Saturday, March 6, 2010

Knife of Dreams Review

Knife of Dreams, Robert Jordan, published 2005, paperback, 837 pages

2 LINE SUMMARY: You've got to be kidding. Who could summarize THIS in 2 lines? My usual flippancy has ben set to mute.

PLOT: The last battle draws closer, and the world is even more unprepared. Things have gotten worse rather than better. Egwayne struggles to reunite the tower. Rand tries to bring the quarrelling nations together. Mat still has his hands full with Tuon, but with more implications than even he knows. Perrin works to rescue Faile and control his increasing love of battle. A pregnant Elayne copes with securing her throne and the loss of her ability to channel.

ANALYSIS: The most important epiphany this book had for me was realizing how much I had underread all the previous books. Because Winter's Heart and Crossroads of Twilight seemed labored and bound up in so much incessant dialogue that felt like it was going nowhere I tended to not read very closely. Big Mistake. Here, in Knife of Dreams Jordan revealed the groundwork he had done on the characters in past books and how those characters are coming to their roles in the preparations for Tarmon Gaidon.
This book recaptured the Jordan ride. What I mean by that is when I first began to read the books I noticed a pattern in each novel. The beginnings usually opened with those long introductions with plots carefully laid and dangerous alliances formed. Then the opening chapters would situate the main and minor characters in their respective milieus. Action would occur and we would be swept along. Then in the middle of the book characters moved around, like a middle game in chess, and thought out the consequences of their moves. Then somewhere near the beginning of the second third of the book the holy shit incident or revelation would be made and I would finish about two or three hundred pages in a day; frantically reading to find out what happened next. I remember this experience most clearly from The Shadow Rising and Lord of Chaos. It seemed most noticeable a pattern in books 4, 5, and 6. Those three books seem to me the sluggers of the series. Four and Six especially made such a profound effect I recall not reading much for the next few days while I thought out the implications of the events.
Knife of Dreams had the feeling of those books. I won't give away plot secrets but I will say that the experience showed the old master at the top of his game. Things happen in Knife of Dreams that are so mind boggling in their implications that you shake your head in wonder at Jordan's narrative craft, his strategy, and most of all his planning.
Jordan as a writer is one of the most profound risk takers in the genre. He sets up this world at infinite pains and with an attention to detail that far exceeds a reader's expectations. He then destroys it all that with a perfectly reasonable explanation for the destruction that not only has a sound logic but also, in hindsight, seems inevitable. His world building is so complex, so structured, and yet so organically alive, you really feel you have no idea what could happen. As I said before, a system not culled from the pages of a dungeons and dragons manual.
In this book the characters not only grow up, they grow wise beyond their years. These are people in extreme circumstances forced to find a life wisdom that will sustain them and allow them to continue doing what they must, and what they also fear. There is the light, and the source, but there is no empty comfort to be taken in religion.
Egwene begins to develop the status of a tragic classical heroine, like an Antigone, or an Electra. Her sense of purpose in order to reunite the tower, to do whatever it takes, and her understanding of the way to heal all the damage that has been done, remind me of a female character in a Greek Tragedy. The only one who can see the right path to take, and the only one with the courage to take it, no one except a chorus to share her feelings and plans with. I wonder perhaps if this wasn't Jordan's intention. If so, translating a greek chorus to the world of Tel Aran Rihod is a stroke of genius. The chorus in a greek tragedy rarely influences the outcome of an action, it is there in a sense as a soundboard, as a way for the audience to grasp the significance what transpires on stage. So too does Egwene have that impact on select figures like Siuan who can convey her will, but there is no way for Egwene to make those in the rebel camp truly hear her. She uses Tel Aran Rihod so Siuan can grasp why she is doing what she is doing, much in the same way the Chorus asks and recieves answers from an Antigone, or an Electra.
Rand grows more powerful and dangerous. He too resembles mythic figures: Hercules and all his impossible labors, Aeneas and the crushing weight of preserving a civilization, but also I think a tragic figure in his personal life. These three women love him and he seems destined to hurt them all, make them all suffer.
The brilliant thing Jordan accomplishes as writer with Rand is making us concerned for him because of his growing madness, but not alienating the reader from their intimate connection with him. Many novels or stories show the development of madness in a character and then pull back, as in a camera shot and give the reader a little more room to feel comfortable. Jordan though chooses not to do this and he deserves praise as a writer for his choices here, and for the way he can maintain that. We follow Rand from the beginning, being inside his thoughts from the first journey he and his father take to market and meet a rider in the Eye of the World. In book one we know he is going to go insane, from the taint. Later we begin to feel his sanity slip from the magnitude of what he has to do. The more the books go on, the more Jordan shows us Rand's innermost thoughts and feelings. We are not alienated from the madness, we see its too human causes.
And the presence of Lews Therin in his mind. Jordan very sublty in this book begins to show how the affect of his inner arguing with Lews Therin spills over into the real world. Characters in Rand's retinue begin to question his sanity, begin to see signs of the developing madness.
The experience of reading the books has made me want to go back and reread the series. Now that I have seen the structure underlying the books, I realize how well constructed they are. Even when it seemed Jordan was just stretching out the series with endless dialogue and intrigues he really was working out the plot and the stories of the characters.
A fair reading of these books can't really be done until they’ve been reread. Reread and analyzed. When I began to make the connections of Rand with the Fisher King and Shiva and Arthur, Mat and Odin and Loki and Coyote and Odysseus, Perrin and Thor and Hephaestos, and saw that Jordan was not just invoking mythic figures here to deepen the affect of his books, but was in fact commenting on the myths themselves, and putting the myths in play with and against each other, I realized just how deeply I have UNDERREAD these books. The books well deserve their own websites such as the Thirteenth Depository, Wheel of Time mania, and The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia.
Throughout the series I've found Mat's sections the most enjoyable. In a world of such high tragedy and drama, with Kingdoms for a stage, Mat brings the story down to the level of the Everyman. He is a man of the people, but in a well planned and executed Joran twist he is finding that role harder to maintain. His sense of the comic and the situations he finds himself in do more than provide comic relief though. They are integral to the plot but so is his character. Mat is the trickster figure, as has been well spotted by others, but what is growing more and more curious is how the seeming buffoon and outsider to the major political players has become integral to the last battle. And it may not be in the supportive role. There may be a darker fate in store for Mat.
Jordan's grasp of the mythic is vast as are its working in his story. However his use of mythic figures is never simplistic. He never takes a stock character or archetype and just lets them in the world. Instead as with Rand himself he puts what seems like a twist a writer would throw in just to see what happened(Rand will save the world AND destroy it), and makes that work itself out in the later books to levels that could not be anticipated earlier in the series.
To conclude this lengthy ramble and fanboy gushing I think Knife of Dreams succeeds as a novel, as a piece in a series, and in renewing faith in a series. When the 11th book of a series makes you want to go back and reread the entire series the author has done something right.

SCORE: 9/10

SIMILAR BOOKS: I agree with Brandon Sanderson that the Wheel of Time is the defining fantasy epic of our generation, as much as The Lord of the Rings was of the previous. There is nothing that is so completely a world all its own and unique and a cast of thousands, but that is so tightly structured. I guess a series of a similar ambition would be A Song of Ice and Fire. But no disrespect to Martin and his accomplishments, A Song of Ice and Fire seems more of a set piece. Beautifully written, with memorable characters, it too defines a generation of fantasists in its brutally realistic portrayals of the darker sides of human behavior. But although the scope there is epic it doesn't really transcend to mythic, as The Wheel of Time does. The Malazaan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson(although I haven't read them yet) have a similar ambition of scope and theme. Once I finish The Gathering Storm and New Spring the Novel, I'll start them.

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