AICN Books: Adam Balm reviews the newest Wheel of Time novel, Towers of Midnight!
Published at: Nov. 2, 2010, 12:57 a.m. CST by quint
TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT (Wheel of Time book 13)
by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
To read the Wheel of Time is to live in anticipation. In the entire length and breadth of written science fiction and fantasy you can point to few things that have the level of hype and anticipation that the final Wheel of Time book has generated. Maybe the final Potter book comes close, but then again, unlike with Wheel of Time, people didn't have to wait decades for it. Mainly this is because the entire Wheel of Time series has been one long build up to a single event: Tarmon Gai'don, The Last Battle. The gist of the series is that in the beginning, at the moment of creation, the Creator imprisoned The Dark One, aka Shai'tan. The bore to his prison was closed with seven seals. From then on the Creator and the Dark One have been destined to play out the same cycle, over and over again as the wheel of time turns. In each age, both powers have a champion, one man that stands with the creator and one that stands with Shai'tan. In the last age it was Lews Therin Telamon (Called the Dragon) that fought for the Light, and Ishmael that fought for the darkness. In the third age, the new incarnation of the creator's champion is Rand al'Thor (Aka the Dragon Reborn). So basically the only thing that matters is the Last Battle, and everything else is foreplay. By the middle of the last decade, after eleven books (stretched from the original four or five that were planned), Robert Jordan was plotting A Memory of Light, the final volume of the series that would tell the tale of the Tarmon Gai'don. This would be the big pay-off. This would make it all worth the wait.
Then Robert Jordan died.
Now, plenty of series were never finished before their authors exited this world, but somehow this was different. Because, again, to read Wheel of Time is to live in anticipation. Because it had violated the law of franchise fatigue that says that the more the story goes on, the more it drags on and fizzles out. Instead, since it had a fixed finish line, the Wheel of Time only picked up speed as the Last Battle approached. But when Jordan died, he left millions of fantasy fans with the biggest case of blue balls in literary history. So as is fashionable these days, they took Jordan's notes and brought on someone new to finish it. In 2007 it was announced that Brandon Sanderson, one of the rising stars in the new wave of epic fantasy authors, would be finishing A Memory of Light. Years passed, and the size of the work became untenable. It was later announced in 2009 that the final Wheel of Time book would be split into a trilogy. (Because everything must be split into a trilogy. Everything.) The Gathering Storm was to be the first book, spanning the first act of the final volume. Towers of Midnight is the second act of this trilogy, and represents the climax of all that has come before. Now in fairness I should probably mention that I've almost never reviewed epic fantasy, mostly because I almost never read it. Fantasy as a whole is a little bit of a blind spot for me, and epic fantasy...well, I just don't have the attention span or the interest. But it makes no difference. if you read a lot of SF, even a fantasy-phobe can't go for very long remaining ignorant of Wheel of Time, and even a fantasy-phobe like me would be crazy to not take up an offer to get an advance look at the latest book. (Minor spoilers ahead.)
So after having read through all 841 pages of it, what's the verdict? Is it any good? Depends. The short answer is that it gets the job done without a whole lot of bumps along the way, it's a page turner that pretty much does what a penultimate book in a series is supposed to do. (Meaning it ties up all the loose ends that it has to and sets the stage for the final book in a way that makes you want to throw the book when you get to the last page and realize you have to wait another year for the rest.) I think Sanderson probably understands the raw mechanics of story-telling better than most genre authors who've been at this for decades. (Anyone who doubts this should listen to his podcast Writing Excuses.) So that's the short answer. The long answer is...I honestly don't know. And not just because I know fuck all about fantasy. First, in any book ongoing series with a continuous narrative, each book is basically a single act in one long arc. You can't say "Oh, Lord of Chaos was absolute shit but Path of Daggers blew my hair back and made me see Jesus." Second, it's almost impossible to really evaluate how successful a book is that's been finished by another author. You can only judge a book by how well it succeeded in what the author intended to do, but in these cases, it's hard to say what that is. No two authors are going to have the same intentions or the same vision, even if they're starting from the same place, and it's not like you have Jordan's notes alongside Sanderson's finished draft to compare the two. I ran into this problem when reviewing the final book in the Dune series, and I was positive that Frank Herbert would never have ended it with Duncan Idaho ruling the universe. It was philosophically opposed to the theme Herbert had been developing in the later books of creating a universe where no single person could change the course of the entire human race. So in my mind, the more I look back on it, the more I'm convinced that the Frank Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson union was made of pure fail. Sanderson, on the other hand, is much more seamless.
Now, some were bitching after Gathering Storm about Sanderson's choice not to ape Jordan's writing style. Sanderson's prose at times can be generously described as minimalist. He values clarity above beauty. In a way, I was actually a bit grateful for this. In a series with 13 books written over 20 years, averaging about 700-800 pages a piece, with 1800 named characters (With some of them often having multiple names), the biggest sin against the reader is going to be confusion. It could easily become a virtual impossibility for all but the most hard core fan to follow the storyline without consulting an outside source like the Guide or the WoT encyclopedia. So yeah, Sanderson is more likely to spell things out with all the subtlety of a nail gun, but I call it a feature, not a bug. And lets be fair, as far as series finished by other hands goes, there's far less daylight between Sanderson and Jordan than Kevin J. Anderson and Frank Herbert, or Christopher Tolkien and J.R.R., or Kevin J. Anderson and A.E. Van Vogt, or H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, or Kevin J. Anderson and pretty much anyone. In fact, some things you could go so far as to call an improvement. Sanderson is from the ADD generation, meaning he has the ability to tell if a scene or a piece of dialogue is a part that an audience actually cares about or not. For the most part, side character plots are short and to the point, we're told just what we need to know and quickly cut away. And one good thing about this being nearly the end of the series, you don't have half the book taken up by the following: A character has a dream, strange stuff happens in said dream, they wake up realizing it was a dream, they then spend an entire chapter talking about what the dream could mean, rinse, repeat. No offense to the memory of Robert Jordan, but that was bloated writing at its laziest. Anyway, thankfully by now nearly all the signs and portents have been explained, all the prophecies have either come true or not.
Towers of Midnight picks up not far after where Gathering Storm drops off. The skies are boiling. The dead now walk again. Crops are dying in the fields, hunger and famine sweep over the world, refugees abandon the burning cities of civilization and pour into the waste lands. Thousands of Trollocs (Like Orcs but spelled and pronounced differently) bubble up out of the earth, raining a death and destruction that hasn't been seen in millennia. Shai'Tan's prison is weakening and armies now ride north for the Last Battle that will break the world once again. (By the way, none of this is going to make sense to anyone who hasn't read the first twelve books, so don't even try.) Rand's introduction, as he walks down the slopes of Dragonmount is probably the biggest "fuck yeah" moment of the entire series. I can't help but think this is one of the parts that Robert Jordan had written before his death. Up until now we've seen Rand progressively more uncertain, as his sanity slips away and his two personalities battle for control. After the end of the Gathering Storm, however, we see that the lives of Lews Therin and Rand al'Thor have merged together. Now there's no more turmoil, just a zen-like messianic sense of purpose. This part is going to come as a shock to a lot of fans. The Rand that they have been following for thirteen books is mostly gone, at least when we first meet him. "I was broken," he explains, saying he's been "reforged". You might say that he has only now fully become the Dragon Reborn. He goes to Egwene, who has finally unified the White Tower, and reveals his plan: He's going to Shayol Ghul to finally unseal the crumbling Bore that keeps the Dark One in his prison and then reseal it for good, this will mean loosing him upon the world one last time before they're able to imprison him again. To do that he'll need both Saidin and Saidar, (He failed the first time because he only had the male component of the One Power) which means he needs the Aes Sedai to help him. In this, he's made his peace with the White Tower, having fought to free himself from their strings for the entire series. But Egwene isn't convinced.
In fact, If you could pin down one overriding theme of Towers of Midnight, it's in the three characters who finally accept the part they have to play, and finally becoming who they were always meant to be: Rand, Perrin, and Lan. Perrin, like Rand was the last couple of books, is in turmoil, torn between the world of men and the dream world of the wolf, between the desire for a simple blacksmith's life and his calling as the Lord of the Two Rivers. He finally faces the Whitecloaks that have hunted him and damned him as Shadowspawn, and will finally come face to face once again with Slayer. Lan, meanwhile, is crossing the Blight toward what was once his home, as more and more flock to the Uncrowned King of Malkier calling on him to raise the banner of the Golden Crane, taking his place leading them into the Final Battle as the Lord of the Seven Towers. At the same time, Elayne steps up to claim the Sun Throne, Egwene hunts the Forsaken known as Mesaana and begins to rally an army to oppose Rand and his plan to break the seals. Mat rides to the Tower of Ghenji to confront the Snakes and the Foxes who have manipulated and controlled his life and to rescue Moraine (And while he's at it, reinvent the lost art of artillery by introducing canons to the battlefield.) And plenty is going on with the Seanchan, with it seeming more likely than ever that they are destined to destroy the Aiel. (Although I seriously don't understand what the hell the purpose of the Seanchan is. They're to the Wheel of Time universe what the Yuuzhan Vong are to the Star Wars universe.) The final line of the book, "The end had come. They would meet it with swords raised." tells you pretty much all you need to know about where this is going.
Towers of Midnight is a sliver of a sliver, a single act in a work that's almost overwhelming in its scope and complexity. Sanderson doesn't buckle under the weight, but then again Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight were the easy part. The real test for Sanderon is going to come a year from now when the final volume drops. Then we'll see a whole different kind of Final Battle, this one in the hearts and minds of fans who have been waiting their whole lives with expectations that no author could possibly live up to. All of the blame will fall to him, not Jordan, if he doesn't measure up. I'm guessing that for Sanderson, nothing waiting in Shayol Ghul could be as terrifying. Anticipation cuts both ways.
Towers of Midnight goes on sale later today.