Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Wheel of Time [8] The Path of Daggers (1998)

This volume begins the third trilogy in my organization of the series. We had the Setup Trilogy (1-3), the Action Trilogy (4-6) and what I'd call the Bridge to the Second Half or the Midpoint (7). This next trilogy, comprised of Books 8-10, I call the Wandering Trilogy.

Wandering? As in, Robert Jordan didn't know what he was doing and was wandering about aimlessly? Many might say yes, and that he was merely stretching things out and milking the series now that it was a New York Times Bestseller (The Path of Daggers would be the first #1 of the series). To me, it's more about the characters wandering around, delayed by life, doubting themselves, caught up in a variety of situations and not sure of where they are going. Nothing is turning out as it should, expectations are dashed, and this leads to a lot of sitting around by many of the characters, stuck in a rut for the next 3 books.

Now, I understand what Jordan was doing here. Does it make for exciting reading? Not necessarily. Could it have been done a different way? Surely. If you're one of those who really hate the next few books (and I used to), bear with me – there will be praises and criticisms alike. Even though I love this series and recommend it to people, I do believe it has its faults and caveat a recommendation with a warning about how slow the Wandering Trilogy can feel for a first-time reader.

Before you continue:
  • This is part 8 of my The Wheel of Time retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the retrospective
  • These blogs are most effective with your own re-read of the series

Thoughts Then

I vaguely remember buying this when it came out, in the fall of 1998. I had graduated from the University of Nebraska earlier that year and was living in Omaha with my friend, Mike Dappen, the singer in the death metal band I played drums in, Lead. I moved into the spare room of Mike's house, where we practiced in the basement. I had graduated with a BS in Biochemistry, but decided during my last semester that it really wasn't for me. So I just finished to finish and have a degree, got a simple job at an insurance company (Central States Health & Life Co. of Omaha) and focused on my band for a while.

I designed the logo myself... pretty cool, eh?

Mike's mother worked in Chicago during the week so most times it would just be Mike, his sister Angie and I, with friends and bandmates frequently hanging out. They had a huge basement with a pool table, foosball table, bar and hot tub. It was pretty awesome. Our Denny's hangout was just down the street and I had a lot of time to read.

I don't particularly remember reading this the first time, but I do remember that I was extremely disappointed. Extremely, for a few reasons. One, that it was super short. I could tell that from the moment I picked it up – less pages, larger font and line spacing, less chapters (only 31 when 50 was par for the course). I felt a bit ripped off. Two years to get half a book? It's funny to say half a book now. Even though it's the shortest of the entire series, at around 226K words it's much longer than your average novel. I had been spoiled by the epicness of Books 4-6 (which average around 378K words each).

What's Going On?

As for the content, the only thing I liked initially were the Rand chapters, when he tries to drive the Seanchan completely out of Ebou Dar. Having Narishma get Callandor, having something cool happen with it after four books (he left it behind in Tear at the beginning of The Shadow Rising) was a treat. But pretty much everything else sucked to me. Mat pulled a Book-5-Perrin-Disappearing-Act and didn't appear at all. (Though Jordan's explanation of this is perfectly logical – he's just sitting in a bed recovering from injuries, not exciting reading – at the time I felt cheated.)

Elayne, Nynaeve and that whole gaggle of annoying women spend 20% of the entire book moving through a gateway, walking to the top of a hill, using the Bowl of the Winds, then retreating through another gateway as Seanchan attack. 20%. For that.

This much of the book was the above.  Excluding the relatively short prologue, of course.

Elayne finally reaches Caemlyn, beginning her quest to take the Lion Throne, a story thread that doesn't get resolved until Book 11, Knife of Dreams.

The Egwene chapters were fairly boring and the only interesting events in her storyline happened toward the end of her sequence, starting a story thread (unification of the White Tower) that is not resolved until Book 12, The Gathering Storm.

As for Perrin... well, his chapters were the worst. He's looking for the Prophet. Morgase and company join him, he finds the Prophet and Faile is captured by the Shaido. That's it. This begins a story thread (rescue of Faile) that drags on until Book 11, Knife of Dreams.

Detecting a pattern here? I had no idea at the time that these storylines would drag on so. Nobody really did that in fantasy at the time and I had not encountered it before. But it's a logical extension of the theme of the novel, something I didn't really understand back in the day.

Thoughts Now

This re-read has opened my mind quite a bit. I actually truly enjoyed this book for the first time. I'm no longer disappointed by the shortness. I now understand the place it has in the series and like I mentioned in the blog for A Crown of Swords, it was not until I had the knowledge of almost the entire series under my belt that I could appreciate what the book was trying to do.

I would argue now that this volume is one of the most focused entries in the series and the contents actually tie into the title quite well. One of the quotes before the prologue sums it up nicely:

"On the heights, all paths are paved with daggers."

These characters have been riding high for a while, reveling in their newfound power. But now they are tested and know what it means to be "on the heights." Everyone is ready to take a shot at them; daggers are everywhere ready to cut you.

Take Rand. He conquers one country after another, kills one Forsaken after another. He's seemingly unstoppable and thinks he can do anything. So he tries to drive off the Seanchan again – but this time he fails. The madness of tainted saidar is catching up to him and he fails badly when he loses control using Callandor, killing some of his own people. Some Asha'man try to assassinate him. Suddenly he's lost control of a lot of things, and must go into hiding, step back and think things through. He can't lose control again and must figure out a way to deal with it – the focus of the next volume, Winter's Heart.

You don't normally see heroes doing this in fantasy epics. If they do, it's resolved easily within a few chapters – it doesn't span multiple books. They usually barrel through to the end, overcoming adversity efficiently. The way Jordan handled this in WoT is different and in some ways it works, in others it doesn't.

The Cover... It's Okay

The Sweet cover for this volume isn't too bad. Okay, I'll admit, it's actually decent. I don't mind it as much as the others. I don't cringe when I look at it at all. I like this version of Rand probably the most of any Sweet cover, although the proportions between his upper and lower body don't seem quite right.

To be honest, the best part of the cover is the back... no Sweet-style trollocs for once! The statue is fairly accurate to the description in the book so it was cool to see something done right for once. In celebration, I'll actually post the entire cover this time:

Finally, a Sweet cover that doesn't totally suck!

I also discovered there was an alternate paperback cover for this, similar to the A Crown of Swords one that I used to have. Surprisingly, it's not on The "path of daggers" graphic is pretty cool. Why, oh why, did Tor not just reissue everything with this style of cover and ditch the Sweet ones?

I really like this cover.

Rand is in Everyone's Prophecy

Something that has always bothered me about the series was how Rand factored into most cultures' prophecies. We now know that Rand is the Coramoor to the Sea People... yet another group of people wanting a piece of him? It feels like overkill sometimes. And this is before the whole deal with the Seanchan and Rand "kneeling before the Crystal Throne" before the Last Battle, as foretold somewhere in the series. It's kind of like the Bible having different versions, or people like the Jews believing something different about Jesus Christ compared to Christians. Makes sense, though I find it annoying at times.

It also speaks to human nature that all the disparate groups that Rand is trying to get to work together still ultimately want to only look out for their own interests. Their interests will survive Rand and Tarmon Gai'don. That event, which Rand is focused on, is bigger than all of them, yet they still don't get it. Maidens want to be babies and beat Rand because he left without them – things like that in the series I find disappointing and I've never liked those parts or the selfishness some characters have. But I suppose it's realistic.

The Wheel of Time on the Internet

In the years between Books 7 and 8, I started looking at Wheel of Time content on the internet. My first experiences with the internet as we know it today were in college in 1995 or so. I didn't have a computer of my own and the computers in the labs at school were a mix of Windows, MS-DOS and Mac computers. I still have the 3.5" hard disks (that only held a pitiful 1.44MB) with my papers in Word 5.0 or WordPerfect format on them.

Netscape Navigator was the browser we used and most websites were of the old school Geocities type: text in multiple colors, tiled backgrounds that conflicted with the text, animated gifs, things blinking, HTML table borders showing... it was bad. Kind of like what Myspace profiles turned into. Here's a great website that lets you Geocities-ize other sites, if you don't know what I'm talking about (or if you're just bored and want some fun). Ah, memories.

Anyway, inevitably I found the original WoT newsgroup (rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan, it's on Google Groups now, still with posts dating back to 1994!), and later in 1998-99 the early fansites, like Dragonmount and Wotmania (now defunct), along with the WOTFAQ. A newsgroup was essentially the first kind of discussion forum and it was one of the first places I found with people discussing WoT on the internet. I just lurked and read the content on these sites for the most part. It was nice to "listen" to others discuss the book, as none of my friends at the time read the series.

From this point forward I wasn't alone with the series anymore – I could always find discussions online. I joined a few of the sites later on – Dragonmount, Wotmania and – and became really active on one for a short period of time. More on that in the blog for Book 11.

So, thank you to the World Wide Web and all those who created WoT fansites, for creating a new place for people like me to discuss and share this series.


Book 9 – Winter's Heart

Book 7 – A Crown of Swords
Book 6 – Lord of Chaos
Book 5 – The Fires of Heaven
Book 4 – The Shadow Rising
Book 3 – The Dragon Reborn
Book 2 – The Great Hunt
Book 1 – The Eye of the World
Retrospective Overview

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