Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Wheel of Time [13] Towers of Midnight (2010)

For the first time since Book 6, we get a new Wheel of Time book a year after the previous one. (I don't count the New Spring prequel that was released between Books 10 and 11 since it's not a main sequence novel. I'll cover New Spring in the next blog post since we still have around 9 months until A Memory of Light comes out.)

I can't tell you, after following this series for nigh 20 years, how great it was to get a new volume right away like that. It was awesome. We can chalk this up to all the hard work Brandon Sanderson did in the previous 2 years, since a good chunk of the material in this book had already been written, since he first approached this task with the mindset that he would only be writing one single book. When that didn't happen, material that chronologically would have happened earlier got pushed to this next volume, the second of the Sanderson Trilogy, as I've dubbed it.

This jumping around in time to fill in what happened with Perrin and Mat while Rand and Egwene were getting a full story arc in The Gathering Storm can be a bit confusing, especially when it comes to the appearances of Rand's father, Tam al'Thor. More on that later.

Before you continue:
  • This is part 13 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

As usual, I took a few days off of work when the book came out and picked it up from my local Books-A-Million first thing in the morning. It was on a prominent display right at the entrance and when I brought it up to the counter, the lady there huffed and said, "I just finished setting that up!" I guess she was surprised someone came in first thing to buy it. Anyway, I continued on to the Silver Diner in Reston, VA for breakfast. Then it was back home to read. I read it straight through and finished it in two days.

I thought the book was awesome. Once again, the story moved along at a clip and many other storylines were getting resolved, fan theories years in the making were falling left and right, boring characters had become interesting again, and some of the last few Randland locations were finally being visited (Saldaea and Kandor... at this point Arafel and Mayene are the only major Randland nations we haven't actually visited in the main narrative). By the end, everyone is gathering for the meeting Rand has called at the Field of Merrilor, where he will tell them all what he plans to do at Shayol Ghul and essentially begin the Last Battle.

Reading about such happenings is bittersweet. On one hand I was very excited to actually see them doing it: getting in place for the Last Battle. On the other, it meant the story was almost over, and while I've felt that this has gone on far too long at times, you never want a good thing to end.

It was also a bit strange. Over the years my expectation would be that they get into large scale battles and it would all move to Shayol Ghul and come to head in the Last Battle. Instead, Rand just suddenly decides to break seals on some arbitrary day and lets everyone know in advance. I think there will be more to it than that, but at the end of the book that's the impression you're left with and I was not expecting it.

Sanderson Improves

Overall, I feel Sanderson improved quite a bit with this novel, compared to The Gathering Storm. Mat read much better and sounded just like the Mat of old. He got all the characters right (in my opinion) and did justice to all the major characters. In this book you can definitely tell the difference between Sanderson and Jordan when it comes to WoT; Sanderson is a bit more action-oriented and his style is more urgent than Jordan's. I believe that more of Jordan's remaining material made it into The Gathering Storm than this volume, from what Sanderson has said.

One thing I enjoy about Sanderson's work compared to Jordan's, is that even with so many character threads to deal with, he rarely lets anything drag. That's partly due to all the climaxes happening, but also to the way he structures the novels, with the POV shifting frequently... rarely do you get the same POV more than two chapters straight, compared to the blocks of 4-5 chapters with the same POV that Jordan favored (even in books that had a lot going on). Sanderson also frequently changes the POV within chapters when he doesn't even need to, something Jordan rarely did.

Speaking of differences, something I noticed while writing this blog... I kept wanting to call Brandon Sanderson "Brandon," rather than Sanderson. If you go online, you'll notice people generally call Robert Jordan by "Jordan," whereas Sanderson gets the first name treatment. I suppose that's due to the fact that he's younger and is really just a fan of the series like the rest of us. I mean, he plays Magic the Gathering with fans after signings. It just shows how much he likes to stay connected with his audience.

Perrin Becomes Cool Again

Ever since Dumai's Wells in Book 6, Lord of Chaos, Perrin has been rather boring to me. Instead of embracing the leadership offered to him, he constantly pushed it away, and it got tiresome very quick. In this book, we can see why it happened that way and when he finally takes the mantle of leadership, it's a great relief, because after 7 books, it was old and I stopped enjoying his storylines because of it.

The whole Whitecloak/Perrin storyline was something I could have cared less about—all the overblown stink about killing two Whitecloaks back in Book 1—and the only part of this book that I found "boring" were the Perrin chapters leading up to the battle between the Whitecloaks, Perrin's forces and the Shadowspawn. In the end all of that resolved nicely, the forging of Mah'alleinir was a great, iconic scene and Perrin finally accepts himself for himself, so to speak.

Perrin the Badass

Like some others, I felt the confrontation between Slayer and Perrin in Tel'aran'rhiod seemed too Matrix-like, but I'm not sure how else it could have been done. That's the nature of the dream world. It does make me wonder how Jordan would have handled it, because he and Sanderson write action scenes a lot differently, as I noted earlier.

Love is in the Air

One thing that stood out to me in this novel, and quite frankly bothered me a bit, was how everyone was suddenly getting married or bonded. Of course, there have been relations between these characters throughout the series, but now they all finally get together and commit. As if they don't think they'll survive the Last Battle, so what the hell let's get it on!

Take a look at the body count:
  • Egwene and Gawyn
  • Siuan and Gareth
  • Morgase and Tallanvor
  • Berelain and Galad
  • Thom and Moiraine

Some of these we've been expecting, but all in the same book? It feels like too much and sticks out to me. At the end of the day, though, I have to trust that what's in the books is what Jordan intended, and Sanderson just made sure they happened somewhere, which happened to be in the same book.

Despite all that, the Thom and Moiraine one feels out of place to me. Given Thom's history with Aes Sedai, and how I've always viewed Moiraine, I have trouble reconciling it all.

Zen Rand

After the "Veins of Gold" chapter in Book 12, The Gathering Storm, we've gone from hardcore Rand to a cooler, more zen-like Rand. He finally stops fighting his fate and everyone else, and begins to turn into the Messiah figure that most of us have expected. Given that I've been on Rand's side the entire series, and have been frustrated with the way others treat him—except for the second half of The Gathering Storm, when he went off the deep end—it was great to see him like this. He felt real again. And for the first time, it felt like he was really in charge.

I loved it when he nonchalantly strode into the White Tower and coolly informed Egwene that he intended to break the Seals on the Dark One's prison. He notices Darkfriends at a glance now. Cadsuane doesn't bother him anymore. He apologizes to his adoptive father, Tam al'Thor, in a touching scene. His mere presence brings life back to the land in that immediate area, and persistent cloud cover retreats. In Maradon he bitchslaps a gigantic army of Shadowspawn, using the One Power on a scale we have never before seen in the series. He's so full of awesomeness in this book, and I can't wait to see what he does in the final volume.

There are all kinds of theories about what will really happen during Tarmon Gai'don... will Rand truly die? Will he be reborn somehow? I figure he will be reborn somehow. With all the suffering and pain he's been through, he deserves to have some kind of normal life in anonymity. That would be the greatest reward for him, I think.

Some Borderland and Shadowspawn Love

As I mentioned earlier, the Borderlands get some love this volume, though you might not call hordes of Shadowspawn descending on the various nations "love." You know what I mean, though. The Borderlands, the Blight and Shadowspawn in general have been fairly lacking for many volumes, though it hasn't been as bad as the disappearance of Padan Fain. All these elements were introduced right away in Book 1, The Eye of the World, but they get short shrift as the series progresses and expands to other areas. Now they are back in force. Except for Fain, who only has a brief cameo here.

The assaults on the Kandori towers and Maradon really usher in the feeling that the Last Battle is around the corner. I can only hope that we might visit Arafel in the last book and see what's going on there.

The highlight of all this, though, is Lan's story, as he travels from World's End in Saldaea to Tarwin's Gap in dead Malkier. Here is yet another person who doesn't want to be a leader (there are a lot of those in this series, aren't there?) and I wish we could have spent more time on him, but I like how Sanderson handled this, spreading it across the whole of the novel. The whole attack at Tarwin's Gap at the end reminds me of The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn leads an army against the Black Gates to distract Sauron's Eye as Frodo and Sam approach Mt. Doom to destroy the Ring. The parallels between the characters and situations from both stories are fairly obvious.

Lan = Aragorn, Tarwin's Gap = Black Gate

Considering all the LotR references and homages in WoT, it would not surprise me if that was deliberate on Jordan's part. But then, considering how timelines have shifted around between POVs throughout the last few volumes, this could be something that happens after the Field of Merrilor and all that. I'm especially curious to see where it fits into everything else. My guess is we might have many battles against Shadowspawn around Randland to take care of before Tarmon Gai'don itself, based on the end of this book, with Shadowspawn in Caemlyn and the Borderlands.

A Decent Cover

It's fitting that Darrell K. Sweet's last published cover for the series (before he died in December 2011) is a good one. At least the proper scene for the cover was chosen. Once they knew the Tower of Ghenjei would be in the book, how could they not choose something related to it for the cover?

Of course, there are always those little details of characters we've known for so many years that Sweet still manages to get wrong, but I won't complain about them anymore. Noal looks good, pretty much as I imagined him. All in all, a decent effort and I don't find it embarrassing to carry around a book featuring this cover. And better yet, no human trollocs on the back!

The Tower of Ghenjei

Now to discuss the cover scene itself. The crown jewel of Towers of Midnight, it's the last major scene, when Mat finally enters the Tower of Ghenjei to rescue Moiraine and outwit the Aelfinn and Eelfinn one more time. Mat killing the gholam was nice and all, but Ghenjei is the pinnacle of Mat's storyline so far. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it had been hinted at for a number books, then confirmed in Book 11, Knife of Dreams, when we finally get to read the letter Moiraine left for Thom before she disappeared into the red ter'angreal doorframe in Cairhien way back in Book 5.

When the cover art for this book was announced, we all knew the scene would be coming. But what would it be like? Would it live up to all the hype?

The Snakes and Foxes chapter
icon, by Matthew C. Nielsen

For me, it lived up to the hype and more. It was wonderfully written and I don't particularly care how much is Jordan or Sanderson. To finally read this sequence, one which we've been waiting forever for, was amazing. The secret of the ashandarei I did not see coming at all and it stunned me, was one of those shocking moments that very few books or movies have been able to deliver for me. I couldn't stop laughing—it was amazingly clever and it surprised me that no one ever thought the ashandarei might have some other greater purpose.

The reveal that Noal was the legendary Jain Farstrider was no big surprise; most of us had figured it out by then. But I like how it was done, and it was great to see him meet his end as a true hero and redeem himself for how he was "used" by the Shadow in the past. I do wish Jordan had done more with his character throughout the series, but I'm happy with what we have.

Overall, this sequence was so awesome, I immediately re-read it both during my first read and this re-read. It's easily my favorite in the entire series after Dumai's Wells (Book 6, Lord of Chaos), in terms of awesomeness and emotional impact. It's one of those iconic scenes that all fans will always remember.

The Future of Randland

Aviendha's second trip through the columns in Rhuidean, where she sees a possible future after Tarmon Gai'don, was not something I was expecting. Jordan had stated before that there would be many loose ends when the series concluded, and that there wouldn't be this happy ending with everybody happy and peaceful. The Dragon would break the world again and shatter nations. There has been this ominous feeling for a while now, that after Rand did his duty at Tarmon Gai'don, people would just go back to their petty ways, fighting amongst themselves once again. It's pretty much confirmed, based on the fact that Rand has to force many of them to do his bidding.

That's the saddest part of the entire series for me. What might possibly happen to the Aiel (based on Aviendha's visions) in the future is heartbreaking. These once proud people—essentially my favorite culture in the series—are shattered and destroyed, eventually succumbing to the dominion of the Seanchan and technology. Aviendha might still have a chance to change it, but we may never know.

It's disappointing to think that all the nations would just go back to their scheming and warring once the Last Battle is over. It's human nature, I suppose. As long as there are different cultures and points of view, people are going to fight each other.

A Double Signing

Going to Sanderson's signing this time around was a last minute decision. I had already met him on the tour for The Gathering Storm. He was coming back to the same bookstore, a Borders in Bailey's Crossroads, VA, and I didn't really want to go there, because it was a hassle to get to compared to where I lived in Reston. But at the last minute I decided to go, mainly because Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan's widow, was going to be there.

So I trekked on out once more and bought a hardback copy of The Way of Kings (Book 1 of Sanderson's new The Stormlight Archive series) to get a signing number. There were a ton of people as usual.

Harriet did a reading from Towers of Midnight, then they both answered a number of questions. One that stood out was why they didn't release the ebook version on the same day as the hardback (lots of grumbling about this online when the book came out). Harriet said it was because the bestseller lists don't count ebooks in the sales figures (obviously, since it's a hardback list). They basically wanted to ensure it was a bestseller (though I doubted they needed to do that, given that the books have consistently been #1 since Book 8).

When I got up to the table for signatures, I asked Sanderson if he was going to let The Stormlight Archive go on for 15 years or more like The Wheel of Time. It probably sounded a bit snide in retrospect, as I'm a bit disillusioned on extremely long (like 15+ years) series these days. Obviously, though, a 10 book series is going to take a while, and he said it would be at least 10 years—probably more due to finishing up The Wheel of Time. I will get around to reading it eventually, once a few more volumes come out. For now it's just sitting on my shelf; lots of other things to read first.

It was a pleasure to meet Harriet McDougal, and not knowing what else to say, I merely thanked her for continuing her husband's legacy and seeing that the series is finished. She signed the copyright page of my book, which marks the first time I've had an editor sign one of my books.

So thank you, Harriet, once again, for helping to finish this series. You don't know how much I appreciate it.


Prequel – New Spring


Book 12 – The Gathering Storm
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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