Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Blog Fantastic 002: New Spring: the Novel

New Spring, the Novel by Robert Jordan
Published by Tor Books

New Spring: the Novel tells the story of highborn Moiraine Damodred who is studying magic in one of the largest cities in the known world. There she is learning to ways of the Aes Sedai while also dealing with prophecies, politics and power. Outside the walls of Tar Valon there is a war going on. Many people are rushing to the city in order to escape the ravages of the war, all the while oblivious to the powerful struggles taking place inside the White Tower.  

I was a bit hesitant to start reading The Wheel of Time with New Spring because although it’s a prequel, Jordan wrote it more than a decade after the first novel was published and, from what I’m told, the series becomes very complex (or maybe simply complicated) as it progressed. I was worried that New Spring would be difficult to understand for new readers. I decided to start with it for two reasons. The first reason is that I’ve read it before not quite ten years ago. I don’t remember a whole lot other than liking Moiraine, the fact that she’s in school, some warrior guy with bells in his hair and a few minor little details that stuck into my head. I’ve forgotten a lot and in my defense, I got a bachelor since the last time I read this and all the reading I did for school has pushed out most of New Spring out of my brain. The second reason is that I decided to simply trust Jordan. By the time he got around to writing the prequel novel he had demonstrated that he’s an accomplished writer. If he was happy sending out New Spring into the world as a prequel to his expansive fantasy series, then I should be happy reading it as my introduction to the series. Then again, maybe that’s not the case and Jordan is being quite restless in the afterword knowing that my introduction to The Wheel of Time is being made by way of his prequel and not the first novel proper: The Eye of the World. The fact remains, I started with New Spring and I’m looking forward to truly beginning reading The Wheel of Time. I have to admit though, that I hope I’m up to the task. These books are huge!

The most interesting thing about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is the world building aspect. He puts so much detail in every facet of the book that it’s nearly overwhelming. The flip side of that, like most fantasy books where world building is as important as plot and character, is that if the reader takes the time to understand the world, the story and characters become increasingly more interesting. The problem I have with fantasy series that make the world building aspect so important to the series is that there can be such a thing as too much detail. There are things about the world I don’t need to know and are better left unsaid. Often times some elements would better serve the story if they were only hinted at as opposed to written out in explanatory pages filled with seemingly never ending descriptions. It’s a fine line to walk and few have done it successfully.

It’s clear to me that Jordan doesn’t shared Ursula K. Le Guin’s economy of writing and where she would have written one page, Jordan would have written two or three. I’m not implying Jordan isn’t as good of a writer as Le Guin, it’s simply a difference in style and they both have their own rewards.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, she also creates a rich and interesting world. The difference with Jordan’s world is that while Le Guin created it using sparse detail, Jordan relishes in the intricacies of his world. The more detail the better! I would not always agree with that statement but Jordan has a way of making all the details feel natural and, in many cases, logical. There is a lot of detail, yes, but it’s easy to remember. As the story progresses, Jordan adds layer upon layer, dolling it out in small and regular doses and it makes it quite easy to learn about Moiraine’s world. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that Jordan doesn’t bore the reader nor does he bog down the story with all the detail. He lets it flow naturally and his story is richer because of it. Le Guin used a very similar technique in her novel. She provides detail and embellishment to her fictional world when the story requires or permits it. It’s not detail for detail’s sake. I’m certain that when I read the next Earthsea novel there will be new elements added to the world of Earthsea. I expect the same for Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

The advantage of Jordan’s style is that I can lose myself in the book for an extended period of time. Of course, that’s only an advantage to the reader if they like the book. In order to do that Jordan must write an engaging story and have interesting and diverse characters. Unfortunately, while New Spring had lots of detail, the story as a whole felt slight. I admit that at more than one occasion the only thing that kept me reading was Jordan’s characterization of Moiraine and Siuan. The book also became more interesting one Jordan resume writing chapters in Lan’s point of view (after the initial first chapter).

Magic in The Wheel of Time:
The One Power is source of all magic. Women, only a select few, are the only ones who can channel the One Power and wield magic. They do so by controlling all five elements, Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and Spirit, and weaving them together to form a seemingly infinite number of spells. Spells are called weaves since the elements are channelled in the form of threads and must be woven together in various combinations and in different order.

Women who have mastered the use of the One Power are called Aes Sedai. Young women who can channel are brought to the White Tower in the city of Tar Valon where they will train for several years in the hopes of graduating and attaining the shawl of the Aes Sedai. Aes Sedai are divided up into several Ajahs. These Ajahs seem to group together women who have similar personality traits and each Ajah is known for excelling at certain tasks.

In order to wield their magic, Aes Sedai have to left the One Power flow into them. It’s a technique which they must do in order to be able to perform their magic. They summon saidar, the female form of the One Power, and once filled with its power they can weave the various elemental threads. It’s a very interesting type of magic and Jordan maintains a certain element of mystery as to the exact details of all its inner workings. Quite strange when you consider the level of detail found in all other aspects of the book. This feeling of being filled with saidar, the female half of the One Power is dangerous. It gives the user a feeling of pure bliss but by harnessing too much saidar, the user can be severely harmed, maybe even fatally so.

One of the prominent elements of Aes Sedai is their ability to join themselves, mind and spirit, to one or several men called Warders. Aes Sedai can have more than one Warder (sisters of the Green Ajah are known for having many Warders) but Warders can only bind with one Aes Sedai. This ability of the Aes Sedai reinforces one of Jordan’s themes regarding a primarily (and forcefully) female led society. The White Tower, the Aes Sedai school, is a not only the center of magic but also a political stronghold. Magic, or power, leads to force and the usage of force in the defence of particular interests. The Aes Sedai can make a Warder submit to them and link them (permanently?) to themselves. I shouldn’t get ahead of myself though. Jordan does establish that the link between a sister and her Warder isn’t one sided. They’re a team and work together. In fact, now that I really think about it the theme might be more the duality of humanity, one part male and one part female, which together becomes an imposing force. The white flame of Tar Valon is half of what appears to be a Yin Yang. Perhaps males are the other half? Not only that, but there is a prophecy of a man who will be able to wield the One Power effectively and his fate will play a deciding role in the fate of the world at the Last Battle. There’s definitively something interesting here that will undoubtedly play a large role in the series. It’s clear to me now that balance in an important theme to The Wheel of Time.

Destiny in New Spring: the Novel:
There is a strong element of Destiny in The Wheel of Time. The Will turns and weaves the lives of all individuals. Sometimes, when looking at individual people and their actions, it’s difficult to see or understand why certain things are being done, it’s hard to see the wisdom. Sometimes, a thread’s importance to the whole will only be revealed much later and perhaps never be revealed at all. The way Jordan phrases while speaking of the politics of the White Tower: “The Tower was no less implacable in its weaving than the Wheel of Time itself. In both cases the threads were human lives, and the pattern they made more important than any individual thread.” It’s quite eloquent and its message carries quite a bit of foreboding for the characters and the series as a whole.

There also seems to be a tiny bit of hope in that description of the ways of the universe. The Aes Sedai are able to channel the elemental threads of the One Power to weave magic that affects the things around them. To what extent I’m not sure. There magic does seem to be limited to controlling the elements to create objects or to affect existing objects, which is not to be underestimated. With the gift of being able to weave together nearly endless combinations of elemental magic, the Aes Sedai are unquestioningly tapped into a source of immense power—if only they have the knowledge and the skill necessary to do this power. There seems to be hope however since the Wheel of Time is not alone in weaving the destiny of all. Aes Sedai are, in all their limitations (whatever they may be) also able to weave certain threads.

My favourite Wheel of Time Characters:
I’m told The Wheel of Time has many, many characters. Just for fun, I’ll pick some favourites from each book I read and talk about why I like them. In New Spring, Moiraine Damodred was the obvious choice. She’s my favourite character in the whole book and rightfully so, it’s all about her. That’s a bit unusual for me though as I have a tendency not to like the main character in books, comics and TV series. Moiraine is quite loveable though and she’s also pretty awesome. I’m actually quite surprised that a male author could write such a strong female lead. I have to keep in mind that by the time New Spring was written Jordan had already finished writing and published the nine or ten volumes of The Wheel of Time. I’m quite certain there are many, many other characters in the series by that point. The fact remains, Moiraine has a prequel novel that focuses on her and none of the other characters do.

The book didn’t focus entirely on Moiraine, but a significant and sustained part of the story was about her. There is slightly more than half the book that concentrates on Moiraine's training in the White Tower. The second half concentrates on Moiraine interacting with other character, primarily Lan, and discovering an evil plot. The book itself doesn't have much of a plot until this second part. Jordan keeps our interest by developing the world of the Aes Sedai and the politics and customs of the White Tower. He kept my attention by writing a strong character with Moiraine as well as writing a believable and interesting relationship with Siuan. The book becomes more interesting in the second part once they start interacting with others. The book also becomes more difficult for new readers of the series because Jordan seems to grow tired explaining and clarifying well established elements of his series to make New Spring a good starting point for new readers. This makes the exhaustive world building a negative element to my enjoyment of the book. It's difficult or even uninteresting, to follow the politics and machinations of noble families and cities of which I know next to nothing. It’s unfortunate that Jordan doesn’t take the time to make the parts of the story taking place outside of Tar Valon as easy to understand for new readers as he did for the story that took place in the White Tower.

Still, Jordan provides and satisfying introduction to his Wheel of Time series as well as a fitting conclusion for the novel. I admit that he makes me want to read the rest of the series and that’s about all you should ask of a prequel. I’ll continue my read of The Wheel of Time with the actual first novel in the series: The Eye of the World.

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