Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review: The Wheel of Time – The Gathering Storm

the-gathering-storm-us In a genre that is not known for its brevity to begin with, The Wheel of Time is perhaps most notoriously ambitious of all epic fantasy projects. Author Robert Jordan cranked out eleven books since the first volume was published in 1990, all of which span at least 600 pages. The story is epic in the truest sense of the word, featuring a continent-spanning conflict with evil forces, and a cast of (literally) thousands.

The general consensus is that the first five or six Wheel of Time books are great reading. But as things got more complex, Jordan began to falter, and by the tenth book, the formerly fast-paced series had succumbed to a narrative slump. His most recent book hinted at a return to form, and fans hoped that Jordan had found his stride once again. But unfortunately, Robert Jordan was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis in 2006, and he passed away the following year at the age of 57, his magnum opus unfinished. Burgeoning fantasy author Brandon Sanderson was chosen by Jordan's widow/editor to wade through the mountains of notes and outlines that Jordan had left behind, and salvage what he could. The Gathering Storm is the first of the final three books in the series. The book combines scenes Jordan had written before his death with chapters by Sanderson based on Jordan's notes. 

Charge Shot!!! writers Andrew Cunningham and Chris Holden have been reading the Wheel of Time since well before blogs existed. Now they're collaborating to provide their thoughts on the latest installment of the series.

Chris: Well, to begin, let me stress that if you have never read a Wheel of Time book, The Gathering Storm is not the place to start. The book does its best to try and fill the reader in as to what's been going on, but the twelfth volume in a series is not a good place to jump in by any means. That being said, the book manages to pick up its predecessors' pieces to create a surprisingly well-structured plot arc. Too many books in the Wheel of Time series have abrupt endings without any sort of finale, as if Robert Jordan had simply run out of ideas and called it a day. But Sanderson, undaunted by twenty years worth of set-up, has tightened the narrative, provided some much needed momentum, and written some of the most satisfying conclusions to a Wheel of Time book since volumes 5 or 6. 

And amazingly, the plot makes sense, despite the change in authorship. I am very impressed that a new author was able to continue the story so seamlessly. Robert Jordan's meticulous plotting provided the necessary set-up for a lot of the events in this book, but Sanderson's ability to dive right into Jordan's world, as if he himself had been writing about it for decades, is nothing short of remarkable. 

Andrew: The book is a much tighter one than the last few in the series, though it's hard to say whether that should be attributed to Sanderson or not - the number of plotlines that need to be resolved before this series can end would demand concision from any author. Either way, Sanderson isn't a liability here, and he picks up right where Jordan left off.

One of the series' primary obstacles as it winds down is that its primary characters have been scattered to the winds - few of the people that the books follow around are actually in the same place, so to forward their storylines the books have to jump back and forth between places. Combined with Jordan's penchant for looking at events through the eyes of secondary and tertiary characters as well, the books were spread thin and it was hard to get anything done.

In The Gathering Storm this method has been eschewed for a more direct focus, primarily on Rand and his attempts to unify warring nations under his banner, and Egwene in her quest to mend the rift in the White Tower. Perrin, Mat, Aviendha and others make appearances, but this is mostly to set them up for things that will happen in the next books (one also gets the impression that Sanderson was compelled to write for Mat to satisfy fans of the character, since his chapters are entertaining adventures that do little to forward the plot). The focus on fewer characters may disgruntle some fans, but it helps the book to have the well-structured plot arc that Chris pointed out.

Chris: Yes, I was sort of underwhelmed with the Perrin and Mat plotlines in this book, but I appreciate the fact that Sanderson is trying to narrow the focus a bit. Elayne does not make a single appearance in The Gathering Storm at all, a fact which I hadn't even noticed until Andrew pointed it out to me a few days ago. Her plotline had always been one of the least interesting, and (unlike Perrin and Mat), I was not sorry at all to see her story swept aside in this installment. 

What I found most interesting about the two central plotlines of the book is that they both dealt with human conflicts. Egwene is trying to end the Aes Sedai civil war, and Rand is trying to form a temporary alliance with several nations (and the invading Seanchan Empire) to combat the Dark One. But the Dark One himself is conspicuously absent in this novel. There are signs that evil forces are at work, and there are a few confrontations with his Forsaken minions, but the central conflicts in this book are humans fighting humans, as both Egwene and Rand struggle to prove that they are worthy of the leadership roles they have been forced into. I think this sort of thing gives the series a bit more depth than the average Good Guys versus Evil fantasy epic; not all of the good guys in the Wheel of Time are necessarily on the same side, which makes for a more interesting story.

Andrew: Interesting that you should mention human conflicts, because the Wheel of Time books have mostly been about human conflicts lately. The first three books in the series were much more Tolkien-esque, man fighting against dark creatures, unnamed invaders, things out of old stories - certainly things that were undoubtedly on the Evil side of the conflict. Starting in the fourth book, the series started trending more toward political conflicts between different nations and races, with increasingly rare instances of the Tolkien-esque fantasy of the earlier volumes.

I didn't miss Elayne either, because there are entertaining human conflicts and boring human conflicts. Elayne had been scheming to get her kingdom's throne for maybe five or six books, and the wait was truly interminable. Hundreds and hundreds of pages we read of royal intrigue, and in the end the outcome could have been more effectively summed up by a Wikipedia article. Urgh.

The human conflicts in The Gathering Storm are interesting because they're just as much about internal conflicts as external - Rand must contend with his growing paranoia and doubts about his ability to handle the destiny placed upon his shoulders, and Egwene has to keep it together in the face of overwhelming adversity. Interesting as that is, though, I really hope the next two books spend some more time with the fantastic instead of having all the characters politicking all the way up to the Last Battle.

Chris: I did find myself missing the supernatural elements of the series. It's a shame, because the prologue hinted at a major attack from the Trollocs (the orcs of the Wheel of Time), but that threat never materialized. Mat's adventure with some evil metaphysical forces was fairly creepy, but ultimately it felt more like a half-hour Twilight Zone episode that occupied an awkward place in the narrative, never really leading anywhere.

As a character, Rand was very engaging. His sanity has been in a slow decline since the beginning of the series, but this is the first time his dwindling grip on reality manifested itself in very serious and dangerous ways. The Rand in this book has changed significantly from the Rand of earlier volumes, but the changes are well-written and believable - after all, being destined to save the world would put quite a bit of pressure on a person. Egwene, on the other hand, I found a bit too perfect. She remains the sole calm and collected woman in the entire White Tower, and every other character who meets her immediately develops a respect bordering on worship. Egwene seems to cope with her struggles a bit too easily, and her enemies are a bit too incompetent, but I suppose that's the price we the readers must pay to have this series wrapped up in a timely manner.

Andrew: I don't think either of us has had quite enough time to really evaluate whether this book is objectively "good" or not, but since it's the twelfth in a long-running series that most people already have an opinion about it really doesn't matter too much.

What I can say is that this is the most eventful Wheel of Time book that we've seen in more than a decade. Unfortunately for Robert Jordan, the pace of his narrative and the pace at which the books were published had slowed to a crawl in recent years - both of these factors sapped the momentum of his story. With The Gathering Storm, Jordan and Sanderson work to get a little of that momentum back, and if Sanderson can stick to his schedule - the thirteenth book is due out a year from now, with the fourteenth and final volume out a year after that - the series should end with a bang instead of a whimper. If you’re still wading through the latter half of the series, take heart! There appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

I was entertained enough by this book that the urge to keep reading would distract me from things I was doing during the course of my day. This is the same way I felt while reading the early books in the series - if for no other reason, Jordan and Sanderson should be commended for recapturing that feeling.