(Re)visiting the Wheel of Time: Knife of Dreams
[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 this one.]
After more than eight and a half years of waiting, I finally get to find out What Happens Next.
I read this last month, but it’s taken me a while to sit down and post about it. See, I’m doing two things now: analyzing the structural decisions and their effects (the general purpose of these posts), but also reacting to new developments in the story. I actually considered making two posts, one for each purpose. This is already an epic enough undertaking, though, that I decided to keep it to one, and see if I can’t handle both tasks.
On the reaction side, then: was I satisfied by this book? No — but I don’t think there’s any world in which this book could have satisfied me. I’ve been waiting for the story to move forward since January 2003, y’all. After the disappointment that was Crossroads of Twilight, this book would have had to walk on water and raise the dead for me to be entirely happy with it. Was it an improvement? Hell YES. (But then, there was pretty much nowhere to go but up.)
First scene: Congratulations, Galad! You have accomplished more of significance in thirteen pages than most of the characters did in the entirety of CoT. (Also, welcome back to the story. I don’t think we’ve seen you since TFoH, though I might be wrong.)
I’m not going to go scene-by-scene here, of course — this post would never end — but the prologue, while still spending lots of time on characters and corners of the plot I don’t much care about, is a lot more successful than its several immediate predecessors, because the individual scenes actually connect up. Galad killing Valda, and Ituralde doing his raiding thing, lead to Suroth’s problems, which creates more of a feel of forward motion than most of these prologues manage. It flags again with the Tower part, though — Pevara and Alviarin — which manages to introduce some new content (the head of the Red Ajah advocating bonding Asha’man), but intermixes it with crap we’ve known for more than a book (oaths of fealty, etc). Then a hop to Galina getting captured by Perrin, then back to the Tower for Egwene, but not in a way that really connects with the previous two Tower scenes.
Still and all, though: better than CoT. We’re off to an improved start. Let’s see where the rest of it goes.
But first, a brief comment on plot, instead of structure. For all I detest Elaida and think she’s a crappy Amyrlin, on analysis, I think she made the right decision regarding Egwene — given the information she had at the time. Prior to the revelation of Egwene’s Talent for Dreaming, busting her back to novice was actually a sensible choice. Elaida had every reason to think Egwene’s quiet disappearance would throw the Salidar camp into chaos, with no answers as to where their puppet Amyrlin has gone. Contrariwise, executing or stilling Egwene would turn her into a martyr — that poor girl! She was just the victim of Romanda and Lelaine. Plus, it would squander her strength as a channeler. Given that Elaida has already established a precedence for demotion (which used to be unheard of), and also given that Elaida didn’t know about either Egwene’s Aiel training (which helps her endure hardship) or her status as a Dreamer (which allows her to coordinate with the Salidar camp), this really is the best strategy for Elaida to pursue. It ain’t her fault that Egwene manages to outmaneuver her so thoroughly later on.
Next we move to Perrin and then Faile. Minor thing that annoyed me here: in the narration (well before the dialogue makes a similar shift), Bakayar Mishima is always referred to as Mishima, but Tylee Khirgan — who outranks him — is always referred to as Tylee. It’s really hard not to see that as a gender thing, treating a female character on more intimate, less respectful terms than a male one. As for the content . . . it falls pretty firmly into the zone where I would have been fine with it if I weren’t already so freaking bored with this plot. It’s probably worth showing the math in this instance, so that we see the challenges associated with pulling off the eventual resolution, but at this point I just want it to be done already.
Mat and his courtship of Tuon are similar, but mixed with the issue that (as is so often the case in this series) the material could have been presented more efficiently. Fewer pages describing the purchase of the razor for her; mention of the facedown with Seanchan soldiers at the entrance to the circus, rather than playing it out in full. Cut those down so as to keep the focus more on important things, like Bethamin channeling, and Mat figuring out what Aludra wants a bellfounder for. But it’s actually kind of refreshing to have one of the relationships in this series get properly developed; I may not like their dynamic, but at least work goes into making it happen, rather than the characters falling in “love” (the quotation marks are necessary) when they barely know each other at all.
. . . which gets horribly undercut with a certain incident at the end of Chapter 9, but we’ll come back to that later.
And HOLY SHIT WE’RE FINALLY MOVING FORWARD ON THE MOIRAINE THING. You know, the plot everybody’s been waiting for since the end of TFoH. I can’t help but view the letter she wrote to Thom with a cynical eye; it feels to me like Jordan realized that oops, it’s been six freaking books since she “died,” and we really need some kind of justification for why that plot has been stalled all this time. Hence the line about “you must not show [Mat] this letter until he asks about it.” I also feel like Mat’s concerns about the *finn spying on him via their interference in his head is way belated, given how easily his mind runs to paranoia. At the very least, he should have been speculating as to their motives a lot sooner.
Back to Perrin, back to me not caring. The thing is, I am just left completely cold by the whole “my wife is the only thing in the world that matters” attitude. It isn’t romantic, though I feel like I’m supposed to read it that way. It’s obsessive. It’s selfish: he doesn’t care about all the other Shaido prisoners, just that one. Just the one that matters to him. I mostly want Perrin to rescue Faile simply so that he’ll start thinking about something else at last. Unfortunately, that involves something else that bothered me a lot — which we will again come back to in a little while.
Elayne next. I’m sorry to see Aviendha go; it feels like more splitting of the party (as if, at this stage, there’s still a party to split), but it’s good to see Elayne successfully politicking the Sea Folk, and making progress against Mellar, rather than being oblivious to the viper in her bosom <cough cough HALIMA>. The real satisfaction with her, though, will come later in the book — which is generally true of all the characters. There’s a sense here of forward momentum, that was almost completely lacking in CoT, but it won’t pay off until the second half of the novel. (Fortunately, it does actually pay off.)
On page 384, we finally get to Rand, who is ostensibly still our main character. It’s funny — in a not-very-amusing way — the extent to which he’s been sidelined in this story. Thinking back, I honestly don’t feel like Rand’s been the center of the tale, even in a diffuse way, since Lord of Chaos, except for the brief excitement when he cleansed saidin at the end of Winter’s Heart. He’s done stuff, sure — but a lot of it has felt like makework or more of what we’ve seen before, while the actual progress (when we have it) has come in the plotlines of other characters.
This would be fascinating if I thought it was deliberate, a deconstruction of the role of the hero in epic fantasy, eschewing one Chosen Hero for the collective action of many. Unfortunately, it feels instead like a consequence of the kudzu growth of the plot: as Jordan gave more development to Mat and Perrin and Egwene and Elayne and Nynaeve — and Siuan and Pevara and Ituralde and their second cousins’ ex-roommates, not to mention a whole host of villains — he needed to finish that stuff up before he could get to Rand’s big finale, with the result that Rand’s exciting plot moments keep getting pushed back and back and back. Since we can’t have him vanish from the story entirely, his scenes end up going in a slow downward spiral of madness, injury, politics, and unproductive war. I was trying to tell kurayami_hime what happens with Rand in this book, and all I could remember was “Trollocs attack, and then he captures Semirhage and gets his hand burned off.” He does a few other things, like sorting out Tear, but compared to the other major characters, it isn’t very much.
But hey, Loial gets pov! I noticed a while ago what a high proportion of the random tertiary viewpoints are women. Partly this is because of the prominence of Aes Sedai/Black Ajah in the story, but there are various male characters who could get pov and don’t, like Thom, Lan, and Loial. (New Spring notwithstanding, plus the Sanderson books, which I haven’t yet read.) It’s nice to see Loial get, if not a Crowning Moment of Awesome, at least a Moment, with his speechifying. And Nynaeve also gets a pretty awesome Moment; as tired as I am of the manipulative tone that predominates between men and women in this series, the trick she pulls on Lan is awfully well-done. Have fun riding to Tarwin’s Gap, Lan!
(I wonder if that bit is why Jordan chose to step back for New Spring before putting this book out — to set up the issues with Malkier and the Golden Crane more clearly in the reader’s mind. If so, it makes me wonder about his plans for the other two prequels, and how they might have played into the remaining books. Would the long-delayed revelation to Tam that Rand’s the Dragon Reborn have been less of a thundering disappointment if he’d gotten his prequel? We’ll never know.)
The Sea Folk chapter seems as good a time as any to bring up one of the running threads in this book, which is that Jordan is delivering to a surprising degree on the promise of apocalypse. Credit where it is due: although I expected all the warfare and such, things like the mass suicide of the Amayar are more of a surprise. And the ripples seen in Faile’s chapter, and the changes in the layout of the palace in Caemlyn, speak to a cosmic breakdown rather than just a social and political one — which is far more alarming. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out over the last three books. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to sustain over such a length, especially when it should be growing worse with time. Hopefully this won’t turn out to be like the “bubbles of evil” that appeared at the beginning of The Shadow Rising, and were basically never seen again.
Back to Salidar, where we get a bit of balancing: there is a way for women to sense a man’s channeling. (It’s been bugging me for quite a while that men could sense women, but not vice versa. This one requires a weave, but it’s better than nothing.) Also, I note that Pevara’s scene back in the prologue mentioned men Healing stilled women; it seems that brought them back up to full strength, as Nynaeve did with Logain, but not with Siuan and Leane. I can’t remember if that had been mentioned earlier, but I don’t think so, and it fits in with my guess that full recovery requires the assistance of the opposite sex. (Could a male channeler bring Siuan and Leane up to full strength now? Dunno.) Continuing the trend of “things finally get sorted out so the plot can move forward,” the Salidar Aes Sedai finally learn about the cleansing of saidin, and Halima’s cover is also blown. At long. Bloody. Last.
Egwene’s chapter is actually pretty cool. Very little of what’s in it is flashy — although her schooling Bennae about the secret Tower records is pretty sweet — but she does a splendid job of not-quite-passive resistance, choosing which battles to fight and which to concede, and embracing her ongoing punishment as a sign of victory.
(Another random side-note: I will be curious to see whether Sanderson, given his views, quietly bypasses the clear indications that lesbianism is practiced in the Tower and other places. Also, can anybody tell me whether there are any unambiguous references to male homosexuality in the series? I can’t think of any, but they may be there.)
Now we start intercutting more rapidly between characters: Tarna (for whom I have sympathy, trying to deal with Elaida), Mat, Tuon, Perrin, Faile, back to Rand. I think this is a necessary shift as we get closer to the resolution of various plots; it’s harder to wrangle than the several-chapter-chunks of previous books, but helps avoid the problems we saw in The Path of Daggers, where the points of high tension were scattered all over the book, and the end felt like a letdown.
Which doesn’t mean we avoid letdowns entirely: Semirhage is, I think, the new holder of the Forsaken Who Went Down Like a Punk title. Seriously, Asmodean may have gone out with a whimper in the end, but he got a significant battle with Rand before his fangs were pulled, and even Be’lal had more of a throwdown with Moiraine. Semirhage goes from “holy shit it’s her!” to “problem solved” in literally a single page. Even her burning off Rand’s hand doesn’t feel like much of an achievement — more a sop to make up for her otherwise disappointing performance. I find myself sort of wishing Jordan had approached Tuon the way Martin did Daenerys; if we’d been following her on the Seanchan end of things since early on, the story could maybe have been structured in a fashion to make Semirhage’s slaughter of the entire imperial family carry some impact, rather than coming across like a newspaper headline from the other side of the world.
Faile’s escape/rescue feels like a slightly awkward compromise between “she’s enough of a pov character now that she should have some agency in resolving this” and “it’s going to feel lame if Perrin’s efforts end up being unnecessary.” At least that plot has finally wound up, though (which is basically the refrain for this entire book). Also, is it bad that I was happy to see Aram go? He’s just felt like this annoying dog yapping at the edges of various scenes for ages now. But add Faile to the list of Things To Discuss Later — they’re all interrelated, so we’ll leave them for the end.
Elayne’s conclusion here is pretty exciting, to a degree we haven’t seen for a while: there’s real cost (people die), and real negative turns for Elayne (her capture could have gone very badly), and real bits of cleverness by various characters (Birgitte strong-arming the Windfinders into helping). And then she’s Queen! For realz! Hallelujah!
And Mat gets married! I have to admit I was entertained by the way it played out. As they said, uh, maybe two books ago, all it takes is saying the thing three times before witnesses. So instead of a stereotypical wedding ceremony, we get “Matrim Cauthon is my husband. […] Matrim Cauthon is my husband. […] Bloody Matrim Cauthon is my husband. That is the wording you used, is it not?” I frankly appreciate the lack of sentimentality, both before and after; Mat may be in love, but Tuon’s priorities are still on the bigger picture, as well they should be. For all my issues with the two of them, they’re probably just behind Nynaeve and Lan for relationships I like — ahead of Rand and all his ladies, and WAY ahead of Perrin and Faile.
And finally, two nearly-random epilogue scenes: Suroth’s downfall, and Pevara’s arrival at the Black Tower, raising hopes of that plotline seeing resolution in the near future (by which I mean the next book).
This book achieved a decent bit, though. Major plots wrapped up in Knife of Dreams: Perrin rescues Faile, Mat marries Tuon, and Elayne become Queen. All three of those have been dragging on since the end of TPoD or earlier. Two major villains get knocked out (Suroth and Semirhage), and other things make satisfying forward progress (Egwene in the Tower). It is, without a doubt, a vast improvement.
So what complaint have I been delaying throughout this post? Basically, the fact that several of the characters make moral decisions that I find frankly reprehensible, and nothing in the narrative says boo about it.
With Mat and Tuon, it’s the moment where she puts an a’dam on Joline. For my money, that gets dismissed way too casually. It’s interesting that she freely acknowledges her own ability to learn to channel, and has an answer for why it doesn’t matter; you can argue with her reasoning — if channeling is so very bad, why is it justifiable to use other people’s ability on your own behalf? — but at least she comes across as smart enough to think that one through. Her willingness to depersonalize Aes Sedai and other channelers, though, really eats away at my sympathy for her, and Mat’s willingness to ignore it as soon as the collar comes off makes me pissed at him, too. What the story needed was a scene, or rather more than one, that actually addressed Tuon’s Seanchan prejudices, and worked past them to a moment of character growth; what we get instead is a token nod to the problem, after which it gets swept under the rug so we can get on with the Politically-Ever-After of their romance plot.
That pales next to the two incidents on the Perrin/Faile end of things, though. Faile’s is the death of Rolan, or more precisely, the way she responds to it. Now, I will freely grant that the entire situation there is complicated, and Rolan is not a straight-up good guy. He’s the one who captured Faile in the first place and handed her off into
slavery gai’shain white; he’s also trying to make use of his leverage over her to get nookie, which is coercive no matter how friendly he is in presenting it. But he was also trying to help her escape, and I’m really bothered by the fact that Faile doesn’t bother to mention that to Perrin after he cuts Rolan down. I mean, the general trend of the story right now has been toward compromising with morally dubious allies for the greater good; it’s not as if Our Heroes are so pure that Rolan’s attempted aid should be dismissed out of hand.
The real horror — to the point where I may have to consider it a Moral Event Horizon — is with Perrin. Remember how I said I didn’t find his “the only thing that matters is Faile” attitude very sympathetic? Well, he lost my sympathy for good in his deal with the Seanchan.
True, Rand is also dealing with the Seanchan. I can accept his decision, though, as I don’t accept Perrin’s, for a variety of reasons. For one, Rand proposes alliance so as to halt the war that now stretches across the entire continent, and to prepare for Tarmon Gai’don. For another, my impression of what he’s offering — which could be wrong — is a “live and let live” policy, at least for now. This is rather different from Perrin’s deal, which goes much further than turning a blind eye to Seanchan practices: he literally sells four hundred women into slavery in exchange for military help. That would be like Rand saying “in exchange for peace, I’ll let you collar the whole White Tower.” And why does Perrin do this? Not for Tarmon Gai’don. Not to save the surrounding land from the depradations of the Shaido. Not even to free all the other prisoners they hold; Faile’s the one who shows concern for that. No, Perrin sells out four hundred women to a fate possibly worse than death just so he can get his wife back.
Good-bye, Perrin. I’m done with you. I will read your future chapters in the faint hope that somebody will point out what you did, and that maybe you’ll realize your error — but I doubt it. And even if you do, I have a hard time imagining how you could redeem yourself. You’ve never been a character much interested in the bigger picture; even during your war in the Two Rivers, you were motivated more by tribal concerns (I have to protect My People) and vengeance (my family is dead) than by concern for the world. Since then, your selfishness has pretty much eclipsed all else, to the point where there’s no better man for you to return to being. This is who you are, and I don’t like you anymore.
(Yeah. I’m angry.)
Final takeaway: I think Winter’s Heart, Crossroads of Twilight, and Knife of Dreams could and should have been two books instead of three. As discussed in previous posts, you could have offloaded some of the CoT material into WH; then take what remains, jettison 2/3 of it, tighten up what remains and the flabbier parts of KoD, and walk away with two volumes of much leaner, meaner plot.
It’s easy to say that in retrospect, of course. I have sympathy for the difficulty of wrangling so many strands over such a long series. But this is an argument for keeping better control of those strands in the first place, so you don’t end up with such a pacing mess that it takes a herculean effort to drag yourself out of it again.
. . . and now I’m in the home stretch. All that remains are the three Sanderson books. If I stick to the original schedule, I’ll be reading The Gathering Storm in November/December, The Towers of Midnight in January/February, and then A Memory of Light in March, which is (last I checked) the planned pub date. Sanderson is 70% of the way through the first draft, according to his site, and given how fast Tor can push the book out to shelves when they have to, he may yet make it. Or not. I’ll keep an eye on things, and adjust the schedule as needed.