious click while looking something up outed a particular character as a member of the Black Ajah. <sigh> Pity; Leigh’s posts were good for making me think of other stuff I wanted to say. And the wiki is good for refreshing my memory on things. But I’m trying to avoid spoilers, so.
Next up, The Path of Daggers, in which my favorite character takes his sabbatical from the narrative. <sigh again> Well, say it with me: at least it isn’t Crossroads of Twilight.