I low-key started to hate this series in the last book. I think I actually hate it now. It took me three weeks to get through this book. I think I read the previous book, The Fires of Heaven, in about four days.
If you haven’t read my previous reviews of this series, I’ll start off by saying there is an attempt at an interesting sex dynamic here. The magic system is split into the “male half” (saidin) and the “female half” (saidar). This could be used to explore differences and similarities between men and women in interesting ways, or it could be used to show that men and women aren’t really as clearly delineated as we like to tell ourselves. Instead, it’s a bludgeon used to repeatedly drill home that men are forceful, strong, and dominant while women are beautiful, delicate, and submissive. There’s no real variation from this basic template. All women, to some degree, fit this mold – even the strong, forceful women are ultimately submissive. Faile, for instance, is incredibly strong-willed, to the point that she’s an intolerable asshole. But her ultimate desire is for Perrin, her husband, to bend her to his will.
Virtually all the women are quick to anger and have forceful personalities (well, they all kind of have the same personality), and then become gushing milkmaids around the men they fall in love with. And they all fall in love at some point. Like – every single character. It’s exhausting.
And this isn’t something that comes up a couple times in the books – it’s brought up over and over again. The characters are always sniping at the opposite sex. Put three women in a room together and they’ll inevitably talk about how stubborn or clueless men are. Slip into the thoughts of a male character, and he’ll invariably start thinking about how impossible it is to understand women (except for [insert other male character]. He always knows how to handle women).
What about the men who aren’t super aggressive or the women who aren’t so antagonistic all the time? They simply don’t exist in this universe.
Despite all of the issues I have with these books (more on those in a bit), this is the overriding quandary I’m faced with: why do I continue to read something full of people I despise written by a man with whom, it can be assumed, I have nothing in common?
The short answer: Brandon Sanderson takes over eventually, and he’s never led me astray. I’m toughing it out until I get to a writer I have faith in.
But it’s a slog, at times.
To some degree, these are entertaining books. It’s your basic good-vs-evil hero’s journey that we’ve experienced a thousand times. King Arthur, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings. We know what’s going on. This is a familiar trope.
Where Jordan excels is world-building. His characterization is abysmal, and his world isn’t very realistic, even if it is varied and interesting. There are endless descriptions of painted tavern signs, silk brocade, and characters you don’t remember three pages after they’re mentioned. But none of it really makes the world feel more lived in. It’s just…an endless stream of fluff. He’s an absolute master at the details, he just struggles to make those details interesting.
One thing that’s been bothering me through this re-read that I only conceptualized while reading this book was that the characters motivations are never really explored. Rand’s job is to defeat the Dark One – but he spends literally no time preparing for this. He’s not devising a strategy to make the prophesied battle more in his favor. He doesn’t plan with Moiraine or other wise and knowledgeable people – he, actually, actively avoids them. He isn’t specifically hunting down the Forsaken, or gathering strategic advantages. For all the endless descriptions of buildings and scenery, for the countless pages devoted to bickering between men and women, no space is given to show that these characters are in any way focused on the fact that the Dark One is about to break free from his prison and unleash torment upon the world. The closest Rand comes is his obsession with learning to be a sword master or his trying to understand the various prophecies related to the Dragon Reborn. And we do get constant reminders that the Dark One’s prison is falling apart – but it’s always kind of happening in the background.
Like – the literal end of the world is fast approaching, and it’s treated as barely more than an afterthought by the very person fated to save it. He’s more concerned with the lives of the women who’ve appointed themselves his protectors than he is the innocent people suffering because of the events that are unfolding around him. It’s utterly perplexing. My recollection is that this was a grand, epic fantasy series about a farm boy learning that it’s his job to save the world, and exploring how that changes him. But that isn’t really what this is. It’s the story of a farm boy learning that he’s meant to save the world, and then not really spending that much time thinking about it because he’s got to make himself hard, become a sword master, get all the nations of the earth on his side, fulfill prophecies, protect women, not go crazy because the male-half of magic is tainted by evil, and navigate a tangled love life that’s driven more by fate, I guess, than any actual real human connection.
Contrast this with literally any other fantasy series that deals with a similar topic. The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, for instance. It’s set up from the very beginning to be a battle of light versus dark, and the characters are focused throughout the series on the mission – which is to defeat the Dark One. Harry Potter? Same thing. The Lord of the Rings? Ditto.
The biggest series I can think of that doesn’t do this is A Song of Ice and Fire – but it also doesn’t have a “Dark One.” Each of the characters in that series has an agenda, and they’re all striving to achieve their goals – even if those goals aren’t exactly clear to us, the reader.
The Wheel of Time, however? Eh. Nynaeve’s tugging her braid, Egwene is calling Rand a stubborn fool, and Mat is too busy running away from responsibility. The Forsaken are doing….things, but they don’t really seem to have any clear objective like, I don’t know, killing the one person who can defeat their Lord. No one really seems to be working towards a final end goal. You’d think the Forsaken would be trying to find the seals of the Dark One’s prison to try and speed up the process. You’d think Rand would be doing everything he could to insulating himself from failure. He can travel now – so why doesn’t he just jump around and build alliances? No – we have to get 800 freakin’ pages of characters whining about one another while their looking for a goddamn bowl.
It’s so frustrating. Especially when the series just seems to lag so much. Why the hell am I reading this? What’s it all for? What am I doing with my life?
Anyway. I don’t want to repeat myself – though, I kind of feel like that’s where I’m at for the foreseeable future. Time for the plot summary:
Everything is hot. Now that most of the seals on the Dark Ones prison are broken, the tendrils of his power are reaching farther than they have in other books. He’s starting to impact the whether. He’s revived two of the Forsaken defeated by Rand and Co., and created a new ultra-powerful Myrddraal. Because more characters that are never really a part of the narrative is what this series needs.
Mazrim Taim, formerly a False Dragon ravaging the borderlands, has joined Rand and been given the task of training other men who wish to channel. Taim forms “the Black Tower” (in contrast to the Aes Sedai White Tower – in case anyone forgot that men and women were in opposition to one another), and the male channelers are known as “Asha’man”. Because everything needs a name in the Old Tongue, and everything in the Old Tongue, apparently, has an apostrophe.
Both the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon and the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar send envoys to Rand. He’s not really receptive to either – because, again, he’s not really in the business of seeking advice and building alliances. And he doesn’t trust anyone – especially Aes Sedai. Meanwhile, Alanna, an Aes Sedai formerly aiding Perrin in his battle against Trollocs in the Two Rivers, bonds Rand as her warder – against his will. There’s something incredibly violating about this. The warder bond basically allows Alanna to take up permanent residence in Rand’s head – and ties him to her. No matter where he is in the world, she can feel him – sense his feelings and thoughts. Alanna isn’t meant to be seen as a great person for doing this – but it’s kind of presented like, “eh, what are you going to do?” Verin, another Aes Sedai who’s generally likable, even thinks to herself at one point that she may have done the same thing in a similar situation.
Anyway. Egwene is made Amyrlin Seat of the rebel Aes Sedai. I think they do this because they see her as young and tractable – but that isn’t what happens. All that time with the Wise Ones has turned her into a strong-willed woman.
The book ends with Rand being captured by Aes Sedai, assisted by the remnants of the Shaido Aiel, who are trying to take him to Tar Valon. They are led by Galina, a member of the Black Ajah. They torture him before being intercepted by Perrin at the head of an army. Taim shows up with the Asha’man and utterly decimate the Shaido Aiel.
Moghedian is freed from her a’dam by Halima, the resurrected Forsaken formerly known as Bal’thamel.