Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rereading With Love: The Wheel of Time, Ten Years Later (Part I)

When I was in middle and high school, my favorite books were Robert Jordan’s old-school epic fantasy, the Wheel of Time. Before it was over, there were 14 books (three published after Jordan’s death), a prequel and a companion book. The series is about a reborn savior who comes of age and leads the world in a struggle against the Dark One, as with many fantasy books, and I just loved it. What do you want. I own all but the last book and read the series (the books are often around 1,000 pages) at least five times, but I hadn’t reread it in half a decade and hadn’t touched any of them since A Memory of Light capped the quattuordecology in 2013.

At a used bookstore the other month, I spotted a copy of The Shadow Rising (book #4), which had always been my favorite. I bought it on a whim, took it home, and re-re-reread it. Several things that I never or barely noticed a decade ago jumped out at me repeatedly in the book, so I wrote ‘em up below. Briefly: the prose is incredibly florid, the world is so complicated that Jordan spends half his time explaining what came before, the book is incredibly long, everyone has the emotional sensitivity of a Martian, everyone is constantly surprised by everything, and the way women are portrayed is not nearly as progressive as I thought it was.

Quick Glossary

Rand: The basically messiah, super-magic user, and central character. Is also ta’veren, meaning he has plot powers.
Mat: His buddy. Also ta’veren.
Perrin: His other buddy. Also ta’veren. Dating Faile.
Faile: Noblewoman in secret searching for adventure. Dating Perrin.
Berelain: Queen of tiny country. Pursuing Perrin.
Moiraine: A magic user who found Rand before he was known to be the messiah.
Aviendha: an Aiel (basically super-Bedouin) who tutors/hates/will eventually love Rand.
Elayne: Future queen, current magic user, has the hots for Rand.
Egwene: Magic user, has Dreaming superpowers, used to be with Rand but now ain’t.
Nynaeve: Magic user. Angry a lot.
Min: Also in love with Rand.
Thom: Rand’s advisor.
Siuan Sanche: Head of the female magic users.
Lanfear: Rand’s evil ex from a past life. Shut up.

MAJOR SECTION I: How the Book Works

The Prose

Robert Jordan LOVED descriptions. Oh my God. I confess I used to skim these, but this time I made a conscious effort to read each paragraph carefully and take in its meaning. Doing this, I noticed for the first time just how much description is really in here. Take for example Rand’s bedchamber in the Stone of Tear, a fortress he conquered at the end of Book Three.

Callandor sat undisturbed, a sword seemingly of glass, hilt and blade, on a stand as tall as a man and just as wide, the wood ornately carved and gilded and set with precious tones. The furnishings, too, were all gilded and begemmed, bed and chairs and benches, wardrobes and chests and washstand. The pitcher and bowl were golden Sea Folk porcelain, as thin as leaves. The broad Tarabon carpet, in scrolls of scarlet and gold and blue, could have fed an entire village for months. Almost every flat surface held more delicate Sea Folk porcelain, or else goblets and bowls and ornaments worked with silver, and silver chased with gold. On the broad marble mantel over the fireplace, two silver wolves with ruby eyes tried to pull down a golden stag a good three feet tall. Draperies of scarlet silk embroidered with eagles in thread-of-gold hung at the narrow windows, stirring slightly in a failing wind. Books lay wherever there was room, leather-bound, wood-bound, some tattered and still dusty from the deepest shelves of the Stone’s library.”

 The whole scene is like this, rich long paragraphs of description, reaction, or internal monologue that are broken up only occasionally by rather stilted dialogue. There’s more conversation as the book goes on (this is only 76 pages in), but when he’s introducing the world, Jordan lays it on thick. He moves majestically over the Aiel Waste (desert) or the lush Tairen countryside, peppering his characters’ observations of the scenery with political observations, internal musings, and peoples’ actions that splash the landscape with color. Just read this:

“One night lions killed two of the Shaido packhorses, roaring in the darkness as they were driven from their prey to vanish in the gullies. A wagon driver disturbed a small brown snake as they were making camp the fourth evening. A two-step, Aviendha called it later, and it proved its name. The fellow screamed and tried to run for the wagons despite seeing Moiraine hurrying towards him; he fell on his face at his second stride, dead before the Aes Sedai could dismount from her white mare. Aviendha listed venomous snakes, spiders and lizards. Poisonous lizards! Once she found one for him [Rand], two feet long and thick, with yellow stripes running down its brown scales. Casually pinning it under a soft-booted foot, she drove her knife into the thing’s wide head, then held it up where he could see the clear, oily fluid oozing over sharp bony ridges in its mouth. A gara, she explained, could bite through a boot; it could also kill a bull. Others were worse, of course. The gara was slow, and not really dangerous unless you were stupid enough to step on it. When she flung the huge lizard off her blade, the yellow and bronze faded right into the cracked clay. Oh, yes. Just do not be stupid enough to step on it.

That is never going to be relevant in the entire rest of the series, but Jordan doesn’t care; he’s not about narrative streamlining. He’s building a big sprawling open world with lots of raggedy edges.

The Complexity

Let me sum up just the world. Never mind the history, never mind the politics by the time of Shadow, never mind how magic works, etc. I’ll just list all the major groups at the start of the series.

On the main continent where everything happens, there are these nations: Saldaea, Arafel, Kandor, Shienar (these four are called the Blightborder), Cairhien, Andor, Arad Doman, Tarabon, Amadicia, Murandy, Altara, Illian, and Tear. (I named those from memory and thought I got ‘em all, but left out li’l old Ghealdan and irrelevant Mayene. I’m a bad fan.) There are also unincorporated territories or cities, such as Almoth Plain or Far Madding. Cairhien and Shienar abut a mountain range that separates the main continent from the Aiel Waste, which has thirteen clans of Aiel, a desert people. That’s to the east. To the south is the sea, which is populated by the Sea Folk, dusky traders of great renown. To the north is the Blight, the abode of evil where no humans live. To the west is the Aryth Ocean, on the other side of which is an empire called Seanchan, who will invade the mainland in Book 2. On the other side of the Aiel Waste is Shaara, an entirely different continent about which little is known but trade is conducted.

Oh, you thought we were done? Various groups and societies operate within the main continent. Female magic users band together in a group called the Aes Sedai, which acts as a guiding hand for the rest of the world and is country-independent; they’re run from the White Tower in the city of Tar Valon. Amadicia is run by the Whitecloaks/Children of the Light, an ascetic society dedicated to hunting down Darkfriends, which are exactly what they sound like and pretty much everywhere. Tinkers, peaceful nomads, wander through the world in their caravans in search of the song that will bring about a new age. Ogier, a nonhuman race, keep to their homes (called stedding) and interact only occasionally with humans. Creatures of evil called Trollocs and Myrddraal exist, although they’re not usually seen below the Blight.

There are traveling entertainers called gleemen, firework-makers called Illuminators, traders and peddlers galore, and of course nobles in every nation who try to gain influence, money, or power. We can’t forget the Forsaken, the Dark One’s thirteen hand-picked evil emissaries, who are all loose in the world (mostly in disguise) and scheming various schemes to advance their own causes. And I’m not even counting the groups that are created or become relevant during the series, such as the Shaido Aiel, the Black Tower, the Kin, the Two Rivers, the Band of the Red Hand, the Dragonsworn

Every single one of these things will become relevant during the series. With the exceptions of Arafel, Kandor and Shaara, there will be major plotlines that take place in every nation and with every group, and even those three are connected to cross-national plotlines. What I’m trying to say is that this is a complicated place. And so even at the tender age of Book 4, the first 200-300 pages of Shadow are riddled with explanations, because they have to be! You can’t go three pages without tripping over a long expository paragraph because there’s so damn much to expose.

I think in later books Jordan kind of throws up his hands and says, the hell with new readers, this is unmanageable, because I don’t remember there being as much description of the basic elements of the world in the last seven books as there is in, say, Shadow. But it’s shocking to read again, especially since I skipped the first three books and haven’t been introduced to all this stuff gradually over the previous 3,000 pages. The first 200-300 pages of Shadow are like a master class; even though a lot of it won’t be relevant to the rest of Shadow, he wants you to get a feel for the world and its history. Did I mention that I didn’t mention the history at all, and there’s over 3,000 years of it? Oh, man, I didn’t mention the World of Dreams, or the wolves, or the snake-people and fox-people, or…)

The Length

So between the description and the exposition, you can see how these things balloon. We’re 350 pages in before the main characters all go on their separate expeditions from the place where they started the book, which is stunning to reread, especially since a lot of that 350 pages is various characters wondering what’s about to happen next. The main characters also spend a lot of time internally weighing their options, making comparisons, expressing wonderment or bafflement (we’ll get to this), or simply observing the world.

There are four main plotlines. Rand goes to the Aiel Waste to prove himself as king of them in fulfillment of prophecy, Mat seeks answers to life’s persistent questions, such as “Who ate my memories?”, Perrin goes back to their home to deal with a Trolloc/Whitecloak invasion, and Elayne and Nynaeve go to Tarabon to snuff out a plot against Rand. There are other storylines that get a few chapters each, such as a civil war in the White Tower or Egwene honing her Dreaming talents, but those are the main ones. Some, like Rand or Perrin, are told almost totally from Rand’s perspective, but we get Rand’s thoughts on Mat and vice versa as well as Mat’s own story, and we get six or seven perspectives on the Tarabon storyline. It’s all very nicely balanced; Rand’s story is the most prominent, and Elayne/Nynaeve gets more time as the book goes on, but it never feels like one storyline is overwhelming any other.

It’s just that there are so many storylines and sub-storylines. Take Perrin’s story. He’s learning his power to talk to wolves and enter the World of Dreams, he’s growing from a simple blacksmith into a savvy leader of men, his people are organizing themselves as a military force, he’s trying to avoid being manipulated by Aes Sedai, he’s fighting with the woman he loves and later marries in Shadow, and so on. (All of this happens in Shadow alone.) And all of this interacts with the stories of people like Aram, the Tinker who renounces their nonviolent beliefs for Perrin, Aiel traveling companions Gaul and Chiad, and the Whitecloak commander and his evil advisor, both of whom Perrin has a history with. Now scale this out to Rand and Mat and Elayne and Egwene and Nynaeve, and all the people they know. And then imagine all the new characters and major storylines that will be introduced or expanded upon in the subsequent ten books. 

One of the core principles of the Wheel of Time universe is the Pattern, the semi-mystical/semi-real sum of all human decisions that binds everyone together in its fabric. You can see that in Jordan’s writing. Everything’s connected, and everyone has to take everyone else and their beliefs into account before doing anything, so every step in everyone’s story is taken very deliberately and with much internal reflection. All of these stories progress together, even the ones that are only hinted at and whose specifics must be guessed. And that makes even Shadow, which by Wheel of Time standards is a very fast-moving book (see the virtually plot-movement-free Crossroads of Twilight), stretch out to a thousand pages because you’re not just dealing with a single plotline, you’re dealing with several major ones and dozens of smaller ones that all hook together.

Speaking of length, we’re 2,100 words in, so come back tomorrow for the other three things! If you care!

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