The Gathering Storm

by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

 

The big story with The Gathering Storm, obviously, is Robert Jordan’s death and the introduction of a new author for the final three books. While some rockiness might be expected, given the change in writing style and even just the loss of Jordan’s guiding hand, for the most part I didn’t find the transition all that jarring. There are a few things, though, that I believe bear discussing.

First, let’s talk about Mat. I like to read without knowing too much in advance, but I’m not unaware of how fans see characters, plots, relationships, even entire books. The dope on Sanderson’s books included, among other things, his alleged misunderstanding of Mat as a character. Now, I liked Mat from the beginning; he’s comic relief, but he’s also just as powerful as the other main characters, and much more appealing as a character. That being said, as the saga progressed, it seemed like Robert Jordan’s main characters all converged into a single tired, brooding, unpleasant archetype. Jordan doesn’t let them have any fun, and I get the sense that none of the characters want to be there. Mat, especially, suffered from this. He’s always had a dark side, no doubt–the whole knife situation and whatnot–but in the later books, Jordan forgets that Mat is supposed to be lighthearted and fun, a foil to the responsible Rand and the almost comically self-serious Perrin.

Well, I guess a lot of people didn’t see it that way, given all the hate for Sanderson’s more “jokey” portrayal, but I think Sanderson found a way to return Mat to his roots and bring back some differentiation between the main characters. Now that he’s free of Tuon, Mat can return to his old rascally ways, spending his time drinking and ogling people that aren’t his wife. Compared to the unpleasantness of Ebou Dar, I’d say this is a significant improvement, even if it is a somewhat jarring transition.

Actually, I think Sanderson wanted to reset the plot and characters for the final three books, Mat included, so that he could create concise and satisfying arcs. Storm ends with two main characters, Rand and Mat, coming to new realizations about themselves and their role in Tarmon Gai’don. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but I just can’t picture Jordan structuring this book the same way. I don’t know why, but Jordan was always reluctant to give his plots any sense of finality; perhaps he  preferred to keep the characters busy and, in so doing, continue to draw the story out. To me, though, the constant addition of new plot elements, and the lack of any indication that Jordan wanted to wrap up any of his plot arcs, was growing stale. In that sense, Sanderson’s work is an enormous leap forward.

Further, Sanderson is unafraid to push against emotional boundaries that Jordan had never crossed. Without a doubt, The Gathering Storm had some of the most powerful scenes I can recall reading in Wheel of Time. Rand goes to about as dark a place as we’ve been in the entire series, and he takes us there more than once. And while we know, of course, that Rand is our hero, and that he can’t actually fall to “the dark side”, so to speak, Sanderson calls that assumption into question. Again, maybe I’m underselling Jordan, but it’s hard to imagine him being so bold.

The only fault I can really find with Sanderson’s work is that Egwene is still a poorly drawn character. Her only quality seems to be that she’s inexplicably good at everything, and while I’m hesitant to use the term, given all of its connotations, she comes across as very Mary Sue-ish. The rebels follow her, the novices look up to her, and the White Tower sisters almost immediately realize that she would make a better leader than Elaida–who then conveniently gets kidnapped and made into a slave. This “Kumbaya” outcome strikes me as unrealistically optimistic, especially when I consider American politics and some interesting parallels between our current regime and Elaida’s. In particular, the idea that the Amyrlin, who turned out to be a “useful idiot” for the Dark One, was selected by a minority of Aes Sedai and put over the top by Black Ajah traitors–it maybe hit a little too close to home. Given what’s happening to our democracy right now, the notion that Egwene would be able to walk into the White Tower and command respect by virtue of awesomeness looks naive, at best.

The Gathering Storm is notable most of all for Brandon Sanderson’s continuation of the series after creator Robert Jordan’s death. Nothing can take away from what Jordan built–his world building and intricate plotting are unrivaled–but there are some areas in which Sanderson has him beat. Neither author is solely responsible for these last three books, though, and their joint credit on the cover is a testament to Jordan’s and Sanderson’s united efforts to create a series finale that stands the test of time.

Knife of Dreams

by Robert Jordan

 

So I’m probably not going to achieve my goal of finishing in May. And by probably not I mean definitely not, given that it is currently, as I write this, May. But I’m doing the best I can.

Knife of Dreams is different from most of the installments in the Wheel of Time series, in that it actually seems to have a climax and ending. Previous entries have moved the story forward, slowly but surely, often ending with a major event, but plot lines never really seemed to end. Case in point: Perrin’s rescue of Faile. I’ve been complaining about the Perrin-Faile relationship since… well, basically since Faile appeared. She was kidnapped three books ago, and Perrin spent all that time whining about how she was gone and plotting how to get her back. In Knife of Dreams, it’s as if Jordan finally realized that nobody gave a shit, and reunited them.

He does this with other plots as well, bringing them to their logical conclusion so that the next book, The Gathering Storm, can start winding towards the finale. (Actually, it seems that Jordan envisioned Knife as the penultimate publication, with A Memory of Light coming as the twelfth and final book. When Sanderson took over, he made the decision to split up Memory.) I believe Jordan got sick and realized that he no longer had unlimited time to meander the characters towards Tarmon Gai’don, and he tried to move things along a bit. While he didn’t get to finish his series, he does go out on a high note, making Knife of Dreams the most exciting and momentous Wheel of Time book since The Great Hunt.

So Elayne’s succession fight ends, Perrin rescues Faile (bleh), Mat escapes the Seanchan, and Tuon returns to her people. Depending on how you count it, that’s at least three major conflicts that Jordan resolves by the end of Knife. Obviously, this makes for an interesting read, but it’s also such a relief just to know that things won’t keep dragging and dragging through the end of the series.

Two minor items. One: I fucking knew Moiraine was alive! So that was exciting. I was actually hoping that New Spring would provide some hints as to where she went and whether she might pull a Gandalf, but no dice. I was ready to give up on her, so I’m very glad she’s back.

Two: not to harp on the Perrin-Faile thing, but I was totally shipping Faile and her Aiel captor, as well as Perrin and Berelain. The latter seem to have more mutual attraction and respect between them than Perrin and Faile ever do, and at times it seemed that Perrin was starting to realize it. As for Faile, anything to move her from middling importance to minor importance would have been great. Plus, the Aiel love interest, Rolan, is a rare morally gray character in Jordan’s universe, unapologetically fighting for the Shaido Aiel while helping Faile and friends survive and escape Malden. Unfortunately, Perrin accidentally kills Rolan, and my dreams die with him.

Knife of Dreams shows Robert Jordan could still tell a great story, when he wasn’t distracted by creating more and more characters and plots to populate his world. Alas, he got close, but never got to finish the series he started. RIP Jordan.

Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

 

I originally started this blog in 2012 as a way to keep track of what I’d been reading, and to put (somewhat) coherent thoughts together right after I finish a book. I had a lot of time for reading, given my general lack of employment, but I didn’t always having someone to talk to when I finished something. Finally, finding that I had no one to talk to about Pale Fire, another Navokov work, I decided that if I wanted someone who would reliably listen to my scattered thoughts, that someone would have to be me. I began to mull the idea of a blog.

The rest is history

The rest is history

That is to say, reading Pale Fire in late 2011, and Lolita less than a year before that, led directly to my blog’s creation, as these were some of the last books that I read before I decided to share my thoughts with the world. Nabokov is a unique writer, one that cries out for attention, and I hoped to one day use my blog to provide it.

Lolita is a complicated book, to say the least. On one level, it’s a relatively sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile who lets his wife die so that he has a chance to rape her twelve-year-old daughter. That’s an accurate one sentence description of the book, one that you might be reluctant to give to anyone wondering what you’re reading, but it doesn’t nearly do the book justice. Lolita is about pedophilia, yes, but it’s about much more than that.

The novel records the misadventures of a European man, Humbert Humbert, whose one childhood experience with romance and sex leads to a lifetime of desire for adolescent girls. At least, that’s his own psychoanalytic rationalization of his desire for what he calls “nymphets.” Unable to find happiness in his native Europe, Humbert moves to America, where he continues his academic career, still unsatisfied with his life. Knowing it’s a long shot, he takes a chance by renting a room in a small New England town, hoping and praying that his host’s daughter will be an easy victim. Arriving in Ramsdale, his plans fall through, but things soon perk up for Humbert; he’s invited to board with Charlotte Haze and her twelve year old daughter, Dolores. Humbert immediately develops a crush on Dolores, or Lolita, as he prefers to call her.

Standing in the way of this perfect romantic set-up is Charlotte, who develops her own feelings for Humbert. He treats her with nothing but contempt, but she falls head over her heels, ultimately pressuring him into an unhappy marriage. Fortunately for Humbert, a deadly accident soon befalls Charlotte, leaving the widower as Lolita’s sole guardian. LolitaThe pair immediately set off on a cross-country road trip. Humbert plans his next moves as Lolita–still a young child, of course–latches on to anything that might distract her from the trauma she’s experiencing and the horror of what Humbert plans for her.

It’s a comedy. Kind of. Navokov is one of my favorite writers, due not just to his amazing linguistic talent–he’s fluent in French and Russian, in addition to being one of the best English-language novelists of the twentieth century–but also for his ability to create humor in absurd and even upsetting situations. Humbert Humbert, the lecherous foreigner, bumbles through his narration, emphasizing his own deficiencies to such an extent that he comes off as pathetic rather than predatory. Telling his story from a prison cell, Humbert’s self-image is that of a tragic hero, and he’s so simultaneously honest and dishonest with his audience that we can’t help but see the humor in the situation, even as we’re repulsed by his lack of empathy.

My rudimentary analysis is that Nabokov uses his protagonist’s perversions to talk about more universal expressions of love and, just as importantly, lust. The latter is actually better reflected in Lolita than the former, I think. Divided in half, the first part of the novel takes us through the origins and early expressions of Humbert’s predilection, and later the development of his insatiable lust for an idealized Lolita. The second half follows the pair on their road trip across the United States, stopping at every roadside attraction and spending their nights in crappy motels. Humbert spends most of his time and energy trying to convince her to grant him the sexual favors he desires, through bribery, threats, and other forms of coercion. Normal methods of seduction are almost out of the question.

When I read Lolita for the first time, over five years ago now, I found the first part to be faster, funnier, more exciting, and more interesting than the second half. I hold by that assessment, but I think Nabokov intentionally structured his novel to mirror the progression of what you might call a crush: the toxic combination of love and lust that doesn’t reveal what it truly is until it’s too late. Humbert’s feelings for Lolita can’t be described as anything but a crush, especially given his admitted lack of experience with real romantic relationships. The book follows his crush, from his introduction to the enigmatic nymphet Lolita, to getting to know her a little bit, to his first quasi-sexual encounter with her, and finally to his conquest, success beyond his wildest dreams. He achieves everything he could have ever wanted.

Then part two starts. Whereas part one is full of possibility, part two is full of dread and foreboding. Humbert got what he wanted, but he finds himself in increasingly desperate and precarious positions, as he tries to hold onto his hard-fought victory. Humbert’s relationship with Lolita–the one that exists in his head–looks exactly like the real relationships that we all experience. At first full of passion, that superficial feeling slowly but inevitably fades, revealing what lies beneath: hopefully love and respect, but possibly resentment, shame, or even hatred. The second half of Lolita represents the passion of a crush withering away and dying.

Of course, there’s more to the book than that; there are entire plot points I haven’t even explained. In the latter half of Lolita, Humbert fears that he and his lover are being followed, possibly by a policeman, or perhaps a family member. Desperate to escape his pursuer, knowing what discovery would mean for him, Humbert becomes more and more erratic in his movement and jealous of Lolita’s activities. I neglected to explain this part of the story earlier because it simply doesn’t interest me. It was hard for me to follow, even experiencing Lolita a second time and having advance knowledge of the mystery, and I honestly find it distracting.  I understand that Nabokov needs something to drive Humbert forward, and to drive him mad, but I don’t think the hidden clues and red herrings are meant to be taken seriously. There are so many other things for readers to focus on.

For one thing, there’s Lolita’s feelings, which don’t really play a part in Humbert’s self-centered account. I still find his narration hilarious, so it’s easy to forget that he fucks over every other character in the book, especially the girl he ostensibly loves. I don’t think I noticed it as much the first time I read the book, but if you focus on Lolita’s character, the book morphs from comic to tragic and violent very quickly. Which, of course, it was the whole time.

So people who are repulsed by Lolita‘s premise aren’t wrong. I think there’s value to the novel, but there’s no question that it focuses on its narrator at the expense of his victim. That focus isn’t always positive, and in fact I think it would be hard to read Lolita as anything but critical of Humbert; still, many would likely say that the book glosses over the affects Humbert has on Lolita herself. That’s certainly fair, but to ignore the absurdity of the narration would be to miss the entire appeal of the novel. We’re not supposed to sympathize with Humbert. If we were, it would be a very different novel.

Lolita is a great book, and there’s probably nothing I can say to add or detract from it. The subject matter is polarizing, but if you can get over that, there’s no reason not to check it out.

New Spring

by Robert Jordan

 

You could call this a break from the main series, which is taking its toll. I’m treating it as such, but I’d always planned on reading the books in publication order; I usually figure that the author’s thought processes should be roughly mirrored by the reader’s. Basically, I knew Jordan wouldn’t put spoilers in a prequel that was published before the final four installments of the main series. Regardless, this is the order in which I chose to read them, so here goes.

As I alluded to just now, I was looking for a change of pace, and I got one. Instead of continuing the story, New Spring–prequel that it is–takes us back in time about twenty years, to the end of the Aiel War. New SpringWe rendez-vous with Moiraine, living with her friend Siuan as an Accepted in Tar Valon, as well as Lan, hoping to return to the Blight when the war finally ends. Moiraine and Siuan, through sheer dumb luck, end up as the only living witnesses to the prophecy that the Dragon has been reborn, and the two friends take up the task of finding him before disaster strikes.

Moiraine and Lan haven’t yet crossed paths, so you know there’s gonna be an awesome meet-cute coming up. Moiraine’s journey leads her north, just as Lan discovers the possibility that an army is being raised in his name. Each with their own secret task ahead of them, the pair become reluctant companions and develop a grudging respect for one another’s ability. Not exactly a surprise ending.

There’s a plot here, but the specifics aren’t revealed until pretty much the last couple of chapters. The audience knows that Lan’s kamikaze mission won’t proceed as planned, and that Moiraine and Siuan aren’t going to find the Dragon for, oh, about eighteen years. We also know that any minor characters we haven’t alredy met aren’t going to matter much. This knowledge lets the story and the characters breathe a little bit; we’re not constantly waiting for Jordan to decide that something else is important, and we can just enjoy the events as they unfold.

The story Jordan creates is interesting and vibrant, so much so that, once again, I lamented Jordan’s refusal to focus on a single narrative in most of his books. Indeed, I was reminded of how much fun The Eye of the World was when I was first beginning the series. It’s the difference between a world of possibility and a world of obligation; obligations to plot, to characters, to things we already know have happened or will happen. My only complaint, and it’s minor, is that New Spring, like many prequels, suffers from Baby Muppets syndrome. That is to say, we’re introduced to the younger versions of so many characters that it becomes distracting and implausible. In this case, are we really to believe that, despite Aes Sedai living to be hundreds of years old, most of the ones we’ve met are in their early twenties around the time of New Spring? Most of the older Aes Sedai that we meet end up dead, with the exception of Cadsuane, who’s pretty much known as the oldest Aes Sedai around. It’s not a huge deal, but it detracts from the realism a bit.

Truthfully, knowing that this book was about Moiraine, I expected and hoped that it would lead to some indication that she had survived her apparent-but-corpseless death in book five. I mean, Gandalf fell fighting the Balrog, but came back better than ever. Thom Merillin came back from his apparent death, and that was in the first book of this series! I liked Moiraine as a character, so perhaps it was my wishful thinking on my part. In any event, we don’t really get any hints as to what’s happening in the last four books, at least as far as I can tell. It looks like Jordan set out to write a straightforward prequel, not a key to unlocking any mysteries. And that’s okay. Actually, it’s great.

New Spring is a breath of fresh air after ten books that are increasingly bogged down by plot and a mess of characters. It’s enough to remind me of why I liked Jordan’s writing in the first place, and it’s a glimmer of hope that perhaps the series will return to form before the end.

Crossroads of Twilight

by Robert Jordan

 

I’m going to use most of this space to talk about my general frustrations with Jordan’s writing. I’ve had plenty of time now to think on it, and I’m starting to come to terms with some of my disappointment, especially as I look back on the first couple entries, which I thought were pretty great. So I’m focusing on Crossroads, but some of these thoughts have been drifting through my head for some time now.

The biggest problem is that Jordan refuses to focus each book on a single narrative or plot line. This is okay when minor characters are able to have their own adventures that will either be entertaining in their own right, or will tie into our main narrative later. Think about Harry Potter’s friends; they always have their own shit going on, but those side quests generally have an impact later. Hermione or Ron will accidentally discover some knowledge that Harry will need to get past the three-legged dog, or win the Tri-Wizard Tournament, or whatever he does in the other books. But Jordan refuses to close even minor subplots, leading me to question why I’m supposed to care. Perrin is the perennial offender here. His squad has been separated from the other characters for several books now, and I have no idea what Rand actually wants them to be doing. Frankly, it doesn’t even feel like Rand and Perrin exist in the same world, and that’s not a good thing when they’re not only in the same world, but ostensibly in the same story.

When it comes to minor characters, I have no idea which ones are going to become important until the moment they’re shoehorned into the plot. This is always done one of two ways: the character either suddenly proves to be indispensable–Faile–or suddenly betrays one of our real heroes–so many irrelevant Darkfriends/Black Ajah/Ashaman that I can’t even name them all. Actually, my inability to name a single one of these characters says a lot about the impact they’ve had. I know that one (or more) of the Ashaman betrayed Rand at some point, but the individual Ashaman are such non-entities that it has absolutely no impact on me. I didn’t know the characters before the big reveal, and I didn’t remember anything about them afterwards. The sheer number of minor characters dilutes the impact of all of them, and while these characters can sometimes make the world feel bigger, most of the time they just make it more confusing.

This leads me to ask: What does Jordan find interesting? Even when he stumbles into a plot with undeniable potential, he gives it the same or worse treatment than he gives everything else. The breaking point for me was the romance between Mat and Tuon. After disappearing for an entire book, Mat then reappears in Winter’s Heart, which ends with the promise of a great story line for him. In order to escape his life of captivity and sexual assault, he is forced to kill or kidnap Tuon, heir to the Seanchan Empire. He has no choice but to bring her along, and as they make their escape, he realizes that she is the Daughter of the Nine Moons, foretold to be his wife. Interesting! Crossroads of TwilightThis has potential. Surely Jordan will spend a good chunk of Crossroads allowing this romance, which we already know is going to happen, to develop in interesting ways.

Wrong. Not to spoil anything, but nothing really happens between them for 90% of the book. A later chapter is dedicated to their “courtship,” such as it is, but it’s really a missed opportunity, even if I have my doubts that Jordan could pull off a relationship that doesn’t feel like a bad romantic comedy. “I can’t believe this person! How could anyone stand to be around them! But oh, there’s something about them…” Regardless, we will never find out, because more time is given to Perrin’s relationship with his axe than Mat’s with Tuon. And that is not hyperbole. That is an accurate comparison based on page numbers. And even the Perrin-axe relationship pales in comparison to the three-book quest to rescue Faile, the character nobody cares about, the romantic interest that nobody was asking for.

Lastly, I think it’s somewhat telling that Jordan’s titles have become completely abstract and arguably irrelevant. “The Crossroads of Twilight,” mentioned in the epigraph, doesn’t play any part in the book, and the words aren’t even written in the text. I’m not saying this is the worst thing in the world, but it’s an indication that there isn’t any one thing that ties this book together, which brings us back to the painful admission that Jordan forgot what the fuck he was writing about. Not every title needs to refer to an object, as in the first installment, or an event, as in the second. But the title should have some relation to a plot or theme of the book, and you would be hard pressed to make the case that “Crossroads of Twilight” has any meaning whatsoever, either thematically or in relation to the world that Jordan has built. If anything, it just reminds the reader that the series is at a crossroads, as we move from the muddled middle to the (hopefully) spectacular finale, and as we make the decision to finish the saga or set it aside in favor of more concise, meticulously plotted, and thematically coherent fair.

Most of these issues are really symptoms of the main problem, namely the lack of a reason for this book to exist. Yes, Jordan has to continue the saga. Mat and Rand and Egwene have to get from point A to point B, though at no point do these characters interact in most of the later books, Crossroads included. In a sense, we need Crossroads to get us a step closer to the end, but there’s nothing that it’s actually about. No characters experienced major turning points, and the most interesting new relationship–Mat and Tuon–was given about twenty pages of an 800-page text.

I’d read somewhere that Jordan intended it to catalog characters’ reactions and responses to Rand’s actions at the end of Winter’s Heart. Apparently, Jordan thought it didn’t really work. I think I disagree with his assessment, though. I mean, yes, I have my own problems with the book, but I actually liked the use of that event as a turning point for these characters. It felt like a reset, or a refocus, for the plots and subplots. Obviously, it didn’t immediately tie the story together into a cohesive whole, but it was a nod in that direction, and at this point I’ll take what I can get.

When a novel ceases to exist in its own right, we have a problem. Crossroads of Twilight was a fine entry into the series, but in no sense is Jordan telling a series of stories in novel form. It’s become a TV show, or a comic book, in which each entry serves only to lead into the next entry, until the creator decides that enough has happened and the plot can be wrapped up. That’s clearly happening with Wheel of Time. I didn’t hate Crossroads, but my patience with Jordan’s unending web of characters and plot is wearing thin.