Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Wheel of Time [9] Winter's Heart (2000)

We continue the "Wandering Trilogy" with Winter's Heart, another short volume that required another two year wait. This is when it really became evident that the pace of the series had slowed considerably. It wasn't a one-off anymore; it was a trend. Re-reading now, it's a decent book, but back in the day it was frustrating, despite having one of the iconic scenes of the series.

More on that later. First, a digression about the new medium of book publishing. eBooks.

Before you continue:
  • This is part 9 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

The Prologue eBook

Winter's Heart started something new in publishing. Given that the previous book was the first #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list of the series, anticipation for the next installment was high. To capitalize on that and build even more buzz, they offered the prologue for Winter's Heart, entitled "Snow," in an eBook format for $5 a few months before the book dropped.

Now, eBooks barely existed back in 2000. And I certainly did not want to spend $5 for it, even though the prologues from this point on are around 90 pages on average. A few bucks more could get you an entire paperback book six times that length. It also felt like they were starting to milk the series and make as much money off it as they could. Obviously there are marketing reasons behind all this and it is a business after all... but to a 24 year old still naïve about some things in the world, it was hard not to think that way when the books are suddenly shorter, take longer to release, are slower in plot and are now #1 bestsellers. I'm just saying.

But really, the primary reason I didn't bother with the prologue eBook (or any others in the future), was that I wanted to read the entire book at once. I didn't want to read part and then wait a few months in between. It's like when you hear the first single from your favorite band's new album, and listen to it incessantly, then when the album actually comes out you skip that song during the first few listens of the album because you've already heard it twenty times. The book was meant to be read whole in one shot, so that's what I wanted to do.

Reading eBooks

I would have only been able to read it on a computer at that point, anyway. I got my first computer of my very own in 1998, after finishing college (the only computer I "owned" before that was a Commodore 64 my parents had). It was a Compaq laptop with Windows 98. But I didn't use it to read eBooks. I didn't want to read books on my computer.

If I recall correctly, though, the only decent formats then were .pdf (Adobe), .pdb (Palm OS) and .prc (Mobipocket). You could also read them on a PDA. I did get a few eBooks a few years later, in 2002 / 2003, just before the next volume (Crossroads of Twilight) came out. I would get them in the PalmReader format, and I had this totally bitchin' Sony CLIÉ PDA on which to read them. I actually still have those eBooks on my previous PC hard drive, but they are worthless now, since they have DRM and it was tied to my account and credit card info on whatever ancient website I bought them at, which I don't remember. So I can't even view them now.
Only thing missing here was internet access.

Thoughts Then

Anyway, as I said before, another two years passed before this volume arrived. I was starting to get used to this; Winter's Heart was the third volume in a row that was released in a two-year interval. I realized that the days of a new novel every year were gone (sigh). There seemed no end in sight for the series, and I figured it might stretch on to 15 or 16 volumes. I definitely thought that after reading this one.

I still lived in Omaha when this book came out. I vaguely remember sitting in a mall food court and eating lunch while reading the prologue, awkwardly trying to hold hardcover open with one hand while eating with the other. I'm pretty sure it was the Westroads Mall, which was right by where I worked at the time.

I liked how the novel was themed around winter, since prior to Book 8 there wasn't much in the way of snow or winter. The early books spanned longer periods of time and things were so fast-paced that I didn't really pay attention to the seasons in the series that much. It had been summer for so long (due to the Dark One's touch on the world) and with the years between books I had forgotten about winter.

However. I did not like this book upon first read. I was very frustrated with the glacial pace. Where were all the cool things that had been prophesized or viewed, all the things Jordan had left hints about and had been building up to for 8 books? We're still not there yet?

No Preparatory Re-Read

Something worth mentioning is that this was the first time I didn't do a full re-read of the series prior to the new volume coming out. That had become a tradition for me starting with Book 6, Lord of Chaos, but with 9 and counting, a re-read every time became a bit much. It takes a long time to read these books.

As much as I love the story, there are other things I'd like to read, and I need breaks from it every once in a while. So I didn't do a full re-read for this one, I merely read the previous two to refresh my memory on recent events.

Thoughts Now

It's so much easier to like this book now, with the knowledge of events in later volumes. It still feels a bit short, and the Elayne chapters still make my eyes glaze over (I generally skim through them), but overall I enjoyed the book a bit more this time. I can now see why Jordan did what he did, though as I mentioned in the blog for The Path of Daggers, it's hard to see that when you first read it and don't know where things are going.

The book is slow in places, and personally I don't think that slow pace works as well when chapters are grouped in chunks by character, especially "one and done" groups of chapters (i.e. the character never appears again in the book). Take a step back and look at what's going on at a high level, compare it to any of the first 7 volumes, and you'll see a marked difference.
  • 6 chapters = Perrin finds out Faile has been captured, he mopes around camp.
  • 8 chapters = Elayne dickering around in Caemlyn, assassination attempt (though not really), a bunch of women glaring at each other (Sea Folk, Kin, Aes Sedai, Wise Ones), sex with Rand, bonding Rand, visiting the Borderland rulers in Braem Wood.
  • 10 chapters = Mat loiters in Ebou Dar, thinks about leaving, finally leaves with a huge entourage of Important People.
  • 8 chapters = Rand skulking around Far Madding, looks for renegade Asha'man to kill, finally leaves and cleanses the male half of the Source.

A visual breakdown can be seen here.

That's essentially it. There are a few important and memorable scenes, but for the most part the book moves bits and pieces of the main storyline along at a snail's pace. The Perrin and Elayne storylines barely advance in comparison to their length. The Rand and Mat storylines were satisfactory, in that they moved many pieces about, but I desperately wanted more during that first read-through.

And when grouped in chunks by character, some of the content loses its importance. Take the Perrin chapters. They are all at the beginning. He doesn't do much, and then he's done until the next book. I mentioned this earlier, it's a "one and done" type of structure. Jordan started doing this with A Crown of Swords. This is part of why I don't like these middle books (Wandering Trilogy) as much as the others, which mix up appearances throughout each book and make it feel more like everything is happening at once.

Crossroads of Twilight, the next book, does this too.  It really drags down the story, in my opinion.

Far Madding

One thing that has always bothered me about this book is Far Madding. Of course, we've known the city has existed, since it's marked on the map, but the characters have never gone there. It's briefly mentioned a few times, but nothing about what the city is like, aside from men are expected to obey women there (big surprise, women are more powerful in this world overall).

Is it me, or does the island look like the Starfleet emblem?

So I found it quite a shock to learn that people can't channel in Far Madding. They have some large ter'angreal in the middle of the city called a "guardian," that prevents men and women from channeling in the city, as well as detects channeling outside the exclusion zone. Rand goes here for one main reason: to escape the hazards of saidin. He's been having all sorts of problems with the Source – getting nauseous, having problems holding onto it, etc. Very convenient to suddenly have a completely new place that blocks channeling to go to.

I would guess that this caused confusion for many readers because we didn't know the city was like that. It seemed like this would be knowledge the characters would discuss earlier, mainly for the benefit of the reader.  Kind of like how Cadsuane is never mentioned until halfway through the series.  After 8 books, it seemed odd to throw in an entirely new element like this, especially when the city is smack in the middle of the map. At least to me. I mean, there are other places we don't go to until way later in the series – like Bandar Eban and Maradon in Books 12 and 13 – but those places don't have any special attributes like Far Madding does.

The Cleansing

This is one of the iconic scenes of the series, the cleansing of saidin. It's rather clever how Jordan pulled this off, since it's hard to fathom that anyone short of the Creator or the Dark One could cleanse the male half of the Source. But Rand made it work with all the tools that were essentially left to him from times long past.

Why else would the Choedan Kal have been created? They were never used before, from what I gather. Why else would Shadar Logoth have come into being? It seemed to be some random "evil thing" like Padan Fain, serving no real purpose but to be evil in The Eye of the World. And it helps that there's someone like Nynaeve now, one of the most powerful Aes Sedai in a long time, in terms of One Power strength (aside from the former damane Alivia, of course).

All the elements were there for a reason, and Rand figured out how to do it. I didn't exactly understand what happened the first time I read it, but later understood how the evils essentially "cancelled each other out."

Like Far Madding, I found it a bit jarring to suddenly go cleanse the Source. Yes, Rand mentions it a couple of times before that, but he didn't seem too urgent about it and after the ho-hum of most of the book, I wasn't expecting him to do it right then and there. But it makes sense when you think about it. The problems he was having with the Source, along with the number of Asha'man going mad, expedited his need to cleanse it.

Regarding the eBook cover, which shows Rand with the male access key for the Choedan Kal – this is probably my favorite depiction of Rand. That's generally how I've seen him in my mind, though with a bit longer hair. Would have been cool if the cover had shown him and Nynaeve facing each other while channeling, but this will do. Nynaeve was on the eBook cover for the last two volumes anyway.

Darrell K. Sweet: 1934-2011

I'm assuming if you're reading this blog entry, you've read all the entries before it. And if you've done that, you'll know that I haven't been kind to the cover art by Darrell K. Sweet. Unfortunately, Sweet died while I was reading this book, on December 5th. Instead of complaining about the cover for Winter's Heart this time, I'd like to talk about Sweet and his art. I recently noticed something about the art for the Wandering Trilogy (Books 8-10) that I hadn't noticed before, and it makes more sense to discuss that in the blog for Crossroads of Twilight.

I fully respect Sweet as an artist. He was a great painter; his talent is unquestioned. It was partly due to many of his fantasy covers that I got into fantasy in the first place. His covers for the Xanth novels (by Piers Anthony) and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (by Stephen R. Donaldson) are classics and were very influential to me when I was younger. He also did the ones for L.E. Modesitt Jr.'s The Saga of Recluce, which I didn't get into until I was older, but which have become the face of the series.

I've always loved the Xanth ones the most, though. His style fit that world perfectly. It's going to be strange to not see his artwork on the new novels coming out in that series.

Here are some of my favorites:

Sweet and The Wheel of Time

The main reason I pick on his covers in these blogs so much, though, is because I didn't feel his style fit The Wheel of Time. He knows how to make an eye-catching cover – which is the point, they're trying to sell books – but I felt the series got short-shrift because of the inaccuracies of the covers. I just don't like his interpretation of Robert Jordan's world. When you paint Trollocs as regular humans with helmets, to me that shows a lack of respect for the source material – it's like he didn't even read the text, not even an excerpt. It's not a detail that's hard to miss.

What makes me sad the most, though, is that Sweet never finished the cover for the final upcoming book, A Memory of Light. Even though I didn't like the art he did for the series, he started it and should have finished it. According to Brandon Sanderson, Sweet created a concept, but not a finished painting. So who knows what will happen to the cover for this last one. I trust Tor and Harriet (Jordan's widow) will make the right decision. We'll find out next year.

Update, Feb 2012: Michael Whelan is painting the final cover.  Yeah!  Very happy about this.

The last book in this series is becoming even more bittersweet. Both the original author and cover artist have died. The ones Sanderson has been writing still felt the same as Jordan's partly due to the covers. Now the last one will be out of place.

Either way, thank you, Darrell K. Sweet, for all the fantasy artwork you've done over the years. I may not have liked what you did for The Wheel of Time, but they are undeniably an integral part of the series and now I can't imagine it without them.


Book 10 – Crossroads of Twilight


Book 8 – The Path of Daggers
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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