Thursday, January 13, 2011

Towers of Midnight Review

Towers of Midnight(The Wheel of Time Book 13), by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan, 843 pages, fantasy novel.

In the last third of Towers of Midnight there is a shocking scene. Morgase and Elayne, reunited at last, discuss Perrin and his army. Perrin has become a problem and Elayne is frustrated because she doesn't know what to do with him. The thought flashes through Elayne's mind that the easiest thing to do would be to find him and execute him.

With that statement we are a long way away from the bright eyed young adventurers we met in The Eye of the World.

Later in the book Elayne (and Morgase, as advisor) meet with Perrin and Faile over what to do about Perrin, his army, and the "threat from Two Rivers." Elayne begins the meeting with "Explain to me why I should not have you both executed as traitors."

Elayne is a proper queen: she is politically savvy and cunning, but does not hold back from the threat of violence or open war if her demands are not met(specifically the illegality of an army within her borders). She argues with Perrin and his people about the need to show the world that "a man may not declare himself a lord and raise an army to support his claim within my kingdom."

Perrin, ever the well meaning but tough minded common man, points out that there was no support from the crown for the people when they faced a trolloc invasion. They were left to defend themselves without troops, financial aid or supplies that as a province of Andor they had the right to expect. The army he raised (or more accurately was raised around him) was for the purposes of self defense, not insurrection.

Elayne needs to quell this "rebellion." She has plans on invading Cairhein. It will secure her power base and accomplish other dark political motives. All in prepartion to the last battle.

Perrin too readies for the last battle. He knows his role will be significant, and though he is ta'veren, he knows that he must do his best to work his way through the mess that is the state of the world, after the dark one has so thoroughly touched it.

The above example is meant to highlight several impressions about this book: First, the characters have not grown up, as in some YA coming of age story. Rather, they have grown deadly, as the world of their story has dictated they must. Towers of Midnight drives home this point repeatedly. These characters are playing for keeps.

Second, this book is very much Perrin's book. Wheras in the past we have seen Perrin simply mope about when Faile was being a bitch, and then mope about when Faile wasn' t there because she had been captured, and then finally fight to reclaim her, here he and Faile are very much a couple and this book is the story of their uniting, of rebuilding their lives after the losses of the past. It is, in a very strange way for a fantasy text, about marriage, and what it means to be married. The understandings, the confrontations, the arguments, the adjustments and finally the acceptance of one's choice of mate. The book is also Perrin's suprising story of coming to terms with his frightening and almost always out of control, wolf nature. The truth about it, and him, was a true holy shit moment.

Finally, it is about how one time friends supposedly all working for a common goal can find themselves facing each other across figurative and literal battlefields.

The state of things in the world of The Wheel of Time Book 13: Towers of Midnight is what we have come to expect: the barbarians are at the gate, and the various factions vie for power. Human nature being what it is, Jordan seems to say, the real trick is not will the Dark One be defeated (though how Rand plans to solve that is mind blowing as well), but will humans defeat themselves first?

Structurally the book was a bit unbalanced. Though the storytelling elements of a wheel of time book we as readers love(suspense, plot complications, the fight scenes, love stories) are all there, there is a sense in which the book was too dominated by Perrin's story. There were plenty of scenes with Mat, Rand, Egwene and Nynaeve. Even Lan and Thom. But there wasn't one other major plot figure who shared the book with Perrin.

The narrative of The Gathering Storm was dominated by Egwene and Rand. There was a balance of their characters working out the major arcs of their story: their issues, their duties, and trials. Rand struggling to unite the land and hunt the Forsaken. Egwene trying to undermine Elaida and unite the tower. Towers of Midnight didn't have that. Towers of Midnight is essenially Perrin's book, with other subplots thrown in. All still important to the larger frame of the story, but with no other character essentially taking center stage besides Perrin. It is as if in this book what happens in the last battle will very much depend on how or if Perrin works through the choices and difficulties presented to him.

Surprisingly, the other characters whose main plot lines feature in the novel are not major characters. Galad and Gawyn, Elayne's half brother and brother, have their respective arcs. Their character development, and the situations they find themselves in, seem to take up much of the narrative.

Galad, fighting to control and redirect the Whitecloaks as well as work out his misguided and complicated ideas of right and wrong, does provide a satisfying narrative of a human struggling with the consequences of a perspective that refuses to see anything but black and white issues. Galad grows a great deal in this book. Which is surprising because for so long he has been a one dimensional character. Not through any fault of the author, but because of Galad's own moral code that reduces all situations to a simplistic right and wrong. Galad, the character who throughout the series has seemed the least likely to grow and change, is also the one who most convincingly changes.

But he too has not just grown up, he has also grown deadly. Firm in his belief that Perrin is responsible for his step mother Morgase's death he pursues Perrin with his whitecloak a army, determined whatever the cost to bring him to justice. In Galad's terms though justice means execution. He also orders death for several characters believed to be part of a whitecloak insurgency. Death, at his hands, is also a real possiblility.

Gawyn, one is tempted to say, does not share the deadliness of the other characters. But if this is so its because his energies have been placed in chasing Egwene. In this novel she firmly tells him she has more important things to do than steal kisses behind tapestries. She has the White Tower to run.

But Gawyn has always been lethal. His skill as a swordsman is unsurpassed. He holds the mark of heron blade master but has limited experience of fighting to the death.

Until now. Assassin's in the white tower have necessitated his watchfulness for Egwene's safety. He is put to the test and we become aware of his deadliness. A deadliness that could, if he faced Rand in combat, kill him. He hates Rand for what he imagines he has done to his sister so the idea that this fearsome blade be turned upon Rand is not idle.

Mat, my favorite character in the series, fulfills his promise and goes to the Tower of Ghenji. I won't spoil the end, but I will say that any lingering doubts I had as to whether Mat was meant to be an homage or invocation or avatar of Odin have been put to rest.

I think it significant in this series that the characters we would normally assume to be heroes fighting against evil we see squaring up against each other: Elayne vs. Mat. Elayne vs. Perrin. Perrin vs. Galad. Gawyn vs. Rand. All part of Jordan's plan I assume to illuminate a part of the human condition. Specifically our own heroic self interest which rears its ugly head even when unifying is meant to overcome the obliteration of our species.

Though its been said that Brandon Sanderson is a darker writer than Robert Jordan, in this book I think he has succeeded in writing what would have been Jordan's book. Perhaps not in form, because as I wrote earlier I think the book somewhat unbalanced, then at least in its themes and exploration of the human condition. I feel that he has chosen rightly. His characters to my mind are still Jordan's characters, and the plot is essentially still Jordan's.

I am genuinely looking forward to the publication of A Memory of Light. I feel confident that it will be well written, and as close as we could have to how Jordan himself would have ended it.

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