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 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.

Daughter of the Forest

by Juliet Marillier

 

The eponymous daughter, Sorcha, lives in the middle of the eponymous Irish forest with her six brothers. Their father, Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, constantly fights off English invaders, and generally leaves his kids to themselves, so long as the boys learn to fight. So the seven children grow up together, looking out for each other, even as they seek to develop their individual talents and interests. Daughter of the ForestAll in all, Sorcha is pretty happy with her life, and she can’t imagine ever leaving her home and the protection of her brothers. She’s content.

Daughter of the Forest is the story of a bunch of bad shit happening to her. It’s unusual to read a book, especially a fantasy, that gets so deep into such depressing territory so early. I mean, we know Rowling wasn’t afraid to turn Harry Potter 7 into a bloodbath, but that was the point; she felt like raising the stakes from what had been a children’s fantasy would be a powerful statement, and she was right. But the evil in the Potter universe never felt real. Despite going into Voldemort’s backstory, he was not a real character, merely a caricature of evil. By contrast, the ‘evil’ in Daughter of the Forest feels very real, indeed. I think this is partially because the fantasy elements were so low-key, compared to the constantly in-your-face fantasy of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings (wizards, dragons, dark lords- all that jazz).

Sorcha, on the other hand, witnesses or experiences very real and very ordinary acts of evil- betrayal, torture, rape, murder. Things that have been happening every day since the dawn of humanity. What’s extraordinary is that, due to a spell, Sorcha must endure all of this without speaking; if she speaks before she finishes sewing six shirts, one for each of her brothers, they’ll be doomed to live out the rest of their lives as swans.

Sorcha’s silence is intense. While I’m sure that Marillier isn’t the first author to create an interesting and believable silent character (Speak comes to mind, though I never read it), her characterization of Sorcha is a testament to her skills as a writer. I’d be reading for half an hour on the bus, get off at my stop, and wonder why I felt so out of it; Marillier had gotten into my head, letting me feel Sorcha’s disconnection from the rest of the world. It’s a pretty fine line to walk, but the character totally works. She’s mesmerizing.

I don’t want to get much further into the plot, on account of potential spoilers, so I’ll cut this short. I would like to reiterate that this a fantasy, albeit an unorthodox one. Several times, people asked me if I was reading a romance novel, based entirely on the cover of the book. My guess is that it played out like this:

Swans count as females when judging a book by its cover

Swans count as females when judging a book by its cover

Having a female protagonist doesn’t turn your book into a romance novel. Maybe that was too obvious to mention, but I felt I had to say it.

(I do agree that most fantasy covers are stupid. I like fantasy, as you can probably tell by how many of them I’ve read in the last couple years. Daughter of the Forest, in fact, was recommended to me by a friend who knows I get down with fantasy.  But oh so many fantasy tropes are stupid. Titles, character names, illustrations, whatever. I think fantasy would be taken way more seriously if it didn’t look like it was marketed to teenagers. This is by the way.)

So I felt like Daughter of the Forest delivered, with a unique character and an interesting story; Marillier clearly loves and knows folklore. There are two more books in the series, and I haven’t decided on whether to read them yet. But if/when I do, you know I’ll be bloggin’ it up.