Re(Visiting) the Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm (analysis)

[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.]

And now we talk about structure.

I don’t envy Sanderson the challenge he faced, picking up the end of this series and trying to wrangle it into something like order. Jordan may have insisted that by god it was going to be ONE MORE BOOK, but I don’t see any way in hell that could have ever worked — and I say that without even having read Towers of Midnight yet, let alone A Memory of Light. There’s enough here in this book that unless both of those are Crossroads of Twilight-level bogs of plotlessness (which I very much doubt), a single volume would have read like the Cliff Notes version of the finale.

But Sanderson didn’t have a terribly good foundation to build on, structurally speaking, as he went into the final stretch. Card-weaving would make an ideal metaphor to describe the situation here, but since very few of you know how that works, we’ll go with architecture instead: he, as the construction manager, inherited a building with four good, solid stories at the bottom, three or so dodgy levels above that, three ramshackle levels held together with increasing quantities of baling wire and duct tape, and then one that makes a valiant attempt at being structurally sound. Atop this mess, he had to build one (eventually three) final levels, and make them as habitable and pleasant as possible.

(Full disclosure: I wrote this post before reading Towers of Midnight, but ended up going ahead on that one just so I could stop worrying about spoilers when I look things up on the wiki, etc. As I polish this for posting, though, I’m avoiding making any changes that reflect my opinions post-ToM. Those comments, I will leave for the ToM posts.)

There are inevitably going to be some decisions he makes that are not ideal in their own right, but are necessary from the perspective of the eleven stories of varying solidity beneath him. Sanderson could focus equally on the major characters, but it would come at the price of delivering satisfying amounts of forward motion and resolution — and that’s a particular concern here, in the first of his own books, where everybody is going to be judging his ability to finish what Jordan started. He had to make this part of the story as exciting and satisfying as he possibly could; even, I think, if it meant creating problems for himself later on. Alternatively, he could go the Martin route of ignoring certain people entirely, so as to advance the chosen characters more energetically; but this would probably piss off readers for whom their favorites were among those ignored, and that’s a real problem when he’s trying to establish himself as Jordan’s successor. Unsurprisingly, then, he went with a compromise: acknowledging most of the major protagonists — Elayne being the chief exception — but somewhat neglecting a few (Mat and Perrin) in favor of being able to accomplish something significant with others (Rand and Egwene).

The form this compromise takes is partly based, I think, on the fact that he’d written a substantial chunk of the “last book” before the decision was made to split it into three. Rand’s later chapters make references to Perrin and Mat in situations we have not yet seen them in; their timelines are clearly no longer in synch. Personally, I have no problem with that. The Path of Daggers showed what happens when you start arbitrarily slicing your narrative into novel-sized chunks of timeline, rather than structuring it around having satisfactory payoffs at appropriate points. This is better, even if it does have its flaws.

Could you do this book more efficiently? Sure. Skip the scene where Ituralde prepares his battle at Darluna and start with the aftermath scene, where he talks to the Seanchan general. Or skip that one, too, tell us in narrative about what he’s been doing, and go straight to the scene where Rand shows up and recruits him for the Borderlands. Or don’t even do that. Leave him entirely as background, something Rand mentions in passing. (Really, if you were going to do that, you should have done it back in CoT, rather than launching him as an ongoing POV character. But I digress. Much like this series does!) Skip Gawyn’s time with the Younglings and just show him leaving, or go further and pick him up when he arrives at the rebel camp. Indicate the repetitive, inexplicable punishment Aviendha’s been getting from the Wise Ones, but don’t actually show it.

You could do that. I’m unconvinced, though, that it would (at this stage) be an improvement. Back when I made my first post, about The Eye of the World, I talked about how you could theoretically have the Trollocs attack on page 20, instead of spending time on Emond’s Field and the people there. I feel like we have, at long last, returned to something approaching that equilibrium here. You could make small excisions, maybe, but given the starting conditions going into TGS, big jumps would feel like the story was rushing — like Sanderson was taking short-cuts to the end of the story, trying to deliver the plot points without much care for atmosphere. Aviendha’s situation doesn’t mean much if we get told, not shown, the final lesson a Wise One must learn. Rand’s abandonment of Arad Doman is significant even if, ultimately, he doesn’t do much there; it is significant because he doesn’t do much there.

Of course, my tolerance for spending so much time on Ituralde and Gawyn and so on is mostly there because of what happens with the major protagonists. You guys, Rand appears IN CHAPTER ONE. It’s like he’s the main character or something! Seriously, I’ve said before that Rand hasn’t really felt like the center of the story since roughly Lord of Chaos. Here, he finally moves back into the spotlight. And it’s funny; I find myself inclined to say “he doesn’t accomplish much” on a plot front in this book — despite the fact that he wipes out two Forsaken. (Theoretically. While checking something else, I noticed that Graendal gets pov several times in Towers of Midnight. That may simply be an artifact of timeline de-synchronization, though.) The thing is, the Forsaken don’t much feel like significant elements of the story at this point; with the exception of Moridin, they’re just pins Rand needs to knock down on his way to the important stuff. They’re on par with trying to find somebody to run Arad Doman. It’s an item on a checklist, not a turning point in its own right.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if Rand didn’t take out Semirhage and (maybe) Graendal, i.e. accomplish meaningful plot actions, I would still be happy with The Gathering Storm. And that’s because he undergoes a meaningful character arc over the course of the book. Figuring out a reason to care about the world and its fate isn’t exactly a plot issue — not in the way people usually use that word — but it’s far more satisfying to me than throwing down with a villain would be. We’ve had a lot of villain throwdowns over the last eleven books; more right now wouldn’t really add anything new. Rand’s transformation is new.

And it comprehensively settles the question I’d asked before, about whether the whole issue of Rand trying to be “hard as stone” and Cadsuane/Sorilea trying to soften him was actual thematic commentary, or just a way to have a macho hero with one touching moment of weakness at the end. The shift in him as a result of Semirhage’s attack is unambiguously BAD, both on a metaphysical level (the connection to Moridin and the Dark One, the weird shadows around him) and a psychological one (the world needs a savior who actually gives a damn about it). I may roll my eyes a bit at the heavy-handed phrasing of his thoughts and the “I am cuendillar” image, but the idea is a good one. Hard-as-stone Hero = Not Good. I’m interested to see how Rand’s epiphany plays out in Towers of Midnight.

On to the smaller issues. I like the principle of how Cadsuane breaks Semirhage; it makes very good sense, and is kind of pleasing to boot, given how much I dislike the Forsaken. I do think, however, that it takes effect too quickly (seriously, one spanking and she starts eating off the floor?), and also do wish, in light of previous incidents in the series, that it weren’t a freaking spanking. But yes, disrespecting her is very much the way to go. And sheer, straightforward brutality is probably the way to take out Graendal, too. As Rand says, let her think you’re going to play her game . . . then punch her in the face.

The fact that he uses balefire on both of them is interesting. On the one hand, yes, erasing bits of the Pattern = Bad, especially when it seems to be unraveling on its own anyway. On the other hand, Rand now knows, beyond a doubt, that it’s the only way to be sure of removing a Forsaken from the board. I can’t really blame him for using it on those two. Using it on an entire fortress of people, however, is less cool. On the other hand, again, there’s an interesting moral question there, since we’ve been told again and again that Graendal obliterates the minds of her servants. There was no rescuing those people. On the . . . what hand are we on now? Anyway, this isn’t just killing people who couldn’t be saved; it’s preventing them from ever being born again. And that makes this pretty obviously a Moral Event Horizon (for anybody who missed the significance of the True Power usage against Semirhage), not only because Rand does it, but because he doesn’t care.

The widespread disintegration of the Pattern is outright fascinating to me. Bits of buildings migrate; will bits of other things start doing the same? Or does the sentience of a person contribute to them holding their own pattern together, so that we don’t have to worry about people waking up with somebody else’s arm stuck to their shoulder? The failure of plants to sprout and the spontaneous decay of food is seriously alarming — to the point where I’m wondering how many days are left in-story between now and the Last Battle. It already seems to be nearing the point where the world is going to need some kind of miraculous spring when the Dark One is defeated, or it really will just slide into a non-cosmological abyss of famine and social collapse. It isn’t there yet, of course, but a part of me feels like that’s because Jordan, and Sanderson after him, are reluctant to fully embrace what the situation they present should look like. I know from my own research how that kind of thing might go, and this book seems to be soft-pedaling it a bit. But this has never been a George R.R. Martin/Joe Abercrombie kind of series, where fucking awful things happen to people at the drop of a hat, so I shouldn’t really expect it to start in on that aesthetic now.

Speaking of the countdown to the Last Battle, I made particular note of Verin’s assertion that “this battle isn’t being fought the way al’Thor assumes it will be.” Rand, of course, is fixated on a war along the Blightborder, an assault on Shayol Ghul — which, narratively speaking, is probably the least interesting option. He’s trying to think outside the box, in terms of using Traveling to teleport his armies behind the Blight’s own lines, but he’s still stuck on the notion of a straight-up war. I am frankly encouraged to have signs that he’s wrong about that. A facedown with Shaidar Haran is probably inevitable, since it seems to be the Dark One’s avatar, but we’ve also got Moridin and Padan Fain wandering around, and neither of them are problems one really solves with an army. And there’s the fundamental question of what to do about the prison: Min’s belief (probably correct) that Rand needs to destroy the remaining seals, Lews Therin’s assertion that the Power has to touch the Dark One to patch the Bore (but that leads to corruption), the loss of the Choedan Kal, the general cosmological point that if the Wheel of Time really does turn, then either the Creator made the Dark One’s prison broken from the start, or eventually somebody will have to remake his prison anew. I can spin out hypotheticals that involve Rand destroying the Dark One and then, I dunno, Shaidar Haran and Moridin and Padan Fain merging to become the Dark One 2.0 (or 937.0 or whatever iteration the cosmos is really on now) and Rand creating a new, unbroken prison for them, probably with female help, but that’s just me letting my imagination off the leash. I have no idea what will actually happen.

Since I mentioned it before, I should note that Sanderson does not sweep away the concept of “pillow-friends,” i.e. lesbian relationships between women in the Tower. (I wondered if he would, given his stated political opinions on the subject.) I started to type something about how he’s doing as he should, by not projecting his own preferences onto somebody else’s story, but then stopped because I have a double standard where that issue is concerned: I’m glad to see him maintain Jordan’s inclusion (tepid and elliptical though it is) of homosexuality, but I kind of wish he’d done more to improve gender matters. It’s hard for me to judge how he handled that one. Mat’s thoughts on the subject felt like too strident of an attempt to hit the “Robert Jordan voice” on gender relations, and Nynaeve similarly felt like a caricature of herself when she went off on “wool-headed men;” also, ye gods with the ogling of other people’s bodies in inappropriate circumstances. On the other hand, there are several moments in here that support Leigh Butler’s comments about how one of the fundamental problems in this series — and it is meant as a problem — is the failure of men and women to communicate with one another. I could have cheered when Siuan finally laid her cards out in front of Gareth Bryne, and was rewarded with an improvement in their working relationship. There were similar, though smaller, moments between Rand and Nynaeve, and Egwene said things to Gawyn rather than leaving them unspoken and expecting him to figure it out on his own. Even Faile told Perrin what she was thinking, which felt radically out of character for her. <g> It’s a mixed bag, I guess, and too much so for me to figure out which bits are Sanderson trying to ape Jordan, which bits are him trying to improve Jordan, and which bits are where the story was going anyway. Possibly more evidence will make it easier for me to judge. (I would love — though we’ll never get it — to see the notes Sanderson was handed, to know what’s his work and what’s Jordan’s.)

In terms of analysis, that’s all that leaps to mind. If there’s anything I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I ought to follow up on, or things you guys would like to hear me opine on, let me know. ToM commentary will probably come in late November and early December, and then in January . . . A Memory of Light.

0 Responses to “Re(Visiting) the Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm (analysis)”

  1. Anonymous

    “Anyway, this isn’t just killing people who couldn’t be saved; it’s preventing them from ever being born again.”

    There is some controversy as to whether that’s what balefire actually does. Jordan at one point said, somewhere, that a balefired person does reincarnate eventually. Balefire has to be used on Forsaken because it prevents the Dark One from “capturing” the soul to put in a new body (because he’d have to catch it before it actually “flew” or something something, timey-wimey), but even they will eventually reincarnate. Of course, that brings up the question about just what the extent of the Dark One’s powers over the dead actually is. But Jordan’s metaphysics were always a bit murky, at least partially intentionally.

    • Marie Brennan

      Huh. I always assumed that “burning somebody out of the Pattern” = torching the thread so it would never go on. I guess it’s supposed to mean something more like pulling the thread free and handing it back to . . . the Creator? That’s the only explanation that makes anything like sense, given that balefire prevents the Dark One from resurrecting his minions.

      On the one hand, I’d like that because it would correct some of the egregious cosmological imbalance inherent in “this world has no apparent religion except for Satan, who by the way gets control over you when you’re dead.” On the other hand . . . the actual in-story language doesn’t support that explanation at all. Whatever Jordan may have said somewhere at some point, his actual story makes it sound like the soul has gone up in flames. And his comment carries a whiff of authorial ass-covering, after he decided that balefire was maybe more horrible than he really wanted it to be.

  2. Marie Brennan

    Re: A few questions

    Hmmm. My answers to several of these are colored by ToM now, and I’m really trying to pretend I haven’t read that one yet so I don’t say everything I want to say about it in the comments here. But looking at TGS in its own right:

    -My feelings about Egwene are less analytical, really. If I had to compare it to anything in the series, it would be Elayne taking the throne in KoD. Which is to say, it’s a satisfying ending for that plot, and the structural problems with it are all not in this book (i.e. problems with pacing earlier in the series). I think Elaida’s leap off the Cliffs of Insanity was maybe a little sudden, but we can’t say she hasn’t been blatantly stepping up to that edge for a while now. But yeah, most of my comments on Egwene were more in the reactions post (and, more distantly, in my KoD post), which is to say that her tactics against Elaida are cool and the throwdown with the Seanchan was badass.

    -Mat’s Hinderstap stuff was excellently creepy, but it’s along the lines of Perrin’s trip to So Habor a while back: at this stage I mildly resent it for not being the payoff of plots I’ve been waiting on for fifteen years or so. Perrin . . . Perrin I am still monumentally pissed at for selling four hundred women into slavery and not noticing anything wrong with that. So my knee-jerk (i.e. non-analytical) reaction to his part is that I don’t bloody care. But it’ll be easier to judge their parts when I can put them into the context of what happens in ToM, so I’m deferring that for now.

    -I find myself chewing very hard on the problem of damane, and whether there’s any feasible way to solve that before the end of the series. You can’t just fiat that practice out of existence. Even if you handwave a reason to make a’dam just flat-out not work anymore, damane are so thoroughly conditioned that they want to be collared, and will collectively lose their shit if they can’t be. Exposing the fact that sul’dam can (learn to) channel will be destabilizing, sure, but I don’t know if it will be enough to end the practice. Tuon, after all, can’t be the only one who’s found a way to rationalize it, and if the Empress offers them an excuse, a lot of people will take it. But let’s say you find a way to break up the whole collaring thing, one way or another. What happens then? Mass slaughter, I suspect, as damane (and sul’dam) commit suicide or get murdered by freaked-out mobs. I don’t know how you avoid that.

    It’s an interesting conundrum, but one I’m not sure the series will manage to solve. (Unless the fan theories that channeling will come to an end with this Age are true.)

    [Limit exceeded; I’ll continue in the next comment.]

  3. Marie Brennan

    Re: A few questions

    [Right, where was I?]

    -I do, yeah. As I said, Rand actually feels like the main character again, and for a lot of people (myself included) Egwene is the most “main” of the female characters. Rand was in desperate need of forward progress this book; shifting his fall and redemption into ToM would have felt much too late. (I frankly think it’s almost too late here, given how long he spent spinning his wheels in prior books, but on the other hand you don’t want him getting enlightened too early.) Egwene could maybe have been done later, but she makes a good counterbalance for Rand’s focus, and her plotline arranges for a large mass of other people to get their shit together (to whit, the Aes Sedai). And we need that. The other characters’ plots don’t have so many other people hanging on them, as a general rule.

    -I don’t know that I’d say it’s a laser-like focus. We get Egwene; we get a reasonable bit of Mat (though not in a massively plot-forwarding fashion); we get Siuan and Min and Tuon and Aviendha and Rodel Ituralde. God help us, we even get Gawyn. (Sorry. I’m annoyed with him for ToM, though I’m holding off on that rant.) What happens here is that we’re back to a structure more like what we had in The Shadow Rising, where there are a lot of points of view, but they’re arranged such that they support each other rather than haring off in individual directions. Egwene’s a major focus, but she’s interlinked with Siuan, Gawyn, Leane, Sheriam, Romanda, Adelorna, Saerin, Gareth Bryne, Elaida, and Jesse Bilal. (I’m pulling my list of pov characters from here.) Rand’s cluster includes Rodel Ituralde, Aviendha, Cadsuane, Nynaeve, Min, and Semirhage. There are smaller clusters for Mat and Perrin. Some things do get dropped; we have no Elayne cluster, no coverage of what’s happening at the Black Tower. But the threads are pulling back together enough that Rand and Egwene can be at the forefront without it meaning that nobody else gets to appear.

    I hope that makes sense; let me know if you’re curious about anything else, or want me to expand on something.

    • namle84

      Re: A few questions

      Cool, thanks. There are other things I’m curious about, but they’re probably best left for after TOM.

      • namle84

        Re: A few questions

        Although I would be interested to hear about your reaction Rand’s failed meeting with Tuon (sorry if this belongs better with the other post).

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: A few questions

          Eh, it’s all but a lost cause separating reactions from analysis anyway. 🙂

          I’m curious as to whether the Seanchan prophecy about him kneeling to the Crystal Throne will turn out to be true, or whether Seanchan prophecy will turn out to have been edited for political ends or something, and therefore isn’t (reliably) valid. The latter would be interesting, because it’s something I don’t think we’ve seen before in this series — heck, I haven’t seen it much in fantasy, period — though it’s a bit late in the game to be throwing in the wrench that the Karaethon Cycle et al might be adulterated, too.

          As for the actual scene between them . . . it was less disastrously awful for the world than it could have been? Tuon attacking the White Tower is not a good outcome, of course, but her going along with Evil Crazypants Rand would probably have been just as bad or worse. So, um, I guess I’ll call that a wash. I’m hoping it will come back around eventually in the same way that Rand’s meeting with the Borderlanders did, i.e. they take a second crack at it and the outcome is better. But since I’m not sure how the final book is going to deal with the problem of the Seanchan (or indeed, whether it will “deal” with them at all, in the way I mean), I really can’t be sure.

Comments are closed.