Friday, July 25, 2014

The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (re-post)

Friday, July 25, 2014
This article was originally posted on November 3, 2009. It is being re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards. 

Two things to note, before we get into it.  Unlike the previous eleven articles, my review of The Gathering Storm was based on reading the book for the first time. It had been the first new Wheel of Time novel in four years. It was published two years after the 2007 death of Robert Jordan, and until Brandon Sanderson was announced to be finishing the series, I don't know that I necessarily expected to ever find out how it all ends. I hoped, but I didn't know.  My reviews / articles on the rest of the series, from The Eye of the World through The Knife of Dreams, were all based on being a re-read of the series to work my way up to the forthcoming novel.  The earliest novels I had read many times, the latest ones maybe once or twice. 

The second thing is that this will also be the last of the Wheel of Time articles I am posting for the Hugo Awards.  I have already written my thoughts on the Best Novel category as a whole, but I never reviewed The Towers of Midnight when it was published (I was in the process of a major life change), and legitimately, when I wasn't able to muster up a review of A Memory of Light, I thought I was done blogging all together.  I was wrong about that, but this is still the last of the Wheel of Time posts this year. 

The Gathering Storm
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2009

Let’s just get one thing cleared up before we start here. If it wasn’t obvious by the last eleven posts of the series re-read, I’m a bit of a Wheel of Time fanboy. There’s nothing I can do about that and I’m quite happy with it. This is a seminal series of my fantasy reading life and Robert Jordan has stuck with me over the last fifteen years when other authors failed me. So, please understand that while I may recognize flaws in the novel (and the series), I can easily gloss over them because this is a series I love dearly. Never is anything so egregious that it will hamper my enjoyment of the series.

That’s my admission of bias.

I will attempt to be very light on revealing spoilers since the novel has only been on the market for a week, but some events that happen early on in the novel may be touched on more than some would like to know. So, if you don’t want to know any details, please step away and come back when you’re done with the book. I’ll be gentle with the spoilers, though.

This has been pointed out elsewhere, but a major focus of The Gathering Storm is the dueling stories of Egwene and Rand. Continuing on her story of defiance from Knife of Dreams, Egwene is strong at heart, firm in her need to both do what is right for the White Tower as well as her need to heal the Tower the right way. The way she behaves and acts is as important as the result she is looking to achieve. Egwene demonstrates leadership through example. She does not permit the rebel Aes Sedai besieging Tar Valon to rescue her because she knows that her example of moral defiance and the small conversations she has with the Tower Aes Sedai will do far more good than she ever could as the head of a besieging army. In this way she is setting herself up as a viable alternative to Elaida. In this way she is also shown as something of a mirror to Rand.

Early on in The Gathering Storm, after another attack by a Forsaken almost causes Rand to mirror the actions of Lews Therin and kill Min, Rand decides that being hard as stone is no longer hard enough. He must be as hard as cuendillar. For several novels now Rand has been holding on tightly to his humanity, with only a small soft core he leaves for the women in his life. Rand realizes, or simply believes, that to make it to Tarmon Gai'don he must strip even that away. Between shutting Min away, exiling Cadsuane, and changing his attitude about what he is willing to do to defeat the Dark One, Rand is on a very fast decent into darkness. Others have talked about Rand’s behavior in terms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his journey from being a decent man from a small village to a man who has to be a killer.

I am so very fortunate to not have experience with PTSD, but this is an excellent explanation as to the entire direction of Rand’s behavior throughout the series. It also demonstrates part of the difference between Rand and Egwene. Egwene has been taught by the Aiel on how one with honor behaves, how to be better and stronger, and what it means to live towards an ideal. This has given her the strength to make her decisions, to stand on her own as the Amyrlin Seat, and to take all the beatings she has been given as “penance” as a prisoner of the White Tower and still hold to her duty. Rand, on the other hand, had to deal with becoming a killer of men and knowing that in the potentially short time he had left to live, he would have to kill again and again and do so without compunction.

To use the analogies of being hard like stone and being able to bend, Egwene is the one who is strong but able to bend and survive. Rand is making himself so hard that he will eventually crack and break. It’s clear very early on that he is in a very bad place. This is only worse when he has to use the True Power to free himself from an impossible situation. The True Power, if you don’t remember, is the one that is provided via a link to the Dark One and it is drawing on his own essence. It’s what Moridin uses to have the black lines of saa cross his eyes and what the other Forsaken use sparingly because of the risks. Rand taps into that early on in the novel and even the voice of Lews Therin is absolutely horrified by what Rand just did. Like I said, Rand is in an exceptionally bad place.

The two storylines of Egwene and Rand are exceptionally well done. Egwene, in particular, should be singled out as a character done well and one of the best storylines in the last half dozen volumes of the Wheel of Time. The various events which take place as part of Egwene’s storyline will be pivotal for the next two volumes (and beyond). Egwene’s storyline is at times thrilling, heartbreaking, and when some of the early reviews say that they wanted to stand up and cheer during The Gathering Storm, they were probably talking about something to do with Egwene late in this novel. Folks, if you’re a long time fan of The Wheel of Time (and you should be if you’re reading this twelfth volume), some of this stuff is as good as anything you’ve gotten earlier in the series. Seriously. This could be Joe the Fanboy talking, but Egwene in the late stages of this novel is just spectacular.

Rand, obviously, has a very different journey and as well done as Rand’s chapters are, they are somewhat difficult to read as we see Rand going into dark places indeed. There are two reunion scenes which readers have looked forward to for a while and neither one goes well. There is also the things Cuendillar-Hard Rand says to Nynaeve, and an action which Rand does which Nynaeve is both horrified about and also finds herself wondering if it was perhaps truly necessary if he is to defeat the Dark One. It’s interesting and brutal and is not at all pleasant.

Those are the two primary aspects of The Gathering Storm and combined, is by far the strongest aspect of the novel. Everything else is secondary to those storylines.

This does mean that Mat and Perrin are given much smaller roles and Elayne is completely absent from this volume. Readers are given short glimpses of Perrin and the fallout from the battle of Malden and the rescue of Faile. We don’t see a whole lot of what’s going on there, except that Perrin and Faile are relearning who they are together after being given a chance to grow while separated. Mat gets a bit more to do in The Gathering Storm, but his is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the novel.

There were concerns going into this novel about how well Brandon Sanderson was going to be able to step into the world that Robert Jordan created. Most fans of the series felt good about the decision Harriet (Robert Jordan’s wife and editor) made to hire Brandon to finish the series, but even the most positive couldn’t help but wonder if Sanderson would really be able to pull it off, that he would be able to write the characters in such a way that they feel the same. That he would somehow make the characters feel “right”.

Mat is perhaps the only character who feels “off” (and perhaps Perrin, to a lesser extent). Here Mat talks a bit too much, his jokes feel flat, and some indefinable bit of “Mat-ness” isn’t quite there.

Here’s the thing, though. Brandon stopped in Minneapolis on his tour for The Gathering Storm and he talked a little bit about Mat, though not in regards to the character feeling “off”. Thankfully, nobody was so gauche to actually bring it up directly. What Brandon had to say about Mat was that he had just experienced the most surreal and absolutely weird situation he had ever had in his life, which is Tuon herself. Mat had never been in love with a woman before and when he did fall in love with Tuon it changed his worldview. After finally declaring herself married to Mat; she leaves and returns to Ebou Dar to take up the Seanchan Empire. Mat is usually the one doing the leaving and here he is left, this time by the woman he loves. Worse, he may be about to find himself on opposite sides if it comes to war. He is out of sorts, not sure how to behave or deal with what just happened. He’s not sure what to do in the future.

Now, I can’t say if this played in to how Brandon wrote Mat (assuming that those chapters / sections were written by Sanderson and not Jordan), if this was the plan all along, or if Mat just feels “off” because he feels “off”, but it was interesting to hear Brandon talk about what was going on in Mat’s world. It’s clear from the Minneapolis signing that he did think a lot about Mat. It’s questionable if he pulled off the character or if the change was intentional.

On the other hand, Mat did ask Verin if she "saidared" something, and that was just priceless.

Taking a look at The Gathering Storm as a complete novel, Sanderson did an excellent job of pulling together storylines, answering a good deal of questions, and telling as complete a story as possible given that this is volume twelve of fourteen. There is no resolution, as such, because Tarmon Gai'don is still coming, but Sanderson told complete story arcs for both Egwene and Rand and did a hell of a job with it. Others characters received short shrift, but it seems necessary and appropriate for Sanderson to have done so in order to do justice to Egwene and Rand. Brandon was capable of handling some seriously emotional sequences (Verin, anyone?) and he did so with great skill.

The Gathering Storm is a richer and more fully satisfying Wheel of Time novel than we have seen in a good many years. It is difficult to compare the first experience of reading The Gathering Storm to reading those first five novels of the series all those years ago, but this novel holds up well compared to anything that came after the fifth book.

The Gathering Storm shows that Harriet’s judgment in choosing Brandon Sanderson was sound, that he was the right writer for the job. For fans, there is a sense of relief that Brandon was up to the task and that he delivered the book we hoped for.

Call me a fanboy for believing this, and perhaps this is more than a little presumptuous to say, but I think Robert Jordan would be proud of this one. Folks, Brandon did well, and he should be proud of himself, too. He wrote a novel that “feels” like it is part of The Wheel of Time. It was worth the wait.


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