Brandon Sanderson Continues Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” Credibly (2-for-1 Review Special)

Robert Jordan’s mammoth Wheel of Time (TM) series already had eleven completed books at the time of Jordan’s passing in 2007.  These eleven books were huge, multi-layered affairs that dealt with just about everything in Jordan’s world, including the White Tower (staffed by women called “Aes Sedai” who wield the One Power, also called “channeling”), the Black Tower (staffed by men who channel; now called “Ashaman” and are respected, but were once viewed as insane if they even tried to wield the One Power), the Seanchan (who believe anyone who channels “must be leashed,” meaning that men and women who can use the One Power are treated as slaves), the Aiel (somewhat monastic desert dwellers who hold to a rigid honor code), and much, much more.  (See the WoT Wikipedia page for more plot summary as to what the whole “Wheel of Time” epic is supposed to be about; see the Dragonmount online community for more specific insights.)

At any rate, the current story, which started eleven books ago, stars three men and five women — the first of the three men is Rand al’Thor, who can channel and is incredibly powerful;  he’s called “the Dragon Reborn (TM)” and many prophecies speak of him, for good or ill.  The second man is Perrin Aybara — he’s a shapechanger.  The third man is Matrim (Mat) Cauthon — he’s an incredibly lucky gambler.  All three men were raised in one little hamlet, Emond’s Field.

Now, the five women are more problematic.  There are two women who also come from Emond’s Field, the first being Nynaeve al’Meara.  She was the town Wisdom, equivalent to a cross between a healer/wise woman and the town’s first speaker, and has an enormous amount of charisma.  She also can channel the One Power, but doesn’t know it at first.  The second woman is Egwene al’Vere, and she, too, is a channeler and eventually rises to become the youngest Amyrlin Seat (head of the White Tower, or head of all the acknowledged channelers of magic in the world) due to her political acumen.

So, as you see, five people came from this one place.  Very unusual, that. 

But it gets even more interesting with the other three women, who are all meant to be Rand’s soulmates (yes, I said “mates,” as in plural).  The first is a young woman named Min Farshaw; she is a psychic and a clairvoyant.  Her visions almost always come true, but they aren’t always comprehensible.  The second is Elayne Trakand, who is both an Aes Sedai (and wields the One Power) and is the Queen of Andor.  The third is Aviendha, a woman of the Aiel who can channel and is called a “Wise One” in their parlance, the equivalent of an Aes Sedai.

Now, with all of these characters, you’d think that Jordan could’ve figured out how to end the WoT epic by the eleventh book.  However, subplots kept getting bigger and bigger, and the 10th and 11th books from my perspective (these being CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT and KNIFE OF DREAMS) didn’t really go anywhere; the first of these two books only spanned one single day.  And while KNIFE OF DREAMS did move around a little bit, it mostly was tying up all the loose ends from previous books, so the main plot was still sitting at the same point it had after book nine, WINTER’S HEART.

So, you have all that?  (Sorry to have to lead with all that prologue, but with a series as huge as this one, there was no other choice.)  Good.

The first of tonight’s two reviews is for THE GATHERING STORM, which was in progress at the time of Jordan’s passing and was completed by author Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson’s prologue clearly states that he knows his writing style isn’t like Jordan’s and he hopes the reader will understand why.  To his credit, Sanderson sticks with the main characters — something I wish Jordan had done more often — and we get to see what’s going on with Rand and Egwene.

First, Rand is trying to unite all the disparate factions he possibly can because he knows Tarmon Gai’don (roughly translated — Armageddon) is coming and the Dark faction, known as the Forsaken, is trying to throw as many monkey wrenches in his path as possible.  But because Rand isn’t necessarily sane all the time, his actions get harder and harder to predict.  He only has one of his three lovers by his side for most of this novel — that being Min — and she’s terrified for him at all times, because she sees his mind slipping away; she doesn’t need her visions to show her anything, though her visions undoubtedly do not help.

But Rand’s real battle is within him due to his unsanity and all of the pressure on him to unite the world behind his banner.  Because Rand isn’t always sane, he’s not always likable, either, and that makes for a tough go if you’re new to this series.  (I don’t know why you’d want to start this series at book twelve, but if for some reason you do, you’re not likely to understand why anyone would follow Rand due to his unsavory behavior and extremely unstable mental aspects.)

Then, there’s Egwene’s struggle.  She’s trying to become the undisputed Amyrlin Seat as the White Tower split into two factions earlier on; one faction followed Elaida a’Roihan and the other one followed Egwene.  But Egwene, despite her power, is young and somewhat untested.  When Elaida’s faction captured Egwene (before this book starts), they vowed to humble her and insisted she start at the novice level, which was patently absurd.  Egwene, though, has a few tricks up her sleeve; one of them is an almost Eastern way of looking at things that seems like contemporary Taoism or Buddhism; she seems to submit, but in submitting, she gains her own way.  And the more she submits, the more she gains her own way.

While there is a resolution at the end of THE GATHERING STORM, it mostly is a respite; there are still problems going on and obviously Rand and Egwene, along with all their allies, have to remain strong or the world will fall before they ever reach Tarmon Gai’don.

As for the way Sanderson completed this book, I give him great credit.  No, his writing style is not like Jordan’s; Jordan was far more descriptive and far wordier, though at his best Jordan told a rip-roaring tale that obviously kept people coming back for more to the tune of eleven books that were all at least 500 pages in length.  But Sanderson kept the plot on track; more to the point, he understood what readers had been frustrated about for years — that the main plotlines hadn’t really advanced and that while all the interesting by-play and subplots were good to read, they left readers (like me) monumentally unfulfilled.

I enjoyed THE GATHERING STORM even though I’d have liked to see a little more balance in how Rand was portrayed.  (Though in a way, if Sanderson had done that, it would’ve cheated the reader.  There was a fine balance here and I think Sanderson toed the line well.)  Because here, Rand is all but insane and he’s tough to root for even though he’s still the last, best hope for the forces of Light against the forces of evil.

Now, onto the thirteenth and latest book to be published, TOWERS OF MIDNIGHTMost of this book was extant only in note form, and whatever Jordan told his wife, editor Harriet MacDougal, before he died.  (Note that this book, and the previous book, are two-thirds of what Jordan had hoped would be one conclusive book called MEMORY OF LIGHT, which is now the name of the fourteeth and presumably final story in the WoT epic that will be coming out sometime in 2012 if all goes well.)

Many different threads are woven together by Sanderson here, and all worked well.  We get to see what happens with Perrin and his shapechanger allies (particularly one he bonded with, Hopper), as he does his best to aid the White Tower.  (That the White Tower doesn’t seem to understand Perrin’s abilities is a curiosity, but I suppose they’ve been too busy over their succession woes with regards to the Amyrlin Seat to pay any attention to anything else.)  We also see Mat Cauthon as he attempts to rescue Moiraine Damodred, who’d been missing from the WoT books since THE FIRES OF HEAVEN (the fifth book in the WoT series), Nynaeve al’Meara’s quest to become a full Aes Sedai (she’d already “been raised” by Egwene when the White Tower was split, but Egwene believed Nynaeve needed to show everyone what she could do; the testing of Nynaeve is extremely harsh and difficult to read as it borders on torture), the Black Tower machinations are discussed (the head of the Tower, a man named Mazrim Taim, seems to be abusing his authority but is doing so in ways no one can deliberately call out), and Rand al’Thor continues to gather allies.

With all that going on, any author would be in danger of losing the plot threads, much less someone like Sanderson who’s been brought in due to Jordan’s death and the large amount of work that remains to be completed.  (The final book is estimated at 300,000 words; the twelfth book had approximately 300,000 also, and the thirteenth had 325,000.)  But Sanderson does well; he holds all of these different threads and understands what’s going on so well that the action is nearly non-stop from beginning to end.

All that being said, my favorite part of TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT had nothing to do with any of those I’ve mentioned; instead, it dealt with Aviendha, and her vision quest** while attempting to become a full-fledged Wise One (which isn’t all about the power, it turns out; there’s a large amount of responsibility, too, which goes along with the whole idea of the Aiel and how rigid they can be due to their desert upbringing and outlook).  She sees her descendants, and sees what happens to the Aiel after Rand is successful in his quest to beat back the darkness in his time; bluntly, the Aiel become scavengers.  And Aviendha feels responsible.

Now, why does she feel responsible?  It’s because Aviendha sees one of her own children causing a huge problem right off the bat that leads to everything else — the debasement of her culture, and then the remnants of the Aiel being hunted to the point of extinction.  She doesn’t know if she can stop this or not, but she vows to do whatever she can to end it.

All of that points out the humanity that Jordan evoked at his best; it’s far from throwaway, even though it may seem unimportant on its face.  But it also points out that the fourteenth book may not be the final one after all — it’s really hard to believe that everything having to do with Aviendha’s descendants is going to be covered during MEMORY OF LIGHT — and that’s why it’s both moving and frustrating, a microcosm of the WoT epic, to be sure.

Final grades:

THE GATHERING STORM — B.  Solid effort; enjoyable, but didn’t move particularly quickly.  And sometimes Egwene’s behavior left me baffled.

TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT — B-plus.  Excellent action-adventure.  Good plot.  Very nice job by Sanderson.

My recommendation?  Well, if you haven’t read the previous eleven novels, please go out and do so before you even try to pick up either one of these books or you will be hopelessly lost.  Any library worth its salt is going to have these books, so I’d advise you to pick up THE EYE OF THE WORLD (the very first book) at the library and then see if you like the writing and the style before you buy any of them.  But you really can’t go wrong with any of the first five books; it’s after that, unfortunately, that the plot slowed way down and the description and the subplots got in the way.

— reviewed by Barb

——–

** For those of you who’ve read the Wheel of Time books, I know this isn’t accurate.  But it’s the closest I can come without another four hundred words of description.  BC

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