Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm

I never quite know what to answer when people ask me if I like the Wheel of Time books. I think I like the idea of them, the promise, the setting, more than the books themselves. The concept more than the execution, perhaps. But that concept is so good that I believe the books are worth reading on its singular merit. I maintain that a drastically shortened Wheel of Time, truncated after the third book, and fudged a bit in the last few chapters of the second and third books, could be the greatest fantasy trilogy ever written, The Lord of the Rings included.

But like all great series apparently must, the Wheel of Time dragged a bit--rather, a lot--in its middle. Where the first three books were brilliant, books four through seven were overly complicated but still interesting, and eight through eleven just plain dragged on, with perhaps only one important plot point happening in each. We fans were getting antsy: Robert Jordan promised us that the series was going to end soon, but if the last book or books plodded along with the same lack of excitement as the most recent handful, we might be left with a series ending in a whimper rather than the bang we felt like we deserved.

Then, as if for the sole purpose of throwing everything we knew into chaos (as well as being a strange reflection on the events of the series itself), Robert Jordan passed away in September 2007. Fortunately, things worked out much more smoothly than they really had any right to: Mr. Jordan's family and associates quickly got their collective act together and installed a new author, Brandon Sanderson, who would ensure that we got some sort of resolution to the story we'd spent decades following.

So here we have it: the most highly-anticipated fantasy novel since... the last Wheel of Time book? No, that's not quite right. Knife of Dreams, The Gathering Storm's immediate predecessor, was another step down the same old Robert Jordan path, while Storm was a bold new step in the Brandon Sanderson direction. Knife was merely book #11; Storm is either book #12, or the first part of book #12, or the first volume in the finale trilogy, depending on how you want to think of it. Knife was the continuation of fifteen years' prior work, and Storm represents not only the beginning of the end, but a new voice trying to integrate itself into thousands of old pages.

For the first half of the book, that integration becomes a major motif. In that first half, Sanderson touches base with every one of the major characters. It represents Sanderson gaining his footing, setting himself up as the author, and testing his control of the plots and characters. (A notable exception is Elayne, who strangely does not get a single chapter in this book, and barely so much as a handful of mentions. Is this a tacit admission by Sanderson that he has no idea what to do with Elayne?)

Sanderson asserts his place as an author of a Wheel of Time book, and not a mere fantasy book, by hearkening back to the series' beginning. Emond's Field and the Two Rivers get name-dropped more than they have since the action was actually happening there a few books back, Baerlon even merits a quick mention, Min starts to become an important character in her own right, and Tam gets his first lines in ages. Perhaps this is a thematically important decision, giving a nod to the "everything starts where it ends" cyclical nature of the mythology. Maybe Sanderson knows that the early books were the most beloved by fans, and he's trying to get on the readers' good sides by emphasizing their importance. Or possibly it's not even a conscious choice: because the first few books were more memorable, their characters and settings have worked their way back in because Sanderson feels inherently more connected to and comfortable with them.

Aside from all this base-touching and identity-imprinting, nothing much happens in the first half of the book. It plays out like an extended news report--but (perhaps a bit cynically) that's nothing we're not used to from the Wheel of Time. However, things change quickly around the time Rand has his decisive encounter with Semirhage. It's an oddly written part of the book, seeming forced in all respects. Shaidar Haran has become more or less a walking deus ex machina for the bad guys--Sanderson needs to establish and explain some restriction on this thing's powers quickly, or else a multitude of plot holes will spring up any time someone wonders "why doesn't Shaidar Haran just do it?" And Rand channeling the True Power better have some explanation of its own--not to mention consequences. But even for its clumsy execution, this scene gets the action moving.

It doesn't stop, either. Plots that have persisted for the last three or four books now--the White Tower siege, Tuon's waiting to proclaim herself Empress, Aviendha's transition to being a Wise One, the fate of Verin, and Rand's escalating insanity, just to name a few--are finally resolved. Even Mat and Thom's long-impending assault on the Tower of Ghenjei now seems imminent. Sanderson's deliberate decision to have Rand balefire Elza Penfell in that Semirhage encounter is of course more than just a protagonist defeating an antagonist. It's understood in the narrative as further evidence that Rand is becoming dangerous and on the brink of insane. But I think it's also a promise by Sanderson that we're going to see antagonists defeated decisively from now on, and we're not going to see the introduction of a lot more minor characters. After four or so books of not a lot happening, all of this is welcome news to readers.

Sanderson's skill is not only apparent in making events happen. He's almost equally as skilled in parsing out the story when things don't happen. Sanderson has a good sense of how to organize the story in terms of exciting scenes and developing scenes--he doesn't try to string together too much development at once with the same characters, which would get boring fast. But when it gets exciting, he lets us follow the action with the same set of people for several consecutive chapters without breaking up pivotal events.

Another way Sanderson organizes his story well is in his understanding of which plot events to show, and which ones to let the reader assume has happened. Sanderson neatly accomplishes this through leveraging his characters' ta'veren powers, which is something that Jordan either never did, or didn't emphasize nearly as much as Sanderson. This device of letting Rand, Mat, and Perrin "see" each other works well to advance the plot without having to devote a chapter to each thing that happens with all of them. For example, at one point, Mat travels to Caemlyn to get information. Rather than having to write an entire chapter about Mat, he lets Rand have a ta'veren vision of Mat. In about three lines, Sanderson accomplishes something that might have taken Jordan an entire chapter.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room: what if Sanderson's implementation of the Wheel of Time turns out better than Jordan's? Are fans going to see what Sanderson has done with the series and rush out to proclaim him its savior? Even if they do--and judging from how good The Gathering Storm was, that might not be too much of an exaggeration--it's clear that Sanderson is not about to accept that mantle. In a gracious and classy foreword, Sanderson tells the readers in no uncertain terms that he's merely a facilitator at this point. He reminds us that the final three Wheel of Time books are Jordan's first and ours, the readers', second.

Even if Sanderson manages a complete turnaround, the important thing to remember is that that's the very best Sanderson can hope for: a return to form. Although the words of the last three books might be Sanderson's, the stories themselves are not. Everything good about the Wheel of Time--and yes, there is a lot of it, in spite of the direction that last handful of books took--is a direct result of Robert Jordan's fantastic brilliance.

But in the end, Sanderson does accomplish that return to form, and he does it so convincingly that I'm excited about the next Wheel of Time book for the first time in years.

Currently listening: "Perfect Symmetry", Keane

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