Friday, August 01, 2014

Books Read: July 2014

Friday, August 01, 2014 0
Below is a listing of all of the books I read in July. All links would go to my reviews, but I was out of town for two weeks in the middle of the month and never quite got around to writing any.  Sorry, folks.

1. Nexus, by Ramez Naam
2. The Wall Around Eden, by Joan Slonczewski
3. Warbound, by Larry Correia
4. King's Dragon, by Kate Elliott
5. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
6. Civilwarland in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
7. The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
8. The Risen Empire, by Scott Westerfeld
9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
10. A Dance With Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

Best Book of the Month: Everyone should read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Period. This is the multi-faceted story of the titular woman whose cancer cells were taken and used without permission (which was very much the norm then, and potentially still now) and which led to numerous medical breakthroughs. So, the story is of Henrietta Lacks, her family (who only found out about how Henrietta's cells were being used until decades later), the science behind the HeLa cells and what came from it, and how this all ties together.  It's really good.

Disappointment of the Month: George Saunders had been recommended for years as being one of America's top short story writers, and a friend with good taste also recommended this collection in particular. My wife read Tenth of December from Saunders and wasn't impressed, but I had a copy of Civilwarland sitting at home. I took it with me to San Diego...and I just could not engage with the stories. There's a chance if I read this when I was twenty and working with post-teenage ennui that I would have loved this, but I'm in a very different place now and I just couldn't deal with what Saunders is doing. 

Discovery of the Month: I'm not sure I should call a book that has been on my radar for fifteen years a discovery, but when I finally read it and find that it is exactly as good as I had hoped it would be, it sort of is a discovery. This would be King's Dragon, the first of Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series. If you like the epic fantasy stuff, and want something gritty and real, you really need to start with King's Dragon.

GRRM of the Month: I finally finished A Dance With Dragons a couple of days ago. It's good, I enjoyed it, but I also felt like it was pretty much just setting things up for a really awesome sixth book than it was telling a great story on its own. It felt a little disjointed, more so than A Feast for Crows did. 

Worth Noting: I feel that The Book of Unknown Americans is about to become required reading in the next couple of years. A) It's really damn good.  B) It provides the modern immigrant experience of why people are still coming to America from Mexico and Central America, and it does so by simply telling several stories that interlink, with some interstitials filling in more immigrant stories from minor characters in the novel. C) Also, it's really damn good.

Gender Breakdown: Half of the books I read this month were written by women. Not a bad month.

Previous Months

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Shadow Unit

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 0

I've struggled with how to write about the ending of Shadow Unit.  I have a friend who has never watched the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation because if she doesn't watch it, the show really isn't over.  There is still one more episode to watch.  There is still one more story out there.  There is still one more.

I didn't really understand before. No matter what series I read or show I watched, I would devour the ending. Sure, I might be sad when it was all over, but I wanted to see how it finished and to feel those emotions.  And then there was Shadow Unit.

Sometime in 2007 I became aware of a "sekrit project" which involved Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly. At the time, all I knew was that it was titled "Shadow Unit" and had a website which had very little information on it. I was (and still am) a very big fan of Elizabeth Bear's fiction and so I was curious as to what was going on.  Little did I know that I would spend the next seven years anxiously and eagerly awaiting each new episode.

The word "episode" is used very specifically here.  Shadow Unit was imagined as an episodic television show that never existed, so each episode was a discrete story building the larger mythology.  My description of it was always "Criminal Minds meets The X-Files, but the monsters are human."  It's as good as it sounds, and probably better than that.

It is one of my very favorite things ever.  Shadow Unit invited a community to grow around it, to participate through character livejournal accounts that were written in real time - as if the characters were real people living their lives, which is what they became.  The creators interacted with the fans on a regular basis via the message board, and it became a thing.  A community. A community of which I was a part for a number of years.  I fell away, as happens sometimes, but I still followed the episodes, I still had my heart ripped out after one particular episode midway through the run. The first season finale was a short novel worth of material, but it played out over real time - so when the livejournals went silent, we don't know if there is anyone who makes it out okay. 

It was a beautiful and moving thing.

The series finale went live on July 6. "Something's Gotta Eat T. Rexes" was written by Elizabeth Bear, Steven Brust, and Emma Bull.  It has taken me the better part of a month to muster up the courage to read it. 
I've been afraid of how it is going to end.  Not that the writers won't do a stunningly fantastic job, but that I'm going to lose someone else from the show.  I don't expect that everything is going to be okay. Not on this show. 

I'm just not sure I'm ready for it to be over.

In between writing the last sentence and this one, several hours have passed and I have finished reading the final episode. If I talked about my emotional response to "Something's Gotta Eat T. Rexes", I think I might give far too much away.  Suffice it to say that I had one. The thing is, I don't see nearly enough people talking about Shadow Unit.  Maybe it has to do with the small corner of the internet which I inhabit, or because like most short fiction, it isn't something that gets talked about, but it should.

So, let me say this: Shadow Unit is one of the most engrossing, moving, painful, and wonderful things that I have read.  I have enjoyed every moment of the last seven years I have been reading this collaborative project, even the painful ones. Especially the painful ones, because those are the moments that remind me that this is something I've truly connected with, that they mattered to me.  Shadow Unit may be finished, but these are the characters that will linger. 

If all of this is new to you, if you've never read Shadow Unit or even heard of it before, let me just invite you to begin with the very first episode, "Breathe", written by Emma Bull. There's a whole lot of story out there, just waiting to be discovered. Shadow Unit is something special.

And to all of the writers who worked on Shadow Unit: Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, Leah Bobet, Amanda Downum, Chelsea Polk, Holly Black, and Steven Brust: Thank you. That was one hell of a ride.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (re-post)

Friday, July 25, 2014 0
This article was originally posted on November 3, 2009. It is being re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards. 

Two things to note, before we get into it.  Unlike the previous eleven articles, my review of The Gathering Storm was based on reading the book for the first time. It had been the first new Wheel of Time novel in four years. It was published two years after the 2007 death of Robert Jordan, and until Brandon Sanderson was announced to be finishing the series, I don't know that I necessarily expected to ever find out how it all ends. I hoped, but I didn't know.  My reviews / articles on the rest of the series, from The Eye of the World through The Knife of Dreams, were all based on being a re-read of the series to work my way up to the forthcoming novel.  The earliest novels I had read many times, the latest ones maybe once or twice. 

The second thing is that this will also be the last of the Wheel of Time articles I am posting for the Hugo Awards.  I have already written my thoughts on the Best Novel category as a whole, but I never reviewed The Towers of Midnight when it was published (I was in the process of a major life change), and legitimately, when I wasn't able to muster up a review of A Memory of Light, I thought I was done blogging all together.  I was wrong about that, but this is still the last of the Wheel of Time posts this year. 

The Gathering Storm
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2009

Let’s just get one thing cleared up before we start here. If it wasn’t obvious by the last eleven posts of the series re-read, I’m a bit of a Wheel of Time fanboy. There’s nothing I can do about that and I’m quite happy with it. This is a seminal series of my fantasy reading life and Robert Jordan has stuck with me over the last fifteen years when other authors failed me. So, please understand that while I may recognize flaws in the novel (and the series), I can easily gloss over them because this is a series I love dearly. Never is anything so egregious that it will hamper my enjoyment of the series.

That’s my admission of bias.

I will attempt to be very light on revealing spoilers since the novel has only been on the market for a week, but some events that happen early on in the novel may be touched on more than some would like to know. So, if you don’t want to know any details, please step away and come back when you’re done with the book. I’ll be gentle with the spoilers, though.

This has been pointed out elsewhere, but a major focus of The Gathering Storm is the dueling stories of Egwene and Rand. Continuing on her story of defiance from Knife of Dreams, Egwene is strong at heart, firm in her need to both do what is right for the White Tower as well as her need to heal the Tower the right way. The way she behaves and acts is as important as the result she is looking to achieve. Egwene demonstrates leadership through example. She does not permit the rebel Aes Sedai besieging Tar Valon to rescue her because she knows that her example of moral defiance and the small conversations she has with the Tower Aes Sedai will do far more good than she ever could as the head of a besieging army. In this way she is setting herself up as a viable alternative to Elaida. In this way she is also shown as something of a mirror to Rand.

Early on in The Gathering Storm, after another attack by a Forsaken almost causes Rand to mirror the actions of Lews Therin and kill Min, Rand decides that being hard as stone is no longer hard enough. He must be as hard as cuendillar. For several novels now Rand has been holding on tightly to his humanity, with only a small soft core he leaves for the women in his life. Rand realizes, or simply believes, that to make it to Tarmon Gai'don he must strip even that away. Between shutting Min away, exiling Cadsuane, and changing his attitude about what he is willing to do to defeat the Dark One, Rand is on a very fast decent into darkness. Others have talked about Rand’s behavior in terms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his journey from being a decent man from a small village to a man who has to be a killer.

I am so very fortunate to not have experience with PTSD, but this is an excellent explanation as to the entire direction of Rand’s behavior throughout the series. It also demonstrates part of the difference between Rand and Egwene. Egwene has been taught by the Aiel on how one with honor behaves, how to be better and stronger, and what it means to live towards an ideal. This has given her the strength to make her decisions, to stand on her own as the Amyrlin Seat, and to take all the beatings she has been given as “penance” as a prisoner of the White Tower and still hold to her duty. Rand, on the other hand, had to deal with becoming a killer of men and knowing that in the potentially short time he had left to live, he would have to kill again and again and do so without compunction.

To use the analogies of being hard like stone and being able to bend, Egwene is the one who is strong but able to bend and survive. Rand is making himself so hard that he will eventually crack and break. It’s clear very early on that he is in a very bad place. This is only worse when he has to use the True Power to free himself from an impossible situation. The True Power, if you don’t remember, is the one that is provided via a link to the Dark One and it is drawing on his own essence. It’s what Moridin uses to have the black lines of saa cross his eyes and what the other Forsaken use sparingly because of the risks. Rand taps into that early on in the novel and even the voice of Lews Therin is absolutely horrified by what Rand just did. Like I said, Rand is in an exceptionally bad place.

The two storylines of Egwene and Rand are exceptionally well done. Egwene, in particular, should be singled out as a character done well and one of the best storylines in the last half dozen volumes of the Wheel of Time. The various events which take place as part of Egwene’s storyline will be pivotal for the next two volumes (and beyond). Egwene’s storyline is at times thrilling, heartbreaking, and when some of the early reviews say that they wanted to stand up and cheer during The Gathering Storm, they were probably talking about something to do with Egwene late in this novel. Folks, if you’re a long time fan of The Wheel of Time (and you should be if you’re reading this twelfth volume), some of this stuff is as good as anything you’ve gotten earlier in the series. Seriously. This could be Joe the Fanboy talking, but Egwene in the late stages of this novel is just spectacular.

Rand, obviously, has a very different journey and as well done as Rand’s chapters are, they are somewhat difficult to read as we see Rand going into dark places indeed. There are two reunion scenes which readers have looked forward to for a while and neither one goes well. There is also the things Cuendillar-Hard Rand says to Nynaeve, and an action which Rand does which Nynaeve is both horrified about and also finds herself wondering if it was perhaps truly necessary if he is to defeat the Dark One. It’s interesting and brutal and is not at all pleasant.

Those are the two primary aspects of The Gathering Storm and combined, is by far the strongest aspect of the novel. Everything else is secondary to those storylines.

This does mean that Mat and Perrin are given much smaller roles and Elayne is completely absent from this volume. Readers are given short glimpses of Perrin and the fallout from the battle of Malden and the rescue of Faile. We don’t see a whole lot of what’s going on there, except that Perrin and Faile are relearning who they are together after being given a chance to grow while separated. Mat gets a bit more to do in The Gathering Storm, but his is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the novel.

There were concerns going into this novel about how well Brandon Sanderson was going to be able to step into the world that Robert Jordan created. Most fans of the series felt good about the decision Harriet (Robert Jordan’s wife and editor) made to hire Brandon to finish the series, but even the most positive couldn’t help but wonder if Sanderson would really be able to pull it off, that he would be able to write the characters in such a way that they feel the same. That he would somehow make the characters feel “right”.

Mat is perhaps the only character who feels “off” (and perhaps Perrin, to a lesser extent). Here Mat talks a bit too much, his jokes feel flat, and some indefinable bit of “Mat-ness” isn’t quite there.

Here’s the thing, though. Brandon stopped in Minneapolis on his tour for The Gathering Storm and he talked a little bit about Mat, though not in regards to the character feeling “off”. Thankfully, nobody was so gauche to actually bring it up directly. What Brandon had to say about Mat was that he had just experienced the most surreal and absolutely weird situation he had ever had in his life, which is Tuon herself. Mat had never been in love with a woman before and when he did fall in love with Tuon it changed his worldview. After finally declaring herself married to Mat; she leaves and returns to Ebou Dar to take up the Seanchan Empire. Mat is usually the one doing the leaving and here he is left, this time by the woman he loves. Worse, he may be about to find himself on opposite sides if it comes to war. He is out of sorts, not sure how to behave or deal with what just happened. He’s not sure what to do in the future.

Now, I can’t say if this played in to how Brandon wrote Mat (assuming that those chapters / sections were written by Sanderson and not Jordan), if this was the plan all along, or if Mat just feels “off” because he feels “off”, but it was interesting to hear Brandon talk about what was going on in Mat’s world. It’s clear from the Minneapolis signing that he did think a lot about Mat. It’s questionable if he pulled off the character or if the change was intentional.

On the other hand, Mat did ask Verin if she "saidared" something, and that was just priceless.

Taking a look at The Gathering Storm as a complete novel, Sanderson did an excellent job of pulling together storylines, answering a good deal of questions, and telling as complete a story as possible given that this is volume twelve of fourteen. There is no resolution, as such, because Tarmon Gai'don is still coming, but Sanderson told complete story arcs for both Egwene and Rand and did a hell of a job with it. Others characters received short shrift, but it seems necessary and appropriate for Sanderson to have done so in order to do justice to Egwene and Rand. Brandon was capable of handling some seriously emotional sequences (Verin, anyone?) and he did so with great skill.

The Gathering Storm is a richer and more fully satisfying Wheel of Time novel than we have seen in a good many years. It is difficult to compare the first experience of reading The Gathering Storm to reading those first five novels of the series all those years ago, but this novel holds up well compared to anything that came after the fifth book.

The Gathering Storm shows that Harriet’s judgment in choosing Brandon Sanderson was sound, that he was the right writer for the job. For fans, there is a sense of relief that Brandon was up to the task and that he delivered the book we hoped for.

Call me a fanboy for believing this, and perhaps this is more than a little presumptuous to say, but I think Robert Jordan would be proud of this one. Folks, Brandon did well, and he should be proud of himself, too. He wrote a novel that “feels” like it is part of The Wheel of Time. It was worth the wait.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Knife of Dreams, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

Thursday, July 24, 2014 0
This article was originally posted on October 28, 2009. It is being re-posted as part of my continuing coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

Knife of Dreams
Robert Jordan
Tor: 2005

With Knife of Dreams Robert Jordan picks up the relatively glacial pacing of the previous two to three novels (the cleansing notwithstanding) and begins to move the characters to a point where readers can reasonably say that an end is in sight. Even if that end is still one large novel told in three volumes away. To be fair, while Knife of Dreams reads faster than the previous volumes we shouldn’t assume that what we have is anything like the first four novels in the series. This is still a novel in which characters wait around for things to happen and Elayne still spends much of the novel trying to maneuver herself onto the throne of Andor while her rivals besiege Caemlyn. That said, there is much to like here.

One of the freshest storylines in Knife of Dreams is that of Egwene al’Vere. Egwene is the rebel Amyrlin Seat and, at the end of Crossroads of Twilight, was captured by the Aes Sedai of the White Tower after partially blocking the harbor. Though she is prisoner, Egwene decides to act as the Amyrlin she knows herself to be and allow her actions and words to slowly bring about change inside the White Tower and be a quiet pocket of resistance. She receives regular beatings as penances, but never wavers in her stance and gradually, over a period of two weeks (or so) begins to see results.

The Egwene chapters are some of the most effective and most interesting in the novel. Egwene in the White Tower gives a true comparison in how things have changed since she was first a novice and also a stark demonstration of the growth and maturity Egwene has experienced over the year(s) from when she first left Emond’s Field to now. As much as any other character, Egwene is a far different woman than the girl who we met in The Eye of the World, and her quiet leadership in Knife of Dreams is a storyline which promises to have as much impact on the world as anything Rand or the Seanchan do. Plus, Egwene’s determination is just compelling storytelling that gets beyond the regular machinations of the Aes Sedai in Salidar or the Tower itself.

My Noal Charin watch continues and for the first time Mat asks Noal straight out if he was Jain Farstrider. Noal reluctantly admits that Jain was a cousin, but given how Robert Jordan has set all this up, there’s no reason to actually believe that. Tuon’s presence here allows her to ask a question nobody else would have, which is asking who Jain Farstrider was. Everyone from the Randland side of the ocean would have already known. But, this lets an outsider ask the question and Noal answer. His answer is revealing.

“He was a fool,” Noal said grimly before Mat could open his mouth, though Olver did get his open and left it gaping while the old man continued. “He went gallivanting about the world and left a good and loving wife to die of a fever without him there to hold her hand while she died. He let himself be made into a tool by---“ Abrubtly Noal’s face went blank. Staring through Mat, he rubbed at his forehead as though attempting to recall something.

Young Olver is a huge fan of Jain Farstrider comes to Jain’s defense and reminds Noal of of some of the great things Jain did.

Noal came to himself with a start and patted Olver’s shoulder. “He did that, boy. That much is to his credit. But what adventure is worth leaving your wife to die alone?” He sounded sad enough to die on the spot himself.

This may not be the heart of the novel or the series, but the Noal Charin / Jain Farstrider bits are some which add so much richness to the history and shape of the world and story. It also provides something to wonder about. If Noal really is Jain Farstrider as an old man, what happened to him? The most common theories is that he ran afoul of the Shadow at some point and was captured by either Graendal or Ishamael and was left a broken man. But, the question is whether Noal can be considered a potential sleeper agent with a hidden compulsion. Probably not, but just maybe. It’s worth wondering about.

Another interesting thing around is the storyline is Mat with Aludra the Illuminator and what appears to be the introduction of gunpowder and artillery cannon to the world. How will this change things and can it be accelerated enough to make a difference in the Last Battle? Between Aludra’s cannon and the inventions created as a result of Rand’s school, the world is about to undergo its first technological revolution since the Breaking some three thousand years ago. Rand’s got people inventing “steam wagons”, which is an early version of cars / trains.

Now, Knife of Dreams has a solid focus on Perrin and a couple of climactic battles near the end of the novel and it features the resolution to the Faile kidnapping story (finally!), but more than anything else, what people will take from this novel is the letter from Moiraine to Thom and the confirmation of what many people were guessing for years: Moiraine isn’t dead. She needs rescuing. Hell yeah.

For me, The Wheel of Time has always been about the little things more than the big story arcs. It gets me through the times when the major story arcs had slowed to a crawl and it adds richness to the times when Jordan is absolutely nailing the major story arcs. Knife of Dreams succeeds as well as it does because of those smaller moments as well as the battles (also finally, another Trolloc battle here). The Ogier. Nynaeve beginning to rally the Borderlands so that Lan won’t ride alone. Steamwagons. The changing corridors and the loosening of the pattern. The detail about the Amayar. Rand briefly seeing “black flecks” in his vision, which makes me wonder about that link to Moridin and the saa. The revelation to folks that Rand really is hearing voices. Anytime the Forsaken get together. Seriously, Knife of Dreams is a novel loaded with awesome bits to quietly thrill longtime fans of the series and reward them for their wait.

Is this a better book because the last couple weren’t quite as good? Yeah, maybe. I’m not exactly unbiased here and I can only admit that I love this series and frequently overlook flaws. But, this one is just better than Wheel of Time had been for a while and the Egwene chapters are top notch.

All that is left now is A Memory of Light, the three volume conclusion to The Wheel of Time which begins with The Gathering Storm.

Except for whenever I write about New Spring, this will be the last trip through memory lane. The Gathering Storm has been published and it is all new content from now. I have thoroughly enjoyed the re-read of the series and I’m ready to jump back into a new Wheel of Time story.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Crossroads of Twilight, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 0
This article was originally posted on October 5, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

Crossroads of Twilight
Robert Jordan

On my first reading of Crossroads of Twilight I was satisfied with the novel, that even though the action of the novel is lacking and Robert Jordan did not build on the Cleansing in Winter’s Heart, it was Wheel of Time and it told the stories of characters who caught short shrift in the previous volume. Only later, thinking back on the novel, did I feel a sense of disappointment that except until the very end of the novel could I say that “nothing happened”. My complaints grew. Maybe we didn’t need to be caught up with all the other characters. There’s nothing wrong with jumping ahead a couple days or a week and just picking up then.

So what now? This is either the first or second time I have read Crossroads of Twilight since 2003. All I have are vague recollections. Now we have a volume following Crossroads of Twilight and the first part of the three book series finale is a month away from publication. Frustrations regarding the passivity of Crossroads of Twilight are lessened because now this is only a chapter in the larger story, rather than the book we’ve waited several years for.

The first half of so of the novel runs concurrently with the conclusion of Winter’s Heart. There is this great “beacon” off in the distance that tells any woman who can channel that a great use of Saidar is being used. Readers of the series know that this is the Cleansing of saidin, but the other characters don’t. The general assumption is that the Forsaken are involved and when the Aes Sedai scout out battlefield after the fact, they assume that what happened at Shadar Logoth is some new Forsaken weapon. Otherwise, there are four primary storylines running through Crossroads of Twilight.

Perrin continues to chase the Shaido Aiel who have kidnapped his wife. Elayne works to hold on to the Lion Throne in Andor and is facing a siege from rival houses. Mat tries to evade the Seanchan in his flight from Ebou Dar. Mat also works to improve his relations with Tuon, the Daughter of the Nine Moon. Egwene and her rebel Aes Sedai are outside the gates of Tar Valon. She’s working on a plan to block the harbor at Tar Valon.

This may be a gross simplification of the basic plotlines of Crossroads of Twilight, but I do believe it is an accurate summation of the bulk of what happens in Crossroads of Twilight. Not a whole lot.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t quality here. When Robert Jordan gets down to it, he can write excellent scenes and put together a good book. Most of this book just isn’t Jordan getting down to it. The White Tower intrigue works, as does the burgeoning (and confusing) Mat and Tuon relationship. Elayne’s chapters are turgid, but the closer Egwene gets to acting the better her chapters are.

Crossroads of Twilight does not suffer from Middle Book Syndrome. It suffers from Middle Chapter Syndrome. It answers any questions as to what was happening with the rest of the characters while Rand and Nynaeve are off cleansing the taint off saidin. It also sets up the next part of Egwene’s storyline, and the future of how the major protagonists will relate to the Seanchan. That’s about all that Crossroads of Twilight is.

It’s this that makes Crossroads of Twilight such a disappointing novel. There is very little that occurs in the text that needs to be told directly. Not that required 800 pages of paperback text. A couple of chapters could reasonably have covered it, maybe three hundred pages at most that could have been spread between The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, and Knife of Dreams. That’s not what happened, of course, we were given Crossroads of Twilight. It’s a novel that isn’t a novel, it’s a long interlude in between novels. It is a collection of chapters in a larger novel. Taken from that perspective, Crossroads of Twilight is not an offensive novel. It’s really not much of anything at all.

On to Knife of Dreams, please.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Winter's Heart, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 0
This article was originally posted on September 22, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my continuing coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

Winter’s Heart
Robert Jordan

This *should* go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t…this is the 9th volume of a series and the book has been out for a number of years. I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. Stop reading now. Really. Stop. Now.

Winter’s Heart. The Cleansing. When I first read Winter’s Heart I was blown away by Robert Jordan’s ending to the novel. The Cleansing. Rand announces earlier in the novel that he plans on cleansing saidin, the male half of the Source. The taint of saidin was a major cause (if not THE cause) of the Breaking of the World 3000 years ago. It was the counter-stroke of the Dark One as he was being sealed in his prison by Lews Therin the Hundred Companions. The taint on saidin was what caused all male channelers to go crazy and destroy the world, and is the reason for the fear and (rightful) prejudice against male channelers for the last three thousand years. That’s what Rand wants to fix. In terms of what happens in Randland, it’s a really big deal. I was staggered by the conclusion and the actual Cleansing. So much so that I still capitalize the word Cleansing when referring to that event. The Cleansing loomed so large over the rest of the novel that any potential flaw was washed away by that conclusion. It led to several years of anticipation by how awesome the fallout would be.

The thing is, Crossroads of Twilight removed most of those warm fuzzies, and re-reading Winter’s Heart did not provide that first blush of awesomeness that the Cleansing did the first time. Don’t get me wrong, that was a pivotal moment in the series and it was treated with an extended pitched battle (seen in snippets), an despite the inherent awesomeness of the event, it doesn’t hold the magic it used to. Winter’s Heart as a novel is a big step forward after the last two volumes, but it does not quite reach the comparatively fast pacing of the earliest volumes. Big things happen, but they are surrounded by forests of quietness.

Let’s talk about Mat and his Daughter of Nine Moons. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that waaaaay back in The Great Hunt Jordan reveals that the Court of Nine Moons is Seanchan. This is before Mat is told in The Shadow Rising that he was to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. The official reveal of the Daughter of the Nine Moons is in Winter’s Heart, though most readers probably guessed it before the reveal. There’s just a little too much focus on Tuon for her not to be. Maybe it’s just obvious in retrospect. Here’s the big moment where they meet, and despite Mat’s insistence for the last several novels that he would run if given the chance, he repeats three times that he will marry Tuon. The repetition is important.

Actually, what I really want to mention is a character named Noal Charin. We first meet him in A Crown of Swords, but he becomes a named character here. I don’t know when I figured it out, but Noal is easily one of my favorite characters. Not because of anything he does here, but because of what it is. See, Charin is the family name of a Malkieri family. There is Jain Charin, a legend of Malkier and the author of Rand’s favorite book The Travels of Jain Farstrider. Noal has serious gaps in his memory, but remembers stories that should have been Jain’s. Something bad happened to Noal, something with the Forsaken, and Jain was broken and took the name Noal. Now, I don’t know if Noal Charin will be a hugely important character, but I think it’s awesome that such a legend is walking around with Mat and nobody knows it. He’s just an old man with a broken memory of past deeds and past skills. It’s just damn cool, ya know? Maybe you don’t, but I’m endlessly fascinated with Noal Charin. Jain Farstrider. To think, I used to be annoyed with all the mentions of Rand’s book early on. Then I realized what Jordan was doing. It wasn’t pointless. You just have to look for it. Noal is described as a “natural storyteller”. Indeed, sir. Indeed.

There’s other stuff. The bonding of Rand by Elayne, Aviendha, and Min. The resulting pregnancy and prophecy. The Seanchan Ogier Gardeners. Who’d have expected that. The Ogier in Randland (the continent, not the world) are gentle giants, but Jordan gets across a sense of menace of the Seanchan Ogier. Awesome.

As a whole novel Winter’s Heart is a bit uneven. There’s a sense of anticipation, but you don’t get the sense that anything will really happen (the Cleansing notwithstanding). That Winter’s Heart looms so large in my memory is due entirely to the Cleansing at the end of the novel. Much of the rest suffers from a bad case of stuff almost happening. Got a new mystery in whether Mat will figure out what an Illuminator might use a bellfounder for and whether this will introduce artillery to the world. Rand got Elayne knocked up and eventually she’ll take back the throne of Andor. The Shadow has an agent in the Palace. Bayle Domon never did get to dump the male a’dam into the ocean. That’ll be a problem (or a solution) for Rand. In retrospect there are enough interesting tidbits that you’d think Winter’s Heart is a stronger novel. It isn’t. It’s stronger and most interesting and compelling than the last two, and a sight better than my memories of the next volume, but the Cleansing is really the big deal here. It has to be, but even that isn’t as awesome as I remember it being.

Which is the overall impression of Winter’s Heart. It’s not as awesome as my memory of the experience reading it. It’ll do, but it used to be better.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Path of Daggers, by Robert Jordan (re-post)

Monday, July 21, 2014 0
This article was originally posted on September 3, 2009. It is re-posted here as part of my coverage of this year's Hugo Awards.

The Path of Daggers
Robert Jordan

I'll just be upfront here, The Path of Daggers is a little tedious. The novel fares a bit better now than it did back when it was first published because there is no longer a wait for the next volume. It's not that nothing happens in The Path of Daggers, but Jordan uses more pages to cover a smaller amount of time than he had in previous volumes.

Spoilers be here.

One of the more important things to happen in The Path of the Daggers is something that is only introduced, and not necessarily ever explained as to what it means. The legendary Aes Sedai Cadsuane meets with the Aiel Sorilea and together they decide to work together to try to make Rand less "hard" and more "strong.
Cadsuane drew breath. A chance she would have scoured anyone else for taking. But she was not anyone else, and sometimes chances had to be taken. "The boy confuses them," she said. "He needs to be strong, and makes himself harder. Too hard, already, and he will not stop until he is stopped. He has forgotten how to laugh except in bitterness; there are no tears left in him. Unless he finds laughter and tears again, the world faces disaster. He must learn that even the Dragon Reborn is flesh. If he goes to Tarmon Gai'don as he is, even his victory may be as dark as his defeat."
The whole thing with Rand being "hard" is a major aspect to the last handful of novels. Rand thinks he needs to be "harder" to prepare himself for Tarmon Gai'don, that being human and caring would lead to his downfall. On one hand Rand does have his eye on the ball. He knows that everything he does must be in preparation for that final conflict, the one which only he can fight (he believes). The "hard" thing, though, is making him cold and callous to others - others who are not Min, Elayne, or Aviendha. His behavior towards Perrin in A Crown of Swords is an example of this.

There are other things going on. We see Moridin watching Aviendha / Elayne / Nynaeve in Ebou Dar and when Aviendha unravels a weave, Moridin realizes she just did something they did not know of in the Age of Legends. And there's a gholam watching Moridin. Which is interesting, if unexplained.

The A / E / N trio eventually travel from Ebou Dar to Caemlyn, but on the way the Bowl of Winds is used to fix the weather. It's a major development that is seven volumes coming, but as important as it is, it is almost glossed over because the women still have things to do. It's weird how something that big and important is almost overlooked right after it is done.

As interesting as anything else is the introduction of Cyndane, a character who appears with Moghedien and is rather commanding with Graendal. There is no explanation as to who Cyndane is at this time, but by the next novel we realize fairly quickly that Cyndane is the reincarnation of Lanfear. We also learn that Cyndane is sort of in charge of Moghedien, though both are terrified of Moridin. And that Moridin was named Nae'blis, which makes him the most important person in service to the Dark One. Besides the weirdness that is Shaidar Haran.

A great line later in the novel:
He could remember as a boy hearing men laugh that when rain fell in sunshine that the Dark One was beating Semirhage
I only point that out because it's such a sweet throwaway line.

By the end of the novel, here's where we are left:

Egwene takes full control of the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar and begins the siege of Tar Valon.

Faile, Maighdin (Morgase in disguise), and Alliandre are captured by the Shaido Aiel (along with Bain and Chiad)

Rand is attacked in Cairhain by renegade Asha'man. Fedwin Morr (a likeable young man) has his brain addled to that of a small child. Rand gently kills him with poisoned wine.

Perrin intends to bring The Prophet (Masema) to Rand so he can answer for the slaughter done in Rand's name.

This is more of a novel recap than a proper review, but at this point there is not much to say in review. With 600+ pages, there are long gaps of unexplained plans and minor plots with brief flashes of development and action. If I had to wait two years for Winter's Heart, I would probably be really disappointed. As it is, The Path of Daggers is what it is: a long novel that only sets up a couple things for the future but overall doesn't move the timeline along very much.
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