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.

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.

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.

The Chronicles of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I loved these books as a kid. I don’t always regress towards children’s books, but sometimes I tire of more “adult” fare, or I just need to go back and enjoy something I’ve already read. This is one of those times. Ironically enough, though, it took me way longer to finish this children’s series than, say, a Wheel of Time entry, despite the comparative brevity. Why? I hate to say it, but I think some of the magic might be lost on a twenty-five-year-old. Maybe it’s because I’ve been retrained by heavier tomes like Wheel, but it was hard to get into a fantasy that seemed to just zip along, moving from scene to scene without giving the story a chance to rest. A longer book isn’t always a better book, but it’s important to let tension build awhile before resolving a conflict.

The two hundred or so pages of each of the five books in the series have our hero Taran embarking on an adventure, usually to save his beloved Prydain from the evil Arawn Death-Lord or one of his buddies. At the start, Taran is just some young gun- a hot-headed Assistant Pig-Keeper- but he grows in each novel, as a young man and a leader. The Chronicles of PrydainThe books all follow the classic quest structure; while each has a different feel, and though the object of the quest changes, they all fall into that general category.

The installment I enjoyed most, Taran Wanderer, has Taran riding around the countryside in search of knowledge; he sets out to learn where he comes from, and when he fails to find a satisfying answer, he looks for other ways to define his identity. As he travels from village to village, learning new crafts and ways of life, the book becomes more like a parable or a fable than an adventure novel. This tonal shift, along with the slower pace and the lower stakes, really sets the fourth book apart from the rest.

At some point I realized that I was reading these books not in isolation, but as part of the larger fantasy canon. I’ve read a good bit of the stuff by now, and pretty early on in The Book of Three I found myself comparing aspects of the series to other famous fantasies, both earlier and later. Alexander supposedly based the Prydain series on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but it’s impossible to miss the influence of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King on these books. Likewise, it was clear to me that Alexander inspired authors like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan to create their famous fantasy series. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman, asked about the similarities between Rowling’s Harry Potter and one of his own characters, responding, “I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” There are countless examples of this across the years, and it’s fun to try to pick out what came from where.

An unfortunate result of a genre that’s constantly borrowing from itself, however, is that the stories might not seem as fresh as they did the first time you read them. I felt that there was nothing in Prydain that wasn’t done in a more original way in another fantasy book or series. Though this obviously isn’t really Alexander’s fault, it took away from what was clearly supposed to be an exciting narrative. I ended the series unable to recall what excited me so much about it in the first place.

No, Alexander’s Prydain novels don’t hold up too well as an adult, not as well as, say, The Golden Compass. But they’re meant for children, so whatever.

Lord of Chaos

by Robert Jordan

 

Here’s my problem with what’s going on in Wheel right now: Jordan keeps setting things up, spending up to a hundred pages on a prologue that purports to introduce the novel’s central conflict, and then spends the rest of the book following the same characters he’s followed the entire series. Lord of ChaosI’m used to it by now, but it’s still frustrating not to have any idea of what the book’s themes and issues will be. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jordan, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care very much, and each new book seems like just a continuation of what’s already been going on.

That being said, and despite lacking a clear structure, there are two events that make Lord of Chaos especially interesting. The first, concerning the Aes Sedai, furthers a plot line that had been building since the end of The Shadow Rising. I actually gasped when I realized what was happening; my girlfriend immediately knew what was going on, remembering it as a “turning point” for the series. It was honestly pretty rad.

The second major exciting event occurs at the end of the book, when several forces that have been mustering for the whole book- or even longer- final come head-to-head. I don’t wanna talk it up, but it was such a relief for the tension to finally break,  it single-handedly made the whole book worth it.

Anyway, in the spirit of keeping these things short, I greatly enjoyed Wheel of Time Episode VI: Stuff Happens in This One.