Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Wheel of Time: Towers of Midnight

Holy crap, Wheel of Time fans.

We're actually looking at the penultimate book of this series.  It is going to be finished in the next volume.  Twenty years later, and we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  It took fourteen books, not the putative twelve; it took struggling through some real quagmires around book 10; it took two of the most accomplished fantasy authors of our generation.  But the Last Battle is really, truly about to happen.

Towers of Midnight is the second of Brandon Sanderson's three contributions to the series.  The first, The Gathering Storm, was the best Wheel of Time book probably since The Dragon Reborn, and it represented a clear return to the brilliant form of the first few books in the series.  Towers lags a little compared to Storm, but it still probably ranks among the better books in the series--and besides, it's the middle volume of a trilogy, so it's allowed to lag a little.

After having read three of Sanderson's books (his two Wheel of Time books and The Way of Kings), a few clear patterns have emerged.  Sanderson likes to spend about four hundred pages developing a few protagonists and setting up their respective conflicts, then resolving those conflicts in the three to five hundred pages that remain.  The result is that each protagonist's story--while well-developed, entertaining, and following a clear beginning/middle/end arc--is about twenty to thirty percent longer than it needs to be.

For instance, in Towers, Perrin's decisive battle with Slayer and the destruction of the Tar Valon dreamspike is necessary and entertaining; his earlier string of stalemates with Slayer are not.  Mat's decisive battle with the gholam where he sends it through the gateway to nowhere is necessary and entertaining; his earlier string of stalemates with the gholam are not.  Aviendha's vision at Rhuidean is necessary and entertaining; her introspection along the road there is not.  Elayne's accession to the throne of Andor is (presumably) necessary and (marginally) entertaining; her oh-so-subtle political maneuvering to get there iscertainly not.

Speaking of Elayne, will some Wheel of Time fan please convince me that her story is either necessary or entertaining?  She's not a terribly interesting character--at best, she's a slight variation on the "spoiled princess" archetype, and her most intriguing trait is her ability to assay and create ter'angreal, which has nothing to do with Andor at all.  And her story lacks an exciting quality that most of the rest of the characters' stories have at least sometime--even Perrin's!  We want Elayne to do something awesome; this is epic fantasy, not Machiavelli.

Elayne being about as interesting as the attendant who brushes her hair is more Robert Jordan's fault than Brandon Sanderson's.  But Sanderson makes one apparent gaffe that's all his own.  In bringing Graendal back from apparently being dead, he breaks the Megatron rule: if a villain appears to be defeated at the end of one installment, it is almost always wrong to retcon that villain into the next installment.  Sanderson has latched on to Graendal as the primary villain for his trilogy, and that's fine, but she had better play a critically important role in the last book to merit being brought back in this one.

Sanderson still does a lot right in this book.  The Tower of Ghenjei adventure is a nice antidote to the Elayne mess; it feels like a campaign in a heroic roleplaying game, and it's a fulfillment of one of the series' long-standing promises.  Exactly what point Moiraine is destined to play in the final battle remains to be seen, but a little like Graendal, she had better be important to have invested so much of the series into this rescue.  It's nice to see that Perrin, Mat, and Lan have finally decided to be real leaders, and the very last scene where Lan assumes the (figurative) throne of Malkier, raises the Golden Crane, and charges the Trolloc army at Tarwin's Gap is incredibly fulfilling.

Aside from telling a fine story, Sanderson continues to organize his narrative well.  In the latter half of his part of the Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan more or less dispensed with traditional novel structure, instead releasing collections of chapters with little holding them together as books.  While to some extent every volume in a serial is just a continuation of the story, each volume also needs to have enough internal structure to make them satisfying by themselves.  (The best episodes of Lost both contributed to the overall plot and were compelling stories in their own right.)  Fortunately, Brandon Sanderson is very good at this; reading Towers of Midnight felt like both reading a novel and continuing a series.

It's increasingly obvious that Brandon Sanderson is exactly the right person to continue the series to its conclusion.  The Gathering Storm was excellent.  Towers of Midnight was a little down but still great.  If Towers of Midnight ends up being Sanderson's Two Towers, then we're in great shape for A Memory of Light.

Currently listening: Several Arrows Later, Matt Pond PA

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