Monday, January 18, 2010

Saidin: The Gathering

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." - Emerson

The above is my excuse for reneging on a nearly decade-old vow to not read any more "Wheel of Time" until after Robert Jordan actually finished the series.  I swore this vow in a fit of disgust about halfway through Winter's Heart.  Throughout high school this had been my favorite fantasy series, but the recent books had grown increasingly aggravating, and Winter's Heart pushed me over the edge.  Not only was the plot spinning out of control, not only was Jordan still introducing new characters and threads, not only was he avoiding any actual resolution to the innumerable storylines he had already created, but it wasn't even edited!  At all!  I'll put up with a lot of things in a book, but typos aren't one of them.  I set the book aside unfinished (a rarity for me, to say the least) and haven't looked back.

Even though I had quit the books, it was impossible to miss the news of Jordan's passing.  Even though I had stopped enjoying his books, the news still saddened me.  For years he had insisted that he had a plan, that the final scene of the series had been written since almost the beginning, that he was just working to get to that scene.  Given this, it seemed a shame that we wouldn't be able to read that, at least, and provide some closure to the more than ten thousand pages he has written.

Before his death, Jordan had promised that he would no longer torment people with additional volumes in the series.  Instead, he would write and release just one more final book, no matter how long it needed to be.  Because of this, there had been a longer-than-usual gap since his previous release anyways.  This added drama to the whole situation: the knowledge that there was a lot of STORY just lying around there in manuscript form was tantalizing.

Eventually, Jordan's estate announced that they would do right by the fans: his widow selected a new author who could pick up Jordan's manuscripts, read his notes, and finish the great work.  This announcement was greeted with a mixture of delight, skepticism, dread, and curiosity.  The result is "The Gathering Storm," and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it has been receiving warm reviews, even from people who have not cared for Jordan's recent works.  I decided to go ahead and try it out.

One of the first things I discovered was that, contrary to my assumption, this was not, in fact, the final book in the series.  The new author clearly describes in a preface to this book how he came to this opportunity, what his process has been, and what we can expect.  There is simply too much story left for a single volume, and so he will be releasing three final books to wrap it up.  The Gathering Storm is the first, and there will be two more.  And, hopefully, that will be it.  I have to say, this sounds very familiar and I was pretty skeptical... long-time Jordanites remember that The Wheel of Time was originally supposed to be a trilogy (then five books long, then seven, then ten...), so "There's just two books left to go" is a common refrain.  That being said, this particular author hasn't lied to me yet, so I'm more willing to believe him.

Apparently, the book is a combination of extant texts originally written by Jordan and edited by the new guy, combined with new texts extrapolated from outlines by Jordan, combined with some brand-new sections necessary to fill out the plot.  That's pretty impressive, because the overall tone of the book is almost seamless, both within itself and in comparison to the earlier books.  The characters act, speak, and think the way that we're used to; I rarely found myself thinking, "Oh, that person wouldn't say that."

On a related tangent, I was shocked at how quickly I was brought back up to speed on the world and the books.  Again, I quit this series cold turkey almost a decade ago, and since then I haven't read any of the new books (I never finished Winter's Heart or touched its sequel), I've cut myself off from the vibrant online Randland community, and I've avoided any WoT-related ephemera (like the PC game).  It's been banished from my headspace.  In preparation for this new book, all I did was read the Wikipedia entries for the books that I had skipped.  Those (1) gave me a slight jog to what was going on, and (2) reinforced my impression that nothing much happened in those books anyways.

When I jumped into The Gathering Storm, though, all those old memories came flooding back.  I remembered the True Source, how it flowed into the two halves of the One Power, the rules for weaves, male and female channelers, how circles worked.  I remembered the True Power.  I remained fuzzy on some of the details - exactly which Forsaken had been killed, which balefired, which captured, which at large - but I clearly remembered the rules of the world itself and the most important revelations: the Tuatha'an, Loial's task, the status of the White Tower, the Seanchan and their a'dam, the Black Tower, the Tower of Ghenjei (does Robert Jordan have a thing for towers or what?), Rand's three loves and their relationships.

The single best thing about this book?  Stuff actually happens in it!  The second-best thing?  It doesn't introduce a ton of new plot threads or meaningless characters!  That supports the notion that the story is actually drawing towards a conclusion and not endlessly spinning out of control.


Here's a list of important things that happen in this book (in the sense of wrapping up plot lines or directly bringing things closer to a finish):
1. Masema is killed by Faile, ending The Prophet's rein of terror.
2. The Seanchan attack the White Tower, captyring Elaida and two dozen or so Sisters.
3. Rand Balefires Graendal.
4. Rand Balefires Moghdein.
5. Egwene purges the Black Ajah from the White Tower.
6. The White Tower raises Egwene to Amyrlin, ending the Tower's division.

A few interesting developments take place, though they don't really count as things happening:
1. We learn about the link between Rand and Moridin.
2. Rand destroys the most powerful male sa'angreal.
3. Rand learns to channel the True Power (!!!!! OMG!!!!)
4. Rand apparently banishes the voice of Lews Therin from his head (this is a bit unclear, but at the very end of the book it's implied that this was always madness after all).
5. We learn that Verin was Black.  (I remember wondering about this one before - I forget the details, but we learned a while ago that Verin could tell a lie, but I was never sure whether this meant that she was actually Black or if she had just gotten rid of the Oath for some other purpose.)
6. Rand also fulfills the prophecy about standing on his own grave.
7. Aviendha is accepted as a Wise One and is currently traveling to Rhuidean to take her final exams.  (Not to crow, but I saw the point of her tests coming from miles away.)
8. The Shaido have apparently scattered, and are no longer a threat.
9. Mat gets plans from the Illuminator to build "dragons", evidently some kind of massive mechanized weapon.

Some other cool stuff that doesn't directly contribute to the story's resolution:
1. Mat fights zombies in a rural town.
2. Rand banishes Cadsuane and nearly kills his own father.
3. The Borderlanders have left the Bordelands and traveled all the way to Far Madding.  We never learn what's up with this.
4. Rand refuses to aid Lan, who is leading a group of Malkieri towards the Gap.
5. Siuan bonds Gareth Byrne as her Warder.

And, just for old times' sake, there's some stuff that doesn't mean anything.
1. Perrin has a wolf dream and then wakes back up.
2. Rand meets the Daughter of the Nine Moons, they briefly negotiate, and then part still in a state of war.
3. Rand declares (in the climax at the end of a chapter) that the Last Battle has begun, then promptly throws a hissy fit and mopes around Ebou Dar for a while.

So, that's all cool. 


Page-for-page, this is probably the most eventful book in the series since The Dragon Reborn.  and my most enjoyable since The Fires of Heaven.  While the style of the book feels a great deal like Jordan's, there's a discipline in here that was missing for a long time, and that makes this a far superior work.

That said, I couldn't help constantly comparing this to the other great modern fantasy series that had replaced WoT in my affections, A Song of Ice and Fire.  Here are a few somewhat random thoughts.

Good and Evil

I'm tempted to say that ASoIaF has a more nuanced view of morality than WoT.  This is less true on further reflection, but probably still ultimately the case.  In WoT there are plenty of organizations that can't easily be categorized as good or evil: what about the Whitecloaks?  What about the Seanchan?  How about Asmodean?  Still, there is ultimate good and ultimate evil: The Creator, though an absent god, is universally acknowledges as Good, while the Dark One is, almost by definition, pure evil.  Things close to the Dark One also are pure evil without real redemption available: the Forsaken, Trollocs, Myrdraal, etc.  (That said, a revelation in this book reminds us that humans who have turned to the Dark One may still be striving for the ultimate good.)

The picture is more complicated on the "good" side.  Characters in WoT are fairly realistically human, including all the pettiness, squabbling, instinct for factions, ignorance, and pride that we experience every day.  And so you get everything from endless arguments (will Nynaeve never leave Rand alone?) to outright war (most notably, the Seanchan fighting the Dragon's armies when both should be marching to Shayol Ghul).  This is actually the source of much of the tension in the series, and I think it's a source of how people become so emotionally attached to this book: there's such a huge variety of "good" characters to choose from, and nearly every reader will find at least a few that they identify with.

In contrast, ASoIaF doesn't seem to really have an ultimate good or an ultimate evil comparable with the Creator and the Dark One.  (I won't be shocked if one appears later on, but so far we haven't seen one.)  There are some things that do seem to unquestionably be on the evil side - the Red Priestess and the undead in the far North come to mind.  Still, there are things that used to seem to be pure evil that no longer do - see Tyrion Lannister and the Dragons.    George R. R. Martin's world seems to be closer to our own: we can point to some individuals and events as being pure evil (Saddam Hussein, the Holocaust), but are also well acquainted with seemingly intractable foes who are later revealed to be people like us (the Soviet Union, Moamar Quadaffi).


I was struck by a similarity here, and surprised that it hadn't made as strong an impression on me when I first started reading ASoIaF: both series are built around point-of-view chapters.  We take turns riding along peoples' heads, with third-person omniscient attached narrators that give us the perspective of the major players.  This is a great technique, as it gives us plenty of personality and insight into a complex web of relationships.

With Robert Jordan, the style is pretty similar throughout.  Different chapters are different in tone - Mat's are almost always more amusing and lighthearted, Perrin's are more emotional and Rand's more dramatic - but the underlying writing feels very similar throughout.  In contrast, one of the things that most impressed me about Martin was how he seems to actually use different narrators for his characters.  It's subtle, but, for example, Bran's early chapters are told in a simple, plain style that focuses heavily on sensory impressions, while Tyrion's chapters have a more florid, elaborate narrator who does more interesting things with language.

The way the authors treat their characters are different.  Martin is infamous for not making anyone safe: he establishes early on that everyone is at threat and can die at any time.  With Jordan, some characters certainly die, but rarely point-of-view characters, and never major ones.  That may change in these final two books, but up until now I've never seriously thought that Rand, Mat, Perrin, Elayne, Egwene, Nynaeve, or Aviendha were ever at risk of death.

There's one other major difference: at least in this book, the characters think A LOT.  Huge sections of the book are interior monologues where the characters puzzle over the situations they're facing, reminisce over past events, daydream about what they want, and generally chatter about themselves.  It's a prime case of telling, not showing: characters will think about how sad they are instead of demonstrating their sorrow; they'll think about how much they love someone instead of demonstrating that love.  It isn't exactly bad - there's some stuff that's just really hard to show well in prose - but it isn't great either.  Martin's characters do introspect a decent amount, but not for pages and pages at a time.

Fictional History

Oh, actually, that also relates to how they approach the world's backstory.  Both of these are fully-realized fantasy worlds.  Both of the authors dole out information over hundreds of pages and a multitude of books.  However, with Martin, I tend to feel like, before he wrote the very first world, he knew basically everything about his world: the religion, the history, the houses, the culture, etc.  He basically forces you to drink from the firehose, dumping tons of information on you without giving any background, forcing you to pick it up and interpret it on your own.  I found this exhilarating.

Jordan's world is as deep, but with him, I get the impression that he was making it up as he went along.  Not the plot: he's really a master at dropping hints and clues in earlier books and then building up to great revelations later.  But when it comes to the world BEHIND the story, he seems to be inventing more than relating.  For example, we learned very early in the series that there are multiple Ajahs among the Aes Sedai, and that each has a color and each is dedicated to a particular purpose.  However, he only talks about a couple of the colors in the beginning, and it takes a surprisingly long time until he gets around to explaining what the Gray and the Brown Ajahs do.  Similarly, we've had that great wide map of Randland from the very beginning, but no real explanation of most of the countries until the characters actually go there.  This isn't a criticism, exactly - there's nothing wrong with inventing on an as-needed basis - but when you look at the long scope of both series, I find Martin's world more compelling, at least in its presentation.

I feel like I'm rambling now, so I'll wrap this up.  I enjoyed this book.  If you're a huge Jordan fan, you probably read this book a long time ago.  If you're new to him, read "The Eye of the World" - it's really good, and actually comes surprisingly close to standing on its own as an independent novel for the first tome in a 14-volume series.  If you're in my camp, and have enjoyed his past books but fell off the train at one point, then I'd actually advise you to keep waiting... this book is good, but that won't be enough if the series fails to come to a satisfying conclusion.  It looks like we might actually see the Wheel stop turning sometime this decade, and when it does, I'll let you know whether it's worth catching the last couple of spokes.

No comments:

Post a Comment