Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Shadow Unit

I've struggled with how to write about the ending of Shadow Unit.  I have a friend who has never watched the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation because if she doesn't watch it, the show really isn't over.  There is still one more episode to watch.  There is still one more story out there.  There is still one more.

I didn't really understand before. No matter what series I read or show I watched, I would devour the ending. Sure, I might be sad when it was all over, but I wanted to see how it finished and to feel those emotions.  And then there was Shadow Unit.

Sometime in 2007 I became aware of a "sekrit project" which involved Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly. At the time, all I knew was that it was titled "Shadow Unit" and had a website which had very little information on it. I was (and still am) a very big fan of Elizabeth Bear's fiction and so I was curious as to what was going on.  Little did I know that I would spend the next seven years anxiously and eagerly awaiting each new episode.

The word "episode" is used very specifically here.  Shadow Unit was imagined as an episodic television show that never existed, so each episode was a discrete story building the larger mythology.  My description of it was always "Criminal Minds meets The X-Files, but the monsters are human."  It's as good as it sounds, and probably better than that.

It is one of my very favorite things ever.  Shadow Unit invited a community to grow around it, to participate through character livejournal accounts that were written in real time - as if the characters were real people living their lives, which is what they became.  The creators interacted with the fans on a regular basis via the message board, and it became a thing.  A community. A community of which I was a part for a number of years.  I fell away, as happens sometimes, but I still followed the episodes, I still had my heart ripped out after one particular episode midway through the run. The first season finale was a short novel worth of material, but it played out over real time - so when the livejournals went silent, we don't know if there is anyone who makes it out okay. 

It was a beautiful and moving thing.

The series finale went live on July 6. "Something's Gotta Eat T. Rexes" was written by Elizabeth Bear, Steven Brust, and Emma Bull.  It has taken me the better part of a month to muster up the courage to read it. 
I've been afraid of how it is going to end.  Not that the writers won't do a stunningly fantastic job, but that I'm going to lose someone else from the show.  I don't expect that everything is going to be okay. Not on this show. 

I'm just not sure I'm ready for it to be over.

In between writing the last sentence and this one, several hours have passed and I have finished reading the final episode. If I talked about my emotional response to "Something's Gotta Eat T. Rexes", I think I might give far too much away.  Suffice it to say that I had one. The thing is, I don't see nearly enough people talking about Shadow Unit.  Maybe it has to do with the small corner of the internet which I inhabit, or because like most short fiction, it isn't something that gets talked about, but it should.

So, let me say this: Shadow Unit is one of the most engrossing, moving, painful, and wonderful things that I have read.  I have enjoyed every moment of the last seven years I have been reading this collaborative project, even the painful ones. Especially the painful ones, because those are the moments that remind me that this is something I've truly connected with, that they mattered to me.  Shadow Unit may be finished, but these are the characters that will linger. 

If all of this is new to you, if you've never read Shadow Unit or even heard of it before, let me just invite you to begin with the very first episode, "Breathe", written by Emma Bull. There's a whole lot of story out there, just waiting to be discovered. Shadow Unit is something special.

And to all of the writers who worked on Shadow Unit: Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, Leah Bobet, Amanda Downum, Chelsea Polk, Holly Black, and Steven Brust: Thank you. That was one hell of a ride.

Friday, July 25, 2014

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

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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Knife of Dreams, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This article was originally posted on October 28, 2009. It is being re-posted as part of my continuing coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

Knife of Dreams
Robert Jordan
Tor: 2005

With Knife of Dreams Robert Jordan picks up the relatively glacial pacing of the previous two to three novels (the cleansing notwithstanding) and begins to move the characters to a point where readers can reasonably say that an end is in sight. Even if that end is still one large novel told in three volumes away. To be fair, while Knife of Dreams reads faster than the previous volumes we shouldn’t assume that what we have is anything like the first four novels in the series. This is still a novel in which characters wait around for things to happen and Elayne still spends much of the novel trying to maneuver herself onto the throne of Andor while her rivals besiege Caemlyn. That said, there is much to like here.

One of the freshest storylines in Knife of Dreams is that of Egwene al’Vere. Egwene is the rebel Amyrlin Seat and, at the end of Crossroads of Twilight, was captured by the Aes Sedai of the White Tower after partially blocking the harbor. Though she is prisoner, Egwene decides to act as the Amyrlin she knows herself to be and allow her actions and words to slowly bring about change inside the White Tower and be a quiet pocket of resistance. She receives regular beatings as penances, but never wavers in her stance and gradually, over a period of two weeks (or so) begins to see results.

The Egwene chapters are some of the most effective and most interesting in the novel. Egwene in the White Tower gives a true comparison in how things have changed since she was first a novice and also a stark demonstration of the growth and maturity Egwene has experienced over the year(s) from when she first left Emond’s Field to now. As much as any other character, Egwene is a far different woman than the girl who we met in The Eye of the World, and her quiet leadership in Knife of Dreams is a storyline which promises to have as much impact on the world as anything Rand or the Seanchan do. Plus, Egwene’s determination is just compelling storytelling that gets beyond the regular machinations of the Aes Sedai in Salidar or the Tower itself.

My Noal Charin watch continues and for the first time Mat asks Noal straight out if he was Jain Farstrider. Noal reluctantly admits that Jain was a cousin, but given how Robert Jordan has set all this up, there’s no reason to actually believe that. Tuon’s presence here allows her to ask a question nobody else would have, which is asking who Jain Farstrider was. Everyone from the Randland side of the ocean would have already known. But, this lets an outsider ask the question and Noal answer. His answer is revealing.

“He was a fool,” Noal said grimly before Mat could open his mouth, though Olver did get his open and left it gaping while the old man continued. “He went gallivanting about the world and left a good and loving wife to die of a fever without him there to hold her hand while she died. He let himself be made into a tool by---“ Abrubtly Noal’s face went blank. Staring through Mat, he rubbed at his forehead as though attempting to recall something.

Young Olver is a huge fan of Jain Farstrider comes to Jain’s defense and reminds Noal of of some of the great things Jain did.

Noal came to himself with a start and patted Olver’s shoulder. “He did that, boy. That much is to his credit. But what adventure is worth leaving your wife to die alone?” He sounded sad enough to die on the spot himself.

This may not be the heart of the novel or the series, but the Noal Charin / Jain Farstrider bits are some which add so much richness to the history and shape of the world and story. It also provides something to wonder about. If Noal really is Jain Farstrider as an old man, what happened to him? The most common theories is that he ran afoul of the Shadow at some point and was captured by either Graendal or Ishamael and was left a broken man. But, the question is whether Noal can be considered a potential sleeper agent with a hidden compulsion. Probably not, but just maybe. It’s worth wondering about.

Another interesting thing around is the storyline is Mat with Aludra the Illuminator and what appears to be the introduction of gunpowder and artillery cannon to the world. How will this change things and can it be accelerated enough to make a difference in the Last Battle? Between Aludra’s cannon and the inventions created as a result of Rand’s school, the world is about to undergo its first technological revolution since the Breaking some three thousand years ago. Rand’s got people inventing “steam wagons”, which is an early version of cars / trains.

Now, Knife of Dreams has a solid focus on Perrin and a couple of climactic battles near the end of the novel and it features the resolution to the Faile kidnapping story (finally!), but more than anything else, what people will take from this novel is the letter from Moiraine to Thom and the confirmation of what many people were guessing for years: Moiraine isn’t dead. She needs rescuing. Hell yeah.

For me, The Wheel of Time has always been about the little things more than the big story arcs. It gets me through the times when the major story arcs had slowed to a crawl and it adds richness to the times when Jordan is absolutely nailing the major story arcs. Knife of Dreams succeeds as well as it does because of those smaller moments as well as the battles (also finally, another Trolloc battle here). The Ogier. Nynaeve beginning to rally the Borderlands so that Lan won’t ride alone. Steamwagons. The changing corridors and the loosening of the pattern. The detail about the Amayar. Rand briefly seeing “black flecks” in his vision, which makes me wonder about that link to Moridin and the saa. The revelation to folks that Rand really is hearing voices. Anytime the Forsaken get together. Seriously, Knife of Dreams is a novel loaded with awesome bits to quietly thrill longtime fans of the series and reward them for their wait.

Is this a better book because the last couple weren’t quite as good? Yeah, maybe. I’m not exactly unbiased here and I can only admit that I love this series and frequently overlook flaws. But, this one is just better than Wheel of Time had been for a while and the Egwene chapters are top notch.

All that is left now is A Memory of Light, the three volume conclusion to The Wheel of Time which begins with The Gathering Storm.

Except for whenever I write about New Spring, this will be the last trip through memory lane. The Gathering Storm has been published and it is all new content from now. I have thoroughly enjoyed the re-read of the series and I’m ready to jump back into a new Wheel of Time story.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Crossroads of Twilight, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This article was originally posted on October 5, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

Crossroads of Twilight
Robert Jordan

On my first reading of Crossroads of Twilight I was satisfied with the novel, that even though the action of the novel is lacking and Robert Jordan did not build on the Cleansing in Winter’s Heart, it was Wheel of Time and it told the stories of characters who caught short shrift in the previous volume. Only later, thinking back on the novel, did I feel a sense of disappointment that except until the very end of the novel could I say that “nothing happened”. My complaints grew. Maybe we didn’t need to be caught up with all the other characters. There’s nothing wrong with jumping ahead a couple days or a week and just picking up then.

So what now? This is either the first or second time I have read Crossroads of Twilight since 2003. All I have are vague recollections. Now we have a volume following Crossroads of Twilight and the first part of the three book series finale is a month away from publication. Frustrations regarding the passivity of Crossroads of Twilight are lessened because now this is only a chapter in the larger story, rather than the book we’ve waited several years for.

The first half of so of the novel runs concurrently with the conclusion of Winter’s Heart. There is this great “beacon” off in the distance that tells any woman who can channel that a great use of Saidar is being used. Readers of the series know that this is the Cleansing of saidin, but the other characters don’t. The general assumption is that the Forsaken are involved and when the Aes Sedai scout out battlefield after the fact, they assume that what happened at Shadar Logoth is some new Forsaken weapon. Otherwise, there are four primary storylines running through Crossroads of Twilight.

Perrin continues to chase the Shaido Aiel who have kidnapped his wife. Elayne works to hold on to the Lion Throne in Andor and is facing a siege from rival houses. Mat tries to evade the Seanchan in his flight from Ebou Dar. Mat also works to improve his relations with Tuon, the Daughter of the Nine Moon. Egwene and her rebel Aes Sedai are outside the gates of Tar Valon. She’s working on a plan to block the harbor at Tar Valon.

This may be a gross simplification of the basic plotlines of Crossroads of Twilight, but I do believe it is an accurate summation of the bulk of what happens in Crossroads of Twilight. Not a whole lot.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t quality here. When Robert Jordan gets down to it, he can write excellent scenes and put together a good book. Most of this book just isn’t Jordan getting down to it. The White Tower intrigue works, as does the burgeoning (and confusing) Mat and Tuon relationship. Elayne’s chapters are turgid, but the closer Egwene gets to acting the better her chapters are.

Crossroads of Twilight does not suffer from Middle Book Syndrome. It suffers from Middle Chapter Syndrome. It answers any questions as to what was happening with the rest of the characters while Rand and Nynaeve are off cleansing the taint off saidin. It also sets up the next part of Egwene’s storyline, and the future of how the major protagonists will relate to the Seanchan. That’s about all that Crossroads of Twilight is.

It’s this that makes Crossroads of Twilight such a disappointing novel. There is very little that occurs in the text that needs to be told directly. Not that required 800 pages of paperback text. A couple of chapters could reasonably have covered it, maybe three hundred pages at most that could have been spread between The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, and Knife of Dreams. That’s not what happened, of course, we were given Crossroads of Twilight. It’s a novel that isn’t a novel, it’s a long interlude in between novels. It is a collection of chapters in a larger novel. Taken from that perspective, Crossroads of Twilight is not an offensive novel. It’s really not much of anything at all.

On to Knife of Dreams, please.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Winter's Heart, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This article was originally posted on September 22, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my continuing coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

Winter’s Heart
Robert Jordan

This *should* go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t…this is the 9th volume of a series and the book has been out for a number of years. I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. Stop reading now. Really. Stop. Now.

Winter’s Heart. The Cleansing. When I first read Winter’s Heart I was blown away by Robert Jordan’s ending to the novel. The Cleansing. Rand announces earlier in the novel that he plans on cleansing saidin, the male half of the Source. The taint of saidin was a major cause (if not THE cause) of the Breaking of the World 3000 years ago. It was the counter-stroke of the Dark One as he was being sealed in his prison by Lews Therin the Hundred Companions. The taint on saidin was what caused all male channelers to go crazy and destroy the world, and is the reason for the fear and (rightful) prejudice against male channelers for the last three thousand years. That’s what Rand wants to fix. In terms of what happens in Randland, it’s a really big deal. I was staggered by the conclusion and the actual Cleansing. So much so that I still capitalize the word Cleansing when referring to that event. The Cleansing loomed so large over the rest of the novel that any potential flaw was washed away by that conclusion. It led to several years of anticipation by how awesome the fallout would be.

The thing is, Crossroads of Twilight removed most of those warm fuzzies, and re-reading Winter’s Heart did not provide that first blush of awesomeness that the Cleansing did the first time. Don’t get me wrong, that was a pivotal moment in the series and it was treated with an extended pitched battle (seen in snippets), an despite the inherent awesomeness of the event, it doesn’t hold the magic it used to. Winter’s Heart as a novel is a big step forward after the last two volumes, but it does not quite reach the comparatively fast pacing of the earliest volumes. Big things happen, but they are surrounded by forests of quietness.

Let’s talk about Mat and his Daughter of Nine Moons. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that waaaaay back in The Great Hunt Jordan reveals that the Court of Nine Moons is Seanchan. This is before Mat is told in The Shadow Rising that he was to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. The official reveal of the Daughter of the Nine Moons is in Winter’s Heart, though most readers probably guessed it before the reveal. There’s just a little too much focus on Tuon for her not to be. Maybe it’s just obvious in retrospect. Here’s the big moment where they meet, and despite Mat’s insistence for the last several novels that he would run if given the chance, he repeats three times that he will marry Tuon. The repetition is important.

Actually, what I really want to mention is a character named Noal Charin. We first meet him in A Crown of Swords, but he becomes a named character here. I don’t know when I figured it out, but Noal is easily one of my favorite characters. Not because of anything he does here, but because of what it is. See, Charin is the family name of a Malkieri family. There is Jain Charin, a legend of Malkier and the author of Rand’s favorite book The Travels of Jain Farstrider. Noal has serious gaps in his memory, but remembers stories that should have been Jain’s. Something bad happened to Noal, something with the Forsaken, and Jain was broken and took the name Noal. Now, I don’t know if Noal Charin will be a hugely important character, but I think it’s awesome that such a legend is walking around with Mat and nobody knows it. He’s just an old man with a broken memory of past deeds and past skills. It’s just damn cool, ya know? Maybe you don’t, but I’m endlessly fascinated with Noal Charin. Jain Farstrider. To think, I used to be annoyed with all the mentions of Rand’s book early on. Then I realized what Jordan was doing. It wasn’t pointless. You just have to look for it. Noal is described as a “natural storyteller”. Indeed, sir. Indeed.

There’s other stuff. The bonding of Rand by Elayne, Aviendha, and Min. The resulting pregnancy and prophecy. The Seanchan Ogier Gardeners. Who’d have expected that. The Ogier in Randland (the continent, not the world) are gentle giants, but Jordan gets across a sense of menace of the Seanchan Ogier. Awesome.

As a whole novel Winter’s Heart is a bit uneven. There’s a sense of anticipation, but you don’t get the sense that anything will really happen (the Cleansing notwithstanding). That Winter’s Heart looms so large in my memory is due entirely to the Cleansing at the end of the novel. Much of the rest suffers from a bad case of stuff almost happening. Got a new mystery in whether Mat will figure out what an Illuminator might use a bellfounder for and whether this will introduce artillery to the world. Rand got Elayne knocked up and eventually she’ll take back the throne of Andor. The Shadow has an agent in the Palace. Bayle Domon never did get to dump the male a’dam into the ocean. That’ll be a problem (or a solution) for Rand. In retrospect there are enough interesting tidbits that you’d think Winter’s Heart is a stronger novel. It isn’t. It’s stronger and most interesting and compelling than the last two, and a sight better than my memories of the next volume, but the Cleansing is really the big deal here. It has to be, but even that isn’t as awesome as I remember it being.

Which is the overall impression of Winter’s Heart. It’s not as awesome as my memory of the experience reading it. It’ll do, but it used to be better.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Path of Daggers, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This article was originally posted on September 3, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

The Path of Daggers
Robert Jordan

I'll just be upfront here, The Path of Daggers is a little tedious. The novel fares a bit better now than it did back when it was first published because there is no longer a wait for the next volume. It's not that nothing happens in The Path of Daggers, but Jordan uses more pages to cover a smaller amount of time than he had in previous volumes.

Spoilers be here.

One of the more important things to happen in The Path of the Daggers is something that is only introduced, and not necessarily ever explained as to what it means. The legendary Aes Sedai Cadsuane meets with the Aiel Sorilea and together they decide to work together to try to make Rand less "hard" and more "strong.
Cadsuane drew breath. A chance she would have scoured anyone else for taking. But she was not anyone else, and sometimes chances had to be taken. "The boy confuses them," she said. "He needs to be strong, and makes himself harder. Too hard, already, and he will not stop until he is stopped. He has forgotten how to laugh except in bitterness; there are no tears left in him. Unless he finds laughter and tears again, the world faces disaster. He must learn that even the Dragon Reborn is flesh. If he goes to Tarmon Gai'don as he is, even his victory may be as dark as his defeat."
The whole thing with Rand being "hard" is a major aspect to the last handful of novels. Rand thinks he needs to be "harder" to prepare himself for Tarmon Gai'don, that being human and caring would lead to his downfall. On one hand Rand does have his eye on the ball. He knows that everything he does must be in preparation for that final conflict, the one which only he can fight (he believes). The "hard" thing, though, is making him cold and callous to others - others who are not Min, Elayne, or Aviendha. His behavior towards Perrin in A Crown of Swords is an example of this.

There are other things going on. We see Moridin watching Aviendha / Elayne / Nynaeve in Ebou Dar and when Aviendha unravels a weave, Moridin realizes she just did something they did not know of in the Age of Legends. And there's a gholam watching Moridin. Which is interesting, if unexplained.

The A / E / N trio eventually travel from Ebou Dar to Caemlyn, but on the way the Bowl of Winds is used to fix the weather. It's a major development that is seven volumes coming, but as important as it is, it is almost glossed over because the women still have things to do. It's weird how something that big and important is almost overlooked right after it is done.

As interesting as anything else is the introduction of Cyndane, a character who appears with Moghedien and is rather commanding with Graendal. There is no explanation as to who Cyndane is at this time, but by the next novel we realize fairly quickly that Cyndane is the reincarnation of Lanfear. We also learn that Cyndane is sort of in charge of Moghedien, though both are terrified of Moridin. And that Moridin was named Nae'blis, which makes him the most important person in service to the Dark One. Besides the weirdness that is Shaidar Haran.

A great line later in the novel:
He could remember as a boy hearing men laugh that when rain fell in sunshine that the Dark One was beating Semirhage
I only point that out because it's such a sweet throwaway line.

By the end of the novel, here's where we are left:

Egwene takes full control of the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar and begins the siege of Tar Valon.

Faile, Maighdin (Morgase in disguise), and Alliandre are captured by the Shaido Aiel (along with Bain and Chiad)

Rand is attacked in Cairhain by renegade Asha'man. Fedwin Morr (a likeable young man) has his brain addled to that of a small child. Rand gently kills him with poisoned wine.

Perrin intends to bring The Prophet (Masema) to Rand so he can answer for the slaughter done in Rand's name.

This is more of a novel recap than a proper review, but at this point there is not much to say in review. With 600+ pages, there are long gaps of unexplained plans and minor plots with brief flashes of development and action. If I had to wait two years for Winter's Heart, I would probably be really disappointed. As it is, The Path of Daggers is what it is: a long novel that only sets up a couple things for the future but overall doesn't move the timeline along very much.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Crown of Swords, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This article was originally posted on August 4, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

A Crown of Swords
Robert Jordan

A Crown of Swords is the seventh volume in The Wheel of Time and it opens with the fallout of the Battle of Dumai’s Wells from the conclusion to Lord of Chaos. Dumai’s Wells was the rescue of Rand from Elaida’s Aes Sedai and the first time readers really get to see the Asha’man in action and what using the One Power against humans in battle can do. Rather than strike back against the Aes Sedai, Rand keeps his eye on the ball (sort of) and continues his plan to take out Sammael in Illian. But, because of the his kidnapping and subsequent torture, Rand believes he must now be “hard”, harder than ever before. To counteract this, Robert Jordan introduces the character of Cadsuane, a Green Ajah Aes Sedai who is the oldest living Aes Sedai and is a legend in her own time. Cadsuane attaches herself to Rand, despite his rude ill temper and distrust, in an attempt to teach Rand to be soft again, believing that there is no way he can get to the Last Battle and win if he is so hard that he cuts himself off from anyone.

As I understand it, Cadsuane has been a controversial addition to the cast of characters and generally not a welcome one (she’s yet another self-important Aes Sedai who doesn’t explain anything. She’s like Moiraine Squared, only without the chance to see the personal perspective of Moiraine), but I have generally found Cadsuane to be an interesting character and a solid addition. Given the spread out nature of the Aes Sedai, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are some out in the world doing their work that we never see, and that they come out of the woodwork when it is clear the Dragon has been Reborn and the world is heading towards Tarmon Gaidon. Cadsuane works for me.

Meanwhile (because with Robert Jordan there are always a couple of meanwhiles going on), Egwene is the Amyrlin Seat of the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar and with the help of Suian Sanche (the Stilled former Amyrlin), is trying to build her own power base and not be a puppet, while also trying to direct the rebels to move against the White Tower and truly united the Aes Sedai. Egwene

Elayne, Mat, and Nynaeve search the city of Ebou Dar for the fabled Bowl of Winds, a ter’angreal able to control the weather (and potentially undo the touch of the Dark One on the world’s weather). Mat is involved in a strange sexual relationship with Queen Tylin (strange in that it is presented as undesired on Mat’s part, but even though we get Mat’s viewpoint there is still question that Mat really doesn’t want it…which may well be Robert Jordan’s commentary on gender imbalances and can you “force” a man? Am I reading too much into this?). The most interesting aspect about the search for the Bowl of Winds is the discovery of The Kin in Ebou Dar. The Kin are cast-offs and runaways from the White Tower, a secret society that gathers and protects women who can channel and could not make in the Tower or were too old to learn or all sorts of possible reasons. Now, there is much more to the Kin and two somethings about them that makes this a very important discovery, but I won’t get into that because it would be a spoiler (in case one hasn’t read the book / series and is still choosing to read a review of the seventh volume)

There is plenty to like in A Crown of Swords, and there are several memorable scenes (the one with Mat and the gholam in the hallway / staircase is excellent). There are good action sequences, nice political intrigue (though Rand is beginning to be a major pain in the ass as a character), and there were some important developments (the kin, the revelation of the True Power, the Bowl of Winds, some other stuff), but this continues the trend begun with Lord of Chaos where Robert Jordan is very much slowing down the plot. There is less travelling and it feels like fewer days pass. There is more conversation with people sitting (or standing) around. There is plotting, but less action. There are plans for the future that do not develop. Jordan’s pacing slows down compared to the earlier volumes.

In the end, this is still a volume that satisfies. Looking back at the series, though, it is easy to see where Robert Jordan began to test the patience of his audience. With the major characters all spread out so much and all doing their own things, the novels expanded laterally and with less forward movement. Even so, Robert Jordan looms large in my fantasy reading in high school and college and even when the entire novel doesn’t deliver the goods, there are enough outstanding parts to each book that the memory remains untainted. This is big and epic fantasy. While a tight six volume series would have been the new standard for fantasy, you can do far worse than Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lord of Chaos, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This article was originally posted on July 14, 2009. It is re-posed here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards. The Wheel of Time is nominated as a complete work for Best Novel.

Lord of Chaos
Robert Jordan

Early on in the novel Sammael is given an instruction by the Dark One: “Let the Lord of Chaos rule”. Now, the introductory quote tells us that this is a chant from a children’s game in the Fourth Age in Great Arvalon*, but in the context of the novel (and the series), Jordan is not clear about what exactly this means. The most straightforward reading that I can come up with is that this refers to Rand. As the Dragon, Rand is the Lord of Chaos, and the Dark One is giving Rand a fairly free reign to mess things up and turn the nations against him. To the Dark One, Rand is little more than a babe with a sword. Rand has been lucky, but will ultimately fail. That, at least, is the presumed perspective of the Dark One.

Is this the correct reading? Sammael aligns with Graendal and neither makes an overt move against Rand during this volume (at least not until Rand makes his own move). This is the reading that makes the most sense to me, but Jordan never spells out what he means.

An alternate reading would be that Padan Fain is the Lord of Chaos. This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, Fain is quite mad by this point and is barely controllable by anyone, so letting him do his thing could (and does) cause a variety of muddles…mostly regarding the Whitecloaks at this point, though they don’t need any help. Fain, or Mordeith, or Ordeith, or whatever he is calling himself at this point can certainly be considered the Lord of Chaos. Except that as interesting an option as Fain represents, he doesn’t make nearly as much sense in the context of the novel as Rand.

And what is up with that being part of a children’s game? That’s an awfully morbid game. On the other hand, we have our Lizzie Borden rhyme and the whole deal with standing in a dark bathroom with the door closed and saying “bloody mary” over and over again, so who are we to judge “let the Lord of Chaos rule”?

Now, in terms of the novel itself, we are beginning to settle into a routine at this point. As Adam Whitehead points out, we are into the political phase of the series and fairly well out of the adventure phase. Readers will respond very differently during the political phase and many who thoroughly enjoyed the first three or four novels will be less enamored with Lord of Chaos and the subsequent volumes. Yes, there are major action sequences that are iconic in the Wheel of Time series. Dumai’s Wells is a prime example of this and is perhaps the crowning moment of Lord of Chaos. Want to see the One Power used as a weapon in battle and the horror of what it can do? Look no further than Dumai’s Wells.

The bulk of Lord of Chaos, however, consists of the characters sitting around, plotting, no longer confiding in each other, Rand being “hard”, and strategizing as to what to do next. Or, more specifically, waiting. Lord of Chaos is not pure stasis, but some readers may perceive it as such.

Back when I first started to write about Lord of Chaos, two months ago, I wrote down a quick jottings of things I then wanted to touch on: Bit of plodding, Egwene as Amyrlin, Dumai’s Wells, more Rand being “hard”, beginning of the Min / Rand relationship, Asha’Man as warriors – what does the title mean?, re-emergance of Lan (barely), Alanna / Rand, Verin spending a lot of time looking mysterious and suspicious, getting Mat in Ebou Dar to meet Tylin, escape of Moggy, a couple of Halima / Aran’gar actions but otherwise not much there, Elaida.

At this point I don’t really want to discuss any of it, except that for me, those were the high points – or just the stuff that came to mind and worth calling out.

The thing is, this may not be enough for some readers and that’s okay. Robert Jordan cannot be all things to all people and he is telling a particular story in the best manner he knows how. This is not to excuse any perceived lapses or the decreasing speed of the narrative pacing. It is just to state that the style of the series has changed and by this point Wheel of Time is not a story of grand adventure. The characters are growing up. There is some development, though they retain most of the traits they had before, only now writ large. Rand is perhaps the notable exception because Rand is the blank canvas on which Jordan is painting this novel. He began as a fairly standard and generic heroic boy of prophecy, only now we see Rand carrying the weight of the madness of saidin and the weight of the expectation of prophecy. Being the Dragon Reborn was always something to be feared, not celebrated.

The following statement can be leveled at more than a couple of Wheel of Time novels: The Lord of Chaos is an uneven novel. Overall, I’d consider it to be a good one.

*Great Arvalon? Assuming that this is a quote from the NEXT age and not the last Fourth Age (which should be long forgotten), one can guess that it is part of the how names change over time – something explicitly mentioned more than a handful of times in this series. So, Great Arvalon was once Tar Valon. But who can say exactly how the city of the Aes Sedai has changed?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Fires of Heaven, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

I originally posted this on March 15, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards. 

The Fires of Heaven
Robert Jordan

I still maintain that the answer to the question “Who Killed Asmodean?” is Bela, and that Bela is, in fact, the Creator. With that said, for all the times I have read The Wheel of Time and for all the times I have read the first five books of this series, I have still not been able to figure out who the hell killed Asmodean.

Supposedly the answer is somewhere in The Fires of Heaven. I can’t figure it out. Not with anything I would consider a reasonable theory.

It began in The Shadow Rising, but in The Fires of Heaven Jordan makes a point to show Rand as forcing himself to be “hard”, to do what he feels he needs to do in order to get to and survive the Last Battle. For readers (or, perhaps just for this reader) this begins a distancing effect towards Rand. A character forcing himself to be uncaring and hard is a difficult character to engage with. This is not so much of a problem because the side characters are the real stars of the show.

The Fires of Heaven, more than The Shadow Rising, is also where Jordan begins to slow down and drag out the series. At this point I do not mean that as a negative, but rather as my perception of the pacing of the storytelling and action. There is more sitting around and waiting. To be fair, The Great Hunt opened with a chapters-long waiting in Fal Dara sequence, but the perception becomes more pronounced here. Adam Whitehead had this to say about The Fires of Heaven and the story arcs Jordan appears to be using.

With The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan moved The Wheel of Time series out of its 'adventure' arc into a 'political' phase as the characters finally moved into positions of high authority and influence amongst different nations and cultures, and could begin the process of uniting the world to face the Last Battle. Whilst adventure storylines would continue to appear, a lot more time from this point onwards would be spent on political maneuverings. Indeed, some storylines would unfold almost entirely within a character's office as they fired off letters, received intelligence, and debated strategy. That, at this stage anyway, Jordan is able to make this readable and compelling is a testament to his often-underrated storytelling skills.

I think Adam is spot-on here. This is more of a political phase. The Shadow Rising opened with the politics of Tear and moved into that of the Aiel. The Fires of Heaven opens with the Aiel and the growing threat of the Shaido Aiel and Couladin’s hatred and fear of what Rand represents and shifts focus slightly when Rand takes his Aiel across the Dragonwall into Cairhein and we get a combination of a siege and Cairhein politics. Cairhein, of couse, is a city / state that just cannot catch a break from the Aiel.

And yet, Robert Jordan does not provide the nitty-gritty of politics. What Jordan provides is Rand running rough-shod over Cairhein, just as he did Tear. Taking control through the strength of who and what he is. Through Rand’s need to be hard and his need to unite the nations behind him before the Last Battle. Through force, if needs be. The political aspect is there, and is only going to grow, but Jordan does not forget about major plotpoints and action.

There is a conversation between Mat and Lan in which Mat lays out strategy for a battle that closely mirrors what war-leaders came up with independently. Mat, of course, is nothing more than a young man from Emond’s Field who never saw war or danger until Moiraine saved the three from Trollocs and the Fade. Nothing more except a young man with memories of lives he never lived and unnatural luck. Mat has been a character who has become more and more interesting with each passing book, but now he becomes the general and leader he never wanted to be. There is no good reason why Mat should be this special, but he is and the novel (and series) is all the stronger for it.

Other moments of note that make The Fires of Heaven stronger as a whole than each of its individual parts might suggest: Rand and Aviendha (in general, but the…sequence through the snows of Seandar), Asmodean’s end, Nynaeve vs Moghedien Pts 2 and 3, Birgitte ripped out of TAR, the return to Salidar, Elayne performing in Valan Luca’s circus, the resolution of Couladin but not the Shaido, the Band of the Red Hand forming against Mat’s desires, Rand vs Rahvin, the use of balefire, and most importantly – Moiraine vs Lanfear. This last bit has set years of theory and rumor about the ultimate fate of Moiraine, a fate that for years was not addressed in series until Knife of Dreams opened that door again. There’s big stuff here.

The quiet moments of the novel, the ones where all the characters are waiting for something to happen? Well, that’s where The Fires of Heaven drags a bit. I still feel like the high point was in the first four volumes of this series, but The Fires of Heaven is overall still a satisfying novel. One which still pushes the reader into wondering what will happen next. One which isn’t perfect, but is still a good story, a good book. One which still raises more questions than answers, and that the questions are just as fascinating as the answers might ever be.

Unfortunately, I’ve put a stop to my official Nynaeve Braid Count. I wanted to keep track of it, but midway through the book I stopped paying attention to it and after I remembered I counted three by page 150 but nothing after it and that I wasn’t even looking. What disappoints me is that after googling this, I have not found an official count. I would really, really like a book-by-book breakdown of Nynaeve’s braid-tug-count, because unless it gets worse, I think it has been overstated by many (including myself). I just can’t verify the count in The Fires of Heaven. Sorry about that.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Shadow Rising, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This was originally posted on February 8, 2009. I re-post it here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

The Shadow Rising
Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan concluded The Dragon Reborn with Rand Al’Thor holding the Stone of Tear and the crystalline sword Callandor, the sword that is not a sword. Taking the sword and holding the stone were the two primary signs to the world that Rand was, in fact, the Dragon Reborn. The surprise was the desert dwelling warrior Aiel helped Rand take Tear, believing he may be their Car’a’carn, one spoken of in their prophecies the same way the Dragon Reborn is spoken of, except that the Aiel actively search for their Car’a’carn and the Dragon Reborn is dreaded.

The Shadow Rising deals with the fallout of Rand taking Tear. The novel opens with stagnation, with Rand refusing to act (much to Moiraine’s frustration), but after a couple hundred pages (really) Robert Jordan begins to move the action. Perrin returns to the Two Rivers to protect his home and his people. Rand travels with the Aiel to Rhuidian, though he may not know exactly why. Mat, too. Moiraine and Egwene follow, Egwene to study with the Aiel Wise Women to learn more of being a Dreamwalker.

I can grant the argument some readers may make about the opening stagnation, but even there Jordan lays out some fascinating stuff. Weird things occur to Rand, Mat, and Perrin. They are each randomly attacked – Rand by his reflection, Perrin by his axe, and Mat by playing cards. Jordan pulls it off, though when written down in a single sentence it may not sound very thrilling or dangerous, but this is evil tainted and well done. Lanfear makes another appearance, telling Rand that he will need to learn to control saidin or the other Forsaken may destroy him…and that Rand needs a teacher, a male Forsaken to teach him. Rand and Mat each step through a ter’angreal leading to the world of the aelfinn, weird creatures talking in riddles.

Mat is told that his fate is “to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons”, “to die and live again, and live once more a part of what was”, “to give up half the light of the world to save the world”. Just in case anyone thought that Mat might NOT be important…yeah, Mat is important.

See, this is part of what I like best about The Shadow Rising. Robert Jordan doles out mystery and history throughout the novel and more than his skill at storytelling, the weaving of the history and foreshadowing draws me in. If we’ve been paying attention we know already that the Court of the Nine Moons is Seanchan, though it is easy to overlook because we don’t know why those mentions in the previous two books might be important. This is why.

The main reason I am so fond of this book, though, is Rhuidian. When Rand walks through the ter’angreal rings at Rhuidian he gets to live scenes from his ancestry, scenes of the history of the Aiel, who they are and who they were. What they were. Through these sequences we get our second glimpse of the Age of Legends – before, during, and after the Breaking of the World. For me, Rhuidian is worth the price of admission. But, there is more, some of which I thought was in the next book – the uprising in the White Tower, Nynaeve besting Moghedien, Rand fighting Asmodean, Rand discovering how to Travel, Slayer, Lord Perrin, more.

The Shadow Rising is ultimately an uneven book. There are long, long passages with little of note occurring and we may well feel that we’re just waiting for the next major set piece to come up, but at the same time Robert Jordan’s world is an old friend and though this is the fourth book in the series Jordan delivers several major events that continue to build towards something potentially very big. Jordan has not yet hit the wall, and while The Shadow Rising is a bit slower than I remembered, there was also more goodness than I remembered.

Nynaeve Braid Tug Count
The Eye of the World: 0
The Great Hunt: 0
The Dragon Reborn: 8
The Shadow Rising: 1

Okay, giving The Shadow Rising a braid-tug count of 1 is an arguable position but I feel confident about it. There are several moments throughout the novel where Nynaeve grabs her braid or holds her braid, but only the one tug that I noticed. Nynaeve “gripped the end in her fist” on page 85 and “gripped her braid hard” on page 90. The braids don’t make another appearance (that I noticed) until page 586 where Elayne observes that Nynaeve “seemed to have given up trying to pull at those braids when she was angry.” It is only on page 596 that Nynaeve tugs her braid for the first time in the novel. It is unclear if there are multiple tugs in this passage or just one, so I’m going with a count of 1 for The Shadow Rising. So far the braid tugging doesn’t seem overwhelming, with only 9 total tugs over the 2000+ pages of text.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Dragon Reborn, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This was originally posted on November 18, 2008 and is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards, where The Wheel of Time is nominated as a complete work.

The Dragon Reborn
Robert Jordan

So far in the series the reader has known the Rand is, or will be, the Dragon Reborn, the prophesied hero who will "break" the world even as he saves the world from The Dark One. At the end of The Great Hunt Rand proclaimed himself as the Dragon and those who were at Falme (and lived) saw Rand battle Ba'alzamon in a vision in the sky. Rumors of Rand with crude drawings of the battle are racing across the land. Sick of fighting the dreams and unable to control saidin, Rand journeys to Tear so he can somehow take callandor, the "sword which is not a sword" in the Stone of Tear. This will be a major public fulfillment of prophecy and more than the vision of battle, will proclaim Rand to the world as being the Dragon Reborn.

In a bold move, except for a small handful of scenes, Robert Jordan pulls the focus off of Rand and places it firmly on Perrin, Mat, and the girls. Despite the fact that novel is titled after what Rand is, and the fact that knowledge of Rand permeates every aspect of the novel, Rand is barely in The Dragon Reborn. It is strangely refreshing. Moreover, pulling the focus off of what can be viewed as the primary and most important character of the series could mess with the overall rhythm of the series, but somehow it works.

There is a lot to like in The Dragon Reborn, some which only take on extra importance knowing what happens in the next eight volumes, others feel important but we don't know why, and yet others that are just interesting. Oh, and the story is good, too.

Jordan does an excellent job at foreshadowing certain events, both for the series and for the book. Early on, Lan mentions that "The Dark One has killers you don't notice until it is too late", the "Soulless". There is mention of balefire. Small comments, but there is a sense by this point that Jordan is introducing elements that will come into play later in the novel, or later in the series. With Jordan there is no telling which, but in these two cases the elements will be introduced in The Dragon Reborn.

One of the major storylines of this novel is that Suian Sanche, the Amyrlin Seat herself, sets Nyneave and Egwene on a mission - to hunt the Black Ajah in the White Tower. With Elayne in tow, this hunt takes them from the White Tower all the way to Tear. Actually, even though the characters begin the novel in different places and doing different things, they will all end up in Tear together. At times this feels a bit forced, but Jordan's storytelling is so strong that much of this doesn't matter.

One of my favorite aspects of the series, and of this book in particular, is the transformation of Mat. He begins the series as Rand's best friend and a weasely little prankster. He turns out to be ta'veren, one who shapes events and pulls people towards him. Early on Mat yelled phrases in the Old Tongue, but now, that Mat has been freed of the taint of the Shadar Logoth dagger, he has been changed somehow. There is no explanation if this is something that would have occured in his life anyway, or if the dagger changed him. But now Mat speaks more and more of the Old Tongue, has incredible luck, is able to hold off two master swordsman with just a quarterstaff (excellent scene, that one), has visions of past lives, and is proving to be one of the strongest characters in the series.

Regarding Mat, the Amyrlin relates a story of her uncle that perfectly describes who Mat is and who he will be throughout the series.

The Amyrlin gave an exasperated sigh. "You remind me of my uncle Huan. No one could ever pin him down. He liked to gamble, too, and he'd much rather have fun than work. He died pulling children out of a burning house. He wouldn't stop going back as long as there was one left inside. Are you like him, Mat? Will you be there when the flames are high?

He could not meet her eyes. He studied his fingers as they plucked irritably at his blanket. "I'm no hero. I do what I have to do, but I am no hero." pg 183

That's Mat. Perfectly captured in two paragraphs that imprinted so strongly in my memory that I waited for that conversation ever since I first read those words.

There are character introductions in The Dragon Reborn: Julian Sandar, Faile, and Aviendha. Important characters, each. The Forsaken. We find out that more of the Forsaken are loose and in some cities and countries - they rule.

The only aspect of The Dragon Reborn I really didn't like was for the first time in the series, Nyneave began to tug her braid in anger or frustration. It's become a long running joke about the series, but it begins here, on page 93. Nyneave tugs her braid eight times. Given that Jordan switches the POV chapters around, it feels like more and it is only going to get worse.

One last thing to note - the end of the book features a quote form The Fourth Age. Ths is is a song fragment "Composed by Boanne, Songmistress at Taralan, the Fourth Age". Taralan. Tar Valon? Does this relate in anyway to the "Great Aravalon" mention in Lord of Chaos? It is something that will never be answered, but I wonder all the same.

Despite the absence of Rand, or perhaps because of it, The Dragon Reborn is one of the strongest entries in the series (though I have immense respect for Book 4, one sequence in particular). This is a point where even people who later become disillusioned with the series are still fully engaged and fully in. This is Robert Jordan still at the top of his game and, to use a cliche, firing on all cylinders.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

I originally posted this on November 5, 2008.  I am re-posting as part of my continuing coverage of this year's Hugo Awards (The Wheel of Time is nominated as a complete work).

The Great Hunt
Robert Jordan

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my impressions on re-reading The Eye of the World, the opening volume of Robert Jordan's long-running epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time.

As before, I have no intention or interest in doing any sort of overall coverage of the basic plot of The Great Hunt. I think that instead I am coming into the basic format of how I want to cover these books, and that's simply to talk about I did like and what I did not like.

I can't say that the "In the Shadow" prologue of The Great Hunt has anywhere near the impact of the "Dragonmount" prologue of The Eye of the World. It doesn't, and perhaps, can't. What this prologue does well is establish beyond a shadow of a doubt (no pun intended) that there really are Darkfriends among all lands and all people, both highborn and low, even among those who should not be touched by a taint of shadow. This prologue is from the perspective of a man named Bors, though it is not his real name. This prologue is a meeting of Darkfriends, to give each Darkfriend their instructions. Bors notes, walking around the room, that some have not hidden their identities very well.

He could read them all, to class and country. Merchant and warrior, commoner and noble. From Kandor and Cairhien, Saldaea and Ghealdan. From every nation and nearly every people. His nose wrinkled in sudden disgust. Even a Tinker, in bright green breeches and virulent yellow coat. pg xv

Bors marks certain nations, a High Lord of Tear and an Andoran Queen's Guard, Aes Sedai, and himself - one of the Questioners of the Children of Light. The point of all of this is that I appreciate how Jordan, in a handful of pages, covers just how widespread the infection of Darkfriends are and how anyone can be a Darkfriend. This means that ultimately, everyone may be a threat to Rand and his friends. Anyone could be that Aes Sedai. Who is the Sheinarian soldier?

Frequently, what I appreciate is the moments where history is revealed as part of conversation. Take the scene opening Chapter 5 with Moiraine speaking with her old friend, the Amyrlin Seat, Siuan Sanche where Jordan reveals for the first time the secret plan these two old friends had to find Rand, the Dragon Reborn, and what they risked, even among those who are fighting The Dark One. It is one of those conversations which is ultimately an info-dump, a chance for Jordan to reveal so much detail that no other character knows so that we, the reader, are not left in the dark (so to speak) regarding what Moiraine is planning and why she is acting the way she does. In the hands of a lesser writer such an info-dump might come across as clumsy, but in the hands of Robert Jordan this very info-dump (and make no mistake, it is an info-dump) feels comfortable and necessary. It works more than it should.

This followed by a half-reveal of who one of the Aes Sedai Darkfriends are. A Black Ajah, one dedicated to serving the Dark One. What I am trying to remember is if I realized what that scene meant when I read the book the first time or if it is only crystal clear because I've read the series and was hit on the head by the full reveal. I want to believe I was smart enough to catch it the first time.

Page 89: The dark prophecy written in blood which mentions a Daughter of the Night, Luc and Isam, and hints at the Seanchan. The first time I read this I appreciated the mention of The Daughter of Night (Lanfear), the second time I appreciated the hints of the Seanchan. This time, I appreciated Luc and Isam. I can't say I really understand the mechanics of the Luc / Isam stuff, but Luc is brother to Rand's birth mother and Isam is Lan's cousin. The other part I love about the prophecy is we then get to see Verin piece together what it may mean and then move right into realizing what Moiraine and Siuan are up to.

Pg 146, regarding Ingtar: "He spoke of the glory they would have, their names remembered in story and history, in gleeman's tales and bards' songs, the men who found the Horn. He talked as if he could not stop, and her stared down the trail they followed as if his hope of the Light lay at the end of it." This is colored by having read the book before, but it's just sad. And, while Jordan pushes it a few times, an excellent set up.

As much as anything else in this book, I love the idea of the Portal Stones and the alternate worlds where history turned out differently. This is where Rand meets Selene, a woman who is very much not who she seems to be . The Portal Stone sequenes are very well done early in the novel and the short sequence near the end with flicker flicker flicker and "I have won again, Lews Therin" is nothing short of masterful.

Pg 254. Remember how I pointed out the crystal spheres Bayle Domon mentioned in The Eye of the World? Well, here's one of the two in Cairhein and Rand feels drawn to it - to such an extent that even Selene, who previously has asked Rand to seek power and glory, wants Rand away from it and she is scared. By this point we should have an idea who Selene is, but clearly she knows what the sphere is and why Rand should be afraid. These two pages gives the first hint about how much power Rand can channel through that sphere and while it won't pay off in this volume this is part of Robert Jordan's setting things up for much later in the series and also just worldbuilding - except it is worldbuilding with a purpose. Page 385 tells us clearly that it is a very powerful sa'angreal for men to amplify the One Power.

Pg 284. I just like sequences at The White Tower and this one is where Nynaeve goes through the Rings and sees lives she could have (and could still) live if she takes another path, each one with different pain and possibilities. Powerful sequences.

Pg 311. The Illuminators. Nothing comes of it now, and really, nothing comes of it throughout much of the series, but there is a feeling of importance to fireworks and the Illuminators. Even now, with the first mention of the Illuminators there is a feeling that they will matter.

Pg 325. I like prophecy and this is the beginning of the "twice and twice shall he be marked" prohpecy with the herons and dragons. It'll pop up a few more times, but Jordan does prophecy very well.

Pg 420. I don't remember if Min mentioned this or not in The Eye of the World, but here is a mention of Tuon, and the Court of the Nine Moons. This will matter much later in the series. It's not even a throw-away line, it's just description of no signficance, except that it introduces something important.

Here's one thing I did not like: Nynaeve. No, she didn't tug her braid in this book either (two in a row!), but at page 232 she is being taught the same lessons in channeling that Egwene is being taught, except Nynaeve has a block and cannot channel except when angry. Okay, fine. This comes up throughout the series. Only problem is that late in the novel she channels time and time again with great control and skill. Now, given the situation late in the novel she is very likely angry. But, what Jordan established in the first book and midway through this one is that Nynaeve needs to be very angry to be able to push past her block and channel. When she does channel it all comes out as a rush and partly out of control. So how then, exactly, does she channel with such control and precision near the end of the novel? How?

No answers are forthcoming, except perhaps that she was angry and had such a controlled anger during that period that she could do what she needed to do. Just seems a bit shady, though. Give Elayne those actions and there's no problem.

Pg 308. Min. "Light, I don't want to fall in lovewith a man I've only met once, and a farmboy at that." Min has visions about people and she knows that she will fall in love with Rand, as will two other women, and they'll all have to share him. I'm projecting a bit here, because Min didn't say she loved Rand yet, but two of the three women in question feel a bit forced...no, that's not right. Not forced. Just too easy. Only one of the three seems like there might be an honest attachment that comes from really knowing each other. Min, and the second woman, seems calculated for story.

Overall The Great Hunt is a stronger novel than The Eye of the World as Jordan begins to step away from having the series be a basic kitchen boy / farm boy fantasy. There are so many little details to note, things that really stand out on a second read through (or in my case an eleventy billionth read-through) of the series. The opening of the novel is a bit slower than necessary as Rand is not yet his own man (stubborn, yes, of course he is stubborn). Rand reacts when events push him, but he does not make his own decisions yet. Of course, the series will show later that Rand probably should not make his own decisions and that he is better off when he doesn't, but given that the novel opens with Rand having said he was going to leave Fal Dara for weeks but staying despite his protests (until something forces the issue), this can be a frustrating issue. On the flip side, it gives Jordan a chance to have some speechifying and info-dump history and the fact of the matter is that Jordan is just damn good at doing that.

This is Robert Jordan improving. He'll hit his stride in the next two volumes, but there are some absolutely fine moments (the blowing of the horn, Egwene with the Seanchan, the Portal Stones, Rand in front of the Amrylin, etc) in this volume. Little things still matter here and for the first time, Robert Jordan really broadens the scope of the series with the Seanchan. He also pulls characters apart so that while they are all working towards the same thing and know what Rand is, Egwene / Elayne / Nynaeve are off doing the Aes Sedai thing, Moiraine is trying to lead Rand by not leading him, Rand is trying to figure out what to do while trying to help Mat, Mat and Perrin are coming to terms with Rand being the Dragon, and at the very end, we get Masema looking reverantly on at Rand after the battle in the sky. This is another little thing that will matter.

Hey, you either like Robert Jordan or you don't, but when you do, you realize just how much he put into these books, just how much detail that doesn't feel like overkill. It's an impressive achievement.

Not that I ever would have wanted to intrude into such a private and emotional moment, but I would have loved to have been there when Jordan told his wife, cousin, and perhaps someone else the overall arc he planned for A Memory of Light. This was shortly before he died, but even stepping away from what that moment meant for him and his family, it would have been something to have the man himself spin out the tale over a period several hours. No fan outside the family should have been there (and wasn't, if I remember correctly), but I would love to have heard Jordan spin out the story...any story. The man was a great storyteller.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

This review was originally posted on October 20, 2008. Since I am going to be out of town for two weeks, and the entire Wheel of Time series is nominated for the Hugo Award this year, I figure I should re-post my previous reviews.

The Eye of the World
Robert Jordan

Eighteen years. It is difficult to believe that it has been eighteen years since Robert Jordan first unveiled The Wheel of Time, first introduced readers to Rand AlThor, the Two Rivers, the Dragon, to this deeply imagined world. By the time I discovered The Wheel of Time Robert Jordan had already published six or seven volumes in the series and I devoured them. Now, more than a decade since I first discovered the series and eighteeen years since Jordan began The Wheel of Time, I plan to re-read through the entire series to work my way up to Brandon Sanderson's final volume, completing what Mr. Jordan began eighteen years ago.

I'm not going to do a plot description of The Eye of the World. Right now it just seems pointless. The novel opens as standard-fare kitchen-boy fantasy (or farm-boy fantasy, as the case may be), and while the novel has that in mind, the series as a whole develops beyond that more simplistic feature.

So, here's are some various thoughts.

First, the prologue still kicks several kinds of ass. I absolutely adore the opening set thousands of years in the past with Lews Therin Telamon in the grips of his madness, having destroyed his family and standing in the wreckage of what used to be a palace and being taunted by an agent of the Dark One. The former hero, elite of the elite, broken. Besides this, what I appreciate is that there are little tidbits which enrich the overall landscape of the Wheel of Time. Lews Therin wore the Ring of Tamyrlin. What I like about this is that the suggestion here is that Lews Therin very likely ruled the Aes Sedai of his day. In the "present" of the novels the ruler is titled the Amyrlin Seat. There is an excellent chance that this is a bastardization over the years of Tamyrlin...and this plays into something else that I like (not part of this novel, but applicable). In Lord of Chaos there is a quote from someone from a Fourth Age children's song heard in Great Aravalon. If this is the next age and not a previous turning of the wheel, Great Aravalon is a bastardization of Tar Valon, the home of the Aes Sedai. The flip side, of course, is that if this is a previous age then Tar Valon is the corruption and not Great Aravalon.

That was a longer thought than I expected that had little to really do with the novel.


Anyway. It's the little things that I like in this book.

"What kind of need would be great enough that we'd want the Dragon to save us from it?" Rand mused. "As well ask for help from the Dark One" p 34

It's almost a throwaway line at the time given that there are musings of False Dragons and fear of war and Rand questioned how bad things would need to be to require the Dragon Reborn to be the Savior given that Lews Therin was the Dragon and he went mad and began The Breaking of the World. Of course, given the direction of the series, that musing is sadly ironic.

pg 55 / pg 596 - Rand has a copy of The Travels of Jain Farstrider (his favorite book) and later we see Lord Agelmar tell the story of Malkier and mentions Jain Charin, "already called Farstrider", which suggestions that Jain Farstrider was alive in the last fifty years sometime and that at the fall of Malkier, Jain was a younger man. Why this is important (to me, as I'm not sure how important it is overall to the series) is because in A Crown of Swords we meet an old man named Noal Charin. Coincidence?

Several times in this novel (probably series as well) characters give long, detailed, historical speeches about stuff I'm a little surprised they know about (the farmer giving a fully detailed explanation of Queen Morgase, the political infighting, and Tigraine going missing), but given that they didn't have television I guess gossip has a way of making the rounds. Of course, you'd think that farmer would have a muddled version of the truth rather than a fairly solid outline of what happened. The speech I throroughly enjoy encountering is Moiraine's accounting of Manatheren to the people of The Two Rivers so she can leave with the boys and thus save the village. "Weep for Manatherin. Weep for what is lost forever." Speechifying generally bugs me, but Jordan can sure write a good one.

It's little things I like. Bayle Domon, captain of the Sea Spray telling Rand and Mat that "on Tremalking, one of the Sea Folk's isles, there be a stone hand fifty feet high sticking out of a hill, clutching a crystal sphere as big as this vessel" and also that the Sea Folk search for "the Coramoor, their Chosen One." (p 300). Now, the Coramoor bit will be obvious, but that big crystal sphere thing will also be important later. But it gets mentioned in passing. Domon talks about the Panarch's Palace, about the wonders there. All these little things that frequently will come into play later and at the time they are first discussed, they simply build the wonder of the world.

Things that seem random, like filler (the meeting with the Tinkers), they matter later on.

So, basically, what I appreciate is just how much Jordan put into this first volume that won't pay off for several books AND that when Jordan did put these things in they first felt like worldbuilding and not like Chekov's Gun. We're not waiting for the crystal sphere to go off in the third act but the fact that the crystal sphere matters, that Jordan built what seemed to be small stuff into a larger tapestry (a Pattern, if you will), is impressive.

Plus, not once did I catch Nyneave tug her braid in this book. Not once. I was looking, too.

What I didn't like / remember - The Eye of the World is a slow book. If the splitting up of the group didn't allow them to hit several marks that will pay off later, I would consider much of that to be a waste since the thrust of the story occurs with the characters all together. But, so much of what happens here has import throughout the series that I can't complain too much. It's just a slower book than I remember. Perhaps that's just because I'm less patient with roaming through the woods than I used to be. When everyone is back together, though, that's when The Eye of the World soars.

This is an opening volume which I once loved. I appreciate aspects of it more and I enjoy how the little things here matter, but I am somewhat less enamored of it.

It's still the opening to an outstanding fantasy series and one which is worth the read. This book, though, is fairly standard to what "epic fantasy" is considered to be. Jordan gets better after this.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

2014 World Fantasy Award Nominees

Via SF Signal

Below are the nominees for the 2014 World Fantasy Awards.  Congratulations to all of the nominees.

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street by Richard Bowes (Lethe) 
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan (Tor) 
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review) 
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer) 
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (Harper) 
The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (Tor)

Long Fiction
Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (Tor.com 10/2/13) 
Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean)
The Sun and I” by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Summer ’13)
Burning Girls” by Veronica Schanoes (Tor.com 6/19/13)
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean)

Short Fiction
The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com 4/24/13)
The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean Spring ’13)
Effigy Nights” by Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld 1/13)
Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
If You Were a Dinosaur by My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)

xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin) 
Queen Victoria’s Book of Spellsedited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, eds. (Tor) 
Flotsam Fantastique: The Souvenir Book of World Fantasy Convention 2013 edited by Stephen Jones (Smith & Jones/PS Publishing) 
Dangerous Women edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois (Tor; Voyager)
The End of the Road edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris US; Solaris UK) 
Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris US; Solaris UK)

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud (Small Beer) 
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Night Shade) 
The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean) 
Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver (Tartarus Press) 
How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean)

Galen Dara
Zelda Devon
Julie Dillon
John Picacio
Charles Vess

Special Award – Professional
John Joseph Adams, for magazine and anthology editing
Ginjer Buchanan, for editing at Ace Books
Irene Gallo, for art direction of Tor.com
William K. Schafer, for Subterranean Press
Jeff VanderMeer & Jeremy Zerfoss, for Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Abrams Image)
Special Award – Nonprofessional
Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Marc Aplin, Jennie Ivins & Paul Wiseall, for Fantasy-Faction
Kate Baker, Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, for Clarkesworld
Leslie Howle, for Clarion West administration
Jerad Walters, for Centipede Press

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Thoughts on the Hugo Award Nominees: Best Novel

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross
Parasite, by Mira Grant
Warbound, by Larry Correia
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Neptune's Brood: This is the one nominee I have not read.  I suppose I could just post this sometime next month and give myself plenty of time to read it, but the fact is that I have no interest in this novel. I struggle with reading most of Stross's work and I tried to read Saturn's Children and I just could not engage with the novel.  Why read the sequel, then?

The Wheel of Time: This makes me sad.  I have a deep and abiding love for The Wheel of Time, and it is  a series I expect to re-read again in the future (having read those early novels many times).  Heck, I hope any future children I may have will read and love these books as I have.  The problem I have that seems to grow the more I think about it is that while The Wheel of Time as a whole is technically eligible, this isn't a single novel. It's a single story (mostly), but not a single novel.  How can I possibly judge 14 books (15 if you count the prequel) which were published over 23 years and have deeply impacted my love of fantasy fiction against any other single work published in 2013?  While this nomination is a love letter and a thank you to all that Robert Jordan has given us, I think that fans would have been better served to have nominated A Memory of Light instead. Sure, it doesn't stand so much on its own feet, and it would be a case where the nomination of the one book is really a nomination for the series, but I think it would be a more valid nomination.  I also think that I would have ranked my vote differently if A Memory of Light was nominated over The Wheel of Time.  But, it isn't.  If I should consider the Best Professional Artist based on the body of work published in 2013 (see some of my thoughts on Richard Powers and the Hugo from 2010), should we not be considering Best Novel the same way?  The Wheel of Time, as a whole, does not represent the best of the field from last year.  It represents the collective emotion we have over two decades of following and loving a series.  That's not the same thing. 

Warbound: I have never read any of Larry Correia's novels before and Warbound is the third (and concluding?) volume of the Grimnoir Chronicles. My hope going into this was that it would also stand own as much as it concludes the story of the first two books.  Happily, it does.  I expect that I missed all sorts of stuff from not having read the other books, and that events and character interactions did not resonate as much as they would have had I encountered them before, but Correia did an excellent job telling this story in such a way that someone walking in fresh could pick up and follow along just fine.  This is a pulpy adventure set in an alternate history and feels a bit like it crossed its streams with Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn in how some of the powers developed (minus the whole eating metal thing), but it's a good deal of fun to read. 

Parasite: If I didn't know better, I would have thought that Parasite was an offshoot of Grant's Newsflesh trilogy.  It's not, but it sure does feel the same.  Part of that, I think, is the Mira Grant brand.  So far, Grant writes one particular type of book - which works just fine and is perfectly enjoyable.  I'm looking forward to the second book this fall and will snatch it right up when it is published.  But, with that said, it did feel like a partial rehash of Newsflesh, and not quite as good as those books.  I would generally consider Warbound and Parasite to be on a par with each other, but I enjoyed Parasite just a little bit more.

Ancillary Justice (my review): Really, Ancillary Justice is in a class by itself here. I expect that my nominating ballot would have looked drastically different than the final ballot, but the one constant would have been this book.  This is a wonderful novel, and I would reference back to my review because I think I said everything I had to say there. 

Of course, I do not have a vote for the Hugo Awards because I am not a member of Worldcon this year (I have been in the past), but if I did, this is how I would vote.  I don't feel that No Award is justified over any of the novels here, and despite my expectation of dislike for Neptune's Brood, I wouldn't rank it below No Award without having at least attempted it.  I also wish there was a way to suggest just how much of a gap there is between Ancillary Justice and the rest of the nominees.  

My Vote:
1. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
2. Parasite, by Mira Grant
3. Warbound, by Larry Correia
4. The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
5. Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross
6. No Award

Other Hugo Thoughts:
Short Story 
Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)