Reading The Wheel of Time: “Crossroads of Twilight” (Book 10)

Ugh. What to say about this book? While it is entertaining as far as it goes, I’m afraid that it really does lack the dynamism and energy that kept the other books in the series moving along at a fairly brisk pace. If I’m being completely and bluntly honest, I couldn’t wait to finish it. Maybe that was because I was really trying to get beyond it so that I could immerse myself in Knife of Dreams, but I also think it has to do with the fact that it is such a filler of a novel that doesn’t stand very well on its own.

Basically, the plot consists of pretty much every character taking a few minutes to look to the place where Rand has managed to channel so much saidin and saidar (the latter through Nynaeve) and wondering what on earth could have happened that would require using that much of the Power.

I exaggerate, of course. There are a number of developments in this novel. Most of the characters’ arcs move at least slightly forward, though not nearly as much as I would have liked (this, despite the fact that the novel is actually quite long).

However, it is largely hamstrung by the fact that the characters are too far enmeshed in their own respective plots to be able to effectively move in any meaningful direction. Perrin continues to insist that he will do anything necessary to rescue his wife from the hands of the Shaido (no surprise there). Faile continues to struggle against the Shaido. Rand hopes to make peace with the Seanchan, and Egwene is still dug in with the siege of Tar Valon. Meanwhile, Elayne continues the long, slow slog of consolidating her power within Andor, quite a tall order considering the many forces arrayed against her.

This novel really renders visible Jordan’s greatest failing as a writer: his unwillingness (or inability) to wrap up storylines. I understand this reluctance. It really is difficult to push any form of writing into its final stages, but that can be very trying to read, even when it’s an epic fantasy novel and you’ve already invested a lot of emotional energy into the reading project.

I was very excited to learn that Elayne is pregnant with Rand’s twins. It really does make you wonder how this entire saga will end up. Though we know that Rand will ultimately face off with the Dark One during the Last Battle, Elayne’s pregnancy suggests that there may be a future for the other characters. It may well be that the royal family of Caemlyn will continue to bear the blood of the Dragon into future generations. While epic fantasy is always, to an extent, predicated on the idea of a decisive battle that will determine the fate of the world (it is called the Last Battle, after all), this particular plot twist suggests that the Wheel will continue to turn and that, just perhaps, the future might be assured after all.

The real star of the novel would have to be Egwene. I remember when I first read this novel being shocked and dismayed that she was captured by those in the Tower, which I thought would bring about an end to the rebellion. But we know that Egwene is one of the most powerful characters in the entire series, a woman with formidable abilities and a will as full of iron as Rand or anyone else. If you don’t love Egwene, I don’t know what to tell you.

It’s worth noting that this is the last book that I had read all the way through when Robert Jordan passed away in 2007. I had managed to read about half of Knife of Dreams when it was first released, but I just wasn’t able to make it through to the end. I think I’ve got the wind in my sails now, though, so that will help to see me over the finish line.

Okay, now we’re on to Knife of Dreams, the first novel that I have not finished at any previous re-reading of the series. I’m very excited to share my thoughts on that book before moving on to the final three books.

Onward and upward!


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!

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!

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!

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Fires of Heaven” (Book 5)

I have now made it through The Fires of Heaven. Boy howdy, this book manages to cram a lot in. While it is a fairly brisk read, there were a few points where I was left skimming in an effort to make it through.

This is also the book where the narrative strands start to decisively diverge. We don’t see anything of Perrin during this book, and while his absence is felt, it does also help this book to retain a tighter focus than some of its predecessors. I’m a little frustrated by the addition of some characters who are ancillary to the action and who seem tangential (Min and Morgase are particularly egregious, IMO).

At this point, we also get a stronger sense of what it is the Forsaken have been up to while Rand has been developing his powers. While Sammael has seized power in Illian, Rahvin has managed to wrap Queen Morgase around her finger, though he ultimately has to cope with the fact that she is not nearly so biddable as she first appears (and this book also sees her introduced as a viewpoint character in her own right). He remains one of the most enigmatic of the Forsaken but also one of the most compelling. Too bad he exits the stage almost as soon as he entered it.

When Rahvin is stricken with balefire during his duel with Rand, it unravels his brutal (and quite shocking!) murder of Aviendha and Mat that had occurred out of the blue. While we have known that using balefire against someone burns out their presence on the Pattern and all of the effects their life has for a short time, we now know that truly powerful balefire could indeed be catastrophic were it to be used without caution. The ending doesn’t feel quite as rushed as the last several books, but one does get the feeling that Jordan was feeling the pinch of the various narrative threads that he had going and so felt the need to dispense with not one but two of the Forsaken in one swoop.

And of course, this novel also sees what is arguably the most important event so far in Nynaeve’s life: her final confrontation with the Forsaken Moghedien. There is something tremendously satisfying about seeing the Spider brought low, especially when she thought she would be the one who was subjecting her enemy to the worst sort of torture. It’s even more satisfying to know that she will be subjected to the power of the a’dam in the living world (for if anyone deserves to be used for what she knows about the uses of the Power, it would have to be one of the Forsaken). As infuriating as she can be, Nyvaeve is also one of the novel’s standout characters, the one who at last begins to move the plot forward in some significant ways.

I’m still devastated by the fact that Moiraine sacrifices herself in this book (I haven’t yet finished the series, so her final fate remains a mystery to me. Please no spoilers!) Her absence will be keenly felt during the next several books, as Rand finds himself caught up plots that he cannot entirely see. As manipulative and opaque as she could sometimes be, there is no question that Moiraine was an important resource, one that Rand will no doubt miss now that she has seemingly met her fate in her sacrifice.

Overall, the novel is both narratively rich and philosophically compelling. It continues to pose the question: to what extent are we the agents of our own lives and to what extent are we drawn along in a pattern in which we have no say? Mat for one seems completely at a loss, guided by a power that he cannot control, and the same seems to go for Rand (who may at last be falling into the dangerous pit of madness). The series continues to hold free will and predetermination in a productive tension.

I’m chewing my quickly through Lord of Chaos. Fortunately, I had re-read this book more recently than I had several of the others, so I’m confident that I will be able to finish it in short order. So, stay tuned!

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Shadow Rising” (Book 4)

I have now finished The Shadow Rising, the fourth book of The Wheel of Time. This is the book where the real intricacies of the plot begin to take shape. Unlike the first 3 books, which are rather short (by epic fantasy standards), Shadow really expands the scope far beyond what we’ve seen before. One really does wonder if Jordan, having established that he could tell a good story and sell lots of books with the first three, was finally given the leave that he needed to really go to town on his plots. I, for one, am not complaining, since it is precisely the vast scope of his work that makes it such a pleasure.

However, I will say that the seeds of what goes on in the rest of the story, both good and bad, are quite thoroughly sown in this book. The many plots, counterplots, and counter-counterplots that will occur throughout the rest of the books can be squarely traced back to Shadow, and it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened had he chosen to keep a few of those threads snipped out rather than allowing them to grow an become ever more convoluted as the series continues.

That being said, it does contain some genuinely powerful moments, such as when Perrin goes home to Emond’s Field to find that the cruel Padan Fain, having manipulated the Whitecloacks, has had his family killed. Perrin’s breakdown in Faile’s arms is one of those rare moments when genuine emotion bubbles up in this series, and it’s hard not to weep. But it’s also uniquely satisfying to watch Perrin grow into his position as ruler of the Two Rivers, leading his people to a successful repulsion of the enormous army of Shadowspawn that have invaded his homeland.

In many ways, the most shocking thing about this novel is the deposing of Siuan and the election of the implacable Elaida as her successor as Amyrlin Seat. Up until this point, Elaida has mostly flown under the radar. She was there at the very beginning, when Rand made his appearance in Caemlyn, but she hadn’t really done anything of note until she decided that she needed to be the one to render the Dragon Reborn the tool of the Tower in its preparations for the Last Battle. But of course, any canny reader knows that a Red is in no position to do anything at all useful as far as the Dragon Reborn is concerned.

There is also the disturbing sequence in which Rand, having made his way to the Aiel city of Rhuidean, confronts the reality of  that people’s true history. Contrary to what they have always believed, they were not always a people devoted to war and death, but were instead serva […] We even get a glimpse of the very day when a misguided Aes Sedai–possibly Lanfear herself–drills a hole in the Dark One’s prison and unleashes the force that will come to have such a devastating effect on the entire world.

Much as I love many things about The Wheel of Time, the endings of most of the books always seem a little rushed to me (which is ironic, considering the vast scale of the story as a whole). Such is the case here, where it is quickly revealed that a seemingly innocuous and unimportant character is actually the Forsaken Asmodean, who is then forced by Lanfear to serve as a tutor to Rand so that he will at last learn how to use his powers to their full extent. This all happens very quickly, and one does wish that there was a bit more action spread more evenly throughout the book (at least as far as the Rand storyline is concerned). Still, the conflict between Rand and the Forsaken is one of the most momentous events to happen in the series so far, and it brings to an end the period when Rhuidan was separated from the rest of the world.

So, The Shadow Rising is where shit really starts to get real, and I’ve already finished The Fires of Heaven. If I keep on at this rate, I might just finish these books by early 2018. We shall see if I can meet that ambitious goal.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Dragon Reborn” (Book 3)

Now that he has acknowledged that he is the Dragon Reborn, Rand must make his way to Tear and claim Callandor, one of the most powerful sa’angreal that were created during the Age of Legends. Meanwhile, Nynaeve and Elayne must seek out the Black Ajah, and Perrin, Egwene, and Mat have to accept their role in Rand’s destiny.

I’m going voice what will probably be an unpopular opinion. Both Rand and Mat are the most insufferable characters in fantasy literature. I mean, I know that Rand is supposed to be the reluctant hero and all of that, but he’s not only unwilling, he’s stupidly stubborn. The only other character I can think of that is nearly as annoying is Jon Snow, whose character also suffers because of a certain lack of competency on the part of most fantasy writers to create central characters who aren’t infuriating.

That being said, there is a lot to like in this novel, particularly the (for the most part) well-organized plot that sees several different strands converge at the end in the climactic moment when Rand claims the sword for his own and announces to the world his status as the Dragon Reborn. What’s more, this novel really gives a great deal to Perrin who, among the three male leads, is definitely the most sympathetic (and the least insufferable). Though he won’t really come into his own until The Shadow Rising, the seeds are already set for his starring role in that book.

The novel also includes the perspectives of several of our other favourite characters, each of whom starts to develop a true mission of their own. I particularly enjoy the plot in which Nynaeve and Elayne are sent to track down the Black Ajah, particularly the malicious Liandrin and her fellows. These are truly some of the most sinister characters in the series, women who have no intention of doing anything other than leashing Rand for a service to the Dark One. The fact that they elude the justice that they so richly deserve is frustrating, but it does give us something to look forward to in the next novel.

Like it’s predecessor The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn is briskly-paced, so that we move through the various stages of the plot in a relatively short book. I would actually argue that the first three books of The Wheel of Time are in many ways a springboard for the vast tapestry (a Pattern, if you will), that will consume all of the subsequent books. In fact, this is the last book for quite a while that will have a narrative that is actually contained and leads to a meaningful fruition. From this point on, we’ll get more POV characters and more plot-threads, but given that the sheer scope is part of the pleasure of this series, I’m not going to complain too much.

There are still some nagging bits of inconsistency in terms of pacing, particularly Moiraine’s ability to kill Be’lal with seemingly little resistance on his part. Sure, it seems like she is able to get the jump on him, but it really makes one doubt the power of the Forsaken if they can be so easily dispatched. But then, the Forsaken, for all of their vaunted strength and prominence in the Age of Legends, seem a bit off their game in this new world.

Overall, though, The Dragon Reborn is a truly entertaining and thrilling read. It is probably the last book in the series in which Jordan is able to restrain his worst impulses. From this point out, the plot will start to meander and hundreds more characters will make their appearance. In addition, the characters will begin to engage in their endless refrains that will become infuriatingly repetitive the longer the series goes on.

I’m very much enjoying my re-reading of The Wheel of Time. I am sincerely hoping to have it finished by sometime in early 2018, which is a bit ambitious, but I’m sure I can do it. I’ll be honest. I’m sort of skimming the volumes that I’ve read several times, but I hope to slow down and savour the last four.

With that, onward we go!

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Great Hunt” (Book 2)

Well, I’ve now finished The Great Hunt for the umpteenth time, and I find that I enjoy it more each time I read it. While the first book set out the terms of the quest, now things get a bit messier as the full enormity of the task before Rand becomes enmeshed in a far greater set of plots and counterplots than he had ever imagined possible.

This is the first part of the series where things start to get really dark. People are brutally murdered in the middle of a fortress, a horde of soldiers with leashed Aes Sedai launch attacks on the western coast of the continent, and there is a villain that is truly evil enough to make your skin crawl (I’m looking at you, Padan Fain). This novel has all that I love the most about epic fantasy, and it doesn’t yet show the most egregious signs of repetitiveness and sloppy prose that will mar some of the later entries in the series.

So what specifically this installment so compelling and so unsettling? Well, to begin with there are the Seanchan.

I have always found the these invaders incredibly strange and alien, since they are so unlike any of the characters are cultures that we have met so far. Their collective willingness to enslave those who possess the inborn ability to channel the One Power always makes me feel gross, and this feeling is heightened by the fact that they use other women who could learn to channel to do the controlling.

There are also those aspects of the novel that make it stand out from the crowd, particularly its ability to weave together the particular pleasures of a variety of other genres. For example, who doesn’t feel a thrill of horror when Padan Fain nails a Myrdraal to a barn door or feeds one of the Darkfriends in his train to his pack of Trollocs? Who doesn’t find Fain in general to be one of the most terrifying villains to emerge in the annals of epic fantasy? Who doesn’t love the spinning wheels-within-wheels of politics as Rand finds himself sucked into the Great Game?

And of course, who doesn’t love the presence of the Forsaken Lanfear, who makes her first appearance in her attempt to sink her claws into Rand and use him for her own ends.

Lastly, there are the great characters that we meet. This is where we met the redoubtable Siuan, the Amyrlin Seat and leader of the Aes Sedai. While she plays a fairly limited role in the novel, it is still a substantial one, and it reveals a great deal about just how deep her plans with Moiraine run. They both know the enormous stakes with Rand, and they are determined to do everything they can to save him, though they might destroy themselves in the process.

And can I just say how very much I love Moiraine? She has always been, and will always be, one of my favourite characters in the whole series (and I always feel her lack once she disappears). Unlike the other characters in the series, I actually identify with her.

If I have one major complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing seems a little off. When I first began re-reading it, my memory told me that Egwene is briefly captured in the middle of the novel, but it turns out this doesn’t happen until very close to the end. What’s more, she doesn’t stay captured for very long, and so we don’t get a really in-depth glimpse of what it’s like to be a captive of the Seanchan. A similarly rushed feeling accompanies Rand’s duel with the Lord Turak and Mat’s blowing of the horn. These are two huge events, but the novel rushes through them with breathtaking speed.

I’m speeding through The Dragon Reborn, so hopefully I’ll get around to posting my update on that book in the next couple of days or so.

Cover note: I have to say, this is without a doubt the worst of the Wheel of Time covers. I’m not really sure Sweet thought he was doing, but this one is a major fail (who thinks that Ogier really look like that???)

Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Eye of the World” (Book 1)

So, in addition to all of the things I’m working on–dissertation, novel, short story, this blog–I’ve decided to undertake a truly mammoth project: the re-reading of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time from beginning to end. So, I began, as one should, with The Eye of the World.

Though I’ve read this novel countless times since I first started the series in around 1998, I always find something new to enjoy. In this case, it’s looking for clues that point the way to some of the plot developments that will unfold in future books. And, of course, I always enjoy revisiting one of my favourite characters in this universe: Moiraine, the cunning yet altruistic Aes Sedai (I almost said Bela the horse, but thought that would be disingenuous).

I’ve always been in awe of the way that Robert Jordan was able to craft a plot that really brings out the most exciting aspects of the epic genre. Sure, things start getting a little twisty and windy as the series progresses, but in The Eye of the World all of that is still in the future. It’s hard not to feel caught up in the breathless excitement that hurtles these young people from a backwater village into the maelstrom of cosmic events. True, it’s a plot that’s basically the definition of the epic, but somehow Jordan makes it feel fresh and exciting.

But if we’re being honest, the main characters of Robert’s books are truly insufferable and almost pathologically juvenile. While one might excuse this in the first book (I wouldn’t, but some might), that excuse starts to wear thin as you go on. The women tend to come out better in that equation than the men, which reveals a great deal about how Jordan seems to think about the world, and I will say that both Egwene and Nynaeve are both likable, particularly the latter’s tragic love affair with Lan. And of course there is Moiraine, who is arguably Jordan’s finest fantasy creation.

However, when it comes to world building there is no one who can compare to Robert Jordan. The sheer scope of the world that he has constructed is almost overwhelming in its vastness and its complexity. This is true not only of the various cultures that inhabit his world–which are less straightforwardly based on our own world’s history as, say, George R.R. Martin’s-but also the vast expanse of time that it encompasses. Rand and company are not just engaged in a fight for their world, but for time itself. Ultimately, if the Dark One is able to shatter the Wheel of Time, he might be able to remake the entire span of past, present, and future in his image.

There is, I think, something deeply horrifying about this threat. We are always encouraged to see the threats of epic fantasy as grand, certainly, but rarely are they about the destruction of time itself. That is truly an end from which there can be no redemption, for there is no escaping from the toils of time. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I want to say about the way in which the series engages with questions of temporality, but for now I’ll just say that this dramatically raises the stakes and it is this, in part, that makes this series stand out from the epic fantasy crowd.

I’ve always really enjoyed Jordan’s ability to weave in bits of horror into his epic fantasy. Both the Myrdraal and the Trollocs are truly travesties, and there is something viscerally unsettling about their presence in the novel. And while his villainous creatures are certainly the most horrifying part of this novel, there is something equally unsettling about Perrin’s newfound ability to communicate with wolves.

In the end, though, the novel is also tragic, in that it is undeniable that there is much that will be lost as these characters begin their journey toward their destiny. The death of the Green Man is just the first death of many that will afflict our heroes as they make their way through the world, confronting uncomfortable (and sometimes downright terrifying) truths about themselves in the process.

I’m going full-throttle through The Great Hunt, in which things begin to take a very grim, and even more horrifying turn, as the scope widens and the true epic quest begins. Stay tuned!

Cursory note: I have always thought that The Eye of the World has the best covers of the entire series, and I stick to that claim.