Revisiting the Wheel of Time: Winter’s Heart
[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.]
Took me a while to get around to posting this one. I actually read the book last month, but my notes have been sitting around for a few weeks now — possibly a sign that I’m running out of steam. This is the ninth book, after all, and I’ve been doing this since January of last year; after a while, momentum does become an issue. (Doesn’t help that the next book is Crossroads of Twilight. I think I may have mentioned how little I’m looking forward to that one, once or twice. Or three times. Or more.)
But anyway. Winter’s Heart. Which is, indeed, better-shaped than the previous book, though still suffering the characteristic problems of the Bad Three.
So, the Prologue is seventy-one pages long, in a six hundred and forty-two page book. That translates to fully eleven percent of the text.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what we call unbalanced.
But okay, given how I’ve harped on the prologues lately, let me point out the improvement: there are only four points of view this time, all of them pre-established, and two of them belonging to major characters (Elayne and Rand). Given the tendency to add to the cast and waste time with minor characters, this is good. Not perfect, mind you: Seaine finds members of the Black Ajah, but we the readers knew about them already, so why do we care about her discovery? Likewise, the accusation against Elaida would be more interesting if we we weren’t comprehensively sure that she isn’t. Toveine has appeared before, for the brief scene of her boot party failing at the Black Tower, but her scene here seems mostly a device to update us that (surprise surprise) Taim and Logain don’t get along. The protagonist scenes are much more satisfying; I rather like the adoption ritual between Elayne and Aviendha, though I don’t entirely buy the anger moment — maybe the saidar weaves help that along? And Rand’s scene announces a Big Important Thing, which ACTUALLY PAYS OFF BEFORE THE END OF THE BOOK. Holy shit, y’all. It’s like, progress or something.
(Side note: I find it interesting that Taim ordered his minions to face the wall when Elayne started stripping. Even if he’s a lech himself, it comes across as weirdly considerate of him.)
As for the rest of the book, the only way I can organize this anymore is by character, with some side notes at the end.
Perrin first. My notes say “don’t care, don’t care, don’t care, sigh.” The problem with him is that he doesn’t do anything except angst, have trouble with Berelain, and tell Masema they’re leaving. Faile is the more interesting pov right now, and I like her better when we’re in her head, too — though at this stage of the story, elaborating on her situation is maybe not the wisest choice.
At this point, I’m firmly convinced that Jordan himself had lost interest in Perrin — and furthermore, that it happened a while ago. Book by book, what has happened with Perrin since his big victory in TSR? TFoH, he took a sabbatical from the story. LoC, he remained absent for most of the book, then wrangled people for the save-Rand expedition at Dumai’s Wells. ACoS, he observed Rand, and was sent to deal with Masema. TPoD, he picked up Alliandre and Morgase (not recognizing the latter), and had some mostly pointless conversations with Masema. This book, he goes in search of Faile.
Mat, in the same span of time, died and came back to life, killed Couladin, put together an army, gave it to Egwene, helped Elayne and Nynaeve and Aviendha, fought the gholam, saved three Aes Sedai, and kidnapped the Daughter of Nine Moons.
I just don’t think Jordan was excited about Perrin’s part of the story anymore. Maybe he was excited by stuff that was going to happen, but for whatever reason — possibly contained in the books I haven’t read yet — he kept it in reserve, and filled these pages with make-work instead. Why not have Perrin deal with Luc/Isam/Slayer instead? We’ve barely heard anything from that plot since TSR. Presumably Jordan is saving it for later; unfortunately, the effect is that it robs now of any interest.
Elayne next, because I wrote these notes vaguely in the order the characters get focus in the story. The problem here is that her section is too leisurely. The detail in it isn’t inherently bad — but it isn’t important enough to warrant delaying the story for it. Case in point: the assassination attempt. Jordan seems to want it to come as a sudden shock, but in order to do that, he puts us through a lot of tedium first, as Elayne meets with the First Maid, then with the First Clerk, etc, etc, yawn. Just get to the attack already, and trust in your skill as a writer to make it exciting. (Mat’s hanging in TSR wasn’t prefaced by a lot of routine business, and for my money, that was one of the most shocking moments in the series.) Ditto meeting with the Borderlanders: at this point, we’re willing to trust that Elayne and her peeps are competent enough to set it all up; we don’t need to see the math. Just hop right in to the scene where Elayne rides up to negotiate with them — that’s the interesting part.
In a post-script to previous discussions, I should note that again, the transition to sex between Elayne and Rand is oddly bloodless. And the women once again evince the attitude of fascinated prudery that characterizes their entire gender throughout this series.
Mat: well, let’s start with Tuon. I remember fan speculation in the years leading up to this book; we guessed she would be sul’dam, and we were right. (There was just too much irony to be had in him marrying a woman who can channel.) And she’s dark-skinned, which I had forgotten. So much for the positives: for the negatives, eh. It isn’t quite Lanfear-level disappointment, but I did want her to be cooler than she is. Maybe the problem is partly that her chapter doesn’t accomplishing anything significant except to tell us who she is.
Moving on to Mat himself — what’s up with the colors, anyway? All three guys are getting them. I don’t remember that being explained in CoT; does it come later? (Don’t tell me what the explanation is, though.) Anyway, I suspect his story got put on hold for the duration of TPoD because Jordan didn’t want Tuon to arrive until after Suroth had been defeated by Rand’s forces, and that was the Big Finale for that book, so. If true, then this, ladies and gents, is the danger of giving each protagonist at most one important Event per book.
I see a contrast between the delaying effect placed on Mat’s escape from Ebou Dar, though, and Elayne’s scenes earlier. There, it felt like Jordan was trying to set up a sudden shock; here, he’s building tension, and it works much better. For one thing, the logistics aren’t routine. The gathering of disguises and a’dam and all the rest of it could blow up in Mat’s face at any time, so it’s worth following them step by step, watching things go wronger and wronger until we hit the disaster of Tuon at the end. I don’t begrudge the time spent on this — not like I begrudge Elayne’s padded-out pages.
Olver: not funny to me.
Fain: still not dead.
This is the book where I like Nynaeve better, though — or rather, I go back to feeling justified in liking her, rather than reading against the text to preserve the characteristics I like, and ignore the ones I don’t. She seems to have arrived at something like an equilibrium of respect with Rand; they still butt heads occasionally, but they do so in a relatively productive manner, which is all too rare in this series. It helps, of course, that she no longer has to be angry all the time.
Rand himself is also better, in large part because — as I said before — he announces a goal, follows through, and FINISHES IT IN THIS BOOK. Halle-bloody-lujah. Far Madding works relatively well, too. Yeah, Jordan’s introducing yet another corner of the world — but it’s got some genuinely original details (though please can we ignore the strap in the hotel room, what the hell), it has some worthwhile plot taking place there, and (most importantly) we get in and then get out again, without the place spawning new complications that will continue to haunt us for the next four books. As with various other scenes earlier in the series, the moment of Lan telling Rand to let him fall is shorter than I remember, and not quite as awesome . . . but oh well, I can still kind of fill it in.
I find myself pondering this motif of Rand needing to be “harder than stone.” On the one hand, it is tres macho, in ways we’ve seen a thousand times. On the other hand, we have various characters — Cadsuane chiefest among them — insisting that Rand needs to be softer, and I’m pretty sure the author is on their side. I mention this mostly as a reminder to myself to keep an eye on that as the story continues; I won’t really know what I think of it until I see where it’s going. It might just turn out to be Jordan having his cake and eating it, too — spending books and books with an uber-hardass hero before he has a touching moment of emotional weakness at the end. Or it might not: there’s a chance here for some actual commentary on the concept, which would be pretty cool if it happened.
Small side note before we get to the two final topics I want to discuss: are the Seanchan going to repopulate Randland? We’ve talked before about how depopulated the continent seems, and what the possible explanations are for that. One way or another, the Seanchan homeland doesn’t seem to have had an equivalent demographic drop, if they can export such a quantity of settlers to their new colonies.
Now, plot topic first. I always think of this particular finale as the Forsaken Hoe-down: it’s a party, and everybody’s invited!
Seriously, Moridin is the only Forsaken who doesn’t show up outside Shadar Logoth. [Edit: I forgot that Mesaana is absent.] We’ve got Cyndane, Moghedien, Graendal, Aran’gar, Osan’gar, Demandred . . . and I swear Jordan threw up his hands and said, “You know what? Screw it. Yes, Cyndane is Lanfear! Osan’gar is Dashiva! Moridin is Ishamael! Hell, Elza’s a Darkfriend! Are you all happy yet!” There was so much fan speculation that got Kripke’d in this finale, and most of it with very little fanfare. I can’t shake the impression that Jordan lost patience with all the hand-waving and obfuscation, and decided to simplify his life.
Which isn’t a bad thing. This is one of the better finales we’ve had in a while, in part because we get the satisfaction of results — both for us, and for Rand, who pulls off a serious victory here. I do find it funny, though, that after eight books of him running around fighting the bad guys, he basically sits this one out, while around him a very motley assortment of male and female channelers cooperate in the throwdown. (My notes say “Lanfear, meet Alivia. And her angreal. heh. heh heh heh heeee.”) My one slight frowny-face comes from the fact that Rand’s ter’angreal survives the cleansing, and Nynaeve’s doesn’t. This is probably relevant, and it makes me a little sad for what it implies.
(Put Osan’gar on the list alongside Sammael, though, for scenes that Jordan may have intended to be actual deaths, but which are so ambiguously-staged that we get no satisfaction from them. I actually went and checked the Wheel of Time wiki to see what happened to Osan’gar, and even there it’s not definite.)
Finally, one non-plot-focused issue:
Specifically, the Chair of Remorse used on Talene in the Prologue. That’s what got me thinking, anyway, though the topic is really threaded throughout this whole series. The use against known criminals is already iffy: the consequences it shows them are hypothetical, not real, and it’s definitely psychologically harmful — but then again, so is a lot of what we do in our real-world prisons, and this method strikes me as having better odds of preventing recidivism. Its use against Talene, though? You can’t call that anything but torture.
The peculiar thing about the Talene incident is that unlike most torture scenes by the “good guys” in fiction, they aren’t trying to get any information out of her. One of the usual arguments made against torture in interrogation, of course, is that the information it produces isn’t reliable, especially when compared to other, more humane methods. The dynamic here is different, though. They’re torturing her specifically to break her will, so that she’ll re-swear the Oaths, and then be inextricably bound to speak the truth. And of course, Talene wouldn’t have resisted for so long unless she had something to hide . . . .
This comes down to one of the things that fascinates me about fantasy: the fact that you can create a world whose logical conditions are not the same as ours. Torture does not produce reliable information — but in this fictional world, magic can, and torture can produce a situation that allows the magic to work. Furthermore, members of the Black Ajah have incontrovertible proof that the Satan-figure they swore themselves to is real, and if they renege on their oaths to him, they are fucked. The methods used by real-world interrogators often hinge on convincing the target that they can better their lot by cooperating — but that doesn’t work in Randland. Cooperation is a death warrant, when Myrddraal and Grey Men and Forsaken can step out of nowhere and shiv you on the spot. (And you don’t even get the promise of going to heaven afterward.)
In a scenario like that, how do you convince the bad guys to turn? Isn’t the used of such tactics thereby justified?
Maybe — within the story. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of this comes about because of the author’s choices. Jordan created a situation where Seaine and the others are justified in torturing Talene, where it produces important, useful results. And he’s made use of it before; way back in LoC, Nynaeve thinks of what they’ve been doing to Moghedien as being “just short of torture.” We don’t get details, so how badly you read that line depends on your own assumptions. Having re-read this scene, I’m inclined to revoke my earlier, more charitable interpretation: it probably is torture, once again justified by the results it produces. And those results happen because Jordan has created a setting in which the torture is both necessary and effective.
This is not cool. And, like the “we were trying to tell a humorous gender-flipped story about rape” problem of Mat and Tylin, I’m pretty seriously disturbed, now that I’m an alert enough reader to notice it.
Whoof. CoT next, and after that, I’m into the books I haven’t read before (including New Spring). I may speed up my timeline of reading and posting; I may want to take new material at a faster pace. We’ll see.