[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.]
I’ll be doing two posts apiece for the final three books, the ones written by Sanderson — not because Sanderson wrote them, but because the story in them is actually new to me. (I should have also done this for Knife of Dreams, on the same grounds, but I’m not going to backtrack that far now.)
In order to keep my remarks something like organized, I’m splitting them into my reactions as a reader, and my analysis as a writer. Of course, it won’t really be possible to keep those two things entirely separate: my reader-reactions will inevitably include some analytical comments, and my structural analysis will perforce be colored by my feelings as a reader. But this will at least allow me to have two lengthy posts, rather than one unreadably long monstrosity.
Reactions first. And these are as spoilery as spoilers get, so let’s go behind the cut.
Back when I was reading The Gathering Storm the first time, I made a brief post saying that I was kind of glad Sanderson was writing the end of the series, instead of Jordan. I need to unpack what I meant by that . . . especially because my reasoning is the exact opposite of what I expected when I heard they’d tapped him for the job.
Some background: I’m not really a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s novels. I got maybe halfway through Mistborn before I realized I didn’t care enough about the story to read the rest; I read the start of another one (can’t recall which) and bounced out of it in less than a hundred pages. His stuff just doesn’t work for me. His magic systems are very original, yes, but they also feel very artificial — like a video game, with a bar in the upper corner of my screen tracking how much of each metal or whatever the character has left. I like my magic, and my fantasy more generally, to be numinous, and I got the exact opposite of that from Sanderson.
But it’s really the characters where his work fell flat for me. Characters are probably my number one doorway into story, and I just never cared about Sanderson’s. They didn’t come alive in my mind. To be fair, the Wheel of Time is never a series I’ve really read for deep character investment; Jordan is, as I’ve said before, not all that great at characterization (on women especially), and the things I remember from high school as being moments of high drama more or less universally turned out to be a lot less compelling when I came back to them on this re-read. But that combination — a series whose characters I’m not deeply invested in, now in the hands of a writer whose ability to make me care has an abysmal track record — meant that my expectations for that facet of the story were pretty damn low.
I was shocked at how much certain parts of this book moved me.
The incident that prompted my mid-book post had to do with Semirhage. By the way: HOLY GOD WAS I WRONG when I called her the new holder of the Forsaken Who Went Down Like a Punk title. I take it back I take it back itakeitback. She is, in fact, possibly the most effective of the Forsaken thus far. Sure, she requires an assist from Shaidar Haran and Elza Penfell, and sure, she doesn’t get a big epic battle like, say, Rahvin — nor does she temporarily kill any of Rand’s good friends — but for sheer, effective malevolence, she flat-out wins.
We always knew the
Sad Bracelets Domination Band would get used on Rand someday; that particular gun has been sitting on the mantel since, what, The Shadow Rising? And it would have been nicely appalling all on its own. But using that to force Rand to strangle Min, and relive Ilyena’s murder . . . and then straight from that into Rand emotionally flat-lining and channeling the True Power. The visceral horror I felt at that moment was remarkable. Jordan and Sanderson had, between them, built a situation from which there was no other visible escape; and yet the solution was arguably worse than no escape at all. Calling on the Dark One for help: not the sort of thing the hero should do. Ever.
That was the point at which I got up and made my post. Because I kept thinking that, although I’m sure Jordan had outlined most or all of that sequence of events, Sanderson had written it more effectively than he would have. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe that scene is even something Jordan wrote before he passed away, and Sanderson only rearranged the commas. But there was emotional force in it that I don’t recall ever getting from Jordan’s own writing. Not when Nynaeve broke her block; not when Moiraine ~suicided to take out Lanfear. Not even when Rand found Mat hanging from Avendasora, which for my money is one of the most effectively shocking moments in the series. I don’t know what chemical reaction happened to take two writers whose characterization doesn’t move me very much and combine them into something that does, but the result is undeniable.
Nothing else got me quite that intensely, but the emotional strength of the narrative reappeared in other parts of the book. The horrified reactions by other characters to Rand’s loss of affect, and then his own journey from the rock bottom of attacking Tam to the height of his epiphany on Dragonmount. I actually felt his despair over the inevitability of the cosmos he lives in: the Wheel of Time turns, everything comes round again, and what’s the point of defeating the Dark One if everybody’s just going to end up rinsing and repeating in a few thousand years? (It made Moridin weirdly sympathetic, when Rand spoke to him in that dream. Might as well skip to the end.) Love as the lifeline Rand clings to isn’t the most original theme in the world, but our stories come back to it again and again because there’s truth in the idea. If things like love aren’t what we live for, what makes the suffering worthwhile, then maybe we should just skip to the end.
(I do wonder, though. Rand thinks to himself that Ilyena might live again — and of course her name is an awful lot like Elayne’s. But he’s in love with three women. Min thinks the prophecy about Callendor refers to Rand plus two women in a circle, but is that really what it’s predicting? Though it would be weird as hell to have Elayne, Aviendha, and Min full-on merge into a single person, if they’re somehow three pieces of Ilyena’s soul. Or, for that matter, for Rand, Mat, and Perrin to do the same, our ta’veren trio. Though Rand figures out that Lews Therin was his own mind talking to him all along, and he’s also weirdly connected to Moridin these days, so maybe that is going somewhere. There are a variety of interesting threes walking around, and it’s fun to play games with that that line might mean.)
Egwene, of course, is awesome. I agree with a friend of mine that it’s sad the Green Ajah didn’t make a better showing of it during the Seanchan attack, but then again, Egwene identifies with them, so that counts for something. I also noticed that her interactions with Aes Sedai of various stripes explicitly has them praising her for the qualities she shares with their Ajahs: the Browns respect her knowledge of history, the Whites admire her logic, she’s trying to heal the Tower like a Yellow, etc. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but it’s also appropriate: she’s the first Amyrlin in centuries — maybe ever — to truly be of all Ajahs and none.
And Verin. VERIN.
Okay, look: I never liked all the fan speculation about her being Black Ajah. My reason was that I hated the Black Ajah, and not in that “I hate them because they are villains” way, but rather in the “I hate them because they’re annoying” way. And since I liked Verin, the prospect of her being associated with those irritating shrews was not one I wanted to contemplate.
If she had to be Black Ajah, this is hands-down the best way it could have turned out. It is so very much a Brown way to be Black, and it not only preserves Verin as a character worthy of respect, it gives me new reasons to admire her. In fact, she had so many little moments of awesomeness in her final scene, I could probably re-read it several more times and still be grinning. Her use of that innocuous little ter’angreal. Her comment about selfishness being the primary quality recommending the “Chosen” to the Dark One. Her cleverness in circumventing her new oath; I wonder whether we’ll ever find out whether her speculation about the loophole being something the Dark One left in there on purpose is meaningful in-world, or whether that was just the narrative hanging a lampshade on the fact that it’s a pretty badly worded oath. And although I’m not a fan of Sheriam being Black Ajah, I have to admit that I appreciated her thoughts on why she’d joined. I still think there’s an absurd number of Darkfriends out there, both within the White Tower and without, but it makes sense to me — as much as sense can be made out of this — that many Aes Sedai join just because it’s a way to get ahead of their sisters, and that most of them don’t think it means they’re going to be along for the ride when the end of the world arrives. (It still doesn’t make perfect sense, given the incontrovertible proof of the Dark One’s existence and his apparent supremacy over every dead soul EVER. This is a world without any real religion, a world in which the Creator doesn’t do a single thing to protect or redeem anyone. So if you swear yourself to the Dark One, you’re kind of permanently fucked.)
Elaida is gone. This is good. Do I want to see her collared by the Seanchan? No. I wonder if we’ll ever see her again, or whether the damane will get freed en masse so we can at least assume she didn’t stay in captivity forever. Given how Jordan shipped Galina off to the Waste with Therava et al, though, I wouldn’t hold my breath for Elaida’s chances.
Perrin . . . I want to punch him in the face less than I feared I would? Not a rousing recommendation, but as you may recall, as of Knife of Dreams he’d lost my sympathy so hard, I’d written him off for good. He at least recognizes some of his errors here, the way that he neglected abso-fucking-lutely everything in the world in his monomaniacal obsession with rescuing Faile. (And Faile, for her own part, acknowledges the thorny problem of Rolan and the other “protectors,” which I very much appreciated.) He still doesn’t notice that selling four hundred women into slavery is a bad thing, though, and nobody’s really pointed it out to him yet.
(Gawyn, I want to punch in the face more than I expected. Good lord, but he’s being thick here. About Rand and about Egwene, and the best I can say for him is that he gets smart enough to walk away from Elaida’s side. And that Egwene handles him pretty well in the aftermath of her rescue — but that’s praise for her, not him.)
Oddly — and sadly — Mat is the character I’m the least happy with here. Not because he does anything bad, but because I think Sanderson is the least successful at writing him. I have to agree with a friend of mine, who speculated that Sanderson likes Mat too much, and it warps the resulting text. These chapters feel like he’s trying too hard. His ranting about how women are incomprehensible, and the silly plan he comes up with for going into town (before Verin comes to him), and so on; those things needed a lighter touch than they got here. It’s a shame, because Mat is one of my favorite characters — and I don’t think my dissatisfaction is because Mat is one of my favorite characters. I think he doesn’t work as well in Sanderson’s hands, and I’m just hoping his later stuff is more on-target. Nynaeve felt a bit the same to me, in her first pov bit, hammering too hard on the “wool-headed sheepherder” mentality, but she improved a bit as things went along. Maybe Mat will do the same.
I think that’s most of what I have to say that’s primarily about how I reacted to the book, rather than what I think of it. The analytical post will follow before long, in which I will look at structural matters and the payoff of various narrative strands.
And in the meanwhile, I will try to convince myself not to read Towers of Midnight just yet. But it’s a testament to how enjoyable The Gathering Storm was that I’m actively interested in getting the rest of the story, and soon.