Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Gathering Storm

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Orbit (orbitbooks.net)

The Wheel of Time turns, and authors come and go. The Gathering Storm is the twelfth doorstop in Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, and the first to be published following Jordan’s death in 2007. Even fans of the Wheel of Time would admit that the series had lost its way somewhat, becoming bloated with characters and descriptions of soft furnishings.

Memories abound from the last few novels of hundred-page prologues in which I recognise not a single character, or entire books which not only fail to drive the plot forward but actually end, chronologically speaking, before the events of the previous novel’s climax. Reading the Wheel of Time was beginning to feel less a pleasure and more like an endurance race, where you only continue in an attempt to justify the countless hours invested in the series.

The Gathering Storm, however, feels like a transition – like one of the winds with which each novel in the Wheel of Time traditionally opens had blown through the book and swept out all of the cobwebs. It seems primarily concerned with beginning to tie off the thousands of loose ends still extant – and with only one (now two) more novels planned for the series, it’s about time.

While there are still occasional troublesome reversions to the same meandering, unfocused narrative that crippled the preceding books, you get the sense that Sanderson spent much of his time balancing the need to respect those parts of The Gathering Storm which Jordan had already written with an abundant awareness of the series’ shortcomings.

Plotwise, it’s labyrinthine enough to defy any attempt at summary. Broadly – the end of the world is coming, and Dragon Reborn Rand al Thor is still trying to forge the various bickering nations of men into an army capable of staving off the darkness at the Final Battle. Which is much the same summary as the preceding novels, but where The Gathering Storm differs is in its focus on Rand’s internal struggle. I’m little able to construct an adequate timeline of his rise from shepherd to messianic ruler, but it can’t be longer than a couple of in-book years – a short period in which to adjust, and one which has had its consequences.

One of the most interesting parts of The Gathering Storm is in showing the effort Rand’s expended on turning himself into a weapon, a cold, unfeeling monster able to justify almost any atrocity by the knowledge that he’s trying to save the world. For the first time, we’re shown how disturbing his transformation is for those who know (and knew) him, and just how brittle his mental state has become. Given that his past self, the Dragon Lews Therin, went mad and blew an Everest-dwarfing hole in the world, doesn’t bode too well.

What The Gathering Storm manages better than its predecessors is to provide a window on Rand’s mental disintegration, to let us see why he makes the decisions he does… and the damage it does to his increasingly fragile psyche. It’s to Sanderson’s credit how interesting he manages to make the previously anodyne Rand, showing a deft touch for characterisation. Unfortunately, even with 766 pages to burn there’s simply too much going on to allow this level of characterisation to filter down, and while the story is veritably chock-solid with political intrigue, supernatural battles and the personal crises of its many, many supporting characters, it all feels a little thin in comparison.

Mat Cauthon, mercenary warlord and Rand’s childhood friend, is given particularly little to do and plenty of pages to do it in – his meandering journey towards the city of Caemlyn feels almost leisurely, and detracts from the tension which otherwise runs through The Gathering Storm. The superficiality and tedious repetitiveness of his own internal monologue – women are pretty, but I’m married now, but I just want to be free, but I have responsibilities, but oh what’s the harm in a little gambling and wenching, but ad infinitum – makes these particular sections of the novel almost unendurable. The book would have been better off without him, or at least with giving him something more interesting to do.

Nonetheless, despite the wooliness and lack of drama which seeps into the novel on occasion, there’s a decent sense of rising tension and periodic bursts of action which keep The Gathering Storm from becoming another near-unendurable bore. And more importantly, whereas the preceding eleven books have just continued to grow thicker and more tangled, like some ever-expanding ball of wool, here we finally get a sense that resolution might be in sight. Loose ends are tied off, long-running plot arcs are resolved, and minor characters are allowed to fade into the background as their purpose is served.

Incomprehensible unless you’ve read through the entire series, and hard work even if you have, The Gathering Storm is nonetheless a substantial step up in terms of quality and content. Sanderson’s style is simply more focused on effective storytelling than Jordan’s, showing a willingness to dispense with much of the vast quantity of peripheral plots, places and people in order to focus on what really matters. Whether it’s due to a detachment from the material which Jordan as its creator found impossible, or simply down to talent, is fairly irrelevant. The Gathering Storm is better than the Wheel of Time has been in a long time, and the groundwork Jordan laid is as complex and vital as ever. If Sanderson can continue to steer the remaining novels in the same direction, reading the end of the Wheel of Time might even become a pleasure rather than a chore.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com