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.

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The Spy Who Loved Me

by Ian Fleming

 

The Spy Who Loved Me was an experiment for Fleming, who felt it so different from his other Bond novels that he claimed in the prologue to have received the book as an anonymous manuscript. He also seemed to have regretted publication, later ensuring that the Bond movies wouldn’t adapt the novel. (They did not: the film producers took The Spy Who Loved Me for their title, but used an entirely new story, new characters, new settings, and a new plot. Luckily, we got a great song out of it.) Maybe Fleming was right; the book was seen as a break in the formula–which it absolutely was–that failed to live up to the high standards set in previous books.

The main departure for this book involves James Bond’s own presence, or lack thereof. He is, in fact, absent from about two thirds of the novel, which follows French Canadian Vivienne Michel’s unfortunate decision to watch over a secluded motel for the last week of the tourist season. But the first chunk of the novel isn’t about that, either. The Spy Who Loved MeAct one recounts Vivienne’s life story, from Canada to England and up to her travels through the mountains of upstate New York. The trouble then begins when two gangsters show up with orders to burn the place down. Bond makes his entrance when the gangsters, who have no incentive to let Vivienne live, are deciding exactly what they want to do with her.

As a Bond fan who’s been critical of both the rigidity of the formula and the inconsistency of its results, I actually welcome this change. Waiting around for Bond to receive his assignment, get the lay of the land, and start working his way towards the villain gets a bit stale after a while. Spy solves this problem by showing us the action through the eyes of someone else, and by having Bond simply stumble upon the plot, which is entirely self-contained. Actually, Spy has an appeal similar to the short stories of For Your Eyes Only, with smaller threats and cozier casts of characters. Vivienne, Bond, and the two gangsters are the only characters in the novel, and their motivations are neither grand nor complex. Simple characterization isn’t always a positive, but to me it was a breath of fresh air.

The bad guys are just two mobsters, Sluggsy Morant and Sol Horror, who are sent to the motel in order to burn it down for their boss. While I admit that they’re not the most well-rounded villains of all time, or even of the Fleming oeuvre, it’s nice to have a different set of tensions and stakes than in, say, Goldfinger or Thunderball. Since we’re introduced to these characters through the eyes of a young foreign girl, who has no idea who the men are or what she’s gotten herself into, I’d argue that they’re scarier than the supervillains Bond usually faces. Sure, Bond has been tortured and whatnot–pretty regularly, actually–but he’s a double-oh agent. He knows what he’s getting into every time he leaves his desk in London. Vivienne, though confident and self-assured in other ways, is simply not equipped to handle these things. From this perspective, regular gangsters can be just as scary as megalomaniacs, especially when they plan to kill Vivienne and show no qualms about raping her in the meantime.

If you think it odd that Fleming writes from a female perspective, and that he uses rape as a threat to this heroine, I hear you. It’s uncomfortable for me too. But to me, Vivienne is Fleming’s attempt to write about a woman who’s had to deal with dicks like Bond (and Fleming) her whole life. By the time we meet her, she’s a self-sufficient woman in her twenties, but in her earlier years she got involved with dudes that undervalued and mistreated her. To me, that sounds a lot like how Bond treats the average Bond girl throughout the series. Maybe Fleming is absolving himself here, by making Bond the knight in shining armor, coming to rescue Vivienne from the big bad men of the world, the run of the mill kind as well as the gangsters. Maybe Fleming just sucks at writing women, and can’t imagine a woman that could resist Bond’s charms. I don’t pretend to know what he was trying to do, but I found the shift in perspective to be a welcome change, though it might not work for everyone.

The last thing I’ll say is that Fleming creates a mood that is much more consistent than many of his other outings. Again, it reminds me a lot of the short stories, which seem to be a real strength of his. It’s not as if the Bond novels are weighty tomes, but they push Fleming’s writing style to its limits. Spy is an intimate and concise novel with clearly defined boundaries, few characters, and a tense plot, making it a unique entry into the series, and one which showcases the strengths of Fleming’s writing.

In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming breaks the mold and creates a new kind of Bond novel. Whether you like the end result probably depends on how much you liked the formula to begin with.

Winter’s Heart

by Robert Jordan

 

My goal is to push through the last few books in the series by the time I finish up with grad school in May. After Winter’s Heart, I’ve got five books left in the main series, plus the prequel. So we’ll see.

Regardless, I read this one fairly quickly. Winter's HeartThe narrative was fairly focused, especially as compared to the previous few books. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what happened from The Fires of Heaven through The Path of Daggers, because none of those books had any semblance of a focused narrative. That’s not to say they weren’t enjoyable; I think it’s clear from previous posts that I like the series a lot. I think, though, that the meandering plots definitely contributed to my need for a break after every book or so.

Winter’s Heart, in contrast, focuses really on what three main characters and their affiliates are up to. Rand is doing his Dragon stuff, Elayne is being a queen, and Mat’s repeated rapes are inexplicably still being treated as a huge joke. Yes, the previous book ended in a Perrin-related cliffhanger, and he’s on the cover, but he has only brief appearances here. I think even Jordan is wise enough to know that nobody gives a fuck about the Perrin-Faile romance and drama. Ugh.

Brevity being the something of something else, let’s wrap up. Focused narrative, minimal Perrin, questionably light-hearted rape scenes. Really, that about covers it. There’s way less interruption of chapters to bring in a minor character, or a darkfriend point of view, or any of that nonsense, which I think helped out a lot. The prologues still have a lot of that, true, and they’re getting longer, but I think moving all that stuff out of the main chapters really helps to move things along.

My main criticism at this point is that Jordan doesn’t exactly help you pick up where you left off. I know there are people I’m supposed to know are evil, but I just don’t know how I’m supposed to remember, without reading the books back to back to back to back. For example, there’s a plot thread in the White Tower that I know I really enjoyed last time, but I have no idea where it left off. Once in a while, Jordan throws you a bone, but his need to recreate the fog of war for the reader leaves me questioning how much I really know. Maybe, if I do power through the rest over a few months, that will change. One can hope.

Powering through. Goal: May 31.

Thunderball

by Ian Fleming

 

Thunderball might not be the greatest of the Bond movies, or even just the Sean Connery ones, but the novel it’s based on might be one of the better Fleming books. Not only because it minimizes the racism, sexism, and other non-woke ideas that Fleming forces into his work, but because he’s becoming a better writer.

To clarify, I don’t think that the Bond books will ever be taken for classic literature. In fact, on my second time through them, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that the success of Bond, as a book series, a movie series, a character, and an icon, is almost certainly a fluke. I haven’t read a lot of crime or espionage, but Bond does strike me as a somewhat generic entry into an incredibly formulaic genre. And on top of that, I still have no idea who these books are, or were, for. Are they for adults, children, or teens? I read them as a teen and I thought they were great. Now, they seem pretty pulpy. I’m sure I’ve changed somewhat, but it’s also possible that adult tastes have changed a bit since the fifties.

What elevates Fleming is his writing, particularly his scenes of violence, indulgence, or both. It helps that he based the character and some of the stories off of events that he actually participated in during World War II, working clandestine operations as a British officer. This gives the writing, as well as Bond himself, a sense of confidence in its own realism that grounds even the silliest plots. Knowing the lingo and the mindset allows Fleming’s character to exist perfectly within our world as well as the sinister world of espionage, allowing readers to traverse that line right alongside Bond.

ThunderballThe other thing that becomes clear in Thunderball is that Fleming works hard at his craft. I believe I’ve pointed out passages in previous Bond novels that I thought were particularly good, but overall I’d have to say that none of the Bond books have yet lived up to the promise of Casino Royale. In part, I think all series and serials suffer from having to raise the stakes every outing, or risk losing the audience’s interest. Fleming’s problem, since Casino, seems to be that he didn’t know how to raise the stakes without essentially repeating himself in every novel. Thunderball finally breaks free of that trap, providing a dangerous mission for Bond without all of the gratuitous torture scenes and drawn-out climaxes that plague many of Fleming’s novels.

Everything else you need is there: the girls, the ridiculous villains, M, Felix Leiter, and Bond himself, in all his colonialist glory. But this is the first Bond novel since Casino–I’m excluding For Your Eyes Only‘s collection of short stories–that didn’t start to feel like a chore to get through towards the end. I’m hoping that this is a sign that Fleming is re-evaluating his formula, tweaking things here and there in order to create a tighter, more exciting Bond novel.

In addition to its limited use of outdated attitudes, Thunderball is far and away the most exciting Bond novel since Casino Royale. Here’s hoping that Fleming has learned his lessons and will continue to improve in his writing.

Stardust

by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy is an interesting genre. When most people think of fantasy, they seem to think of Lord of the Rings and its derivatives–Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, even World of Warcraft. Modern fantasy seems to be all about constructing a fiction world and populating it with “realistic” characters. Neil Gaiman does fantasy a little differently.

I hadn’t even heard of Neil Gaiman before around 2012, when my friend drunkenly told me that American Gods was one of his favorite books. I took his advice. I then read another of his books, then bought a couple more, and finally got around to reading Stardust this year. While Gaiman has plenty more out there that I haven’t read, I’m familiar enough with his style that I’m beginning to understand what he’s trying to do. I think.

In my ‘umble opinion, Gaiman cares more about creating the feel of a fairy tale than building a gritty world for his characters to inhabit. It’s the feeling that yes, there’s a real world, but you have only to draw back a curtain to find things that are absolutely fantastical. Fairy tales blur the lines between reality and fiction, either by setting their stories in a mythical past–as in the Arthurian legends, Greek epics, Star Wars, or pretty much any culture’s folklore–or by playing to the idea that the world is a big, sometimes scary, but inherently magical place. See: Grimm fairy tales, Disney movies, X-Men, Jurassic Park. These stories, these fairy tales, seem to say: “Magic is real, or at least it was real in the past. And maybe someday it will be real again.”

It’s a bit of a fine line to draw, but I think it’s tangible when you actually start reading it. Let’s take for example, oh I don’t know, Stardust. This is clearly a fantasy novel but, like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this story takes place in our world. Or at least, that’s where our story begins. Tristran Thorn lives in the English town of Wall, a town named for the literal barrier between the known world and the magical land of Faerie. On a whim, a stupid promise to a girl he thinks he loves, he sets off beyond the wall to catch a falling star.

Let’s pause for a second and consider why Gaiman sets it up this way. As a resident of Wall, Tristran is vaguely aware that there’s a “second” world outside of England, but he’s about as aware of it as an ancient African would be of India. Sure, it probably exists, but if you’re never going there, what’s the difference? It’s interesting to contemplate, or to tell stories about, but it’s completely irrelevant to your life. When the foolish young man makes his promise to do the unthinkable, but not the impossible, he’s forgoing all of the knowledge and certainty about what his life would have become, and stepping into a mystery. Would the story be as effective if Tristran was living in Faerie to begin with? I’d say no. StardustTaking a young man on the edge of reality, both literally (physically living at the border with Faerie) and figuratively (moving from childhood into adulthood), gives him one chance to do the unthinkable before he finds his permanent place in the world.

The structure of the story thus established, I think it’s fair to say that the book went in some pretty unexpected directions with its plot. Tristran comes across plenty of danger in Faerie, but some of it is so unexpected that you might be left scratching your head. In addition to Tristran’s admirable mission to secure the star, Gaiman introduces a good variety of subplots involving witches, feuding brothers, and all sorts of magical creatures and settings. Though Tristran’s story is relatively straightforward, Stardust proves that Neil Gaiman isn’t necessarily interested in writing traditional fairy tales.

And of course, just because Gaiman writes fairy tales, that doesn’t mean we always get a happily-ever-after. Like Tolkien, I think Gaiman understands that a fairy tale should end not with possibility, but with possibility lost. Not every plot thread ends on a high note. While the book encourages its readers to have big dreams for the characters, many of these hopes will be dashed by the end. A young man can’t stay young forever, and the magic that allowed him to do the unthinkable will not repeat itself. Such is the nature of magic.

As an aside, I think the irony of Tolkien’s influence is that while yes, he did succeed in creating big, beautiful worlds, filled with unique characters and cultures, he never lost sight of what he was really doing. He was inventing myth out of whole cloth, creating a bible of stories for a distant past that we all know never actually existed. His works might have often contained more detail than those of the Brothers Grimm, but they were meant to accomplish a similar goal. I would posit that modern fantasy’s major flaw is its disregard for the myth-making at the core of the genre. Treating these stories as legend, rather than history, might reintroduce some of the magic that they largely seem to lack. (The Nerdwriter makes a similar point, though he goes in a somewhat different direction with it.)

A second aside: Since this post went further than I expected into how myths are made and stories told, I just want to take the time to disavow JJ Abrams’ take on the “mystery box.” His view of the mystery box originates, I think, in the idea of the fairy tale, and I don’t think he’s too far off the mark. But Abrams seems concerned about the effect of the mystery box on the audience: what we think is in the box, what we want to be in the box, and what we’re afraid is in the box. Fairy tales concern themselves more with the effect of the “mystery box” on the characters. Abrams talks about the mystery of Princess Leia, but that mystery would be meaningless if it wasn’t for Luke’s interest in finding out who she was. Rey from The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is a classic Abrams-style mystery box. The mystery surrounding her serves no purpose in the movie, but Abrams just can’t help himself; rather than leave some things unknown, he has to stamp his work with question marks, just in case we don’t find it interesting enough on its own.

While much of Gaiman’s work is indisputably fantasy, Stardust doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a literal Faerie tale. I readily admit that sometimes the plot became a bit too weird for me, but I can’t say it wasn’t unique, or that it didn’t spark that feeling of wonder that fiction so often lacks.