(Re)Visiting the Wheel of Time: Towers of Midnight (reactions)
[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.]
The question of how to divide up these posts has always been a thorny one, since (as I said for The Gathering Storm) it’s impossible to keep all analysis out of my reactions, and all reactions out of my analysis. It might be fairer to say that this is the post about the characters, and the next one will be the post about plot and how Towers of Midnight fits into the bigger picture. Fair warning, though; that means this post is really long. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of them get to do noteworthy things in this book.
So, having said that, first things first:
HOLY SHIT Y’ALL MOIRAINE IS BACK
It isn’t even that I’m that excited to see her. I mean, she’s cool and all, but not my favorite character in the series or anything. But she’s been gone for EIGHT BOOKS. I can only think of two plotlines that ran longer, and one of them is the Last Battle itself. (And the other, sadly, is a disappointment — but I get ahead of myself.)
Let’s go ahead and talk about Mat, since I couldn’t contain my HOLY SHIT MOIRAINE reaction. He’s better in this book than he was in The Gathering Storm; I don’t know if that’s because Sanderson got more accustomed to writing him, or because Sanderson got slapped with criticism and learned from it, or because Mat actually has something to do here that doesn’t feel like makework. But he’s closer to being himself again. Closer — not quite there. His letter to Elayne, for example, still feels like Sanderson is trying just a bit too hard. Which is sad, because I like Mat, but at least I have less of an urge to deck him now.
I do sort of want to deck him for the Verin-letter thing. Sanderson did not quite manage to sell me on his reasons for not opening it, and given that the consequences of not doing so are that Caemlyn is going to be overrun with Trollocs . . . yeah, I want to deck him. On the other hand, he got rid of the gholam, and furthermore did so in a fashion that I really have to applaud, because even now, we have relatively few examples of actual teamwork between men and women in this series. Most of the ones we do have are based on linking; this, although it involves channeling, isn’t about one person handing over their power to another. It’s people using their different skills in genuinely complementary ways. I’ll forgive what I think may have been a pov cheat (hiding Mat’s thoughts from us) in exchange for that.
AND MOIRAINE. Or, more precisely, *finnland.
. . . it actually wasn’t as cool as I wanted. I very much liked Mat’s conversation with Birgitte, when she told the story about her trip, and socked him upside the head with a) everybody cheats, of course they cheat, cheating is a bloody requirement, he’s not clever for thinking that up and b) even with cheating, she died in the attempt. But the actual trip . . . was a bit of a letdown. I think some of that was because I just don’t care about Noal; okay, he was Jain Farstrider, whatever. Why does that matter? Why did it get thrown in? (It felt like fanservice more than anything else: I remember people talking about Jain on the old Compuserve WoT board, so maybe Jordan decided to work him in just ‘cause.) More than that, though, I think my issue is that the *finn could have felt more numinous, and didn’t. They’re the closest thing to the fae you get in this series, but the resonance of that flattened out during the “fight and run” repetition of escaping. And the moment of Mat’s actual deal, while cool, went a bit flat for me, too. I dunno — maybe the real problem is just that I waited all this time for him to get his eye gouged out, and the moment couldn’t live up to the anticipation. (The bit with his luck and the rabbit at the end was good, though.)
I will say, however, that the twist with the spear made me very happy. For all my ruminations on that cluster of prophetic fragments, I didn’t actually see that bit coming. It’s very well set up, though: he did ask for a way out, and the spear was the third thing he received. Being hanged from Avendasora was just icing on the cake (and a chance to Odin-ize him).
I wonder if we’ll ever get the specifics of what happened to Lanfear, before she came back as Cyndane.
We might as well talk about Perrin next, since vast amounts of this book are spent on him. (And he and Mat finally saw each other again! Not the most awesome scene ever, but still, at least it finally happened.) Sadly, at this point it seems pretty clear that the reason Perrin will never get called on the reprehensibility of selling four hundred Wise Ones into slavery is because Sanderson, and presumably Jordan as well, didn’t see a problem with it. The only comment that ever gets made on the matter is Edarra saying they deserve their fate; she’s only angry about the non-Shaido Wise Ones who have been collared. I continue to disagree, and it’s a major sticking point for me with this character.
You could probably talk me into laying that aside for a cool enough plot, but this . . . doesn’t really qualify. Perrin actually knocks a vast number of things off the end-of-series checklist, but many of them end up being kind of disappointing: Morgase unmasked, Berelain’s “man in white” (oh look, they’re both so pretty, blah blah blah), Slayer/Isam/Luc, Byar, Bornhald, people getting hitched (in the least romantic way ever), Perrin getting over the wolf thing. That latter did have one nifty touch, which was Boundless; I like the inversion of Perrin’s assumptions, him finding out that Noam chose to be a wolf, because his life was better that way.
I’m kind of annoyed, though, that a few nights of training in the wolf dream suddenly make Perrin an expert at it, to the point where he does things Egwene thought were impossible. If I try, I can come up with rationalizations for it: he learned from Hopper, and wolves seem to be native to Tel’aran’rhiod; plus they aren’t human, so they don’t have the same mental limitations that humans do. And, of course, it’s a trope to have protagonists be instinctively badass, quickly surpassing those around them. But that trope works best when the people being surpassed are secondary characters, mentors and the like: Egwene is another protagonist, and Perrin’s instinctive ability kind of devalues her hard work. (Especially since I can’t avoid noticing the gendered aspect of it: once again, the male characters don’t have to train for their skills while the female characters do, and now we have a man schooling a woman in something she’s supposed to be very good at. He even borders on mansplaining Tel’aran/rhiod to her.)
Mind you, I would probably be less annoyed if it weren’t for the fact that Slayer fell even more flat than the *finn. There’s a line way back about how they say Gitara Moroso is the one who sent Luc into the Blight, probably because of a Foretelling . . . but why? What the hell is the relevance of Slayer to the bigger picture? Sure, he’s Graendal’s tool for screwing around with Perrin, and I guess you could argue that he’s the means by which Galad and the Whitecloaks end up being recruited for the Last Battle (and let me pause to applaud Galad and some of the others for noticing that if they don’t go fight the Dark One, they’re bloody hypocrites), but it’s pretty roundabout — nothing to compare with Tigraine and her own mission from Gitara. I just don’t think Slayer ended up being very important. And for a plot thread that’s been hanging since The Shadow Rising — longer, even, than Moiraine’s rescue — it’s disappointing. (And yes, arguably Perrin’s trial was the conclusion of an even longer plot. I don’t count it, though, because it didn’t actually feel to me like “here is something that has to be and will be dealt with before the end of the series.” Not like Slayer or Moiraine. Which is part of why that whole trial business was just kind of tedious to me.)
So pretty much the only thing I found especially memorable in Perrin’s section, at least in a good way, is the forging of the hammer. That, I will grant, was a cool scene; Sanderson played to good effect the snippets of Neald yelling for people to give him more Power, no he has no idea what he’s doing with it, just give it to him already. 🙂 As for the weapon itself, well, I guess we’ll see what happens with it in AMoL. I hope it turns out to be relevant in a really cool way, rather than just “hey look, Perrin’s good at whacking Shadowspawn now.”
Finishing off the guys . . . it’s Zen Master Jesus Rand!
Okay, snarky nicknames aside, I actually like what happens with Rand in this book. To start with, I actually like Rand again. He really hasn’t been a pleasant character to be with since . . . Lord of Chaos, maybe (which is, not coincidentally, the last point prior to TGS where he felt like the main character to me). His downward slide was obviously deliberate, so I don’t fault Jordan for that (though I do fault him for the pacing of it), but it’s nice to actually want to spend time with Rand again.
His transformation also addresses one of the concerns I had in TGS, which is the breakdown of the world (specifically the food part of the world). The apple orchard scene was great, and Rand teleporting around the continent to bring miracles helps address the problem. Helps address it, not addresses it entirely; the Dark One is still rotting the Pattern, and Rand can’t be everywhere. But it makes my hypothetical post-Battle renewal seem very likely.
It’s interesting to me that — nuking of vast quantities of Shadowspawn notwithstanding — Rand’s awesomeness in this book is largely . . . man, I almost want to say “feminine.” He heals things, he brings life, he apologizes to people. (HOLY GOD I’m glad he didn’t talk to the Borderlands monarchs last book. The world would have ended. No exaggeration.) If A Memory of Light features Rand transcending this setting’s gender binary in a non-Dark-One-related way and channeling saidar, I won’t actually be surprised. Which is not to say I expect it to happen — but it wouldn’t be entirely out of left field if it did.
His meeting with Egwene is interesting. I started to type “confrontation,” but despite the prophecy about him facing the Amyrlin and knowing her anger, it isn’t nearly as much of a shouting match as I expected. I sort of like the way Rand puts everybody off-balance, because it’s such a change from the arrogance/hostility/general assholishness he’s been displaying for several books now. Not just him, either; very few characters in this series are willing or able to show respect for each other’s achievements, apologize graciously, and then politely refuse to back down from the things that matter. The shift is positively refreshing.
Segueing from that into Egwene’s part: goodbye, remaining Black Ajah — are we supposed to assume Alviarin got nuked somewhere in there? — and goodbye, Mesaana. She turns out to be Danelle; I can’t remember if there were fan theories pointing the finger at her (probably; there were fan theories pointing fingers in every direction imaginable), but as answers go, it’s kind of uninteresting. Which in some ways fits; the successful mole is the one who doesn’t draw attention. But narratively, it’s not very impressive.
I am, however, amused by Egwene’s most recent bit of political jiujitsu. It isn’t quite on the scale of tricking the Hall into declaring martial law, but I have to applaud her for stopping the secret meetings, and I love the way the coalition of Black Ajah hunters shows solidarity: Doesine walking in late, asking “what motion are we standing for?,” being told “an important one,” and saying, “Well, I suppose I’ll stand for it then.” This is something all too often lacking from the political aspect of this series: allies, people who actually trust one another enough to back each other’s plays, without question. I know Aes Sedai are supposed to all be independent and stuff, but that doesn’t have to mean they have to be incapable of cooperation. (And I flat-out punched the air when Saerin said, “I suppose someone should ask for the greater consensus, but you’ve managed to hang yourselves quite efficiently with the lesser rope already.”)
I go back and forth on whether I think Egwene’s takedown of Mesaana is satisfying. On the one hand, it’s basically a moment of enlightenment on her part, where she transcends reality in a totally badass way. On the other hand, it carries a whiff of “this got thought up late in the game.” Moghedien was supposed to be a master of Tel’aran’rhiod (for that matter, so was Lanfear), and yet we never saw her exert her will in the raw way Egwene and Mesaana do here. I suspect it’s because Jordan hadn’t thought of it back when Moghedien was a going concern — which makes this feel a bit like the thing you get in long-running series on TV or in comic books, where the story has to break what had been presented as hard limits in order to get out of a plot hole or top a previous climactic scene. It’s still cool, but not as cool as it might have been, if it had felt more inevitable.
Things I don’t go back and forth on at all: SCREW YOU, GAWYN. Seriously — wasn’t there a time when I liked him as a character? Whatever it was that I liked, he lost it between the Tower coup and his return to narrative relevance last book. I mentioned in the TGS posts that he seemed like a bit of a tool; well, it gets even worse here. He continues with his flagrant stupidity over Rand; when the Rahvin thing gets shoved in his face, he retreats to a position of bitching about Rand being some upstart sheepherder who apparently has no right to be so important. What. The. Hell. How is that remotely congruent with Gawyn’s previous characterization? When did he turn into such a blind, status-obsessed prick? (Possibly the answer is “when Sanderson started writing him.” I can’t figure out how much of this is a Mat-style shortcoming, and how much is due to bad setup on Jordan’s part.) Even that, however, pales next to how he behaves regarding Egwene and Elayne.
He is the First Prince of the Sword. He swore an oath over Elayne’s cradle — an oath that was reinforced by his training, his culture, and the man he admires most in the world. When Andor blew up, he should have been there, rather than running around being Elaida’s idiot dog. He can’t find Elayne to help her? Fine. Then he should go back to Andor and try to make a difference on her behalf. Or he should at least show some fragment of concern about his responsibilities there, rather than ignoring them for book after book (which, to be fair, I’ll blame more on pacing problems than on him) and then blowing off Gareth Bryne when the subject comes up.
But instead we get a guy who’s known his entire life that he’ll play second fiddle to a powerful woman, who for some inexplicable reason gets totally hung up on the shocking revelation that if he wants to be with Egwene, he’ll have to accept the fact that he’ll be playing second fiddle to a powerful woman. I could have bought his struggle and epiphany if it had been framed as him having difficulty accepting Egwene as the one he serves, when he’s been taught since childhood that it’s Elayne who owns his loyalty . . . except that would require him to have actually given a flying damn about that oath, which he demonstrably doesn’t.
And so the only way I can make sense of Gawyn as a character, at least by this point, is to accept that he’s a shitty First Prince of the Sword, always has been, and Elayne is well shot of his “help.” The Gawyn I see here is arrogant, entitled, and utterly incapable of listening to common sense, even when it’s offered by those he trusts and serves the greater good. Also, his sworn oath is meaningless to him, and he will ignore it without much of a qualm whenever it becomes inconvenient. In short, he’s a liability rather than an asset, and I’m only sorry that Egwene is now saddled with him in Elayne’s place.
Also, I know the Bloodknives thing is supposed to redeem him, and for some people it seems to have worked. But for me, it feels really contrived: a little baby plot set up just so Gawyn can do something cool (even if it requires the assassins to use some really dumb tactics so that he can actually succeed). And it doesn’t really address Gawyn’s problems; it just creates a classically romantic moment of crisis — and that sort of classic romantic moment really just doesn’t do much for me. This comes back around to my Perrin Problems during the kidnapping of Faile, which is that I am left utterly cold by romance plots where one or both parties have decided that their love interest is the only thing in the world that matters to them. One of the few Gawyn-related bits I liked in this book was when somebody, either Gareth Bryne or Siuan, told him to go get a life of his own rather than mooning after Egwene. It was good advice; I wish he had taken it for more than five minutes.
Not that I’m terribly wild about his sister in this book, either. Elayne seems to have mostly blown her wad on getting the throne; it feels like she’s marking time now until the finale. Her attempt to trick Chesmal wasn’t completely stupid, but the way she went about it was, not to mention the blind assumption that Min’s viewing means she’s indestructible until her kids are born. The interaction with her mother was interesting, though — the way they both kept sight of the political ramifications of the ex-queen (and one who destroyed her reputation at that) showing up before Elayne has fully consolidated her power.
Back to the characters who are being cooler in this book. Hi, Nynaeve! You’re awesome! Not only the Healing of madness (and the moment, both chilling and warming, when she looks at Rand and sees the condition he’s in), but her test for the shawl. That entire scene is a great demonstration of how Tower tradition has ossified over the centuries, such that good principles have turned into blind obedience. This is a thing institutions are vulnerable to, and while it bugs me a bit that the Tower has gotten so stupid (they’re an all-female group, so given the series’ gender politics, it’s hard to separate that from it seeming like a criticism of women), I don’t think it’s an unfair depiction. Nynaeve calling them out on it is FABULOUS — especially her realization that if they truly decide to stick to tradition over common sense and decency, then she’s prepared to walk away. That’s a hard thing to accept, and I wonder if she could have done it had she gone through the expected sequence: years as a novice, more years as an Accepted, most of her training done in Tower classes rather than out in the world. Experiences like that are good at making people do whatever they must to achieve the prize — otherwise, what was all that effort for?
Aviendha’s bit makes an interesting pair with Nynaeve’s. She, too, is looking at a tradition that no longer serves its intended purpose. The “test” of seeing the Aiel past has lost its effect; all that remains is mere symbolism. Aviendha’s understanding of that alone (thanks in large part to Nakomi — who the hell is Nakomi, anyway?) would have made me like her scenes; the fact that she goes back to the glass columns and passes through them a second time adds a whole layer of richness, because then it calls into question all the traditions of the Aiel. There’s a great quote, I think from Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes.” The Aiel are in danger of worshipping ashes, and it could lead them — under the guidance of Aviendha’s own children!– into destruction. They need to figure out what the fire is, and how best to preserve it.
Okay, minor things to close it out. Oh, look, Graendal wasn’t really dead. Yawn. I am so tired of Forsaken not being dead. (Though, to be fair, Rand did take out Aran’gar, so he legitimately bagged one, even if it wasn’t the one he thought.) Ituralde has himself a nice little war, marginally justifying his ongoing presence as a pov character; it’s a good side plot, but I’m not sure it’s really worth all the time spent building him up, at least not in the fashion the buildup was done. Faile’s method of settling things with Berelain did, I must admit, entertain me a bit: threatening to challenge her to a knife fight (and acting just crazy enough to make the threat seem real), but really using that to leverage Berelain into helping fix the problem she created. Taim appears to have been 13×13’ing the entire Black Tower in alphabetical order; if we had to spend so many scenes wandering around that place, I really sort of wish the scenes had shown that happening, rather than being irritatingly coy. Lan, sadly, has fallen into the Mat box, of being a character I suspect Sanderson likes too well to write well; his reactions to, um, everything, just don’t feel right to me. (He comes across as petulant. There are many things Lan is, but petulant is not one of them.) Tuon — or rather Fortuona . . . I don’t even know. It almost seems like she’s crossing the line into villain status. What’s going to be done to resolve that in the final book, I have no idea.
OOF. That, my friends, is nearly four thousand words there.
I’ll have more, of course, when I come back with the analysis post, in which we will discuss things like pov switching, non-concurrent timing of plot threads, and why exactly Perrin got 87% of this book devoted to him. Until then, have at it in the comments — let me know which bits of this book you liked, and which ones you didn’t.