Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Wheel of Time [12] The Gathering Storm (2009)

After Book 11, Knife of Dreams, it seemed certain that Robert Jordan was back on track and finally ready to deliver the ending to the series that many of us had been waiting years and years for. Anticipation was high, he now had a blog going on and fans had much more access to his activity than ever before. Jordan had finally entered the internet age, he was talking about projects after The Wheel of Time, possible prequels and "outrigger" novels, the New Spring comics had started, there was talk of a possible movie production... lots of good things going on.

I don't think anyone expected what happened next.

Before you continue:
  • This is part 12 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 Last Book, No Matter What!

Throughout Jordan's book tour for Knife of Dreams, he kept telling everyone that the next book would be called A Memory of Light and that it would be the last book no matter what, even if it was so long it had to be trundled out on a cart and Tor had to "invent a new way of publishing." I was very excited about this.

At first, I really did believe Jordan. The last couple of novels had moved a lot of pieces into position and it seemed there were only a few major plotlines that needed to be resolved before Tarmon Gai'don. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to doubt that it would happen. This is the same author who spent three novels describing a few things in mind-numbing detail, dragging out minor plotlines and focusing on a plethora of throwaway characters. Now he's going to cram a number of Big Important Things into a single final volume? Would he really be able to do so?

Just think about what still needed to happen at this point:
  • Mat going to the Tower of Ghenjei to rescue Moiraine
  • Mat developing the Dragons and other modern weapons
  • Seanchan attacking the White Tower, Egwene unifying the Aes Sedai
  • Finishing off the Black Ajah
  • Rand making peace / submitting to the Seanchan, uniting enough lands / people to march to Tarmon Gai'don
  • Perrin's reconciliation with his wolf side and accepting leadership
  • Everything about the Black Tower
These are events we all knew were going to happen in some form or fashion, based on prophecies, Min's viewings, Dreams/Foretelling, all the good stuff that serves as fodder for countless theories. And on top of those, we still had Tarmon Gai'don and some aftermath to go through. It did not seem possible to me. But I had stuck with Jordan this far. Even though he said many times that some plotlines would be left unresolved at the end—there probably wouldn't be a fairytale ending—I trusted that he'd resolve it sufficiently enough when all was said and done.

So I hunkered down to wait, continuing my life in Reston, VA, expecting it to take him another 2-3 years at the minimum. I met my future wife through the local community theater during this time. I got rather involved in gaming after many years away from the hobby. Lots of things changed for me, but The Wheel of Time would always be there, Robert Jordan and the series was one of the few constants for me throughout the years. Or so I thought.

James Oliver Rigney, Jr.

If somehow you were not already aware, Robert Jordan's real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr. I followed his blog regularly and kept up with WoT news, so I heard about Rigney's diagnosis of cardiac amyloidosis in early 2006 not long after it was announced. I had never heard of this disease, so I did a little research. Learning that it was a rare disease and that median life expectancy was only a couple of years, I became very worried. Would the worst happen? Could Rigney possibly die before finishing the series, something my friends and I used to offhandedly joke about a decade ago? It wasn't so funny now.

Having had a couple of family members die of cancer, I personally know how much of a struggle something like that can be, how much it takes out of someone and how quickly the end can come. Knowing that treatment for amyloidosis involves chemotherapy, I had an idea of what Rigney was in for. But it seemed that if anyone could beat the odds, it would be him. He was so positive in every posting, told everyone he had many books to write, had promised his wife (and editor), Harriet, to be around for their 50th anniversary, etc.

I kept him in my thoughts and hoped that he would pull through. Of course I was worried about the last book. Anyone who had been reading the series for 15+ years at that point thought about it. Would he be able to finish the book in time? What if he didn't? Would we even get an ending after all these years? Would he refuse to let someone else finish the series?

There were occasional updates on his blog and he was still working on the book, but we also learned that he was getting sicker and that he had started to dictate the rest of the story to his family, even telling them the complete ending he had had in his head all these years (and which no one else knew). Just in case the worst happens, he said. I wasn't sure what to make of it all, but I didn't expect him to actually die. Not being there, we had no idea how sick we really was.

The Dragon is Gone

And then on September 16th, 2007, he died. His cousin, Wilson, announced it via Rigney's blog.

I was shocked. I couldn't believe he had actually died. I pretty much spent the day trawling the internet, looking for more info, updates and reactions. My mother even texted me about it, having seen the headline. It was one of those days where you don't get any work done, unable to focus on anything.

I'll just say that like many others, The Wheel of Time has had a profound effect on my life. I wouldn't be writing these blogs if I wasn't passionate about the work. Robert Jordan brought a whole new meaning to the term "epic fantasy," and his contribution to literature will never be forgotten.
RIP - James Oliver Rigney, Jr.

Brandon Sanderson

After I had gotten over my shock, I wondered what would happen to the series. From what Rigney's wife and editor, Harriet McDougal, said, he had prepared for this and wanted it to be finished by someone else. Harriet eventually picked Brandon Sanderson, a young fantasy writer who had grown up reading the series just as I had. He had written an eulogy that attracted her attention.

Rather than go through the whole story about how he was chosen, I'll direct you to Sanderson's website, and this article by the Charleston City Paper, both which tell the story well enough.

Brandon Sanderson

I was not familiar with Sanderson's work. I only knew of his Mistborn series, having seen the hardbacks in stores a couple of times. As I learned more about him, I thought it interesting that he was only a year older than me and grew up in Lincoln, NE. If you've read my previous entries in this retrospective series, you'll remember I lived in Omaha & Lincoln for about 10 years, going to high school and college there. I attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. So Sanderson was there in Lincoln, discovering the series just as I was. There was now this strange parallel, both of us in high school only miles away, eagerly awaiting each new volume. He sounded just like a guy I would have been friends with in high school.

I picked up Elantris not long after it was announced that he would finish the series. I loved the hook at the beginning and thought overall it was a decent novel. I did not pick up any of his other work (still haven't, though it's on my list... too many books, not enough time) and I merely waited to see what he'd do with The Wheel of Time. With her history and experience in editing, I completely trusted Harriet in her choice of him.

Splitting One Book into Three Books

After a year or so of work on WoT, Sanderson and Tor announced that book would have to be split into three volumes. This caused a little uproar among some fans, of course.

While it was annoying that we wouldn't get the final book at once, the fact that they had to split the book up into three volumes didn't surprise me. And based on the preliminary schedule (one each a year, 2009-2011), I wasn't bothered much. Sure we had to wait longer—no one wants to wait longer, obviously—but one book a year was a pretty good deal, all things considered. Sanderson's explanation made sense (though the fact that Tor actually balks at 250k+ words for a novel when they continue to regularly publish them—i.e. The Malazan Book of the Fallen—amuses me).

So we learned the title of the new book, The Gathering Storm, which was somewhat generic and predictable. We got a new Sweet cover, which is by far the worst of the series (shocker). I avoided the usual early release of the prologue and a chapter, and paid only minor attention to advanced reviews (they are always positive to build hype). Despite the lackluster title and cover, I was excited to read it and see how Sanderson did.

Pretty much everything about
this cover is wrong.

Thoughts Then

I personally thought Sanderson did a fantastic job. I was not disappointed. He took the reins from Jordan and flew at a breakneck pace, moving the story along, making it quite plot heavy compared to the recent efforts by Jordan. It was obvious that there was a lot they needed to fit into these last few books and the verbose style Jordan had become known for was not going to cut it.

When I first read this book, it reminded me of the early volumes, particularly The Shadow Rising, because so much happens in the book (even though most of it is focused only on the storylines of Rand and Egwene). A couple of events we'd been waiting forever to read about finally happened. This excitement and the fast pace made me feel like I was in high school again. That nostalgic feeling made me enjoy the book even more.

Sanderson said he wasn't going to emulate Jordan's style, and you can obviously tell it was written by a different author, but it still felt like The Wheel of Time to me. There was only one spot that struck me as odd immediately (see the Mat section below). For the rest... yes, there is more internalizing and telling rather than showing, and there were stylistic differences I immediately noticed (like Sanderson's penchant for frequently italicizing a single word for emphasis), but aside from Mat, all the characters sounded the same to me. Was it 100% perfect and true to Jordan's voice? No. But anyone who expected it to be is deluding themselves.

In my opinion, Sanderson succeeded in adapting his style to WoT like he said he would. I was completely satisfied with this book and relieved. The last two would be in good hands. With all the exciting stuff still on tap, and Sanderson showing he could write in the WoT world, there's no way it could get screwed up now.

Thoughts Now

This re-read was only the second time I've read The Gathering Storm. I didn't re-read it when the next book, Towers of Midnight, came out in 2010, since it was still fresh in my mind.  I didn't buy the paperback version, either, and I have since donated my paperbacks to the library, opting for Kindle versions.  My opinion of the book remains much the same as before, though I noticed more of Sanderson's style differences this time around (probably because I was paying more attention to it, already knowing the book's content).

It felt slow to me at first because the difference in style was a bit jarring compared to the first time. But about a third of the way through it really gets going and I couldn't put the book down during the last quarter. There were thankfully no Elayne chapters (about time she was ignored for a book) and the parts on Mat and Perrin were little more than "meanwhile, back in Ghealdan..." types of sections, but Rand and Egwene made up for it by far. Now that I know the next book is all about wrapping up Mat's and Perrin's storylines, and preparing them for the Last Battle, I'm more forgiving of their brief appearances. Except for maybe Mat, which I'll get into later.

Egwene and the Tower

The Seanchan attack on the White Tower, the unification of the Aes Sedai, the official raising of Egwene to Amyrlin and the purging of the Black Ajah couldn't have come at a better time. This storyline had started in Book 4 with the deposing of Siuan as Amyrlin and eight books later, we finally get that resolution.

When I realized the attack was actually going to happen in this book, I was pumping my fist in the air. I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time. All that build up and tension and expectation over many, many years finally explodes across a number of chapters, and Sanderson did a great job with the pacing.

The visit from Verin was also well done and put a tear in my eye, and it segued into the attack magnificently. Jordan always seemed loathe to kill off any of the major or important characters, but finally one of them succumbs. Then dozens more die as Egwene executes Black Ajah... rather a shock compared to previous volumes, where very few characters die.

The Aes Sedai have now been put through the wringer and it's amazing that they had enough left to come back together, with all they've been through. The world has changed drastically over the course of the series, though, and the breaking of the Tower, in retrospect, seems the only way the Aes Sedai as a whole could have weathered that change. They are almost ready to enter into the new Age and be leaders again. With all the trials Egwene has gone through, she is the only choice to lead them going forward.

Egwene is awesome on the eBook cover.

It's at this point that Egwene becomes my favorite female character. I've always rather liked Aviendha, but Egwene trumps her after the White Tower ordeal. What she has done is the stuff of legend. Which makes me wonder why she loves Gawyn Trakand, who is such a wuss in comparison. More on that in the next blog.

Hardcore Rand

Rand continues his descent into madness and "hardness," becoming so hard and cold that we barely recognize him as the same young man that walked along that lonely road outside Emond's Field at the beginning of The Eye of the World. In story time it's only been around two years, but in real life it's been almost twenty. Innocent Rand seems like a distant memory in both timelines.

I was surprised at some of the things Rand did in this book. I've been on his side ever since the beginning, hating how people pushed him around and cheering on his efforts to do his own thing. But here he goes over the line. I didn't think he could get any harder than he already was, but Semirhage pushed him even further when she collared him with the Domination Band and tried to make him kill Min. Rand turns into this cold, emotionless being that you have a hard time relating to, and even Min, who had been the closest to him, now begins to fear what he has become.

The most hardcore pic of Rand I could find,
even though the wrong hand is missing
(it should be his left hand).
Art by Jeremy Saliba; fantastic artist,
please check out his site!

When Rand balefires Natrin's Barrow and all the inhabitants—along with Graendal—I was pretty shocked. I did not expect that. I was also disappointed that another Forsaken would be destroyed so abruptly. Of course, we learn in the next book that Graendal didn't actually die (which I thought was a bit cheap, and I had to roll my eyes at that), but it wasn't surprising, as Jordan had given short shrift to many Forsaken over the course of the series. They pop in for a couple dozen pages, then are balefired and gone forever.

Then, after the long-awaited reunion between Rand and his adopted father, Tam (they had not seen each other since Book 1), when Rand tries to kill him, we see how much trouble our hero is in. I loved the falling out he had with Cadsuane in this book—I've never liked her, as I've mentioned—but later we realize just how important her task has been and why she resorted to sending Tam al'Thor to him. Rand needs to laugh and love again, he needs to surrender to his fate and stop fighting everyone. He eventually figures this out. At the end of the book he is reforged on Dragonmount and Rand 2.0 is ready for the Last Battle.

Mat and Hinderstap

While The Gathering Storm is a success and one of the best books in the series, there's one thing I didn't like about it. The Mat chapters, particularly the Hinderstap section.

Sanderson didn't write Mat as well as he did the other characters. I understood why Mat was doing what he was doing—he is married now, after all—but it just didn't sound like him. It didn't feel right, and the majority of readers felt the same way based on reviews and forums. When you've been journeying along with this character over 11 prior books and 15 years, it's surprising how quickly you notice a change in voice. Did it detract from my enjoyment of the book? Not really. Did Mat's characterization stand out like a sore thumb? Yes. Am I angry at Sanderson that he violated the series? Of course not. It is what it is.

In the grand scheme of things, it's a minor complaint, because his chapters in this book are fairly unimportant, but it was surprising how it jumped out at me. The Hinderstap section as well, which I don't like. I understand its purpose—showing how much further along the Dark One's touch on the land is—but it's so markedly different than the rest of the story and feels like Night of the Living Dead was inserted into the book for 30 pages. Mat and Hinderstap still bothered me during the re-read.

The Signing

Invigorated by this new volume and direction in the series, I went to the Brandon Sanderson signing. He came to a Borders in Bailey's Crossroads, VA (I'd provide a link but sadly Borders doesn't exist anymore, which I find very strange to say). I bought a hardback copy of Warbreaker so I could get a signing number, then did the usual sitting around and waiting. This signing had the Storm Leaders and all that jazz, as well as free WoT bumper stickers. I grabbed an "I killed Asmodean" one, as mentioned in my blog for Book 5, The Fires of Heaven.

When it was my turn with Brandon, I merely thanked him for doing the books and mentioned that I was glad a fan was finishing it vs. some hired hand. He said he was glad too. I also asked how after all these years of following the series like everyone else, how he felt about not being able to read the ending like the rest of us would. He said it was unfortunate, but that being able to peek into the mind of a master storyteller and see how he worked was almost a better reward, given that he's an author as well. It's a unique experience that no one else will have. I'd have to agree with that.

Brandon was very nice and gracious through the entire signing, he spoke at length about how he was picked, stayed for a long time to sign everyone's books, etc etc. Probably the most pleasant author signing I've ever been to.

Below is my signed copy of The Gathering Storm. I particularly like the printed Jordan signature, I thought that was a nice touch and respectful of Sanderson to ask for that.

I also had him sign Warbreaker, of course, but I have yet to read it. I'm reluctant to read books once I have them signed. I'll get a copy on Kindle or something in the future.

The Gathering Storm revitalized the entire series for me. While not perfect, and it will never be exactly what Jordan would have done, I really can't complain. So thank you, Brandon Sanderson, for taking up the reins and guiding the story towards Tarmon Gai'don. From a long time fan, it's much appreciated.


Book 13 – Towers of Midnight


Book 11 – Knife of Dreams
Book 10 – Crossroads of Twilight
Book 9 – Winter's Heart
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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