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.