Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
What more is there to say about the Wheel of Time? What purpose in reviewing Towers of Midnight – the thirteenth in the series, a book almost as thick as it is wide? Surely anyone who’s got this far knows exactly what they’re getting, and anyone reading this review is either an incurable fan of the series or – more likely – looking for a mean-spirited chuckle as I say cutting, witty things about it.
Yet shockingly, Towers of Midnight isn’t that bad. Wait, readers, come back! I’m not saying it’s good, lest what little Internet credibility I might have built up over the years vanish with an inconsequential ‘pop’ – I’m simply saying that by the standards of the rest of the series, this is a solid – even occasionally exciting – novel.
It’s difficult to say where the root of this improvement lies – is it Brandon Sanderson, or is proximity to the series’ inevitably apocalyptic climax finally forcing stuff to happen? In my review of the previous book, I mentioned that Sanderson (the anointed perpetrator of the series’ final three novels following Robert Jordan’s death) seemed to be trying to balance the need to respect Jordan’s idiosyncratic style with his own awareness of the series’ appalling stagnation – and that balance seems to have slipped further away from the stagnant with Towers of Midnight, even though I feel perfectly comfortable reproducing the plot summary from my The Gathering Storm review verbatim:
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.
The strongest part of The Gathering Storm was Sanderson’s examination of Rand al Thor’s disintegrating psyche, but having found some measure of psychological equilibrium at the end of the novel, Rand takes a back seat here as his friends get their chance to shine.
Perrin Aybara – blacksmith, wolf-friend and reluctant leader of armies – is forced to face up to both the consequences of his earlier actions and his future as a leader of men. Matrim Cauthon – ladies’ man, gambler and irrepressible jackass – resolves to rid himself of the monstrous gholam haunting his tracks, and to rescue the group’s former mentor Moiraine from the otherworldly Aelfinn and Eelfinn. Egwene al Vere, young leader of the newly united Aes Sedai, seeks to root out the spies, assassins and traitors that still haunt her city. And Elayne Trakand, recently crowned Queen of Andor, looks to bring neighbouring Cairhien under her protection.
Laying it all out like that makes them sound like a decisive bunch, but mostly they just drink tea and talk about their plans in endless repetition. This novel is eight hundred and forty-three pages long, and most of it is taken up with detail: details of plots and schemes and plans, details of food and costumes, and detailed descriptions of soft furnishings.
A more generous soul would call this world-building, a necessary side-effect of creating a realistic, intricate setting – but it’s not. It’s padding. This is not a novel which will show you something when it could describe it in mind-numbing detail:
Egwene gasped, came awake and sat upright. She was in her rooms at the White Tower. The bedchamber was nearly empty – she’d had Elaida’s things removed, but hadn’t completely furnished it again. She had only a washstand, a rug of thick-woven brown fibers, and a bed with posts and drapes. The window shutters were closed; morning sunlight peeked through.
She breathed in and out. Rarely did dreams unsettle her as much as this one had.
Is it somehow vital to the plot that we know about the rug on Egwene’s floor? About her washstand? Is the reader not to be trusted to figure out that Egwene wasn’t holding her breath? Well apparently not, as we also can’t be trusted to work out that a guardsman might not look kindly on murder:
Chubain looked annoyed they hadn’t found the forced lock. The Tower Guard was not a policing force – the sisters had no need of that, and were more effective at this kind of investigation anyway. But Gawyn could tell that Chubain wished he could stop the murders. Protecting the Tower, and its occupants, was part of his duty.
This kind of relentless, all-encompassing exposition leaves the reader nothing – the words are empty calories, with nothing to make you think. But criticising the Wheel of Time for being padded-out is like criticising a cat for killing mice: it’s the nature of the thing. Let’s move on.
While most of the novel is text as a holding pattern, filling the pages as if the authors had a contractual quota of rainforest acreage felled, when the action does come it’s pretty pacy. One of the highlights of the novel comes as it breathlessly flicks back and forth between three major action setpieces, flurrying cliffhangers and never giving you time to settle back – there’s enough energy here to make a decent climax of a normal-length novel, and for the space of a few dozen pages Towers of Midnight hints at how good it could have been.
Matrim’s assault on the Tower of Ghenjei – home to the Aelfinn and Eelfinn – is another highlight, playing up the weird and otherworldly nature of the place and its inhabitants. For as long as the snakes and foxes stay hidden in the shadows, playing mind-games with the intruders and bending the rules, you’re gripped by something approaching genuine suspense.
But like a B-movie monster, the less you see of them the more effective they are; once they start boiling out of the walls and being cut down en masse like any other mook, it’s hard for them to retain their menace. A little too long in front of the camera, and you realise it’s just a guy in a rubber suit.
While these setpieces range from decent to good, they’re far too rare. As with The Gathering Storm, the very best of Towers of Midnight is a quieter, more introspective moment, removed from the merry-go-round of bland political wrangling and uninspiring battle scenes. Sent back to Rhuidean, the city where the Wise Ones of the nomadic Aiel complete their training and receive visions of their people’s ignoble beginning, the spearmaiden and apprentice Wise One Aviendha is the conduit for a thoughtful rumination on tradition and purpose that’s made all the more profound for its relative unexpectedness.
I’ve never found Aviendha a particularly interesting or engaging character – she’s always come across as a fairly typical embodiment of the Wheel of Time’s problematic treatment of women, veering between shrewish, belligerent and inscrutable. But just as The Gathering Storm gave the anodyne Rand some surprising depth, Towers of Midnight adds an extra dimension to Aviendha.
Step by step, generation by generation, the utter ruin of her people is visited on her – not merely their destruction but rather a slow decay of everything that ever defined them or gave their existence meaning. With style and patience, Sanderson allows layers of information to accumulate like desert sand slowly swallowing some ancient wonder – effectively evoking the slow, inevitable passage of time in a way which makes the passing of the Aiel genuinely affecting.
It’s a stand-out scene, and one which demonstrates that the improvement in the Wheel of Time since Sanderson took the reins can’t simply be ascribed to the series’ impending apocalypse. Towers of Midnight is the best of the series so far, and with some ruthless editing it could even have been called a genuinely good book in its own right. It’s just a shame about the four million words which preceded it.
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com