So, I’ve been reading through the Wheel of Time, for those who haven’t been reading these reviews. I started the series in the late ’90s, and kept up with them through the publication of Crossroads of Twilight. When Crossroads came out in 2003, I was in college and had all but stopped reading for pleasure. It wasn’t until about 2009-10 that I started again. By that point, Robert Jordan had died and Brandon Sanderson had taken over the series. It had been almost a decade since I’d read the books, and the series was all but wrapped up. The prospect of jumping back into it was overwhelming, and I never finished it. This year, I vowed to change that.
And it has been a struggle. These books just aren’t good. They started off interesting enough, but are quickly weighed down by directionless plotlines, superfluous characters, an overabundance of world building, and some mind-numbingly frustrating tropes.
But I’m staying the course in the hopes that Brandon Sanderson saves the series (which seems to be the general consensus among readers).
I think I’ve caught everyone up.
Crossroads of Twilight (1 star)
“Perrin Aybara continues trying to rescue his wife Faile Bashere, kidnapped by the Shaido Aiel, even torturing prisoners for information. In addition, Perrin is approached with the suggestion of alliance with the Seanchan to defeat the Shaido. Mat Cauthon continues trying to escape Seanchan territory while courting Tuon, the heir to the Seanchan leadership. In the process, Mat discovers that Tuon is a sul’dam and can be taught to channel the One Power. Elayne Trakand continues trying to solidify her hold on the Lion Throne of Andor. It is revealed that she is expecting twins; but the identity of the father (Rand) is kept secret from others. Rand al’Thor sends Davram Bashere, Logain Ablar, and Loial to negotiate a truce with the Seanchan. They return at the end of the book to tell him that the Seanchan have accepted the truce, but demand the presence of the Dragon Reborn to meet with the Daughter of the Nine Moons. Egwene leads the siege of Tar Valon; but is kidnapped by agents of the White Tower after successfully blocking its River Port.”
Notice a trend? Perrin continues….Mat continues….Elayne continues….
There’s only three things in this book that needed to be told: 1) Elayne is pregnant, 2)Egwene is captured by Aes Sedai in Tar Valon, and 3)Rand and the Seanchan agree to a truce. For those two things, we get yet another 800 page book. I’m writing this review while I’m about halfway through Knife of Dreams, and I honestly don’t remember it. I literally just read the synopsis I just quoted, and I don’t remember anything from the book that’s not described in the above paragraph. For a series that’s already been stretched out far longer than it has any right to be, this book is even more egregious for its superfluousness.
Robert Jordan wrote quite a few books – not just in the Wheel of Time. He wrote at least seven Conan the Barbarian books, and wrote some romance novels in the 80s under the pen name Reagan O’Neal (“Robert Jordan”, itself, is a pen name. His real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr.), and at least one western under the pen name Jackson O’Reilly. Given his pedigree, one would think he would know some fairly rudimentary techniques for story structure.
Jordan routinely introduces story elements that go absolutely nowhere. Masema is in the first book. He disappears for a few books before showing up again as the “Prophet of the Dragon”….and then Robert Jordan does nothing with him. Here we are in the tenth book, and that story line hasn’t really progressed at all. I don’t remember when the Whitecloaks show up (maybe the second or third book), but , again, nothing has happened with that story line. They terrorize the Two Rivers, only to stand by when they could’ve served as heroes during the Trolloc attack. If they had done that, maybe they would’ve actually challenged Perrin for control of the Two Rivers, and served as a source of conflict for him. Instead, they just kind of faded off into irrelevancy. They then crop up again when they take Elayne’s mother, Queen Morgase, captive. Once again, they could’ve served as an important source of conflict for either (or both) Elayne or Rand. But, no. Morgase escapes, and they again have nothing to do with what’s happening in these books. They could even have stepped up and protected the western lands from the Seanchan invasion, thus earning the respect and loyalty of the people, again serving as a source of conflict for Rand. But no, this doesn’t happen. Hell, Galad (Elayne’s half-brother) even joins the Whitecloaks, which I assumed was going to lead to a deeper exploration of the organization and what motivates people to join their cause. Only, that doesn’t happen. Nothing is really said about them – and we never get the exploration that would give them meaning.
The Whitecloaks are cannon fodder without the cannons. They are Storm Troopers without a war. Why were they created? Why do I keep having to read about them?
This is true of so many things in these books. It’s bewildering. Character after character is introduced for no real reason. We get descriptions of their clothing and personality, we get them described in the most minute of detail, and we get their full name….only to have them disappear three pages later, never to be heard from again.
At no point do we get a deep dive into Whitecloaks, or the Forsaken, or the Black Ajah, or the Dragonsworn, or the Sea Folk, or even the Shaido Aiel. One would think that the Black Ajah were all sociopaths. They are essentially signing up to be minions of the devil…..to…..do terrible things? I guess? I don’t know, to be honest. None of them seem particularly evil, just maybe a more obvious asshole (in private, they’re all pretending to not be who they really are, so we only get their inner monologues, really). So why are they working for what is essentially the devil? There appears to be no real benefit for them. Even in their internal monologues, you don’t get some deep understanding of who they are or why they’ve taken the path they’ve chosen. Just endless surface descriptions of characters, places, and things that you don’t care about. Robert Jordan never shows us why the world is the way it is. He simply tells us. Over and over.
All of these bad guys are just place holders until we get to the last battle. The last battle is the end goal. It’s the entire point of this series. Robert Jordan wondered what it would be like to find out that you’re the savior of the world, and he wanted to tell that story while playing around with the ideas of heroism and the creation of legends. The books then became an institution. They were massive money makers, so the story just kept getting dragged out. It’s either that, or Jordan had no idea what he wanted to do with the series – because these books are floundering. He started off with an idea, and knew the ending fairly early in the process (maybe even from the very beginning). He then wrote 10,000 pages without really accomplishing anything.
I’ve never read anything like these books. When The Dragon Reborn (the third book) ended, the characters were spread across the world. Rand was declared the Dragon Reborn, and a few Forsaken had been killed. The series was progressing. The forward momentum died in the Aiel Wastes of the fourth book, and has yet to be revived. More and more things are added to the story, but nothing is ever really resolved. By book ten, that equates to more than two-thirds of this series not serving the purposes of the plot.
All the while, the end of the world is approaching. We are reminded of this over and over again. There are seals that bind the Dark One in his prison, and they are breaking. He’s close enough to start influencing the world: it’s summer when it’s supposed to be winter, and the world is starting to dry up. The dead are seen walking the streets of towns and villages, haunting the living. The Black Ajah and Forsaken are gaining power and influence (without really seeming to do anything). But this is all largely meaningless because the stakes aren’t being raised. The characters aren’t really facing any setbacks. The opposition that should be standing in their way is often in some other part of the world, not really impacting the story.
We know that Masema and his Dragonsworn are a problem in Ghealdan – but who cares about Ghealdan? None of our story takes place there. We know that the Seanchan have conquered three nations in the west, but our characters are largely outside of their control until Mat gets left in Ebou Dar. And, even then, the Seanchan don’t really seem any worse than anyone else. Oh, they keep women capable of channeling as slaves? Well, the Aiel keep slaves, too – and they’re mostly depicted as the good guys. Hell, the Aes Sedai kind of enslave their warders. I mean, consent isn’t really a concern for characters in this world. So, why are the Seanchan so bad?
The only reason to read Crossroads of Twilight is because you’ve already 9 books. And that’s not just because it doesn’t make sense without the other books. It’s another installment in a seemingly endless series.
Knife of Dreams (3.5 stars)
It’s pretty emblematic of Robert Jordan’s faults as a writer that Winter’s Heart ended with a massive story development: the cleansing of saidin. In the follow-up, Crossroads of Twilight, the first half of the book shows what everyone else in the world was doing while Rand and Nynaeve were cleansing the source. Through the rest of that book, and most of this book, the fact that the male source is now clean is….largely irrelevant. It’s barely commented on – and even then, the commentary is mostly unqualified disbelief by Aes Sedai.
I would’ve thought something so momentous would’ve elicited significant discussion, considering it’s probably the single biggest thing to have happened in the series. But this book was written by Robert Jordan, so it’s probably silly of me to ever think cause and effect are ever going to be a factor.
Overall, I’d say this is easily the best book in the series since The Dragon Reborn. I don’t know if Jordan realized he didn’t have a lot of time left, so he was actively trying to finish the series – but there’s quite a bit of forward momentum in this book. It’s a welcome change of pace.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t still major issues. There’s a point in this book with Nynaeve and Lan, where she takes him to the Borderlands to take on the task of guarding against the Blight. This is kind of his Aragorn moment, I guess. Nynaeve rouses support for Malkier (Lan’s country, now consumed by the Blight). This whole section got me thinking (once again) about the gender dynamics of these books.
This is a world devastated by powerful men. The world is broken, with most of human knowledge now lost. Women are left to pick up the pieces of this world, and protect what they could salvage. We are introduced to this world through the nation of Andor, which is ruled by queens (first Morgase, and then Elayne – though that transition hasn’t happened yet). Emond’s Field, and indeed many small villages, have Wisdoms, which are powerful and important women in the community (Nynaeve is the Wisdom at the beginning of the series). Among the Sea Folk, women are powerful leaders. Among the Aiel, there are clan chiefs (mainly male) and wise women (exclusively female). They each have their own responsibilities and obligations, but the Wise Women feature prominently in this series. The Seanchan are ruled by an empress, and her heir is also a woman. And, of course, Aes Sedai (it is frequently said) have the power to make kings kneel.
Beyond their political power, women are very domineering in the home, as well. It’s frequently commented on by virtually all the male characters that women are dangerous, and controlling, and it is absolutely important to keep them happy. Among the Ogier, men are totally dominated by their wives. Loial gets married in this book, basically because his mother orders him to so that he will settle down and go back home. It’s made very clear that his wife now decides what he does and when he does it. She is completely in control. Again, individual agency isn’t a super important part of these books, but it seems even less so among men.
I can’t help feeling, though, that there’s a great deal of untapped potential here. In a very real sense, men have destroyed the world. In contrast, women have saved what is left. This is a real dynamic here. It should under-gird everything – but it doesn’t. It’s seldom discussed. Oh, we get page after page (after page….) discussing the petty bickering of men and women. We get character after character (after character….) bemoaning how little they understand the opposite sex. But almost no one really talks about the reality in which they live.
And, at the end of it all, we’re finally give a chance to look at Mazrim Taim and his secret army of Asha’man. Taim – a potential foil for Rand that has largely been alluded without being given serious attention – would be the perfect opportunity for Jordan to really delve into this male-female dynamic. He, himself, was a victim of female dominance (the Aes Sedai tried to gentle him, after all), and he’s surrounded himself with powerful men who are unapologetically embracing who they are. I’d love to get a deep dive into the motivations of these men, and the brainwashing that’s taken place. Are they all basically incels? Who knows? Taim has an entire army of aggrieved men after a couple millenia of victimization, alienation, violence, madness, and loss of control.
But what do we get? They make a couple in-jokes at the expense of some Aes Sedai.
It’s crazy how much time is spent on things that absolutely don’t matter, in the end. Like so much else in this series: what could’ve been an interesting subject is totally squandered.
A number of plot points are wrapped up in this book.
The Shaido storyline is (apparently resolved) with the (about damn time) rescue of Faile. What’s the fall-out? There is none. Sevanna (the woman who kicked off the whole thing back in….book 4, I think) is captured, and Therava takes the remaining Shaido back into the Aiel Waste, never to return again. Galina, the Aes Sedai who captured Rand back in book 7, goes back as a captive, and her will to fight is completely broken. What was the point of all this? I have no idea. The only thing I can think of is that it kept Perrin busy for a few books. Which is good, I guess, but I don’t think Robert Jordan really knew what else to do with him.
Elayne finally wins the throne in Caemlyn, breaking the siege and defeating her enemies. What are the ramifications of this storyline? None, that I can see. She finally sits on the Lion Throne….which I think we all knew was going to happen.
Mat and Tuon get married – though neither is really sure they love the other. It was fated to happen, and that’s all it really takes in this world. But they like each other, I guess. Tuon is now the Empress of Seanchan, and Suroth is uncovered. She is enslaved. What’s the fall-out from this storyline? I don’t know. Mat’s been away from Rand for a long time. That’s about it, I think.
Finally, Rand loses a hand in a fight with Semirhage. What effect does this have on him? None, so far as this book is concerned.
Contrast this with what happens to Jaime in A Song of Ice and Fire. Rand has spent 11 books mastering the sword, only to lose a hand in this book. He briefly comments that he’ll have to learn the sword all over again, but has almost no emotions regarding the change. He has no emotions because he’s “hard” and “cold.” Jaime, on the other hand, is crushed completely and has to reinvent himself. Everything about him evolves because he’s no longer able to use his sword – which is the thing he valued most about himself. In this series, things happen to the characters without ever really seeming to matter. In A Song of Ice and Fire, things happen to the characters, and then spur that character to change, or learn something, or make a decision.
All of this is why these books are so tiresome for me. There’s no point to any of this. Even when something is actually happening in these books. There’s precious little growth, and the events that do happen never really seem to influence what comes after.
And there we have it. I’ve read all 11 books of the Wheel of Time written by Robert Jordan. Before jumping into the Brandon Sanderson books, I’ll recap what I’ve read so far:
The Eye of the World: 4 stars
The Great Hunt: 4 stars
The Dragon Reborn: 3.5 stars
The Shadow Rising: 3.5 stars
The Fires of Heaven: 3 stars
The Lord of Chaos: 2 stars
A Crown of Swords: 1 star
Path of Daggers: 1 star
Winter’s Heart: 2 stars
Crossroads of Twilight: 1 star
Knife of Dreams: 3.5 stars