Reading The Wheel of Time: “Winter’s Heart” (Book 9)

Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I published an update on my progress of reading through the Wheel of Time series, I thought I’d try to get myself caught up. And so we come to Winter’s Heart.

The novel picks up immediately where the preceding novel left off: Faile is a captive of the Shadio and Perrin is attempting to rescue her; Mat manages to escape the city of Ebou Dar and in the process kidnaps the Seanchan princess Tuon; and Rand has to confront the darker parts of his psyche while preparing to undertake a mission to cleanse saidin of the taint that has kept it from being a viable resource for almost three thousand years.

Overall, I would rank this in the middle tier of the series. It has some of the strengths of the first three books and some of the weaknesses of the middle volumes. It has a strong narrative momentum that keeps the action moving forward, even if in the long run many of the storylines remain unresolved.

For all of its narrative weaknesses, we have what is arguably the most important event to happen in the series thus far: the cleansing of saidin. The sequence is a tightly-woven one, with multiple switching viewpoints and alternating lush and staccato description. As with so many other incidents that occur in this universe, the consequences of the cleansing will be tremendous, but the irony is that many will continue to refuse to believe that Rand has succeeded in this most momentous of events.

Say what you will about Robert Jordan: the man knew how to write a battle scene. The ending duel between Rand’s soldiers and the Forsaken is one of the most breathtaking ones in the entire series, and I know that I for one was holding my breath the entire time. The fact that we also get the perspectives of several members of the Forsaken–most notably Moghedien–makes this part all the more compelling. As we will later find out, it will also reveal that Halima, the reincarnated Balthamel, has finally stumbled dangerously close to being revealed for who she really is.

Unfortunately, several plot lines also don’t move very far forward. The capturing of Faile–the payoff of which still eludes the reader–is one of the most frustrating parts of the entire series. One wonders what, exactly, is the point as far as Faile’s character goes. I suppose you could argue that it reveals the extent to which Perrin still thinks in terms of his own desires rather than the grand stage upon which he is acting, but I’m still frustrated by it. This is one of those rare points in the series where I find Perrin more insufferable than either Rand or Mat, and that is really saying something.

There are a few bright spots in this sluggish plot. Elayne continues to be a character I like, even though she doesn’t really accomplish very much in this book. She nevertheless proves that she is a canny and cunning manipulator, a fitting successor to her mother and someone who will make a fine Queen of Andor when she finally manages to solidify her power. I personally find it very refreshing that Jordan actually gives a great deal of attention to another powerful female character, one who is determined to forge her own destiny. Compared to Min, she also thinks about Rand a remarkably small amount, and that too is refreshing.

At this point, it’s hard to ignore one of Jordan’s most notable shortcomings as a writer: his chronic inability to wrap up a storyline. By this point, we have so many characters and they are all doing so many different things in so many parts of the world that it feels as if we are never going to see the Last Battle. At the same time, we are also forced to realize that each action and thread is pregnant with possibility and significance, each instant a step forward along the road to the Last Battle.

Next up I’m on to Crossroads of Twilight. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I won’t be spending too much time on that one. It is, even now, my least favourite novel. But I’ll still try to find something interesting to say about it.

Stay tuned!

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “My Darling Clementine” (1946)

Today in classic Hollywood, I’m writing about My Darling Clementine, one of John Ford’s finest westerns and a stellar example of the postwar iteration of America’s favourite genre.

Directed by John Ford (the western director par excellence), the film details the events leading up to the famous showdown at the OK Corral. It stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, Linda Darnell as the singer Chihuahua, Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, and Walter Brennan as the cruel Newman Clanton.

If anyone was suited to play a stalwart, noble, yet reluctant lawman, it would be Henry Fonda. There is something at once both soft and hard about Fonda, his voice conveying both a certain softness and a harsh grittiness in equal measure. His face also bears this out, with its oscillation between somber gravitas and almost-waifish innocence. It’s not just that Fonda plays the role of Earp; he really does seem to embody it (and, if I’m being honest, he also seems to embody a bit of the American spirit).

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Fonda manages to embody the best of the American spirit in the person of Wyatt Earp.

If you want my personal opinion, however, it’s not really Fonda who owns the screen, but his co-stars Victor Mature and Walter Brennan. Though Brennan excelled at playing either solemn and pious men (as in Sergeant York) or slightly batty old man (as in Rio Bravo), he plays a brutal villain in this film with equal ease. Clanton is the self-serving, tribalist whose ethos is emblematic of the rot that has settled into Tombstone. Though loyal to his sons, he has no sense of civic duty, which makes him a perfect foil for Fonda’s Earp, who is loyal to both family and the state.

Doc Holliday is something else altogether. There is something deliciously dissolute about Mature’s Doc Holliday. Part of that stems from Mature’s physical persona, which always have something voluptuous about it. His face has a certain softness to it, a propensity to what Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans refer to as voluptuous enslavement. It’s fitting, then that he would play a consumptive who seems to have a weakness for women and an unwillingness to commit to the one woman who seems to truly love him in a selfless way. It is also fitting that the body politic that the film attempts to construct has no room for this sort of dissolute masculinity, so that his death at the shootout (which is unhistorical by the way), redeems him from his own dissolution.

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My Darling Clementine creates a western world that is brutal and unforgiving, seemingly yearning for the domesticating hand that can only rest in the moral rectitude of a man like Fonda’s Earp. Of course, the reality is also that he cannot stay, and so he resigns from his position as the marshal. The restoration of the social order has no place for the type of violence that Earp represents (which is a common trope in the western genre as a whole).

The ending is fittingly bittersweet. Though one would certainly hope that the Earp and Clementine would find romantic fulfillment, the world that the film has created has no space for that sort of fulfillment. One senses in this inability to bring this romance to a satisfactory conclusion a residue from the recently-ended War, which had left so many men and women scarred both physically and psychologically. Many films of the postwar period struggled with the question of how to reintegrate men back into the fabric of society, and Clementine shows what happens when those attempts fail.

In my estimation, My Darling Clementine well deserves the reputation it has accrued as one of the most significant western films to come out of Hollywood’s golden age. It reflects an American culture attempting to restore the order that had been disrupted by both the Depression and World War II and never quite succeeding. Like all great films, it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 6)

Night had fallen again upon the world, and Siska was far away from where she had thought to be. The city of her birth had been left far behind—and along with it everything that had given her life meaning and value—but she knew that she had done the right thing. The forces that had sought to end an innocent life had been sent by the great darkness, and she would not give in to their wickedness.

Now that she had escaped the clutches of those who would see the young man with her dead, however, there was the more pressing question: how would they survive now that they were out in the middle of the wilderness?

After that first treacherous climb down the plateau, she had made her way swiftly through the country. She was not ignorant of the ways of the wild, and she was fortunate that this was the time of the year when the peaches and other fruits were in harvest. Of course, she had been almost attacked by several dogs, and she had heard a lion coughing in the distance, but so far she had been safe.

She wasn’t at all sure how much longer that was going to last.

After all, she had come quite a way south, into the Gashastan region, and all she had to go by was her knowledge that the boy’s grandfather lived somewhere in the mountains. She didn’t know where, exactly, but she held firm to a faith that somehow she would find a way to get there. She knew that Ormazdh would not have put this child into her path unless he intended her to be able to save him.

The mountains frowned down at them, but there was even more menacing presence. It was no secret that the mountains of Pishapur were the haunt of all manner of strange beasts: gryphons and manticores, sphinxes and other creatures that lingered on the border between human and animal.

What’s more, she could feel the chill desert night air creeping into her bones, and she knew that if she had to spend more than a few nights in this place she would almost certainly perish. She had only managed to gather the barest necessities from her foraging, and she had to pray that it would be enough to see them to the boy’s grandfather’s house.

If not, she very much feared that all of her sacrifice would be for nothing. Both she and the boy would die, and no one would be any the wiser.

With a grimace, she pushed such thoughts aside. She had not risked everything she held dear to give in to this type of fatalism.

Hitching the child higher on her shoulders, she started her trek into the mountains.

Film Review: “Wonderstruck” (2017) and the Joys of the Cinema

It’s become a commonplace to bemoan the glut of big-budget spectacles in Hollywood (and rightly so). I mean, I love seeing lots of things blown up and hearing superheroes make fun of each other as much as the next movie-goer, but occasionally I like to see a film that has a strong story with compelling, well-drawn characters, a distinctive look, and a resonant emotional core.

Fortunately for those of us who like a good story told well, there’s a filmmaker like Todd Haynes.

With his most recent film, Wonderstruck, Haynes demonstrates once again his talents as a director who not only knows the particular qualities of the medium has chosen to work in, but also loves telling stories through film. Somewhere along the line recently, we seem to have lost a little bit of our own wonder at the ability of the medium to tell us stories that matter to us in a way that is different from literature, drama, or television. Through Wonderstruck, a story fundamentally about the search for family in the midst of the chaos of modern life, Haynes shows us the simple pleasures that can still be found in the cinema.

The film follows two narrative strands, one in 1927 and one in 1977. In 1927 New York, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) dreams of an escape from her father’s oppressive home to see her actress mother on the stage. Though hearing-impaired, she is determined to make her way there. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) sets out for NYC in search of his father.

Haynes has a well-deserved reputation for visual artistry, but this film demonstrates that he has a similarly fine-tuned sense of sound. The portions of the film devoted to Rose’s journey is highly evocative, with a near-constant orchestral score that heightens her feelings of excitement, sadness, and joy. The 1970s portion is a much busier soundscape. Though Ben is also hearing-impaired (as a result of an accident involving lightning), there is a lot more ambient noise, a reflection of the chaotic New York City of the 1970s.

That’s not so say that the film isn’t visually stunning. As always, Haynes has a keen eye for visual composition, as with the almost impressionistic look of his 1920s New York, and the brash hues of the 1970s. This shouldn’t surprise us: Haynes has one a sharp eye for colour, perhaps the sharpest of any director working today. While the film may not be as chromatically complex as either Far from Heaven or Carol, it still a look all its own.

The two younger actors really shine in their roles. Simmonds, the newcomer, really does seem like one of the child stars of the silent era, with her combination of precociousness and innocence. Oakes Fegley similarly shines, though he has a rougher edge than Simmonds.

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Millicent Simmonds has a bright career ahead of her.

While she plays a smaller part than in most of her other films with Haynes, Moore radiates warmth as older Rose and a brutal beauty as Rose’s mother. I’ve always been one of Moore’s biggest fans, and I’m really glad that Haynes continues to give her parts in which she can shine.

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If you don’t like Julianne Moore, I don’t know what to tell you.

The film moves slowly, but when it comes together at the end it makes the entire journey worth it. If you don’t feel a lump welling in your throat at the final revelations, then I think you should have yourself examined to make sure that you’re fully human. There is a true depth of emotion in this film that is (if I may be frank) a little rare in Haynes’ earlier films but has become increasingly common. For me, Carol really marked the turning point, when he started allowing genuine feeling to emerge in his films, and they are definitely the better for it.

Wonderstruck is also about the joy of modernity. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the chaos of our everyday lives, when the world seems to rush by it as an increasingly fast pace. Fortunately for us, Haynes allows his imagination and his camera to capture the beauty and, yes, the wonder of the world. Whether the expressionist landscapes of the 1920s or the grungy look of the 1970s, Haynes allows us to embrace the pleasures of the world.

In the end, Wonderstruck is a moving rumination on the power of family, friendship, and memory and the way that we make sense of the world around us. There’s a lot to love in this film, and I heartily recommend it.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 5)

Standing in the street just outside the palace, Siska looked to the heavens. She could already hear Xaryasha’s guards, the rattle of armor and saber that would certainly mean her death if they found her. She knew that she would be hunted and hounded through the streets, and that she would never know peace. The legacy that she had cultivated for so long would be thrown onto the ashheap, and there was nothing that she could do about it.

Even her daughter, she knew, would never be able to live down the shame of this incident. She had ruined everything for both herself and her descendants.

But still, she had done the right thing. She could not stand by and allow a child of the imperial family be slain, no matter what the Dashturi had told her. He might have an intimate connection with the great god Ormazdh—she supposed that anyone who had attained his rank must have that—but that did not mean that he was the final arbiter of what was right and wrong.

She shivered at that heretical thought.

Much as she was disturbed at the thought that she had given up some fundamental part of herself by daring to challenge the man who was second to the Shah in the Most Blessed Empire of Haranshar, she had to escape.

Pulling the hood of her cloak up over her head, she made her way through the streets of her beloved city. It was fortunate for her that, as a city that had only gradually sprung up, it was as full of twists and turns as a rabbit’s warren. As she made her way to the western wall—which she knew was the least defended—she offered a prayer of thanks to Ormazdh that her younger brother had dragged her out into the streets so many times when they were children.

Finally, she came in sight of the great wall that reared over the steepest side of the great mount upon which the city of Pasgardakh was perched. While the other three walls had their own gates—each named after the creatures that had been slain by the city’s founder: the sphinx, the manticore, and the dragon—this one had only a small gate that was only lightly guarded. Siska knew that her only hope was that it continued to be so, for otherwise she knew she would be trapped in the city. She would be crushed between the invading forces of the prince and the vengeful Dashturi.

She strained her eyes, and she saw that indeed there were only two guards on duty. She fought down the feeling of disappointment. Deep down, she had hoped that the explosions that had rocked the palace would have drawn them away, but clearly they had been given their orders.

Just as she was steeling herself to move forward, the night in front of her exploded into a brightness more piercing than the noonday sun. A rush of heat and sound blasted her, and she thought for sure that she was going to die in that moment of incandescent beauty.

Ormazdh must have been looking down upon her, however, for when the light faded—leaving her vision spotty and her ears full of a dull ringing—she saw that what had been a solid section of wall with a gate was now a pile of rubble. She did not know what had happened, and she did not dare to question. Seeing that there were no invaders swarming into the city yet, she bolted toward the gap.

Already there were cries from all the other parts of the city. She did not have time.

When she reached the gap, she saw that indeed there was a steep drop to the plain far below. The only way down was a steep path that even goats would find hard to traverse.

Sighing deeply and taking one last wistful look at the city that had been her home, Siska started to make her way down.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Warlock” and “Amberle” (S2, Eps. 7 & 8)

Whoah. So, some major stuff happened in this week’s double episode of The Shannara Chronicles. While our old friend Bandon was able to resurrect the Warlock Lord (who appears to have taken on the guise of a twisted Allanon, due to the Druid’s blood used to resurrect him), Wil had to confront the truth of his heartbreak, Eretria confronted her own demons, and both Riga and Tamlin saw the resolution of their respective plots.

I’ll be the first to say that there are times when this show hits some bumps, when the dialogue is a bit clunky or trite, and there was definitely some of that in this week’s offering. However, there are also times when it hits you right in the gut, and Wil’s painful admittance that his love for Amberle is over is one of those moments. I truly felt my heart breaking right along with him as he finally had to come to terms with the fact that the beautiful Elf girl was a part of his past, not his present or his future. Any of us who have experienced this kind of heartbreak know that this sequence gets it exactly right.

Beneath this exchange there is a fundamental philosophical and human realization. No matter how much we like to hold onto the moments in our lives that fill us with joy (or sadness, or both), we also have to come to terms with the fact that time waits for no one. W have to leave behind our pasts, and that brings both closure and an ineffable sadness. I give The Shannara Chronicles enormous props for being able to do justice to this profound feeling.

I have to say, Austin Butler continues to amaze me this season with his growth as an actor. He’s always had a prettiness about him that fit in nicely with the MTV aesthetic, but the shift to Spike has, I think, allowed him to put that prettiness to a different use. There are moments when you can see his emotions strain to break free of his beautiful exterior, his jaw clenching with the strain. Indeed, it’s precisely his male beauty that gives this struggle its potent force and that makes us feel with him rather than just for him.

This pair of episodes forced the various characters to confront the darker parts of themselves. While Wil emerged from his testing with the Sword of Shannara intact, ready to do battle with the Warlock Lord, Eretria gave in to her demons and became…part Mord Wraith? It’s still unclear exactly what she is now, but the sense of bodily violation was certainly a potent one. It feels a bit unfair that this brave Rover girl, who has conquered so much–and endured such heartache–meet this fate. I do hope, however, that she is able to overcome.

For his part, Allanon has finally confronted the reality that his death is coming, that his actions to save the Four Lands have inadvertently set him on a path to an ending from which he will not escape. He continues to evince a harsh yet vulnerable stoicism, and he is willing to accept the fact that, if by his death he is able to bring about the safety of those in his care, then the sacrifice will have been worth it. Fortunately, he has already begun training Mareth (who has really grown into her own as a character), to take over for him. We can but hope that she is up to the task of carrying on the legacy of the Druids into a new era.

And lastly we have Bandon, who at last succeeds in his mission to bring back the Warlock Lord. Unfortunately, his new master is far more cruel and heartless than he had imagined, and one gets the sense that the resurrected creature is not at all what he had thought he might be. While Bandon ultimately seems to embrace the absolute nothingness that the Warlock Lord represents, I continue to hold out hope that there might be some redemption for him in the end.

This week also asked the profound question: can you still go on with your heroic quest when it seems that there is no hope? Wil confronts this dilemma, for the Sword has shown him what he believes to be the truth: that the  Obviously, Wil decides that the answer is in the affirmative, but who knows how true his vision might turn out to be? The fact that he goes on with his heroic quest despite the uncertainty speaks to his strength as a character and a worthy adaptation of Brooks’s original creation.

This week also saw the death of two of the major characters of the season: Queen Tamlin of Leah and General Riga. The death of the queen had an understated grace about it, as she stoically accepts that this is the price she must pay for the actions that she has taken. Riga’s death was quite a lot more graphic, as the Warlock Lord proved to him in no uncertain terms that though he has attempted to eradicate magic, his efforts have been in vain. It was quite cathartic to see this evil character at last dispensed with, and it was fitting that he suffered from the very thing that he sought so ruthlessly to eradicate.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention my thoughts about the resurrected Warlock Lord. It was quite a nice touch to have him be played by Manu Bennett, who has brought Allanon to life with such memorable scenery-chewing. This sets up an interesting doubling that will hopefully pay some dividends in the final two episodes.

All in all, this series has really grown into its own, and I really do hope that it gets a third season. Now that it’s finally proven that it can capture an effective blend of gritty and splendid (the visuals continue to stun this season), it could really go in some interesting directions.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Path of Daggers” (Book 8)

So, we come at last to The Path of Daggers. At first, I thought this novel was going to be as boring and tedious as my previous readings, but I forgot just how much happens and how many leaps it makes in terms of plot. In this novel, the Kin and the Sea Folk join with Nynaeve and Elayne to begin returning the weather to normal, Rand makes an aborted attempt to throw back the Seanchan, and Perrin has to contend with some new arrivals to his entourage (including Queen Morgase).

It was quite a relief to have the Bowl of the Winds finally put to the use for which it was intended. One gets the sense that this is an action that will have far-reaching consequences, and it is one of those moments where an action in this world does not immediately show its full effects. If their efforts are successful, it means that they will have made a significant strike back at the Dark One, whose attempts to mold the Pattern in his dark image have resulted in this unseasonable weather.

This novel also sees Rand make some substantial gains, though he also continually finds himself beset at every corner. The Seanchan continue to push against his efforts, and he even has to confront betrayal by his Asha’man, who have either begun to go mad or, more sinisterly, have been subverted by Rand’s unsteady ally Mazrim Taim. Jordan writes evocatively of these incidents, and there is a sense of breathless dread as we wait for the next proverbial shoe to drop. As much as Rand attempts to build the unsteady network of alliances that will enable him to at last face the Dark One with the world united at his back, there are a thousand forces that work to shatter that unity. The tendency of Jordan’s universe, like our own, tends toward chaos, the good always subverted by those too blinded by their own ambition to see the truth of what needs to be done.

Just as importantly, this novel makes it very clear that Rand has begun to lose parts of himself. The toll of being the Dragon Reborn–the hope and bane of his entire world, is finally wearing away at his sanity. All of this before the taint on saidin has really sunk in (as far as we know). It is this sense of crushing obligation and its heavy price that it exacts that makes him a compelling and sympathetic character, even if he is at times more than a little insufferable (particularly with his very retrograde views on women).

I have to say, though, that one of my favourite characters has to be Cadsuanne. She serves a similar function to Moiraine, though it turns out that she is vastly older than any other Aes Sedai that we have yet met. There is just something about her that stands out. She is proof that Jordan does know how to write female characters with true grit and strength, though the real pity here is that she doesn’t get more stage time. If only Jordan would allow these side characters more scenes and POVs…

If I have one complaint, it would have to be the kidnapping plot, in which Faile, Morgase, and others are abducted by a party of Shaido. To me, this felt like a tacked-on bit of intrigue to give Perrin something to do. Of the three principal characters, his own role in the Last Battle still seems ambiguous, though it will no doubt have to do with the fact that he can speak with the wolves. Hopefully, the kidnapping plot will have some sort of payoff, but I guess I will just have to wait and see.

Despite its relatively short length, The Path of Daggers manages to move the overall plot of the series forward in significant ways, while also opening up a number of new threads. If I have one complaint, it is precisely that nothing really gets resolved by the end. By this point, we can certainly see that Jordan had become somewhat lost in the intricacies of his own plot. Note that I’m not saying that there won’t be a pattern that emerges later on, only that by this point it’s very hard to see (even for the author), how to get from where we are now to the Last Battle.

Next we’re on Winter’s Heart. Stay tuned.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “A Crown of Swords” (Book 7)

We come at last to the seventh novel in “The Wheel of Time,” Crown of Swords. Rand faces loss and victory in equal measure, while Elayne and Nyvaeve (with Mat’s unwilling help) find the Bowl of the Winds, and Perrin does not appear at all.

Jordan continues to demonstrate that he has a firm and thorough knowledge of his created world. I personally found Ebou Dar to be one of the more charming cities that he has created, and I was particularly drawn to Queen Tylin. There’s something intensely amusing at seeing Mat caught flat-footed by a woman who is as rapaciously sexual as he is. Indeed, it’s quite refreshing to see the ways in which the women in Jordan’s universe–for all of their foibles–have a measure of agency that they lack in many other epic fantasies of a similar scope. Say what you will, but it is rather nice not to see women be the subject sexual violence and torture all the time (I’m looking at you, Martin).

The high point of the novel, however, has to be the moment when Rand is finally able to lure the menacing and cruel Sammael to his death in Shadar Logoth. Sammael is hardly the most subtle of the Forsaken, and it is precisely his arrogance that ultimately leads to his demise. It really is a fitting punishment for a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to prove that he is better than the Dragon (though of course he isn’t). It’s only fitting that he is at last stricken by Mashadar, a malevolent spirit that is as dark and rotten as the Forsaken himself.

There is a strong sense in this novel of the tremendous toll that his destiny is beginning to take on Rand. While I’ve always found him to be a bit insufferable, I think I have a better grasp of his character. He is a man tormented by the knowledge that he has to break and save the world in equal measure. And of course there is also the fact that began life as a rather simple farmer but has no had to take on the burden of leading all of the nations of the known world in a fight for their lives. Add to the fact that he has to continue contending with the impending madness caused by the taint on saidin (as well as the voice of the former Lews Therin tormenting him in his mind), and one can see why he might retreat at times into a bit of navel-gazing.

A Crown of Swords paints a picture of a world teetering on the brink of utter destruction. It almost feels like this is the deep breath before the plunge, when all the world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for the final axe-stroke to fall. There are some truly gruesome and dark scenes, such as when the gholam attacks Nynaeve and Elayne, wounding and killing several others in the process. The attack is a potent reminder, if any were needed, that the weapons from the Age of Legends–and the knowledge that the Forsaken possess-give them an undeniable edge in this world. Sometimes, it feels as if the odds are truly too great for any of the characters to win in the final struggle, no matter how valiantly they might attempt to do so.

All in all, I quite enjoyed A Crown of Swords. It’s a more briskly-paced volume than its predecessors, and while some might fault the novel on that grounds, I actually think it marks one of the high points in the series as a whole, when we finally begin to see the end-game. Of course, there are all sorts of pieces that remain in play, but it’s smaller size means that it is able to accomplish more than the previous novel. Things are finally getting real.

I’ve already finished The Path of Daggers, so expect an update on that to be appearing here shortly. I’m also about halfway through Winter’s Heart, so I’m (finally!) on the cusp of the novels that I haven’t read yet. I have to say, I’m very excited to have finally reached this stage. So, it’s onward we go!

Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

Reading The Wheel of Time: “Lord of Chaos” (Book 6)

Well, I’m charging headlong through “The Wheel of Time,” and now that I’ve finished Lord of Chaos and am on the cusp of finishing A Crown of Swords, I thought I’d take a few moments to catch up on my blog posts about the series.

In this novel, a lot happens and, simultaneously, a lot doesn’t happen. The pieces on the game board are shuffled a bit here and there, but it’s not really until the final third that the major action happens. The high point of the novel comes in the last few chapters, in which Rand is captured by Aes Sedai from the White Tower. The battle that leads to his escape is one of the most powerfully written sequences of the book (and the series as a whole up to this point), and makes the whole book worth it.

However, there were a number of important developments in Salidar, in which Nynaeve discovers that stilling can indeed be healed, and both Siuan and Leane are given back their ability to channel. Though they are weaker than they were–the idea that some things can never truly be changed is a hallmark of the series–the fact that they can be healed at all is extraordinary. And it’s hard not to feel a rush of emotion when these two extraordinary women are at last given back a measure of the life they had thought forever lost.

However, I also found this to be a challenging book for a number of reasons. First there is the sheer length of it. There is a lot that goes on in this book, but the major plot points either come quite near the end or are drowned in the sort of bickering and endless squabbling that seems to mire the characters every other chapter. I know that some people enjoy this aspect of Jordan’s writing, but for me it is its greatest flaw. (I don’t mean to suggest that he is alone in this. Almost every epic fantasy that goes beyond three or four volumes falls into this same trap).

While I’ve always appreciated the sprawl and scope of the series as a whole, there are times when I believe an editor’s ruthless scalpel could have trimmed out some of the less necessary bits. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the scope and the breadth of the storytelling; it’s just that I wish it weren’t mired by all of the parts that are so infuriating to read that I just skim them.

This is also the point where I start to get increasingly irritated with almost every main character. Perrin’s constant whining about Faile (and her equally infuriating inscrutability), Mat’s endless cursing and ranting about women, and Rand’s just general whininess, do not age well. The women come out somewhat better, though even they start to wear thin. One gets the feeling that Jordan doesn’t really understand human psychology that well, and the clunky character development bears this out.

I’ve often thought that this series would have been infinitely more interesting if Jordan had just focused on the POV of the Forsaken, who are almost always much more compelling to watch than the ostensibly “good” characters. Let’s face it. Who doesn’t love reading the parts with Graendal? Or Sammael? Or Demandred (who gets a brief cameo in the Prologue?) They reveal so much about the depth of this world’s history, and their POVs tend to not fall into the same repetitive patterns. But then, perhaps if we got more of them they would fall into the old patterns.

This extends to characters like Elaida, whose own allegiances (other than to herself) remain unclear at this point in the narrative. As hard as she is, her viewpoint chapters are always a welcome relief, and they show us just how far-reaching is the chaos that Rand has created in this world. The fact that she doesn’t even know her Keeper is a high-ranking member of the Black Ajah–and that one of the Forsaken is even now in the midst of the Tower–makes her chapters are the more intriguing.

For all of my complaints, I will say that I still very much enjoy this series, and there is much to recommend it. No one spins a complicated plot like Jordan, and the world he has created does have such a breadth and depth that it’s very easy (and pleasurable) to lose oneself in it.

Now it’s onward to the next book. Stay tuned!