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.

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.

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.