[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.]
Side note first: the poll results thus far are coming down pretty firmly on people saying that yes, I should read the Prologue to AMoL, and yes, I should blog about it when I do. I must admit, I’m curious why those of you who voted “no” chose that option. Anyway, decisions on that soon. For now, ToM, and the analysis thereof.
For most of the time I’ve been writing these posts, I’ve been analyzing each volume in the context of the rest of the story: the books that precede it, the books I had previously read that follow it, speculation about the books that were out but I hadn’t read them yet. As we round this final corner, though, I find Towers of Midnight almost more interesting in the context of absence: the unknown events of A Memory of Light, and the void that will follow it, the end of the series.
Of course, we may (probably will) get other books. I’ve heard they’re talking about a companion book — something more canonical than the White Book of Lies — and it’s entirely possible that Jordan’s estate will farm out the property the way we’ve seen with Dune. But as far as the series proper is concerned, ToM is the point at which I start thinking, not only about what has happened, but what may never happen.
We will probably never find out who killed Asmodean, not in the series proper. Will the Seanchan get dealt with, in the way I described in the comments to my TGS analysis post? I’m not sure such a dealing could even fit in the final book; it needs either a deus ex machina or a hell of a lot more in-story time. The end of TGS strongly hints that Taim has been 13×13’ing people at the Black Tower; is there space left for that to be a Thing, or will it just result in a bunch of neo-Dreadlord cannon fodder for whatever battles occur in the final book?
Aviendha’s second trip through the glass columns lays out a whole future history that won’t — that can’t — fit into this series. I’m fine with that. But it raises a host of issues about the Seanchan and the Aiel, damane and Rand’s tenuous attempts at peace and what Mat’s role is going to be in all of this, the prophecy about a “remnant of a remnant” being all that will saved of the Aiel (perhaps literally; perhaps metaphorically) and what they’ll do with themselves now that they’ve gotten so tangled in the affairs of the wetlands, Tuon wandering vaguely in the direction of acting like a villain. What can you do with that in one more book, when you also have to deal with the Bore and the remaining Forsaken (don’t we still have six of them left?) and Shaidar Haran and Padan Fain and the Dark One himself? It isn’t even a problem of wordage; according to Wikipedia, AMoL is estimated to be 360,000 words long. It’s a problem of narrative focus. This is the end of the series; this is when everything should be drawing together, in effect if not in the strict sense of having all the important characters in the same place at the same time. Dealing with the Seanchan should be tied in to dealing with the final threat, rather than feeling like the last item on the to-do list, and I’m not sure if that’s going to happen.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point isn’t to discusse AMoL and what it may or may not accomplish; the point is to discuss ToM.
Back in the comments for Winter’s Heart, I got into a discussion with namle84 about the structure of TGS verus ToM. I couldn’t render a proper opinion there, of course, having not read either of the books, so I want to revisit now.
The most succinct evaluation I can make is that ToM feels very much like a “middle” book. You may have noticed a common structure in trilogies; the original Star Wars movies exemplify it rather well. The first part sets the theme, and ends on a satisfying resolution. The second part complicates the theme, and ends with an explicit lack of resolution. The third part returns to the theme, grander and more elaborate, and completes the resolution. That isn’t quite the case here, of course; normally the second part involves the protagonists being left at a low point, which the rampant conclusion of plotlines doesn’t allow for in this case. But TGS focused primarly on two characters (Rand and Egwene), each of whom achieved a major victory; ToM splits things up much more, and its victories, while still big, are less central. In other words, Sanderson’s part of the series can from some angles be seen as a trilogy. And that means ToM suffers a bit from the common problem of middle books/movies/etc feeling less satisfying. There are many cool moments — Nynaeve’s test for the shawl; Aviendha’s second trip through the glass columns — but ToM is more of a grab bag, less of a firmly structured tale.
Could Sanderson have avoided that? I don’t know. TGS is 297K; ToM is 327K; the longest book in the series, TSR, was 393K. (The shortest, barring New Spring, was TPoD, at 227K.) So there’s room to expand things or move them around. But how would you rearrange it to be better? Rand’s transformation is the most central thing left, barring the Last Battle itself; that had to happen at the end of TGS. We’d been living with Darkside!Rand for too long already, and delaying his epiphany would have left its effects not enough time to breathe in. Egwene’s triumph as Amyrlin is a pretty central moment, since it brings together a whole bunch of threads; it would have made a good finale for ToM. But doing that would have thrown out of whack too many other things, like Mesaana and Egwene’s meeting with Rand and the deal with the Wise Ones and Windfinders. (Which sort of falls into the camp I was talking about above: future stuff that isn’t actually vital to the plot now, but might feel weird if it didn’t get semi-dealt with before the end of the series.) In terms of actual organization, what we got as our big finale was Mat rescuing Moiraine — but while that’s a long-awaited event, it’s also mostly stuffed into the last few chapters. It isn’t a unifying thread for the whole book; it’s the last item in a sequence of items, many of them unrelated.
The closest thing to a unifying thread in this book is Perrin. Unfortunately — and you knew this was coming — I don’t think it works terribly well.
As I said in my reactions to this book, I’m just not that wild about what happens with him here. Maybe I’m alone in that; maybe everybody else is going YAYYYYY PERRIN. But his part in this book feels like a microcosm of the book as a whole, which is to say, it’s a narrative grab bag. And I can’t untangle that from what’s been going on with Perrin since TSR.
To recap my comments over the course of this analysis: he goes on sabbatical for TFoH and is largely absent from LoC (and while he plays a role at Dumai’s Wells, you could remove him from that scene without actually changing it much at all). After that, he acts as an outside perspective on Rand for a while, then wanders around the southern part of the continent vacuuming up stray bits of plot: Morgase, Masema, the Shaido. Faile’s kidnapping still feels to me like something that got invented to give Perrin something to do, other than be the “miscellaneous drawer” for the series; but in the process, it ended up compounding the pacing issues, or maybe just making them dance naked in front of the reader.
To fix the structure of ToM — or perhaps it would be better to say, to make radical changes to it; with all this being hypothetical, I can’t say for sure that it would be an improvement — you have to go all the way back to TPoD and fix Perrin. (Probably other things, too, but let’s talk about Perrin.)
Have Faile be kidnapped at the end of TPoD, okay. WH, have him chase the Shaido, and deal with his shit at the same time, rather than marinating in angst and obsession. Sort out the wolf dream business there, or at least start on it. KoD — because in this hypothetical scenario, we’ve already restructured things so CoT doesn’t exist — he can continue working on the wolf thing and rescue Faile, and have those two things resolve together. Once you’ve done that, you have more breathing room: you could maybe put a shorter version of the interminable Whitecloak faceoff/trial scenes into TGS (keeping Perrin from falling so far behind the rest of the plot), and then leave Slayer for ToM. And with the breathing room that gives you, you find a way to make Slayer matter that doesn’t feel like a massive contrivance.
See, the thing about Perrin’s role in this book is, it still feels like makework. If there were a strong reason why Gitara Moroso sent Luc to the Blight — if there were any significance to the fact that what Perrin’s fighting contains the remnants of both Rand’s uncle and Lan’s brother — then you wouldn’t have to engineer this narrative Rube Goldberg machine wherein Slayer becomes the thread tying together Galad and Bornhald and Graendal and the wolf dream and the throwdown with Mesaana and the Black Ajah. (. . . just do me a favor and pretend the machine and thread metaphors aren’t totally mixed, there.) I know I’ve said that I would like the major plots to have more to do with one another, but this isn’t the way. It feels contrived. Perrin’s psychological angst has been slogging along for so many books that I’ve quit caring about it; I never cared much about Bornhald in the first place; none of it has the blindest thing to do with Mesaana; and the thing that could have been the most interesting, which is the identity of Slayer, ended up being irrelevant. And for this, Perrin gets pov in twenty-five of the fifty-nine chapters, counting the prologue and epilogue.
I might as well use that to segue from ranting about Perrin to discussing point of view. This series went through a stretch in its middle section (circa TPoD) where each book was being broken up into large, multi-chapter chunks, following a single character or a single plot for an extended period of time before cutting over to somebody else. I said back then that I understood the choice — it’s easier to wrangle — but of course it feeds the tendency to let things get out of step with one another, in terms of pacing if not chronology. (If chapters stand on their own, I think you’re more likely to focus on making each one pull a significant weight. If you let them stack up, it’s easy to waste an entire chapter’s worth of words on setting the scene. And BOY HOWDY did that happen.) Notably, Jordan started to break down that block structure in KoD, shifting more frequently between characters, which was both a wise and a necessary move, especially as we get to the end of the series.
Sanderson takes that further, in both a good way and a bad one. He shifts very frequently between characters, even within a chapter, which helps maintain a sense of tension and excitement — that’s good. On the other hand, I think I can see the influence of movies and TV in his writing, when he starts cutting too frequently from one head to another. Chapter 7 of ToM spends 1,032 words on Lan (okay), then goes through the following montage:
Galad (384 words)
Perrin (683 words)
Galad (393 words)
Perrin (350 words)
Galad (240 words)
Perrin (192 words)
Galad (67 words)
Perrin (71 words)
For those of you not accustomed to paying attention to word count, the paragraph above, the one starting with “Sanderson,” is 81 words. Longer than either Perrin’s or Galad’s last “scenes.”
This is frankly absurd. It’s prose trying to mimic the ability of video to cut rapidly between different events, which is not a thing this medium does well. In a visual medium, it raises tension; here it just ends up looking silly, which has the opposite effect. So I wish Sanderson hadn’t done it, and I hope he doesn’t do it again in AMoL.
[Edit: The next section I added after the fact, when namle84 reminded me I forgot to talk it.]
The other pov-related thing that goes on here and in TGS is that several of the characters — specifically, Perrin and everybody around him, and I think also Mat and everybody around him — become de-synchronized from the rest of the narrative, with their events lagging behind. It’s an interesting choice, and one I should take a moment to dissect.
So, the first thing to say is that the timeline has never been fully synchronous between characters. We’ll cover a few days with one person, then fall back to discuss another one, etc. Has there been asynchrony across books before? Maybe; in the absence of clear date stamps, it’s hard to say. The only time I know for sure that Jordan made a distinct effort to line everything up was the beginning of CoT, and given how flaming a failure that was, it’s just as well that he didn’t try to do it more often.
This situation is noteworthy because:
1) The gap is (I think) larger,
2) it persists across the break between TGS and ToM, and
3) the story draws our attention to the disconnection, rather than leaving it in the background.
The reason for #3, of course, is that Sanderson had to make the break obvious to keep readers from becoming horribly confused by Tam ricocheting back and forth. He’s with Perrin; then he’s with Rand; then (when you read ToM) he’s back with Perrin again, and hasn’t yet seen his son. If the two strands had remained separate, it probably could have been left implied — but as we’re at the end of the series and things are (FINALLY) coming back together again, that won’t work in this case.
That being the situation, is the division a good choice?
I don’t think so, but I think it fails for reasons that have less to do with the division itself, and more to do with the material that structure holds. Perrin’s plot is, as I said, a grab bag. Some of it could have been in TGS, and the timing could have been changed so that Tam wasn’t around for so much of it. (Having only read the book once, I can’t say for sure what he contributed to Perrin’s activities that required him to stick around; I can only say that whatever it was, I didn’t find it very memorable.) The rest of the asynchrony could then be swept under the rug. I think Mat is asynchronous, too — I seem to remember Rand having flashes of him in Caemlyn or something back in TGS, before he got there in-text — but I don’t remember there being any particular reason for that one (other than “his stuff didn’t fit in TGS”), with the corollary effect that him being out of step doesn’t bother me very much. I don’t have to pay attention to it, so I don’t.
Are there situations where that kind of structure would justify itself? I think so, but it would require the part that’s out of step to be something that really can’t be broken up. If Mat, for example, had gone into the Tower of Ghenjei at the start of this book (or the end of TGS) and spent the better part of ToM running around in *finnland, I could see a good argument for wanting to keep his experiences there as a contiguous block, rather than spreading them across multiple books. Ditto Perrin and the wolf dream/Slayer stuff, if that had been handled differently. But it doesn’t feel to me like Perrin gets such a heavy focus here because what he’s doing has to be treated as a coherent unit; it feels like his part of the story is a checklist of tasks that have been put off again and again, and now we’re down to the wire so we’d better get them done at last. Ergo, I think de-synching him is something that happened for reasons of logistical, rather than aesthetic, necessity. The result isn’t a major flaw; there are worse things to happen than de-synchronization. (Like, oh, trying to sync everybody for the start of CoT. <haaaaaate>) But it doesn’t really add anything, either.
Finally, on quite a different note, I want to talk again about prophecy, because I think the end of this series has introduced some screwy things on that front. (Whether they’re good screwy or bad screwy remains to be seen.)
WH introduced the version of the Karaethon Cycle known in Seanchan, where it says the Dragon Reborn will kneel to the Crystal Throne. We don’t know yet whether that will come true; right now it doesn’t seem very bloody likely. (Even if we take “Crystal Throne” to be metonymy for the Empress, the odds of Rand kneeling to Fortuona are not terribly high at the moment. I’ll grant that it could happen, though.) We do know, however, that such a line doesn’t exist in the Randland version of the prophecy. So one way or another, we know one of those versions got edited, and given the way the Seanchan have been set up in the story, it seems pretty likely that their version is the inaccurate one.
This is an unusual concept in the series: prophecy being altered or inaccurate, politics maybe interfering with the whole thing. People may debate the meaning of the Karaethon Cycle; they may get it wrong; but they don’t edit it for their own ends. Frankly, I think they should — not in the sense of “yay that’s a great idea,” but in the sense of it being plausible that people would do such a thing. People leveraged Nostradamus’ predictions in history; astrology was a dangerous game, and sometimes regulated by law because of it. But it’s genre convention that if the text says it’s a prophecy, it Must Be True, straight and unadulterated from the cosmos’ mouth. And it’s a genre convention I’d like to see messed with more often. (If you know of any books that really play with the editing of prophecy, please let me know.)
We also get the interesting wrinkle that Min’s viewings may not come to pass. Now, that’s only true in a limited sense: she sees stuff after the Last Battle, but if the Dark One wins then the Pattern is destroyed and all bets are not only off but obliterated. Still, it’s another case of these various predictions, which had been presented to us as inevitably true, being problematized late in the game.
And then there are the Prophecies of the Shadow. I forgot, until I went to look them up on the wiki, that we’ve encountered this idea before: a lengthy one got scrawled on the walls of the dungeon in Fal Dara, way back in The Great Hunt. We basically never heard another peep out of that idea, though, until Verin alluded to it in her notebook o’ Black Ajah secrets, and then the end of ToM quotes another big whack out of them. Moridin thinks it means Perrin will die, but of course people have been wrong in their interpretations before (Moiraine, for example, thought “the city, lost and forsaken” referred to Illian, when in fact it was Rhuidean).
What we don’t know — because we don’t have enough evidence — is the extent to which the Karaethon Cycle and similar things are contradicted by the Prophecies of the Shadow, vs. the two just having different attitudes toward the same events. Most of what gets said in the quote at the end of ToM is just cheerful ravings about the Dark One’s destruction and how awesome it’s gonna be, and much of the rest is cryptic enough that its exact meaning is unclear. (The bit about “the Broken Wolf, the one whom Death has known,” has three interpretations listed on the wiki: Jain, Mat, and Hopper, none of which are terribly persuasive.) The only point where there seems to be direct contradiction is in the result of the confrontation between the Lord of Evening and the Broken Champion, where (of course) it heavily implies that the bad guys will win.
I find myself thinking about David Eddings, and the competing prophecies in the Belgariad and Malloreon. Something of the same kind may well be going on here: kind of a Schroedinger’s Prophecy, a state of quantum uncertainty whose wave-form will collapse at the moment of Tarmon Gai’don, determining which version is actually true. But we don’t know enough to really say. Certainly it isn’t a scoreboard, with different events that can go to one team or the other, and whoever is racking up the most victories along the way has the edge. (The only scoreboard here appears to be Important Characters Dead, and since this series refuses to really kill off anybody important on the side of the good guys, Team Dark is definitely losing.) Or maybe they’re just Dark One propaganda, like the Seanchan line about Rand kneeling — we really don’t know.
In the end, I’m not sure why the Prophecies of the Shadow get re-introduced here. Because somebody noticed they hadn’t really been used in eleven books, and decided to fix that? Are they an attempt to inject some tension into the final cliffhanger? A way of justifying Graendal’s efforts to wipe out Perrin? All of the above, maybe. I just wish more had been done with the idea. Not that we’re lacking for predictive sources in this world (what with Egwene, Min, Elaida, Nicola, Perrin, etc), but this is one that had the potential to make the situation more complex, and didn’t happen.
Looking back at this entry, I sound a bit ranty about the book’s structural flaws. On the one hand, that’s fair; on the other hand, if you forced me to choose between having only Towers of Midnight to read for the rest of my life, and reading Crossroads of Twilight even a single time more, I might vote for ToM. Even with its shortcomings, I still think it’s better than the doldrums of the series; the structural flaws here are, for my money, less egregious than those in (say) The Path of Daggers. And while you could maybe improve this one slightly by shifting a few things into TGS, the root of the problem is too far back for Sanderson to do anything about it. Given what he had to work with, I think this turned out reasonably well.
And with this, we enter the final stretch. I don’t know yet how I want to handle AMoL — whether I will do the Prologue, whether I will split it into two posts again, etc. I’d say the odds of both are decent, though the former depends pretty heavily on my spare time in the next few weeks. I do know that I’m going to do a wrap-up post when it’s all over with, discussing what this has taught me about writing such a long and sprawling series — that one should make for some interesting discussion.