[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.]
After reading A Crown of Swords, I found myself realizing that I organize the series into four generalized groupings, based on the narrative momentum. It begins with the Good Four, which are The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, and The Shadow Rising. Each has its flaws, but on the whole, they’re the books in which the scope and complexity of the story manages to be a feature rather than a bug. They’re followed by the Wobbly Three — The Fires of Heaven, Lord of Chaos, and A Crown of Swords — during which, as I’ve documented in past posts, the structural decisions made during the Good Four start to have destabilizing consequences for the pacing and shape of the narrative. Those three do still achieve interesting forward progress on the plot, though, despite their increasingly swampy nature.
This month, however, we start in on the Bad Three: The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, and (god help me) Crossroads of Twilight.
The boundary between the Wobbly Three and the Bad Three is indistinct, and may well owe its placement to the fact that I had to wait two years for The Path of Daggers to come out. I don’t entirely think so, though. It seems to me that, although we’ve been running into increasing structural problems since TFoH, this is the first time that the shape of an individual volume has fallen like a badly-made souffle. There’s no arc to this book, no feeling of growing tension or climax at the end. The most exciting stuff happens around pages 100-150 and 300-350, but the book is 591 pages long. The actual ending coasts along mildly for a time before saying without warning, “oh, by the way, some shit,” and then you’re left staring at the Epilogue.
The interesting question is, what has caused this problem.
It isn’t inevitable based on the TDR and TSR decisions, though those definitely made it more likely. Without a projected series length to give him a timetable, and without a unifying force to bring the characters back together, Jordan was free to — possibly doomed to — put down stuff as it came into his head. Half the markers I would use to judge whether a particular scene or plot development belongs in a book I’m writing don’t apply here, and it makes me realize how important those are for the final product.
Part of what I see going on appears to be a cousin of Showing Your Work (warning: TV Tropes link; you may not emerge for several hours). Normally that refers to a writer doing research on some real-world topic, like glassblowing or the history of the Mughal Empire. In this case, I get the impression that Jordan had reams of notes covering every random Cairhienin nobleman and Maiden of the Spear he introduced into the story, and was playing a fractally large game of chess behind the scenes, tracking who was allied with whom and where they were and what they wanted and also what they wore. Then, having worked all that stuff out . . . he felt obliged to share it with the reader.
It’s the only explanation I can find for some of the crap that fills this book. I’ve said before that I think it’s the source of the random “evil plotters are evilly plotting” filler scenes, but it also applies to protagonist material, with increasing frequency. Rand is settling things in Illian, and we get two pages of his commanders rambling on about how the remnants of the Illian army are nothing to be worried about, they’ll scatter at the sight of opposition, one good charge with the cavalry will send the peasants flying — hi, Weiramon; why aren’t you dead yet? — all of which could be disposed of with two lines of narrative description. I feel for Elayne on her ride to the farm, dealing with Aes Sedai wanting to take Ispan off the Kinswomen’s hands, and the Kin wanting the Aes Sedai to take Ispan off their hands, but do I need summaries or full dialogue from eight rounds of that debate? No, I do not. Chapters 3 and 4 of this book could be merged into one, folding most of the transit material into the opening narration for their arrival at the farm, and that’s true of other parts of the book, too.
But why did Jordan do that? I don’t know. All I can do is speculate, and before I get there, we have a second aspect to consider.
Recently I was critiquing a friend’s first novel in manuscript, and one of the things I told her was that she spent too much time trying to hide things from the reader. It’s a common novice problem (and sometimes common among more experienced writers, too); they play their cards too close to the chest, trying to save them for a dramatic reveal later on. Thing is, that doesn’t work nearly as often as people like to think, because you end up with a lot of not very interesting material leading up to the reveal. Better to put the exciting stuff up front, and trust it to generate more exciting stuff later on.
It’s possible Jordan had this flaw before, but this is the first book where I really noticed him withholding information, to very little good end. It starts with the very first scene of the Prologue, in which Ethenielle, the Queen of Kandor, rides to a secret meeting with the other monarchs of the Borderlands. They swear a very secret and very important oath, to “find Rand al’Thor. And do what needed to be done. Whatever the price.”
. . . which would be wonderfully dramatic, except the scene ends with those words, having never told us just what these people think “needed to be done.” We sat through ten pages of build-up, only to be robbed of its payoff. And we don’t see them again for the rest of the book.
That isn’t an isolated example, either. Narishma brings something to Rand from Tear, but Jordan waits seventy pages to say that it’s Callandor — even though Rand carries it with him throughout those seventy pages and keeps touching the bundle, thinking about it, debating whether or not to use whatever the hidden object is. (Side not: I sincerely hope there’s some later, better fulfillment of the Callandor prophecy, because if not, what a freaking disappointment.) The reveal ends up being no surprise at all, and in the meantime, the narrative is essentially lying to us, tiptoeing around something that’s at the forefront of the viewpoint character’s thoughts. Or take Taim’s letter to Rand, which says something about having “harvested” a “blackberry bush;” apparently this means something to Rand, but hell if I know what it is. And why is this information being kept from me?
There are worthwhile times to play these kinds of games. Verin’s pov scene, for example, keeps her motivations murky, but in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m being jerked around — largely because Verin herself is trying quite hard to be oblique. On the whole, though, I prefer the approach taken with Cadsuane and Sorilea: they, too, have a secret meeting and swear an oath, but we actually get to hear what that’s for. It makes me far more interested in their later actions than I would have been if their scene had consisted of more handwaving obfuscation.
I find myself coming around to the same theory I had when I first read this book, nearly thirteen years ago: this is Jordan’s control slipping. He’s juggling too many narrative balls, and doesn’t entirely know what pattern he wants them to form, so he kind of keeps them moving in a basic circle while he figures out what to do next. Alas for the reader, we end up plodding through all those basic-circle throws. Rand spends twelve pages telling Illian’s remaining army to go home. Elayne gets an isolated chapter in the middle of the book, mostly covering travel time, ending on the cliffhanger line of “the first explosion came,” but the payoff for that cliffhanger comes a hundred and thirty pages later, and is a disappointment when it does. I feel like I’m watching the author pick his way carefully down a treacherous path, and I sympathize with the difficulty of his task — but I really wish I didn’t have to read about every single step. Because a lot of this reads like Jordan stalling for time, while he figures out where he’s going.
The complexity of the narrative means that it’s no easy matter to say, “here’s how it should have been structured.” Moving one piece has repercussions all over the place. But to give a representative sample: I think the Ebou Dar and Bowl of Winds plotline consists of perfectly fine material that would have been much improved by being condensed into a single book, rather than spread across three. I don’t remember whether it’s in TFoH or LoC that Elayne and Nynaeve first learn of the Bowl, but it doesn’t matter; they go to Ebou Dar and begin their search in LoC. ACoS features the bulk of the search, ending with them finding the Bowl, and in TPoD they use it. If I were rearranging the story now, I would have them dispatched from Salidar at the end of LoC, and pick up at the beginning of ACoS either with their arrival, or after they’ve already begun the search, glossing over the unproductive parts of it. Let them find the Bowl and escape with it during that book, then show the Seanchan invading Ebou Dar — as we get in the real ACoS — but finish off with the Weaving of Winds, and the Seanchan attack on the farm, and the badass scene with Aviendha, Birgitte, Elayne, and the detonating gateway. It makes the end of ACoS more thrilling, and frees up TPoD to start with the weather shifting, and that strand of the plot moving on into something new.
Because, as I said at the beginning of this post, the structure of this book is a mess. The aforementioned scenes finish up around page 150, and we get another satisfyingly badass confrontation around 300-350, which is Egwene tricking the Hall into declaring martial law. (And oh, do I cheer when that happens.) Other than that? We’re pretty much done with really exciting stuff for the book. Elayne’s arrival in Caemlyn comes as an anticlimax, because Dyelin supports her; we’ve known that for a while, and frankly I like the fact that Dyelin isn’t a grasping bitch, but it means Elayne’s restoration — which we’ve been awaiting for about three books — isn’t very thrilling. (We don’t even get to see her tearing down Rand’s banners and making it clear the Dragon Reborn isn’t welcome in Caemlyn; that all comes second-hand, through one of Rand’s late scenes.) Rand spends eighty pages playing whack-a-mole with the Seanchan, with easily half a dozen new random pov characters wandering through to let us know what’s going on across the southern half of the continent, but even with the Callandor disaster, it’s a real letdown after Dumai’s Wells and all the Forsaken smackdowns. It isn’t even the end of the book, either! That consists of Dashiva et al. turning on Rand (what a surprise; seriously, Rand’s a goddamned idiot for letting Taim run wild with the Black Tower) and Faile getting nabbed by the Shaido. A thrilling ending this is not. (Hint: if the last chapter of the eighth novel in the series is titled “Beginnings,” that might be a sign you’ve taken a wrong turn.)
Perrin’s either an example of the whole stalling-for-time thing, or else I’m right in my growing suspicion that Jordan didn’t find him very interesting. By my calculations, Perrin has done precisely one interesting thing since The Shadow Rising, and that’s Dumai’s Wells. He was absent from TFoH, nearly absent from LoC, mostly observed Rand during ACoS, and doesn’t accomplish much here, either. His three big claims to fame in TPoD are: 1) he manages to find but not identify Morgase; 2) he receives Alliandre’s oath of fealty; and 3) he tells Masema that Rand wants to see him. None of it amounts to much, except Morgase and Faile (and others) ending up as Shaido prisoners. Whatever happened to the whole Slayer thing? Couldn’t we be having some interesting development on that? No, because presumably it’s being saved for later. (No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There’s always a boom tomorrow.)
On the topic of Perrin not doing anything, and since this is the Book of No Mat, I want to take a moment to discuss the notion of putting protagonists on sabbatical, whether for an entire volume or just a long chunk of pages.
I said before, and stand by it, that the approach of staying with one character for a long stretch of time (fifty or a hundred pages) and then shifting to another is not necessarily a bad idea, given how separated their narrative strands are. Martin mostly pulls off the trick of switching every chapter, but since his rate of publication is far, far worse than Jordan’s — 3.75 years (and counting) per book, as opposed to 1.36 for the Wheel of Time — the “block strategy” might be the wiser one in the long run. It does raise the question, though, of how to arrange the blocks. Clearly you’re not running everything on the same clock; there will be some amount of jumping back and forth in time. To minimize that, however, it’s often a wise move — where possible — to cut away when the characters aren’t doing anything interesting, and come back when their plot livens up again.
This is more or less how he handled Perrin’s sabbatical (and to a lesser extent Rand’s, during the run to Tear). Perrin’s part of TSR ends with him winning a great victory over both the Trollocs and the Whitecloaks in the Two Rivers, and settling, however reluctantly, into the position of being a local lord. He returned home, he got married, he was in a position to just coast for a while. And when we return to him during LoC, we find that indeed, that’s just what he’s been doing: coasting, dealing with a lot of minor things that don’t really deserve stepping away from the main narrative just to remind us he’s there. TFoH would not have been improved by a random chapter or two of “so here’s Perrin deciding what to do with the new immigrants” scenes.
You can argue, and I won’t disagree, that the better solution is to give Perrin something interesting to do. The Lord Luc issue, maybe. Or move up the timeline on other plots so that fewer pages pass before you have a use for him again. But if you’re going to drop him for an entire book, that’s definitely the time to do it.
Mat, on the other hand . . . .
His disappearance and return always remind me of the scene from Grosse Pointe Blank, when the protagonist comes back for his ten-year high school reunion, after having vanished without warning before graduation. He gives a very unsatisfactory accounting of the intervening time to his former girlfriend, to which she responds, “That’s it? That’s ten years? I would have hoped for a great abduction story.” Man, when I read TPoD and Mat was nowhere to be found, I thought it was a great abduction story: maybe he’d been shipped off to Seanchan, there to meet the Daughter of Nine Moons (who, in my optimistic imagination, wasn’t going to suck). Returning to him in Winter’s Heart only to find he’d been twiddling his thumbs in Ebou Dar was a complete let-down — and, I think, a narrative failure.
The thing is, we didn’t leave Mat at a nice point of equilibrium. We left him under a freaking wall, in a city the Seanchan were busy invading. TPoD tells early on in Rand’s chapters that it’s been a week since that happened, and more time passes after . . . but still no Mat. Even more tantalizingly, we get the thing about how Egwene’s dreams of him are fuzzy or washed out, as if he’s not quite real. What are we supposed to think? There are exciting events going on around Mat, but something’s odd with him; clearly, if we aren’t getting his pov, there must be a cool reason for it.
Only there wasn’t. And I don’t remember his part in the next two books well enough to speculate as to structural reasons that might have required dropping him for an entire novel, but ultimately, I don’t think there are any such reasons. Not good ones. This is pacing gone wrong, pure and simple. It’s the structure falling down, and taking the content with it.
As I was reading this book, a realization came to me, in simple and disappointing terms: the series has lost what mythic edge it once had.
Think about it. Think what the early books are like. TEotW is so very, very Epic! Fantasy! Very earnest and in love with its progenitors, and it ends up in the Blight, with the Green Man and the Eye of the World and Rand thinking he’s killed the Dark One. TGH ends with the Horn of Valere calling dead heroes back from the grave to fight off the Seanchan invaders. TDR has the first really blatant, public fulfillment of prophecy, and the end (sort of, at last) of Ba’alzamon. TSR has more prophecy, and the history of the Aiel, and the red-stone doorways. But once you get into TFoH, politics and army operations start to take over: Rand chasing the Shaido, conquering Cairhien, etc, and okay there’s the throwdown with Rahvin, but by then we’ve had enough villain pov that the Forsaken don’t feel very mythic anymore. LoC’s big throwdown is the result of political machinations. ACoS tries, with the return to Shadar Logoth, but Sammael isn’t resonant; he’s just Yet Another Forsaken, and he whiffs out without much style. Of the things I deemed thrilling events in TPoD, only one — the Bowl of Winds arc — feels very magical at all. What’s left feels . . . mundane.
Mundane doesn’t necessarily mean bad. There’s a whole lot of epic fantasy on the market right now that’s more about the gritty politics than the numinous moments, and there’s something to be said for its focus on more ordinary events. But I had this epiphany because it echoed something in my own life right now, namely, the Scion game I’m running. Planning the last session, I realized I was tramping through tedious logistics, and reminded myself that the player-characters are (quite literally) moderately powerful demigods. If we got bogged down in logistics, we were doing it wrong. So I told them to cook up some cockeyed scheme for how they were going to sneak into the bad guys’ stronghold — the more cockeyed, the better! — and a grand time was had by all.
I think the piecemeal acquisition and pacification of Tear, Cairhien, Andor, and Illian caused this series to bog down in logistics. And the more that happens, the less genuinely epic it feels to me. Big, yes. Complicated, yes. But less cool. It’s Risk instead of The Aeneid.
And in the end, that may be the root cause of the problems I detailed above. The bad pacing, the filler material, the characters going entire books without doing much that’s interesting. It may be more realistic, but I’m not sure I’d consider that a virtue — not in this case. I want the epic back.
One closing note, before we go back outside the cut: I was right about Faile. TPoD says it outright, in the person of Elyas Machera: “Swallow your tongue with a Saldaean, though, and to her, you’re saying she isn’t strong enough to stand up to you.” And Faile’s pov later on confirms it. Possibly my epiphany while reading ACoS was a faint, delayed recollection of having read those lines before, but I doubt it; it’s been thirteen years since I cracked this book. So I feel justified in patting myself on the back for wrapping my brain around her way of thinking. I actually find Faile a lot easier to tolerate inside her own pov, as the text makes it explicitly clear that she doesn’t (for example) blame Perrin for Berelain’s behavior. Her gender politics are still a bit sketchy, but in a way that’s endemic to the series, rather than a hateful quirk of her own; as I said back in the post for TEotW, there’s the running notion that what a strong-minded woman values is an even stronger-minded man telling her what to do, at least some of the time. I have a vague sense that I liked the way she conducts herself while captive with the Shaido, though, so that’s something to look forward to.
Aaaaand we’re done for now, until May or June, whenever I get around to Winter’s Heart. It’s the second of the Bad Three, but I have a more positive recollection of it than of either book that brackets it; hopefully that won’t prove to be false. (I need something to give me hope before I tackle Crossroads of Twilight. Otherwise, I can only reassure myself with the knowledge that it gets better after that.)