Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Blog Fantastic 025: The Dragon Reborn review

This isn’t really a review. It’s more of an assessment of the series from the prequel to the third book in the series. It’s not about summarizing the plot or helping potential readers of the series to make a decision to read or not to read the series. It’s simply a way for me to share my thoughts, confusion and general commentary on the series while making judgements and criticisms along the way. It’s good fun. Participate by using the comments section below.

In many ways, the Wheel of Time is like the yin-yang symbol which is used quite frequently in the series, albeit under different names (the Flame of Tar Valon and the Dragon’s Tooth). Half of it represents the best that the fantasy genre has to offer and the other half represents the worst. Robert Jordan is the kind of genius author who’s unaware of why some people consider him to be so great and doesn’t realize why his biggest critics can so effectively make him look like a hack author. That might read like a personal attack but it’s not. I’m saying this based on his novels I’ve read and on the online reaction to this (in)famous series. Three books and a prequel into the series I have to say that this is simultaneously one of the most entertaining and also worst fantasy series I’ve ever read. Most time the good outweighs the bad but the sheer amount of bad can, and has, turned off many a reader. The biggest negative thing about the series isn’t its length. It’s that it’s long because of the author’s self-indulgence, the use of unnecessary details and incredibly slow plotting.

While the overall story has no huge shocking moments, it has a simple plot in which all of the characters have quests that are connected to Rand’s quest for Callandor, the book isn’t without it’s little twists and turns. I want to emphasize small twists and turns. If there are any large twits they were either over my head or are yet to be important in the grand scheme of things. Jordan’s kind of fond of leaving bits of his books unexplained and having explanations provided in a later book or regularly taking the time to over-explain things (like every few chapters). Jordan is a writer of extremes. He’s incredibly blunt most of the time but he can also be very subtle to the point where he reveals next to nothing to the reader. There is no middle ground and that makes the book pretty frustrating to read based on what chapter you happen to be reading.

One of the things I liked The Dragon Reborn is its structure. There is very little point of view chapters from Rand. Instead, the book focuses on the many other characters in the series and it’s great. That’s what we needed after two books that focused on Rand. It’s a breath of fresh air. I was tired of being in Rand’s head. He’s not a very engaging or interesting character. Rand is bland. Easy joke, let’s move on. Rand isn’t the only annoying thing about the Wheel of Time. What’s also annoying is that Jordan is fond of beating the reader over the head with whatever problem it is that the characters are facing. Perrin is constantly worried about losing control of his wolfbrother powers and turning into a wolf-man. Egwene and Nynaeve are second guessing themselves sick over who is and isn’t part of the Black Ajah. Rand is always worried about losing control of saidin while trying to learn how to use it and not go mad from the taint. Some of Jordan’s repetitions are mandated by the story and actually serve a purpose for the reader but so much of it padding and repetition. By sharing the load of point of view chapters amongst multiple characters and not particularly focusing on one character for most of the book helps with that repetition because it gives the reader a break. Instead of reading about Perrin and his problem for ten chapters in a row – Actually, that’s exactly what Jordan does. Instead of spreading out the chapters evenly amongst characters, he bunches them together for the first half so that the book begins with a lot of Perrin, then most on to a lot of Egwene to end up a more or less balanced mix by the second half. The arrival of Mat’s chapters was very nice. He’s a great character post-healing.  

Aes Sedai and the White Tower seem rather different in this book than they were in the prequel. I think part of it has to do with the fact that Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have to become super powerful very quickly (meaning, in few books). It’s not really mandated by the plot yet but Jordan seems to think it’s really important that they achieve the rank of Aes Sedai as soon as possible (meaning a few books in Jordan-time). He also wants to make all three of them, particularly Egwene and Nynaeve, two of the most powerful Aes Sedai in a thousand years. It feels like the characters haven’t really earned their level of power.  They’re at a point where their level of skill is way low and staying there while their power levels are rapidly rising. It’s also odd that they are rising so quickly in rank when everything else in this book goes by so slowly. I think I’m also upset that it all seems so easy for them when Jordan is constantly telling us that the training to become and Aes Sedai is brutally hard. I believed him in New Spring because most of the book was about showing me just how hard it was for Moiraine and Siuan. They had to work hard at it and look where it’s brought them; they’re powerful and are knowledgeable on the mythology of the world. Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve are just coasting. They’re away from their magic school tower for months and when the get back to the White Tower two of them graduate their current level and move on to the next. That makes no sense and don’t start telling me it’s because they’ve had practice in real world setting and that’s why they’ve improved on their skills. That’s bullshit. It happened because Jordan wanted is to and that’s it. That’s why it feels so cheap because it is.

The best thing about the series continues to be the world building and the way all of the seemingly disparate elements comes together. The biggest addition to the world building in this volume is the reveal of the Dream World called Tel’aran’rhiod. In the Wheel of Time, people, events, all of existence repeats itself over and over. We learn in this novel that it’s not just Time that repeats itself but there are also multiple mirror worlds that co-exist and mirror each other. In these mirror worlds, events that happen in one happen in all of the others. For example, if the Dark One is imprisoned in just one world, he will also be imprisoned in all of the others. It seems pretty clear that Rand and the gang aren’t just fighting to protect their world but all of the mirror worlds as well. All of Existence, all of the Pattern. I’m not yet certain how this ties into the parallel worlds of the Portal Stone but there does appear to be some kind of connection.

If I understood the book correctly, one of these mirror worlds is the Dream World. That’s what I think anyway but it could very well be separate yet connected to the rest of the mirror world. It gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. Dreams have played a considerably important part in the series so far but the development of Egwene’s power as a Dreamer makes it even more important than it was before. I think we spent far too much time in characters’ dreams in the first couple of books but the revelation that the world of dreams actually matters to the events of the story and that it isn’t just a way for Jordan to include portent and foreshadowing to this already bloated novels is rather exciting. It gives substance to dreams and makes the events that happen in dreams more important to the characters, the story and the reader – even retroactively to the first two books in the series. Hopefully this means that dreams will be used less for foreshadowing and more for actual plot development and action.

While I do not understand the way everything connects, I appreciate that Jordan is developing the series’ cosmology. Like most everything else, it’s problematic. The Wheel of Time turns and weaves the Pattern using the lives of men and woman as the thread (no, not Pernese Thread, this is good thread – thread of Destiny . . . whoaaaaaa). Events aren’t going to be random or chaotic. They’re not even going to be as random and chaotic as works of fiction that don’t deal so heavily with themes of prophecy, destiny and the repeatability of all things great and small. The Wheel of Time, more than any fantasy series I’ve ever read, deals with order, predictability and a strong use of coincidence as plot points. While the land in which these stories are told is large and encompasses hundreds (soon to be thousands) of characters, the main characters are always bumping into each other. The three ta’veren and their friends get split up into groups of varying sizes on a regular basis and for three consecutive novels they’ve always end up together by the end of the book for the big finish. You can dismiss this with the fact that all three novels follow the basic fantasy structure of a quest (the search for the Eye of the World, then the Horn of Valere and finally Callandor). But events, large and small, feel more predictable than they usually are in this genre because of the Pattern and the cosmology of the series. It’s ordered chaos, essentially. Everything weaves together to form a pattern, something recognizable. It might not be recognizable to the characters but for regularly fantasy readers the pattern (the novel’s structure, familiar plot points, etc.) and the Pattern (the history of the world in which the story takes place and how the lives of the main characters will turn out) is there, even if we can’t make it out this early in the series.  Most everything in the Wheel of Time feels very familiar but Jordan distinguishes himself among other fantasy writers by making that familiarity of genre elements part of the story. He further distinguishes himself by the vast size and complexity of the world he created. It’s impressive even if many of the elements of his world are often contradictory or poorly developed (so far. I’m still being optimistic).

Another interesting part of the world building is the development of the Aiel. We get our first Aiel (well, fully Aiel as Rand doesn’t quite count) characters and I have to say they’re pretty interesting. They have unusual concepts for familiar and social structure and they make for interesting reading when they show up in the story. I’m looking forward to the development of the Aiel characters and how they tie into the rest of the story since the end of the novel strongly suggests that the Aiel will continue to be present throughout the series.

I don’t know where else to put this so I’ll just say it here. For a series in which people are always travelling from one place to another, it’s surprising that Jordan doesn’t re-use the Ways or the Portal Stones in this volume. Maybe he’s saving those methods of travel for later on or maybe he wanted the characters to travel the old fashion way (by foot, horseback or on riverboats) in order to have them meet other people along the way, such as the Aiel Maidens of the Spear that Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve meet. Maybe it’s because if the characters travelled to Tear too quickly the book would have had a reasonable page count. Since I’m on the subject of travel, I’m pretty certain I read a reference to Aes Sedai having the power to fly or teleport. Needless to say, there wasn’t any of that in this book but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up in later novels since Jordan likes to have his characters move around all over the map.

I’ve said it up top: Jordan is a writer of extremes. The more I think about that idea the more I think it holds true. It’s actually helping me understand Jordan as a writer. He’s derivative while also being original. He creates new and wondrous elements in his stories, particularly with the magic system, the world building and the idea of the Wheel of Time and the Pattern. At the same time though, he borrows heavily from existing narrative both real world myths and other fantasy series. I’m ok with that as long as the end result is something original and, by the third book, it’s pretty clear that it is. I’m even able to forgive the Tolkienesque beginning in The Eye of the World. Another example of his dichotomy as a write is his penchant for plain and repetitive language which clashes with his ability to write passages that realistically should serve as examples for unappealing purple prose but still manage to work. Sometimes these books make me grown and other times I get the feeling that he is intentionally subverting genre convention.

Another example of extremes is that Jordan will nearly always take the time to describe people, clothing and other objects in great detail, some of which even get repeated regularly, but he does a poor job of describing sword fighting. Instead of describing the action of the characters that are fighting, he gives the reader vague and frivolous descriptions of various sword fighting movements and techniques. I wouldn’t mind if it was used in combination with descriptions of the actions themselves but, on their own, it sucks. It especially sucks for three reasons: 1) Mat fights Galad and Gawyn and their actions are described. It’s not much more satisfying but it’s there. At the least it shows that Jordan could write acceptable battle descriptions so why doesn’t he? 2) Sword fighting has played a big role in the climax of The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn but because of the nondescript narration of those fights, they suck the life right out of the climactic battle! The Wheel of Time doesn’t have much action in it so let’s not make it as bland as possible, please. 3) I can’t help but feel that Jordan is being lazy or is trying to make bad sex jokes: Kissing the Adder, Parting the Silk, Threading the Needle to name a few.  

The use and presence of those extremes make for a reading experience than isn’t as smooth as I would like it. I’m equally challenged and bored by the series. During the first few chapters of The Eye of the World it was painfully obvious that Rand is the Dragon Reborn Jordan went ahead and wrote three 600+ pages novels in which Rand and other characters second guess whether or not it’s true. The weird thing is that Rand and the gang set out on three rather huge quests, one per novel, while the debate of whether or not he is the Dragon Reborn takes place. It’s as if the narrative (and the reader) has decided “Yes, he is the Dragon Reborn” and moved on with the story but the characters, which all think different things, are still very unsure of what is really going on. This third novel gave me the impression that the villains agree with the reader (Rand = Dragon Reborn) but instead of focusing on destroying Rand they’re just doing their own thing, causing mischief and sometimes appearing to help Rand is the most backward ways possible (seriously, what’s Lanfear’s deal?).

At the end of the day, I wasn’t able to overcome my frustrations for The Eye of the World. My reaction to The Great Hunt was much more positive, mostly due to my familiarity with Jordan’s writing style and the fictional universe he created to be able to appreciate the tighter focus and plotting of the second book (while also being surprised and excited at the additional world building). The third book is yet again that combination of “more of the same” and new world building surprises by Jordan. It might be a little bit better than the second book if only because we have so few chapters with Rand as the point of view character. At this point in the series, I can only conclude that while the Wheel of Time is regularly frustrating (frustration must be an important thread in the weaving of the Pattern), it’s rewarding if not quite always enjoyable. I look forward to The Shadow Rising but I’m going to give myself the time to unwind and enjoy other novels that are more consistent in approach than this series.

Consider it covered:
Between the time I finished reading The Great Hunt and before I finished The Dragon Reborn I read somewhere online that Jordan was displeased with most of the covers for The Wheel of Time. I don’t blame him. They’re not bad in their entirety but there are so many incorrect details, strange (and sometimes unsettling) anatomy and suggestions of a lazy artist that I can’t blame him for feeling that way. I mention the possibility that Darrell K. Sweet is a lazy artist because he doesn’t seem to bother familiarizing himself with the books for which he painted the cover. I admit, I liked the Wheel of Time covers more before I actually read the books. Thankfully, some of the covers are better than others while some are just plain awful. I think The Dragon Reborn cover falls into the former.

There are a lot of things that work well for this cover. The best thing about it is the architecture. The Stone of Tear not only fits the descriptions in the book but it also good. I quite like the stone pillars. Sure, the pillars aren’t all the same thickness but I don’t think it takes much away from the painting. It’s also nice that we get to see Mat, Perrin and Rand all on the cover together. It’s equally nice to see the Aiel there too. The main problem with Rand is that he doesn’t look to be nearly as tall described and his clothing is kind of ridiculous.

Some of the things that don’t work as well include the face in the middle of the painting, and the soldiers in the background and Callandor. The only thing I don’t like about Callandor is the type of sword it is. From the descriptions of swords and sword fighting I always picture heron-marked blades of blademasters to be something more akin to a samurai’s katana than the sword of a Medieval knight. In other words, I always pictured something with a single edge and a slight curvature as opposed to something with a double edge and perfectly straight. To be fair to Sweet, I can’t remember any clear descriptions of blademaster swords or of Callandor itself so his depiction still works. Ba’alzamon sticks out like s sore thumb just floating away in the middle of the painting but that’s only true when you look at the full cover. When it’s wrapped around the book and the text is included, his face is smack dab in the middle of the considerably wide spine of the book. There, as part of the complete package, it works really well.  As for the soldiers in the background, I don’t get why they look like conquistadors. They look like they really don’t belong on the cover, even though they’re very small and away from the cover’s focus. All in all, probably the best cover of the first three books.

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