I’ve written 8,600 words in reviewing the first six books in this series. And they can basically be boiled down to, “the gender dynamics here suck, the characterization is pretty awful at times, and the world building is incredibly and gratuitously detailed, but this series serves as a vital bridge between the endless Tolkien rehashing and the maturation of the fantasy genre that followed in its wake. There are many things here to admire – but I kind of hate these books. Anyway, here’s the plot….”
I don’t really have any paradigm shift to offer you here, but I do have some further commentary.
Rape is hilarious!
Lan and Mat are both raped in this book. Lan is suffering some pretty serious issues following the “death” of Moiraine, given that the warder bond tied them irrevocably to one another. Now that it’s been severed, he’s a shell of a man. His bond was passed to Myrelle, another Aes Sedai, and one of the methods by which she tries to fix him is through the healing power of sex – with her and other women. That’s what we do, right? When someone is suffering severe mental trauma, the best medicine is some mutual tummy rubbing.
But, I don’t know. Maybe that isn’t “rape”. Maybe he was a willing participant – even if he’s basically a walking corpse, indifferent to anything that happens to him. It’s at least possible to theoretically give this an out.
Mat, on the other hand, explicitly and repeatably expresses his lack of desire for Tylin, Queen of Altara. A rejection that she not only laughs at, but is actually encouraged by. She quite literally forces him into her bed with a knife and rapes him. Afterward, on more than one occasion, he nearly cries over it.
And it’s fucking played for laughs. It’s hilarious that she rapes him. Elayne is literally shaking with laughter when she finds out. After being angry at him before she found out because she thought he was pursuing her, Tylin. But she and Nynaeve seem to respond to this as though it’s his just comeuppance for chasing so many women.
Look, we’ve come a long way, I think. This book was written in 1996. Men being raped by women wasn’t exactly a common issue being discussed, and it wasn’t at all uncommon for people to think it simply didn’t happen. Hell, in the 1990s it wasn’t unheard of for people to not take the rape of women seriously, either – even if that was more accepted as a heinous thing. Morgase (Elayne’s mom) also gets raped in these books – first by the Forsaken Rahvin, then by Eamon Valda, Lord Commander of the Children of the Light). You are certainly supposed to empathize with her. Rahvin is a servant to a being who is essentially Satan, and Eamon Valda is basically the head Inquisitor in these books – so he’s obviously a monster as well. Morgase being raped is referenced, but isn’t actually depicted. There’s nothing about her treatment that is funny or “deserved”. She’s a victim.
Mat doesn’t get any of that.
I read all these books as a teenager. In fact, I started reading this series when this book was the most recently published installment. I didn’t even remember this interaction between Mat and Tylin. It’s not like I picked up these books thinking, “oh, when I get to book seven rape is going to be treated as a bit of comic relief.” So it may not be entirely fair to criticize Robert Jordan for being particularly detestable for this. I think it’s at least partly a sign of the times. But I can’t fully give him a pass, either, considering how sex is treated more generally in these books.
But holy fuck is it terrible to read. It’s already difficult liking Elayne. Her depiction in this book may be too much to overcome.
I would like to piggyback on this to talk about the gender dynamics of these books (again). I know it’s tiresome, and I’ll try not to drone on too much about it, but it is a significant part of the reading experience here. I think something broke in me, reading this book. I still hate how men and women are depicted, and none of the relationships in these books feel authentic. They all feel constructed to say something about men and women. What Jordan seems to be saying is that men and women can’t understand one another, even though they’re basically the same. Both think the other is stubborn and wrong-headed. Women think men are slow-witted and in need guidance, and men think women are emotionally unpredictable and in need of guidance.
Part of me wants to give Jordan the benefit of the doubt and say that he’s satirizing this trope – but I can’t find the satire anywhere. The characters are never really shown to be wrong. Rand is kind of an idiot. Nynaeve is an emotional asshole who flips out over the smallest things. Nobody talks to each other, and everyone is constantly moaning about other people. Every single one of these relationships is toxic, and every single character is kind of a dick.
Except Min. She’s always pretty chill.
Though, even she spends the entire book “teasing” Rand. And by “teasing”, I mean she’s clearly interested in him. Not that he has even the slightest clue, because he’s an idiot. They have sex in this book, and he apologizes to her because he thinks he’s raped her. I mean, I’ve had my moments of cluelessness when it comes to women showing interest in me (I’m sure we’ve all missed cues a time or two) – but there’s a limit on what’s reasonable.
Also, oddly, the Forsaken and the Black Ajah are surprisingly normal in this regard. Other than many of the Black Ajah hating men, none of the bad guys really give a shit about sex or gender differences. This humanizes them in a way I don’t think Robert Jordan necessarily intended, because it makes them more real than the main characters. Whenever Rand is moaning about how he has to protect women (while ignoring the countless deaths of men and children), or Nynaeve is complaining about the stubbornness of men, I’m struggling to even read the damn book because my eyes are rolling in their sockets. It’s hard to even see them as real people, because they’re caricatures who pound that one note over and over. But when Jordan is writing from the point of view of, say, Alviarin (head of the Black Ajah), she seems more real because she doesn’t do any of this stuff.
Which makes me wish that Jordan had just left all this bullshit out of the books. They’d be significantly more enjoyable.
This is the fanfiction we need! Who volunteers to rid these books of the male/female infighting?
I think what all of this boils down to (and I’m probably just rambling at this point) is that this is a different world from ours. It’s fantasy. It’s not meant to be a reflection of our world. There’s a lot that’s different here: magic, geography, a dark, god-like being that influences the world….And I think it’s clear that Jordan wanted to play around with gender dynamics. In this world, men have destroyed everything. Saidin, the male half of the One Power, is tainted, and causes male channelers to go insane and kill everyone. Women are the only ones who can do anything about it, and the power structures of these societies (because there are multiple nations, even if they all seem like different shades of the same color) are all predicated on female empowerment. And this plays out at every level. It’s true for Aes Sedai, who basically have the freedom to do whatever they think is best – queens bow to them, and peasants bend over backward to fulfill their every wish. It’s also true for village wisdoms (exclusively female), who can even override village councils (always male, I think). It’s also true at the individual level – women talk down to men and treat them as though they are less than.
If anything, Robert Jordan has kind of inverted the gender dynamics of our own society, and based them on some pretty serious power dynamics in this world based around fall-out from historical turmoil. That’s interesting. I feel like he was on to a really good idea, but he executed it terribly.
The problem is that there’s so little complexity to it. All women treat every man like an idiot. And every man kind of acts like he doesn’t understand why women find men so insufferable and in need of guidance, while simultaneously walking through the world like a White Knight who needs to protect every woman from trouble. And this is drilled home, over and over and over again. There’s no arc to it – every single book makes the same point in the most transparent way.
The end result is that this isn’t an interesting inversion of gender dynamics, it’s a tiresome and repetitive slog through shallow and boring character in-fighting.
I guess there’s some plot here, too.
The last book ended pretty spectacularly with the Battle of Dumai’s Wells. I remember loving the ending of Lord of Chaos when I read this the first time, and looked forward to that during this re-read. Here, we’re dealing with the fall out from what happened. Aes Sedai have sworn themselves to Rand, and he’s struggling with what can only be described as PTSD. He’s also struggling with some rebellion in Cairhien, and is planning on confronting Sammael in Illian – a confrontation that is only referenced obliquely throughout the book, until the very end. Meanwhile, Elayne, Mat, and Nynaeve are looking for the Bowl of Winds in Ebou Dar. That’s it. For 800 pages. They’re walking around the city, looking for a magic bowl that will allow them to fix the weather. It’s….so mind-numbing. Aviendha, Thom, Birgitte, and Juilian are with them, but serve practically no purpose in this book. They also discover a secret group of castoffs and runaways from the White Tower in Ebou Dar called “The Kin”. There are more Kinswomen than Aes Sedai, and they both live longer and know some things that Aes Sedai do not.
Egwene spends the entirety of the book trying to solidify her hold in Salidar and steer the rebel Aes Sedai into confronting Elaida and the Tower.
Also, Nynaeve finally breaks through her block on using the One Power. Moghedien, now freed from her a’dam, happens to see Nynaeve. She attacks the boat she’s on, and Nynaeve almost drowns. It is only then that she learns to surrender to the One Power, which allows her to break through her block. Lan saves her from drowning – which makes her incredibly happy, because they’ve been separated all this time. She wants to get him alone, and he mentions to her that his bond has been passed to Myrelle. Nyaneve freaks out and physically attacks him.
Which just proves my point that Nynaeve is a massive asshole.
At the end, Rand attacks Sammael, defeating him in Shadar Logoth. He’s crowned king of Illian. The Seanchan return from the West, attacking Ebou Dar. Mat is injured during the battle, and Elayne and Co. escape the city, leaving Mat behind.