Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Sometimes I just have a lot on my mind so I blurt it out. This is one of those times. If you want to know what I thought of the book skip to the last seven or eight paragraphs. If you stick around, I’ll try to keep you entertained.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately – partly that’s because I’m in graduate school and it’s kind of a think or swim scenario (don’t look at that phrase too closely). Fantasy has been undergoing a lot of changes lately. There has been a strong push by publishers, writers and fans to distance the genre from Tolkien. This is probably a good thing. Writers have been stuck in a rut of misinterpreting Tolkien for a very long time. Unfortunately the way most authors seem to be doing that is to make their books more ‘gritty’. I think that it is a phase in the maturation of the genre that will quickly fade because it is too shallow. People are missing the point, again.

For decades fantasy authors seemed to think that Tolkien had written an epic following the steps of Campbell’s hero’s journey and tried to emulate that aspect. Every book featured a long-lost chosen one returning to bring peace and prosperity. Star Wars is a perfect example of that trope carried to extremes but it was popularized by Terry Brooks and David Eddings and then percolated through generations until Harry Potter rose from the titrations of decades of derivative storytelling. Tolkien had that element to be sure, but it was Frodo, or arguably, Sam, not Aragorn that the book was about.

People are starting to think outside of that Campbellian mythos and write other things. Gritty violence and gruesome medieval reality does not a great fantasy make, however. Let’s return again to what makes Lord of the Rings so compelling – from my point of view. There are actually dozens of things that I could talk about here but the one I want to focus on is the realism of Tolkien’s world. On the surface it is a story of good versus evil and the sacrifices the good are willing to make to keep their world form changing. In the end it changes anyway. The elves still leave, the dwarves still hide deeper in their mountains and Frodo, who failed in his quest – only succeeding by happenstance when Gollum fell – is left to languish at home with the effects of post-traumatic stress until he finally quits trying and takes a ship into the nether world.

Those last chapters of Return of the King are the most heartbreaking to me. The heroes are supposed to live happily ever after, but they don’t. They’ve been changed in some deep and traumatic ways. For most of them life goes on but they aren’t the way they used to be.

Now it might seem puzzling to some why I might be talking about originality in fantasy in a review of the most recent Wheel of Time novel. As a series these books sit right at the pinnacle of the copying-Tolkien crest. The first book seems to be another fantasy clone of the small-group-in-a-valley-leaves-on-quest type of book (albeit an excellent one) that quickly turns into something bigger than many of its predecessors. Then it got better. Then it got long winded and full of authorial quirks and then the author died and it got better again – the relationship of which I am not willing to explore any more closely because it makes me uncomfortable.

My point is that the Wheel of Time is not one of the great fantasies because Robert Jordan was THE master writer. It is great because it is the first of it’s kind. Before Robert Jordan started writing this series nobody had tried to write a sustained, single-story epic that spanned so many volumes before. Sure there were trilogies and there were series of books that featured the same characters but nobody envisioned a series of >10 books where there was only one story.

There were bound to be hiccups along the way.

That’s not an excuse, although it sounds like one. In some of his later books Jordan’s pacing and development took second place to his love of minutiae and detail to the point of exhaustion. But what he created has been emulated with varying degrees of success ever since the beginning.

It is now more than twenty years since that first book came out and I just finished reading the thirteenth (and penultimate) volume of the series. It makes me excited and a little sad – I’m going to miss some of these characters, I will miss them very much.

The Towers of Midnight felt like 800+ pages of almost-the-climax of a novel, which makes sense if you consider that it’s basically the almost-the-climax of a 100,000+ page multivolume novel. It’s very exciting and features some great character movement and development and so many tied off or cut loose strings that what had become a hopelessly knotted ball of useless threads is now trimmed down to a few final bits, dangling and waiting for the last novel – that won’t be out until January of next year.

The not-Jordanisms that tore me out of the last novel were less common in this one. I though Mat was more fully rendered – in The Gathering Storm it felt like they had gotten a different actor to play Mat, but the old one is back for this volume. The other characters seem to be just like always with one pleasant change – people have started to talk to each other.

Mat and Perrin both get significant character climaxes in this book. Mat’s is probably the one that people have been looking forward to the longest. Though it is nice to see Perrin being awesome again. Nynaeve is hardly in the book but she does get a chance to yet again be more awesome than anybody. Elayne, unfortunately, is in this book. When her storyline is not completely boring she is acting like an idiot. When she is doing things that are not stupid she is apparently off-screen somewhere because I couldn’t find any of those times.

I would probably rank this one as one of my favorite of the series so far.

More and more the feeling is that things are not going to end happy in the final volume. They might, in fact probably will, end well, but not happy. People are going to die and not everybody is going to make it through. Jordan has set up a brilliant and beautiful world and now he (and Sanderson) is breaking that world fundamentally in small and enormous ways that will leave it changed, forever rent. The characters have passed through the forge and are also changing. They are no longer the people they were in the beginning. I find this both triumphant and sad.

These are all things that Tolkien also did that most authors seem to forget in their rush to have the hero come of age and fulfill his role as mighty wizard or future king.

Many of Jordan’s books were drawn out masterpieces of the mundane but they have been picking up the pace with the last few books and this one seems to be the result.

The Last Battle is Coming. Tai’Shar Manetheren.


6 thoughts on “Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson”

  1. Almost any book from the Wheel of Time, well apart from the first two or three, are utter tosh as they gradually begin to lose pace and ideas but once the writing deteriorates it accelerates exponentially downhill. When I think of Robert Jordan then Mills and Boon of the fantasy world springs to mind.

    Spanking, Thrashing, stripped and turned upside down naked. I’m sure S&M fans love it but as sensible believable female interaction it’s just plain daft. And it’s not like there just little of this sadomasochism; it’s rampant. Jordan has all his female characters in all his various cultures in his books interact in this fashion, this kind of humiliation and domination are the legal tender of women. The guy was obviously a pervert; old men with young girls, young boy with older women, teenage bare breasts, bare bottoms, a lesbo fantasy world, this guy was a serious freak to write so copiously about such a dodgy subject all through the whole series. One of the main characters Egwene al’Vere in ‘The Gathering Storm’ now by Brandon Sanderson who continues with the theme, gets her backside tanned perpetually page after page, chapter after chapter it is so utterly relentless though it that it destroys the integrity and viability of this imaginary world. It’s laughable to read and it makes you wonder about the saddos that revere Jordan with almost blind religious euphoria.

    However the main reason the series deteriorates so drastically is Jordan devotes so much text into his ever increasing female character list. Just pick up any of the later books of the library shelf and have a squint at the pages that involve the female characters; it is honestly the most cringeable banal writing imaginable and like I stated at the beginning the mills and boon of the fantasy world. I sometimes suspect that his wife took over these sections because they are completely and utterly clueless, lacking any true content or pace, the writing is reduced to idle chit chat. It’s a medieval world ok but only one Americans would recognise from their theme parks. Amateur drivel basically, a man who dreamt up a great idea but destroyed his concept by losing the storyline in mire of inconsequential unrelated cul-de-sac stories. Whereas George RR Martin has plots and sub plots and an understanding of pace; his world like Jordan’s is fantasy but his is believable because has researched the medieval world, whereas lot of what Jordan describes isn’t. Examples the world of the Aiel, apparently they can live in the desolation of a desert existing on next to nothing but have a relatively massive population and if you’re a discerning reader you have wonder what do they subsist on. Not only that on their frugal diet these men are larger and stronger than people who live in lands where food is evidently more abundant. Other strange things are is that this population is able to be produced even when a large quantity of the women are also engaged in being warriors, many of these girls who fight are just in their early teens but with a spear can best the finest heavy armored knights. None of it is credible but the stupidest thing is that these people can out pace and out last a horse and even the Aiel wise ones who are women of all age groups that wear long skirts can float along comfortably beside a horse. The Trollocks eat humans apparently which is strange since they seem to outnumber humans, it’s like Tolkien’s Orcs where do they come from and what do they live on to exist in such large numbers. Get real; fantasy only works when there is a degree of possibility and realism attached.

    1. While I’m all for realism in stories I think accusing a fantasy of being unrealistic seems a little silly. A fantasy world is how the author imagined it. It can be that way because it is not our world. George R. R. Martin’s books are no more real than any other, if they were they would be historical fiction rather than fantasy.


      I also wonder about a complaint of too much detail followed by complaints that amount to not having enough detail — ie. about where Trollocs get their food, how the Aiel survive etc.

      I do agree that Jordan let the story(ies) get away from him until the story degraded into pointless drivel. I feel like his last book and the new ones by Sanderson have addressed that issue considerably, however.

      I also have to agree that Jordan’s male/female relationships are really wacky and frequently unbelievable. I don’t agree, however, that his books are intended as some kind of deviant personal pornography on his part. In fact the very way in which he avoids giving detailed descriptions of nudity seems to indicate to me the opposite. The societies in the Wheel of Time are, in many ways, broken and only some of that is on purpose. Jordan created something bigger than he was and he wasn’t able to keep it under control. He also created a series about the reversal of gender relations as seen in most fantasy worlds. Obviously he succeeded in some ways and failed in others.

      I have heard these rants before from the people who hate Jordan and the Wheel of Time (with a passion that seems silly to me for a fantasy series — if you don’t like it don’t read it, it’s not a religion) yet seem to have read the entire series anyway. –shrug–

      1. The reason why people dislike Jordan particularly is because he started his series off pretty well with the first few books; people thought yeah this is interesting and invested time reading his yarn only to find he gradually changes his style and content.
        Even in the later books there are quite noticeable differences, particularly between the content of female and male dialogue. You want a conclusion instead you get an ever increasing deluge of crap writing interspacing the thread of the story.

        “While I’m all for realism in stories I think accusing a fantasy of being unrealistic seems a little silly // also wonder about a complaint of too much detail followed by complaints that
        Fantasy works best when the author has researched a bit about history and the mechanics required to live a world, even a fictional world, especially if it is set in an almost medieval/Dark Age replication. If it doesn’t then it falls to the level of a comic literature.
        It has to be convincing; we can accept that people and things may have certain properties that do not exist in this world, however the world they inhabit also has to have things that are believable. If someone is just doing human things then it must be just that, human. A young Aiel maiden armed with a spear defeating a heavily armoured knight (Shienaran warriors), well that’s hard to imagine since he doesn’t describe the Aiel as being anything other than just human and never mind running at the speed of a horse a bit. There are too many anomalies like that which gradually erode the viability of what should have been a very good story.
        As for the sadomasochism bit I doubt if he intentionally thought to spice his novels by introducing it. It’s more an unconscious state of mind on his part which you would have thought someone might have mentioned to him as being rather dubious but also a very unrealistic way to continually portray the female gender.
        People will always write critically if they sense they have been duped, especially if the feel they have wasted time reading something for it to just fizzle out. It gives others who are considering reading the series views they don’t receive from avid fans.

      2. John Scalzi calls this “The Flying Snowman”. It’s a term he uses where something in the story ruins the reality for a reader, regardless of the unreality of the rest of the story. The flying snowman point is different for everybody. Obviously I don’t find most of the things you mention as problems for me. The Aiel do not run as fast as a horse so much as keep up with them all day — which implies the horses weren’t running the whole time. There are people in real life who can run that long all day. I understand what you say about fantasy needing to feel real. It needs an internal consistency so that when something happens if feels like it belongs. I just don’t see a problem with that in Jordan’s work.

        My point is that those things don’t bother me. I don’t really think about them. I don’t find the writing all that bad and I don’t think what you call sadomasochism is as egregious as you think it is.

        I do think that a more heavy handed editor, or one not related to the author, could have made the later books much better and possibly avoided some of the problems so many people have with the series.

  2. Try Robin Hobb She’s pretty good until the “Soldier Son Trilogy”, she even has dragons in her series and although they play a very small part they sound almost believable just like the world she creates. The only criticism is that she paints a very grim world with no letup but what’s also useful is that it’s all the same world with the last series being much later in time but she neatly ties them all into complete trilogies.

    1. I’ve read a few of Hobb’s ‘short’ stories but I still haven’t gotten to her books. I intend to soon. Thanks for the recommendation. Having trilogies is good. I’ve long maintained that no author can write a series longer than five books without losing focus part way through. In my experience that seems to be true to some extent or another.

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