Thursday, November 11, 2010

Book Review: The Wheel of Time - Towers of Midnight

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 last book, Knife of Dreams, 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. Towers of Midnight is the second 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. Be warned: mild spoilers within!

Andrew: In last year’s review of The Gathering Storm, which was the first Sanderson-written Wheel of Time volume, we praised it for its coherence relative to its immediate predecessors. That book primarily focused on Rand and Egwene, characters who needed to get a lot done if they were going to be ready for a world-ending battle, and I think in retrospect that this tighter focus helped Sanderson settle into Jordan’s shoes.

Towers of Midnight returns the focus to characters who were ignored or played only small parts in The Gathering Storm, and its flow is if anything more schizophrenic than any previous Wheel of Time volume. Even within the same chapter, even within the same scene, viewpoints jump rapidly from character to character, and it’s rare that two entire chapters in a row are told from the same character’s viewpoint.

Not that this is to the book’s detriment - the great thing about all of this is that Towers of Midnight is, as a book, just as good if not better than The Gathering Storm.

Chris: I agree; I think this book is better than its predecessor. I also think that Sanderson is more comfortable writing in this world. While The Gathering Storm tried hard to echo Jordan’s voice, Towers of Midnight feels much more like Sanderson is doing his own thing. This means a fast pace and lots of jumping viewpoints, which may be off-putting to some fans of the series’ leisurely tempo. But I think this change in writing style helps make Towers of Midnight such a good book; as the series nears its climax, this sort of mounting tension is necessary.

Sanderson also seems to be more comfortable writing many of Jordan’s characters. I was a little leery of Mat in The Gathering Storm - something felt off about the character I had been reading about for over a decade - but Sanderson’s portrayal of Mat in Towers of Midnight felt far more true to form. And while Perrin has never been the most complex of characters in this very large cast, I felt that Sanderson also wrote him very well.

Andrew: It’s interesting that Sanderson can balance those two things as well as he does - stylistically, he’s writing more like himself, but particularly in characters like Mat and Aviendha he captures the voice and spirit of the characters much more ably than in the last volume. I also agree with you re: Perrin - I was riveted by his storyline in a way I haven’t been since he saved the Two Rivers all the way back in book four. Perrin is made a distinct character again, instead of just an angsty mini-Rand struggling to find balance between what he is and what he used to be.

Let’s talk specifics for a bit. This is where it’s going to get a bit more spoilery, so read on at your peril.

Following the events of The Gathering Storm, Rand has become a more messianic figure than ever before. Quite literally, his presence makes the sky clear and causes fruit to blossom. Order, goodwill and hugs spring up in his wake. We referred to this in our email thread as “the Jesus-ing of Rand,” and while I understand that this was what the series has been working toward for books and books, it rubs me a bit wrong. I worry that there’s not enough of the Rand left from The Eye of the World left in the character, and this always-balanced perfect leader isn’t as fun to read. Externally, he’s almost a completely different character, and it doesn’t help that we are given only a few paragraphs from his perspective in the entire book.

Chris: As much as I hate to say it, Rand was a far more interesting character when he had huge psychological issues and was burdened with tons of anger and guilt. Him coming to terms with his fate role really drove his character for the first twelve books, and his personality change, while not necessarily out of nowhere, does feel a bit abrupt. But, as you point out, we see Rand mostly through the eyes of other characters in this book. I’d be interested in reading more from his point-of-view; I can’t decide if Sanderson’s decision to largely avoid this was a clever way to show Rand’s change, or a big cop-out.

I will say that Sanderson does not seem to have Jordan’s gift for conveying character growth organically through events; Sanderson is far more likely to tell the reader about a character’s personality than show the reader through that character’s choices and actions. This means that many of the characters’ issues are settled in a page or two with a simple inner monologue. As you said, it makes for a choppier narrative, but Jordan left his characters with a lot of problems to clean up. For example, Perrin comes to terms with an issue that’s been haunting him since the first book. Does he deal with it more abruptly than I might have liked? Well, yes, but I acknowledge that if this series is ever going to end, we need to start resolving these plotlines quickly.

Andrew: Sanderson’s method of character development means that you’re going to be reading lots of pages where characters stand and talk to themselves. Even when the characters do wrap things up through actions rather than words (Perrin and Faile have a couple of sweet moments that bring them closer together), Sanderson can’t seem to help a closing paragraph where the character thinks to him or herself, “boy, I’m sure glad that conflict worked itself out and that everything is fine!”

I can’t complain about this too loudly, though - the book is sometimes brusque, but a lot of these character moments have been coming for a long time and they’re all immensely satisfying, satisfying in a way the series hadn’t been since its heyday in the 1990s. People who haven’t stood in the same room for books and books are getting back together again and discovering just how much they’ve all changed. A nice touch on the part of Jordan and Sanderson is the fact that these reunions aren’t always joyous - many of these characters have been friends from childhood, but their objectives, goals, and means don’t always line up. This is way more interesting than it would have been if every reunion had just been a "nice to see you" party.

Chris: Speaking of “satisfying,” I think Towers of Midnight has one of the better endings in the series. The final few chapters had me on the edge of my seat in a way that I haven’t been since the ending of Book 9. The climax is a good, old-fashioned Wheel of Time showdown, both an exciting scene in its own right, as well as a reminder of the sort of writing that drew me into the series in the first place.

With one book to go, it’s nice to see the past twelve volumes worth of plots and subplots finally coming together. Jordan was a master at weaving plot webs, even if he did get a little tangled in them by the end of his career, and Sanderson has proven adept at picking up the pieces. Andrew mentioned the enjoyable reunions between characters; for a long time (perhaps too long!), Jordan had scattered the protagonists across his world, each wrapped up in their own isolated subplots. Now that these storylines are converging, I’m very excited for the grand finale. And while the conclusion to the book is satisfying, a few cliffhangers thrown in at the end have also left me very excited for the next (and final) installment.

Andrew: This book is, more than anything, confirmation that Sanderson was the right choice to finish this series, and that The Gathering Storm wasn’t some sort of fluke. He’s taking Robert Jordan’s notes and outlines and pulling them together in a way that I didn’t think would be possible. During some stretches of Winter’s Heart or the notoriously stagnant Crossroads of Twilight, I (and, I assume, many readers) could see a future where this series, this universe and these characters into which I had sunk so much time, never came to a satisfactory ending, that The Wheel of Time would end with a whimper rather than a bang.

This book finally, finally, makes it clear that the end is coming. If A Memory of Light (the final volume) is as satisfying as this book, I’ll feel comfortable recommending The Wheel of Time to new readers again. I can’t think of a way to give higher praise to a fourteen book fantasy series.