Category Archives: epic fantasy

Review 198: The Path of Daggers (Wheel of Time 08)

Wheel of Time 08: The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Again, spoilers. Just putting that out there.

I knew I shouldn’t have left off reviewing this for a few days. I have almost forgotten what happened in this book.

Oh, I know the events that transpired – Borderland kings and queens assembling to deal with Rand in some mysterious way; the using of the Bowl of the Winds to finally change the weather – and the terrible bargain that it fulfills between the Sea Folk and the Aes Sedai; the second invasion of the Seanchan from across the sea, this time into Ebou Dar; Perrin building his army to bring the violent Dragonsworn who follow The Prophet back to Rand….

And that’s all just in the first ten chapters.

It’s not a matter of, as is so often complained about, “nothing happening” – plenty happens in this book. In fact, a lot of what happens in this book directly sets up the rest of the series, and marks some major changes not only in the plot but in the world of the story itself. The problem is that the format of the first half of the series – a reasonably self-contained book that has a clear story climax and some sense of closure by the end – has completely fallen by the wayside. At this point, Jordan is writing for the series as a whole, and has only divided it up into separate volumes because TOR can’t sell it any other way.

Yes, more on political machinations and formalwear. Please.

This does have its advantages, but the disadvantages are greater. So of all the books thus far, I’d have to say that The Path of Daggers is my least favorite. Again – and I want to keep stressing this – not because there’s nothing going on. There’s plenty going on. It’s just not all that easy to keep track of, nor is it necessarily interesting to read.

The worst example of this, I think, is the Seanchan invasion. To catch you up, the Seanchan are an empire that lives in the land across the sea. Descended from the greatest king in history, Artur Hawkwing, they have returned to reclaim their ancestral lands. To do it, they have brought an army that has been trained by a thousand years of battle, creatures that seem like monsters to do their bidding, and leashed women who can wield the One Power as a weapon. Even under normal circumstances, this would be a problem. For Rand, circumstances are far from normal. The Seanchan mark a serious complication in his quest to bring all the nations under his rule in time for the Last Battle, so he has to show them who’s boss.

Surprisingly, with a massive army and a corps of Asha’man – men who can wield the One Power to destructive ends – dealing with the Seanchan becomes a tedious chore to read. Perhaps in an attempt to capture “the fog of war,” Jordan has us jumping from place to place and time to time, from a variety of points of view. What could have been an awesome clash of armies, men and women really going all-out with the One Power in battle for the first time becomes a trial to read. Not least because Rand al’Thor has become a thoroughly unlikable character.

In the middle of the book, Sorilea, the most senior and powerful of the Aiel Wise Ones meets with Cadsuane, an Aes Sedai so formidable that she has become a legend in her own lifetime, and they agree that Rand has become too hard. “Strong endures,” Sorilea says. “Hard shatters.” They vow to teach Rand and the Asha’man to remember laughter and tears, and if you ask me they’re not doing it a minute too soon.

I’m ignoring you for your own good, baby.

Rand is doing his best to harden his heart by this point, and not without reason. He’s got armies at his fingertips, and his decisions will kill a lot of men. He’s got these Asha’man to deal with – men who will inevitably go mad from using the One Power – and he can only bring himself to think of them as weapons. There’s his issue with allowing women to come to harm. Instead of being an endearing (if somewhat chauvinistic) character trait, it just becomes tedious and repetitive. Thankfully, the Maidens of the Spear will later beat the hell out of him for trying to treat them so delicately. In this book, it is almost impossible for me to actually like Rand, and makes me wish that Mat hadn’t been given one book off to recover from having a building dropped on him.

Other than the complete mess that is Rand’s storyline, the rest of the book is actually quite interesting. Elayne has finally come home to Caemlyn and is preparing to take her mother’s place as Queen of Andor. We have the rebel Aes Sedai preparing for all-out war with the White Tower, and Egwene consolidating her hold on the rebels. In the White Tower itself, a hunt for the Black Ajah has begun as Elaida does what little she can to free herself of the influence of her Keeper, Alviarin.

Tell me Joan Crawford wouldn’t be a perfect Elaida.

A word about Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, as an aside. No one likes her, and I can understand why. I don’t like her either, as a person. She’s arrogant to the bone, impatient, self-absorbed, power-hungry, and completely disregards anything that doesn’t conform to what she already believes is true. This mode of thinking leads the White Tower towards utter disaster, from the botched abduction of Rand to the loss of fifty sisters to the Black Tower. Elaida risks being stilled and deposed should the Hall of the Tower find out about her bungling, and she would deserve it, if not more. The only thing keeping her from that fate is the machinations of her Keeper of the Chronicles, who is more than happy to put Elaida under her thumb.

Having said that, it was this book that made her into one of my favorite characters. I still wouldn’t want to sit next to her on a long airplane ride, but what happens to her in this book made me utterly devoted to finding out her ultimate fate in this series.

That pretty much sums it up, actually – taken as a whole, this book is pretty tough to get through and probably the low point in the series, despite having some of the most interesting and pivotal events take place within its pages. How Jordan managed to do this, I’ll never know. All we can do is take the long view – all of this will benefit the series as a whole, if not necessarily the book that contains it.

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“On the heights, all paths are paved with daggers.”
– Old Seanchan saying
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Path of Daggers at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Path of Daggers at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 194: A Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time 07)

Wheel of Time 07: A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

This review is kinda spoiler-heavy. Just so you know.

With this book, we have reached the midpoint of the series and like you might expect of a series this size, this is where things get soft in the middle.

If you look at various online reviews of this book and others at this point in the series, you’ll see comments like, “It was so boring – nothing happened.” They’ll complain about having too many characters to follow and the story getting stretched out too thinly, which I addressed back in my review of The Fires of Heaven. And as I said in that review, the critics aren’t entirely unjustified in getting frustrated – the story has been divided into several major plot threads that don’t seem to have any chance of meeting up in the near future. It seems like about four different novels that all happen to inhabit the same world at the same time.

I’ll say this much for Illian – no one else thought to put bees on their flag.

Here’s what I think is happening: at about this point in the series, Jordan started thinking of this all in terms of a much larger mega-story, rather than a series of books, with the narrative structure that would entail. It does explain a great deal, especially the rather forced nature of the climax in which Rand finally confronts the Forsaken Sammael and wins the crown of Illian. Exhausted and wounded, Rand goes into pitched battle against a stronger, more prepared enemy for no other reason than because he thinks the timing is right. Whether it is or is not is questionable, but there’s no real reason for that climax to have appeared at the end of that book.

Especially since it occurs four days after the rather exciting opening events of the next book, The Path of Daggers, a fact which we don’t even learn about until roughly halfway through that book. I get the feeling that if it had been possible to publish a single 2,000 page book as volume seven in the series, Jordan would have done it, allowing him to place the attack on Sammael and the use of the Bowl of the Winds in their proper order. But the good people at TOR know such a thing to be impossible, so a Climactic Finale was jury-rigged into this text in the hopes that rabid fans would still buy the next one.

Which, of course, we did. It smooths out a bit if you’re reading the books in rapid succession, but let me tell you – the two year wait between book seven and book eight was a killer.

Oh, Vampire Willow – you’re so jaded.

As for the claim that “nothing happens,” well that’s just patent nonsense. Elaida, the Amyrlin of the White Tower, has found herself under the thumb of her Keeper, Alviarin, for the sin of being extremely short-sighted and overconfident. On the move with the rebel Aes Sedai, Egwene starts to build support for herself through means that no one ever expected – least of all her – and lays the groundwork to do the impossible: attack the White Tower itself.

The Shaido Aiel have been broken and dispersed, but their leader, Sevanna, still holds dreams of leashing Rand al’Thor and becoming the power behind the Chief of Chiefs. The Aes Sedai who tried to capture Rand have been put under the attentions of the Aiel Wise Ones, and all of the Aes Sedai – from the Tower and from Salidar – have taken an oath of fealty to him. What this will mean in the long run is unclear, but until they are released, they will serve him. Until Cadsuane Melaidhrin appears, with plans all her own for the Dragon Reborn. And with Min, Rand tries to settle the rebellious Lords and Ladies in Haddon Mirk, who refuse to acknowledge him as the ruler of Cairhien, Andor or Tear. What he finds, of course, is blood, pain and death – only some of it his.

In the main plot line of the book, Mat, Elayne and Nynaeve are in Tanchico, searching for the Bowl of the Winds – an artifact which could, if they’re lucky, undo the Dark One’s touch on the weather and finally end the summer that has held the land in its grip for the last three books. What we get out of this plot line is significant in many, many ways – we learn about what happens to women who are turned out of the White Tower, and why being so very strict may have cost the Aes Sedai dearly over the last two millennia. We also get a hint as to what causes the famous “ageless” look that so many Aes Sedai have, and why the Three Oaths may do more harm than good in the long run.

No, not that kind of Green.

In fact, between the Ebou Dar Kin and the Sea Folk, it looks like the nature of female channelers in this world is going to be radically upended by the time the series ends. The White Tower, which has stood as the unchallenged symbol of One Power dominance, will no longer possess a monopoly on channelers, and this will force a great many changes not only on Aes Sedai, but on the public perception of women who can use the One Power. But all that is in the future. For me, one of the most touching moments of this part of the series is Reanne Corley’s simple line: “I can be Green.” You’ll know it when you get to it.

What’s more, there are some very significant character moments in this book, not the least of which is that Mat finally gets his thanks for saving Elayne and Nynaeve from the Black Ajah way back in The Great Hunt. Elayne asserting herself among the “real” Aes Sedai is a marvelous scene, as is Mat facing down an entire room of women who would make a king step lightly. The interplay between Mat – the rough-and-tumble rogue/general – and Elayne – the daughter-heir of a kingdom and newly-minted Aes Sedai – is highly entertaining, especially with the help of Nynaeve and her braid-tugging, and Birgitte’s ability to drink like the soldier she is.

As an aside, we also learn from Mat what must be one of the strongest – and strangest – curses in this world, given the conditions under which he utters it. I have to admit, with invectives in this series such as “Burn me,” “Flaming” and “Bloody” – words that draw glares from the more prim and proper segment of society (i.e. women), I don’t really feel the power that they should have. Made-up curse words, such as “Gorram” (Firefly), “Frak” (Battlestar Galactica) and “Sprocking” (Legion of Super-Heroes) feel more, well, curse-ish to me.

This would have been more effective.

“Sheep swallop and bloody buttered onions”? Not so much.

They have plenty to curse about, though. The Black Ajah are in Ebou Dar, too, searching just as hard for a cache of artifacts from the Age of Legends, under orders from Sammael, and a whole new danger arises in the form of the Gholam – a creature made to kill channelers. And once the Seanchan decide that it’s time to take Ebou Dar, that’s just icing on the cake.

So to say that “nothing happens” is to completely ignore everything that, well, happens. It just doesn’t follow the forms and narrative structures that we have expected up until this point, and there are a lot of threads left dangling between books. But this is the point where it becomes vividly clear that you are reading a much larger story, and you should count yourself lucky that you can go from one to the next without stopping.

This did make me worry slightly, of course, about the last books in the series. The book written by Sanderson was originally supposed to be one volume – A Memory of Light – but the narrative demands of the story led to it being split among three volumes. So my question, prior to reading them, was this: will we see the same thing in those books that we saw in this one? A hasty climax, put in the end of the book because that’s what’s supposed to be there? Or does Sanderson have a good, well-planned structure for the final three books that makes each one self-contained yet which makes the final three flow inexorably to the end?

So far so good, but there’s one more left. We shall see.

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“There are no clear paths. Only pitfalls and tripwires and darkness.”
– Lews Therin Telamon
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
A Crown of Swords at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
A Crown of Swords at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time

Review 190: Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time 06)

Wheel of Time 06: Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

There comes a point, in a thousand page book, where one is just overwhelmed with information. I mentioned this back in The Great Hunt, but the book is so dense that you look at the dwindling number of pages towards the back of the book and think, This can’t possibly be enough to hold all the stuff I remember happening. And yet it does. The storytelling here is solid, and while there may be a lot of fat to trim, the climactic scenes are usually very well paced and keep you hanging on the whole way through.

So, what happens in this book?

A fair summary of the Aes Sedai Civil War.

As we begin, the rebel Aes Sedai in the tiny village of Salidar are waiting to know what to do. This isn’t something that one would normally say of Aes Sedai, but they are uncertain. The White Tower is the Aes Sedai family, and to think of it splitting down the middle is just as bad as seeing your own family crack in two – you would do anything to save it. While the Salidar Aes Sedai certainly want to stand up against Elaida and her barely legal takeover of the Tower, they also want their family to be whole again. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that reconciliation is not to be, and so they prepare to take the radical step of naming an Amyrlin Seat of their own. Once that is done, the Tower will truly be split, but perhaps they can bring Elaida to justice in the end.

Rand al’Thor is trying to hold together the lands he’s conquered – Tear, Cairhein and Andor – and prevent them from collapsing into chaos. There are bands of violent looters who call themselves “Dragonsworn,” following their mad prophet and razing all that stands in their path. The Shaido, a clan of Aiel who refuse to accept Rand as their Chief of Chiefs, continues to dog Rand and his allies, and are an ever-present threat. He has Aes Sedai from both the White Tower and Salidar calling on him, each trying to convince him that they are the only ones who are worth allying with. And in Illian, the Forsaken Sammael waits, his greatest ambition being to crush Rand al’Thor and stand at the right hand of the Dark One when his time comes ’round at last.

Not unlike summer 2012 in the US. Hmmm…

All over the continent, the weather has gone into perpetual summer – lands are drying up, farms are dying, as the hand of the Dark One touches the world. Elayne and Nynaeve believe they know where they can find an object that will bring the weather back to normal, but they must first get out of Salidar. Once they do that, they have the violent streets of Ebou Dar to contend with. Egwene is with the Aiel Dreamwalkers, learning how to manage the World of Dreams, not prepared for the magnitude of what awaits her with the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar. Mat, now the leader of his own army, finds himself guarding Elayne and Nynaeve, much to his own dismay.

All around them, the world falls into chaos, and everything that Rand has done is poised to be undone.

As I said, it’s a dense book, and the changes that occur from the first page to the thousandth are pretty serious. But even though all that, my interest was held and I was entertained, not the least because the characters entertained me from beginning to end.

One of the fun tricks that Jordan uses to great effect, in this book and elsewhere, is conflicting viewpoints. In the last review, I talked about how, for some readers, the profusion of point-of-view characters made the book harder to get into (and at my count, this book has 44 POV characters in it). One advantage to that kind of writing, however, is that we get to examine events and situations through the eyes of different characters, which is often informative and always entertaining.

Poor Rand al’Thor…

Take Rand, for example. He’s an interesting character in that while has has to juggle so many different large-scale problems at once (and he’s generally pretty good at it), he’s hopeless on the individual level. In once scene, for example, Egwene comes to visit Rand. She’s determined to talk to him about the Wise Ones’ manipulation of him, but gets sidetracked into the topic of the Salidar Aes Sedai. Realizing that Rand’s nature as a ta’veren (a person whose mere presence can influence chance and fate) is about to cause her to tell him everything, she opens herself to saidar, the female half of the True Source, as a means of self-control.

Rand can sense this, and believes that she is afraid of him, calling on saidar as preparation for some kind of attack. He’s disappointed in her, of course, but this just further cements his distrust of Aes Sedai and deepens his disappointment that he can no longer trust someone with whom he had grown up. He believes that Egwene approached him in order to involve him in the Wise Ones’ plans and to stand against his own plan to give the thrones of Cairhein and Andor to Elayne.

“At least you didn’t let her see you were tired,” he tells himself after she leaves.

Egwene’s first thought upon seeing him? “He looked so tired.”

Obliviousness is a character trait that is always entertaining.

Two people see the same situation from radically different points of view, and it is their inability to reconcile these points of view that cause conflict. Storytelling 101, but done to great effect in these books. There’s another, far funnier scene later on, when Mat finally gets to Salidar and has a humorous misunderstanding as to exactly what Egwene is doing there. Like so many other characters, he’s absolutely sure he knows what’s going on, only to discover that the reality of the situation is nothing like what he expected. The characters’ willingness to make assumptions, unwillingness to say what they’re really thinking, and inability to accurately know what will happen next are a constant throughout these books, and makes them all the more human.

It is these differences of perspective – often leavened with characters who are wonderfully un-self-aware (Rand, Mat, and Nynaeve are my favorite examples) – that makes the Cast of Thousands worthwhile. For all the benefits of a single-POV book or series, there’s always more story that could be told by shifting into the head of another character. What kind of story would Harry Potter have been if we could have watched events unfold through Ron and Hermione’s eyes as well? Longer, that’s for sure, but perhaps it would have been even better.

Milton, the lowly clerk in the basement of the Stone of Tear…

Would I want The Wheel of Time pared down to just Rand al’Thor’s point of view? Not on your life. Not just because Rand is one of the less well-developed characters in the series, but I would miss the others. I would miss being in the funhouse-mirror mind of Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, or the scary thoughts of the Forsaken. I would miss knowing how Mat feels about finding himself a general, or Perrin becoming the lord of his homeland. I would miss Perrin’s conversations with the wolves (“We come” just gave me shivers. It’s in chapter 54, check it out.) I would regret losing even the minor POV characters – Sulin trying to figure out how to keep Rand safe, whether he wanted it or not. Faile working to make sure her husband becomes all that he should become. Pedron Niall and his visions of a world saved by his Whitecloaks.

While the vast crowd of characters can be overwhelming, it creates a rich world in which I can easily lose myself. Which is exactly what a good book is supposed to accomplish.

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The lions sing and the hills take flight.
The moon by day, and the sun by night.
Blind woman, deaf man, jackdaw fool.
Let the Lord of Chaos rule.
– Children’s chant of the Fourth Age
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Lord of Chaos at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Lord of Chaos at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 185: The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time 05)

Wheel of Time 05: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

One of the criticisms often laid at the feet of this series – and not unfairly – is that it is splintered.

Read any epic fantasy, and you’ll see that at some point, the author splits the party up. This is an almost guaranteed way to create more action, more storylines and, if you’re being paid per word, more money for the author. Tolkien, the grandfather of modern fantasy, did a nice job of splitting the Fellowship up into three branches at one time, and then brought them back together at the end. Since then, the technique has been a stock tool of any writer who is dealing with an ensemble cast in her work.

This pretty accurately describes the plot structure from here on out…

Jordan has taken this technique to its extreme. He used the standard method back in The Eye of the World – split the group into three, bring them all back together just in time for the climactic ending. Pretty boilerplate plot construction right there. From The Great Hunt, however, we began to see that having all of our main characters in one place at one time will be more the exception than the rule – while it starts and ends with everyone together, the beginning of The Dragon Rebornstarts us off with the party split again, bringing them all together only at the very last minute.

By my count, there are eighteen different point-of-view characters in this book, occupying four different major plot threads, only two of which actually manage to come together by the end. And it just gets more complicated from here on out. From my research, there is yet to be any point in the series where every plot thread manages to come together in one place at one time.

For some readers, this is supremely annoying, and I can’t say I blame them. You find yourself going back and forth from character to character, keeping up with storylines that are superficially unrelated, all in the hopes that they’ll pay off eventually. The circus interlude in this book is an excellent example. In an attempt to hide from the Forsaken Moghedein (whom Nynaeve seriously pissed off in the last book) and to get safe passage to the rebel Aes Sedai after the breaking of the White Tower, Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin find themselves traveling with a circus. The logic behind this is that no one would ever look for them there, and I suppose they’d be right. I certainly didn’t see it coming.

I’m not sure why this never caught on as a dominant fantasy trope.

There’s a lot of good old-fashioned circus wackiness that goes on – Elayne puts on tights (which just scandalizeNynaeve) and learns to walk a tightrope. Nynaeve ends up being the target for Thom’s knife throwing and battles her own distaste at the skimpy clothes she has to wear versus the fact that she thinks they look pretty. Now I’m not saying that nothing important happens during the circus interlude – lots of things do. It’s just that there’s no reason they had to take place in a circus.

And there’s no reason they couldn’t, either. After all, who’s the multiple-bestselling author, Jordan or me?

As opposed to a single POV series, such as Harry Potter, where you know where the important action is and who it’s happening to, Wheel of Time requires its readers to observe a world of characters. And I think that’s the key to how these books are structured. The events that are happening here aren’t just happening to one small group of people, or one kingdom. It’s happening to the entire world, from the edge of the Aiel Waste all the way to the shores of the Aryth Ocean, from Seanchan to Shara. Rand al’Thor may be the Dragon Reborn (or the Car’a’carn or the Cooramoor, depending on whom you talk to), but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has things to do. In order for the Last Battle to be won, a whole lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are going to be centered around our main protagonist.

I’d hang out with this guy, no question… (art by Seamus Gallagher)

In this book, for example, we have two groups looking for the Aes Sedai who fled the White Tower when Elaida became Amyrlin (I hope you’ve been keeping up, otherwise that last sentence makes no sense whatsoever). Siuan Sanche and Leane Sharif, the former Amyrlin and her Keeper, are traveling with Min (a young girl who can tell the future from people’s auras) and Logain (a former False Dragon whose ability to channel was severed by the Aes Sedai.) And then there is Elayne and Nynaeve, who were both out of the Tower when the rebellion took place, but who hate Elaida more than Siuan, so they’re trying to find the rebels. These two plot threads eventually merge, but it takes fifty chapters before that happens.

At the same time, there’s Rand, Mat and Egwene, who are leaving the Aiel Waste for Cairhein, hot on the trail of the Shaido Aiel, who are murdering and pillaging everything they can find. The Shaido are a “rebel” clan, who refuse to accept Rand as the Car’a’carn (the Aiel’s Chief of Chiefs) and have decided that the best thing for them to do is to kill everyone who isn’t an Aiel. Rand and friends chase the Shaido all the way to Cairhein, where they engage in a fierce battle to save the city from being ravaged by war for the third time in twenty years. Even within this plot thread, Mat, Rand and Egwene occupy their own strands, staying apart more often than they get together.

The fourth plot thread is a thin one – Queen Morgase of Andor, who has been gulled into complacency by the Forsaken Rahvin (who is posing as “Lord Gaebril,” the queen’s lover) has finally come to her senses, and escapes from her own castle. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who will help her, but she’s intent on regaining her throne and seeing Gaebril hang. Lucky for her, Rand manages to take care of her little Forsaken problem by the end, although she’s unaware of this.

Meanwhile, the whole world is falling apart. The White Tower has well and truly split, something that the new Amyrlin, Elaida, is desperately trying to keep from the world. There is war and strife across half the continent, men who believe that the existence of the Dragon Reborn means that all bonds are broken, all social contracts annulled. The Prophet Masema – a man from the northern nation of Shienar – is preaching absolute devotion to Rand al’Thor as not only the Dragon Reborn, but as the source of all that is good. The coming of the Dragon brings not only a great battle with the Shadow, but great upheavals in civilization itself.

No, no – Wait! Don’t go! It gets better!

So, to say “there’s a lot going on in these books” is a bit of an understatement, and it’s Jordan’s fondness for creating new plot threads and then following them to see where they lead that has probably led to this series going on as long as it has. Had he just centered on Rand, it all could have been over in half the time. But it would have been far less interesting in the long run.

The characters of this world are fond of using a certain metaphor to describe life – the Great Tapestry. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” they like to say, and they believe that each person’s life is a figurative thread in a greater system. Some characters, like Rand, Mat and Perrin, are more important than others, and they tend to bend other threads to follow theirs. But you cannot make a tapestry out of only three threads, and the end of the world in this series is something in which everyone may participate. Without the actions of the myriad minor characters, Rand wouldn’t be able to be the person he needs to be, and the story wouldn’t be able to be as rich and as complex as it needs to be.

So, give this some thought. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to stick with one character or group of characters throughout a series; if you don’t like having to keep notes on who is doing what and where; if you’re not the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to note all of the different major characters, with color-coding and hand-drawn graphs…. Not that I have, mind you…. If that’s not your kind of read, then you may not enjoy this series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

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“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
——————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

1 Comment

Filed under adventure, death, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, identity, madness, military, quest, Robert Jordan, survival, travel, Wheel of Time, wizardry, women

Review 181: The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time 04)

Wheel of Time 04: The Shadow Rising

This one is all about history.

One of the things that makes the world of Wheel of Time so attractive is that it is clear from the outset that Robert Jordan put a lot of work into the world of his story before he actually started the story itself. I get the feeling, reading these books, that he could tell you everything that happened here for the last four thousand years, if not more. In detail, with names and dates and places, all off the top of his head. Or at least from his copious sheafs of notes.

Your name is a killing word? Kinda hard to say your name with an arrow in your throat… (art by Jeremy Saliba)

In this book, the emphasis on history is most clear when Rand goes out to meet the Aiel. For those of you with a taste for classic sci-fi, the Aiel resemble the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. They’re desert people, and unsurpassed warriors, with a complex system of honor and obligation. There’s where the similarities end, of course – in these books there is no Spice, there are no sandworms, and no one in this would would ever think they could conquer the Aiel. Twenty years prior to the start of the series, four of the twelve Aiel clans crossed the mountainous barrier into the “wetlands” with the singular purpose of killing King Laman of Cairhien. Those four clans alone broke every army that stood against them, and only returned to their desert because they got what they wanted – Laman’s head on a pike.

No one knew why they had done this. Prior to the Aiel War, the nation of Cairhien had exclusive rights of passage through the waste, a gift that they didn’t understand, and ultimately didn’t fully appreciate. But without those rights, and without the offense that King Laman caused, and without the Aiel retaliation, this story never would have begun.

Reading this book, you start to get a better view of the historical context in which it is placed, and nowhere is that clearer than in Rand al’Thor’s trip into Rhuidean, the forbidden city of the Aiel. Any man who wants to become a clan chief, or any woman who wants to become a Wise One, may go there, but only once and twice, respectively. What they learn is their final test – the true history of their people. Those who cannot face the truth do not come back. Stronger men and women go on to become leaders, but never speak of what they saw. In order to fulfill his destiny, Rand must learn the history of the people he was born from, and by doing so, change the world.

It’s a fascinating sequence, actually – it’s the history of the Aiel from the day the hole was bored into the Dark One’s prison, through fifteen generations of the Aiel as refugees until the establishment of the city of Rhuidean itself, only told backwards. We find out why they never touch swords, why they veil their faces, and why they believe they are punished for sinning against the Aes Sedai. We get to see the incredible changes that occurred in only three or four hundred years, and then reflect that the time span we see only covers a small portion of the time that has elapsed since the Breaking of the World. We truly begin to understand how broken the world was and how hard life became, once we compare the hardened warrior Aiel to their Da’shain Aiel ancestors. It’s a fascinating and moving story, and it serves as an excellent centerpiece to the novel.

He’s not all fun and laughs.

History rests in other places as well through the book. Mat gains the memories of two thousand years, in a surprising exchange with otherworldly entities in a land beyond a twisted red doorway. We learn that the Sea Folk are looking for their Chosen One, just like everyone else, and Elayne and Nynaeve are pretty sure it’s Rand. They’re off to Tanchico to look for an artifact that could prove Rand’s undoing if the Black Ajah or the Forsaken get their hands on it first.

In fact, speaking of history, there has been a lot of speculation over the years on how the world of this book is related to our world. There are clues scattered about that suggest it is our extreme future – fairy tales about Anla, the Wise Counselor, Materese, Mother of the Wondrous Ind, and Lenn who rode to the moon in the belly of a fiery eagle (who could be Ann Landers, Mother Theresa and John Glenn, respectively). Jordan never came right out and said whether this is our world’s future or not, but a short passage in this book dropped a pretty big hint. While looking around a palace in Tanchico for the artifact that could harm Rand, Nynaeve travels the Dream World into a museum of antiquities. There, she sees many things that amaze and baffle her – fossils of extinct animals, for example often with some kind of emotional resonance. In her search, she finds this:

A silvery thing in another cabinet, like a three-pointed star inside a circle, was made of no substance she knew; it was softer than metal, scratched and gouged, yet even older than any of the ancient bones. From ten paces, she could sense pride and vanity.

If that ain’t a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, I’ll eat my library.

Over in the White Tower, history is being made as Siuan Sanche becomes only the third Amyrlin Seat in history to be deposed in a move orchestrated by the hardest of the Red Ajah, Elaida a’Roihan. And all around, the shadow is indeed rising – the Forsaken are out there, building their power and waiting for Rand so that they might defeat him before he battles their master, the Dark One.

But the best part of the book, in my opinion, is none of these. The best part centers around Perrin Aybara, the young blacksmith who was one of the original three young men to travel out of the Two Rivers on that spring night long ago.

Hi. We’re the forces of evil, pleased to meet you. Nice village you have here…

Back in The Great Hunt, the vile Darkfriend Padan Fain challenged Rand to meet him – failure to do so would result in pain and suffering brought down on all those whom he loved. Through circumstances not entirely under his control, Rand never got to meet Fain, though he did manage to cause him great inconvenience nonetheless. Fain meant to keep his promise, though, and in this book that promise is realized. The Two Rivers has been under siege by creatures from the Shadow – Trollocs and Myrddraal – and less Dark, though still not very nice Children of the Light, an army of zealots who sees Darkfriends in everyplace they look. Rand can’t go home to help – his destiny lies in the Aiel Waste – and Mat’s destiny lies with Rand. Egwene has to go to the Waste as well, to learn Dreamwalking from the Wise Ones, and Nynaeve is off to Tanchico to hunt the Black Ajah.

That leaves only Perrin, who goes back to his home to find it a very different place. He and Faile, the Hunter for the Horn whom he loves, along with Loial and three Aiel, travel back to the Two Rivers and Emond’s Field to put paid to the Trollocs and see that the people there are safe. In the process, Perrin the blacksmith’s apprentice finds himself becoming far more than he ever thought he would be.

This sequence is one of my favorites in the series thus far, and I’m including all the books that come after this one. It’s written with such depth of character, and the relationship between Perrin and Faile is built with such care that every scene between them resonates with emotion and meaning. In one book, Jordan has taken a character who had been the least interesting of all the protagonists, and made him into the one you care the most about. It’s not for nothing that Jordan gave Perrin an entire book off in The Fires of Heaven.

No matter which era we’re looking at, no one will be as creepy as Padan Fain. (art by Seamus Gallagher)

The historical insight we have gained here will help us along through the rest of the series, as we take a broader look at the world as it is in the present. Every character, not just Perrin, is changed and moved forward, if not always in likable ways, and we get the real sense that a new history is being made right now. We know that stories will be told of Perrin Goldeneyes for generations to come in the Two Rivers, that Elayne and Nynaeve will become legends among Aes Sedai, though whether as heroes or object lessons we can’t be sure yet, and that the fate of the future rests not on Rand’s back alone. He makes the Aiel face their past, and those who can survive the ordeal will be the shapers of the future.

The thousand or so pages of this volume can drag, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. The history of Rhuidean is a good example – the first time I read it, I was really confused and didn’t really see the point of the whole thing – I wished it had focused less on the post-Breaking history and more on the Age of Legends, with its jo-cars and hoverflies, the Nym and the Ogier and the Da’shain Aiel working together. But once you give it thought – why it was vital that the clan chiefs and Wise Ones remember, and how the events of nearly three thousand years ago directly led to the birth of Rand al’Thor and the very story we are reading, it goes from being a slog to an adventure.

Still, I recommend taking notes.

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“Rand al’Thor may be lucky if the next Age remembers his name correctly.”
– Thom Merrilin
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Shadow Rising at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Shadow Rising at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, history, quest, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 178: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

None of them, to my knowledge, say “Hey! Listen!”

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

Concept art for Kaladin. Man, I wish I had someone who’d draw concept art for my characters…

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

Seriously, you have to feel bad for Szeth, as awesome as he is…

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

Definitely the climax of the book.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.

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“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.”
– Hoid, The Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Wikipedia
Way of Kings on Amazon.com
Brandon Sanderson’s homepage

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Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, family, fantasy, war

Review 177: The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time 03)

Wheel of Time 03: The Dragon Reborn

Think about this for a moment: imagine there was someone in history who was truly terrible. The stories about him tell that he was personally responsible for destroying civilization as they knew it at the time. Thanks to him, men who could wield immense power went mad and broke the world. He brought down an Age of Legends in a catastrophe from which, three thousand years later, humanity has still not fully recovered. Mothers tell their children stories about him to make them grow up right. He is known as the Dragon, the Kinslayer, and the world fears the day on which, the Prophecies say, he will return. For that will signal the End of the World and the final battle with the Shadow.

Next to this guy, Hitler is a minor-league bully.

HE WILL END US!!!

How would you feel if you found out that you were, in fact, him? In a world where reincarnation is a certainty, it’s possible to find out that you are an ancient hero reborn. Or perhaps a king, or a queen. Or maybe just Joe Peasant, who gets another ride on the Wheel. However it works out, you’ve discovered that you’ve pulled the unluckiest card in the reincarnation deck, and your future is to be hated and feared, and eventually to die in battle against the greatest evil humankind has ever known.

You might go a bit nuts. Rand al’Thor certainly does.

Not the inevitable madness of being a man who can channel, thank the Light, just the understandable mental breakdown that comes with knowing that you’re the doomed reincarnation of one of history’s greatest monsters. Rand is off to the great city of Tear, on the southern coast. In the great, power-wrought fortress that sits at its center, there is Callandor, the Sword That Is Not A Sword, and an object of great power for any male channeler who holds it. What’s more, only the Dragon Reborn can remove it from its suspension inside the Stone of Tear. By taking Callandor, Rand will finally prove to himself and the world that he is the Dragon Reborn.

His friends, in the meantime, think this is a mad plan. No army has ever broken the Stone of Tear, and the city itself hates and despises channelers. Moiraine knows that Rand could get himself killed in Tear, thus dooming the world. So, with Lan, Loial and Perrin, she chases after Rand to try and ensure that he fulfills his true destiny.

These guys will Mess. You. Up.

So it’s not for nothing that we don’t see a lot of Rand al’Thor in this book, despite him being the title character. In fact, except for occasional brief interludes, we don’t get a chapter from Rand’s point of view until chapter 55, just in time for the climactic final battle. I’m of two minds on this decision by Jordan. On the one hand, it frees up a lot of pages for the other characters in the book – Perrin gets a lot of time to shine, and Mat’s healing in the White Tower lets us get to know him a little better and get a better view of the White Tower and Tar Valon. We spend much more time with Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne as they head down to Tear to chase down the Black Ajah, and get a good look at the Aiel, who will become much more important in the subsequent books.

On the other hand, however, we lose sight of Rand during what is a very important point in his character development – coming to terms with and accepting not only his identity as the Dragon Reborn but the horrible destiny that comes with it. In those brief interludes, we see that he’s being hunted by the Shadow, and has to remain on guard against its agents at all times. If we had followed him on this journey, much of what comes after would have made more sense. As it is, by letting him off on his own, Rand’s character suffers a great deal, and the reader’s ability to empathize with him is irrevocably harmed.

But on the third hand, maybe that was the whole point. No one can understand the Dragon Reborn – not Moiraine, not his best friends, not even the reader. From this book on, Rand will always be harder to understand than the other characters in the series, which may have been Jordan’s goal all along.

Another option, of course, is that Jordan wrote several thousand words of Rand’s journey to Tear and realized that just following this one guy all by himself as he tries to keep from going nuts wasn’t as interesting as we might have thought.

So there’s that.

Google Image Search can be a tough place to search for pictures of women in fantasy….

A word, then, on a topic that is central to this series, and I figure it’s better to look at it earlier rather than later – women.

As a genre, fantasy doesn’t have a very good reputation when it comes to female characters. More often than not, women are either objects of the male protagonist’s quest, or they are hindrances to him. Fantasy remains a very male-dominated genre, and for female readers there are slim pickings when it comes to whom you can imagine yourself being. While Wheel of Time is still an andro-centric story, the roles and responsibilities given to female characters are enormous, and Jordan has created a world in which the status of women is far higher than in most fantasy worlds. It is a world where men and women are different, but equal, and neither is presumed to be superior to the other. This is neatly illustrated in the nature of the True Source, the energy that turns the Wheel of Time and thus is the engine of all creation.

The Source is divided into female and male, saidar and saidin. While saidin was horribly corrupted by the Dark One, it is repeatedly made clear that neither is stronger than the other, and that the greatest works of the Age of Legends always came when men and women worked together. Even on a non-magical scale, it is shown that the roles of men and women in this world are distinctly different, but occupying a certain stable balance that allows the world to work. In personal relationships too, there is no relationship I can recall where either the man or the woman can be said to be “in charge” (except in cases like Lan and Moiraine, where one has specifically sworn to obey the other). One of my favorite examples: Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have gone to Tear to hunt the Black Ajah. Far away, in Caemlyn, Mat learns that their lives are in danger from the Shadow’s assassins, and promises right there that he’s going to save them. Classic male reaction to a Damsel in Distress.

The women of WoT will have none of this nonsense.

Once he finds them, however, they have pretty much saved themselves – another five minutes or so and they would have done it. Mat’s entire involvement in their rescue from the unbreakable Stone of Tear and the horrifying Black Ajah was to unlock a door. He risked life and limb on a quest to rescue these women, only to discover that they don’t need rescuing. And in classic male fashion, he spends the next few books sulking about how they didn’t thank him for unlocking that pesky door. Well, not all the time, of course, but it certainly comes up again.

It’s not feminist lit by any means – Jordan tends to resort to behavioral cliches more with his female characters then male; women glare or sniff or tug their braids as a kind of neon sign that says, “THIS CHARACTER IS ANGRY NOW.” But I imagine that female readers of this series will have less trouble finding a character to identify with than they would with, say, Lord of the Rings, which has only one female character of any note (Eowyn – Arwen is barely in the books at all). And there’s a lot of “I guess I’ll just never understand women” talk from a lot of the male characters, while the female characters tend to hold themselves in slightly higher esteem. But for all that, I imagine there were plenty of female readers who saw themselves in these books, and who spent more than a little time wondering which Ajah they would choose, if only they could be Aes Sedai.

Of course, I am a man, so I could be completely wrong.

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“Men fight when they should run, and fools fight when they should run. But I had no need to say it twice.”
– Zarine, The Dragon Reborn
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Dragon Reborn at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Dragon Reborn at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

3 Comments

Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, madness, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry