Friday, 2 April 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 4: The Shadow Rising (1992)

Volume 4 is considerably fatter than the previous three; more than a thousand pages long. It’s also less focused; a sprawl of different storylines going in different (physical) directions, great spoldgy-wodges of second-hand worldbling, and, er, that’s it. I enjoyed reading vol. 1; didn’t enjoy 2 at all; quite (despite myself) enjoyed 3. 4 was pure slog.

The structural glitch of the previous novels (a too-slow start followed by a deal of too-detailed wandering about) is magnified here: the start is fantastically boring and taxing, and the subsequent wanderings hard to keep a mental handle on. In this volume our pals split up: ‘Romaine’ Rand going, via magical short-cut, to visit the Aeil; ‘Reggie’ Perrin back to his provincial home, the Two Rivers. Meanwhile, representatives of the various coloured Aes Sedai (blue, red, etc) go hunting the evil branch of their movement. I’ll leave you to guess what colour the evil branch is. Mat goes into dreamtime for a bit and comes back with some more magical artefacts (a magical spear and a protective medallion). If the novels continue accumulating magical artefacts at this rate, the three pals will be able to open an extensive antique shop at the end of it all. Rand, meanwhile, is stretching his metaphorical magical muscles, making axes fly, ships crash and the like.

I read the book fairly rapidly, but I look back on it now trying to remember what all this diverse running-around, collecting, fighting and so on amounted to. To be precise: I look back trying and failing to remember. A fair bit has to do with the ‘Aiel’, a sort of Native-American/ Samurai/Fremen warrior race of people who live in the ‘Aiel Wastes’ and have some special spoken-by-prophesy relationship to the Dragon Reborn. But aside from taking us around their world and culture, and establishing to their satisfaction that Rand is indeed the Muad-Dib, sorry, the Dragon, I’m not sure what the force of this lengthy narrative detour was. There's also the Gipsy-like Tuatha'an—that’s one of their caravans on the cover, up top—and a character called Slayer. A nasty character, naturally.

Mat is menaced by the e-e-evil: ‘Time to die, Hornsounder!’ [225]. I believe I once went to a tiny basement club in the Borough where the DJ was called ‘Hornsounder.’ I may be misremembering that. Anyway, as before Jordan intersperses lots of Trolloc combat to try and maintain flagging excitement levels. This fighting is ramped up (‘fiery explosions tore at the trollocs’, 729) from the previous books, in a diminishing-returns sort of way. Now, I like humans. And I like trollocs. But which is better? There's only one way to find out …

A good chunk of the novel is given over to the notional 'development' of the main characters, but this is all teen-soap-opera nonsense; and rubbish to boot. There are intimations of sex in the book, but instead of actual sex we get a load of schoolyard crushes, mooning about, kissing, jealousies and the occasional bottom-pinch. Egwyne—Rand’s girlfriend—announces that she doesn’t love him any more (‘People change, Rand. Feelings change … I love you as I would a brother’; 147) which frees him up to snog other girls. There are also occasional instances of topless serving wenches, attractive women discussing things whilst naked in saunas and beautiful women chained naked in dungeons, which would be less creepy if it were more honestly handled (handled, that is to say, with less mendacious cod-propriety).

But my main grouse here is the way it is all written. Vol 1 was written in a garrulous, occasionally creakily cod-archaic style, but was at least quite well-written, according to the rather limited aesthetic criteria of this kind of writing. But Vol 4 is really not very well written at all, even by those standards.
Perrin and Faile had made no effort to be quiet in climbing the stairs, but the three men were so intent in their watching that none of them noticed the new arrivals at first. Then one of the blue-coated bodyguards twisted his head as if working a cramp in his neck; his mouth dropped open when he saw them. Biting off an oath, the fellow whirled to face Perrin, baring a good hand of his swordblade. The other was only a heartbeat slower. Both stood tensed, ready, but their eyes shifted uneasily, sliding off Perrin’s. They gave off a sour smell of fear. So did the High Lord, though he had his fear tightly reined. [79]
This isn’t hopeless writing (aside from ‘eyeballs in the sky’ Ansibleable ‘their eyes slid off Perrin’s’ bit, which is indeed hopeless writing); but it reads like a first-draft that J. couldn’t be bothered to revise. The smell-in-harness at the end; the cliché; the fumbling-bumbling piling up of clauses. That all needs polishing. The paragraph that follows it, on the other hand, is pretty much beyond revision. You need to bin this and start again:
The High Lord Torean, white streaking his dark, pointed beard, moved languidly, as if at a ball. Pulling a too sweetly scented handkerchief from his sleeve, he dabbed at a knobby nose that appeared not at all large when compared with his ears.
Now that’s bad writing: clumsily wrongfooting and unevocative. From whence did that knobby nose appear? Did the white streak his beard as he moved languidly? Which is to say, did his languid movement shake free some white from the upper reaches of the beard? The writing is all like this, either undercooked or actively bad: ‘a myriad of scents danced in his nose’ [718]. 'Without touching her head she knew she had on some sort of helmet' [867]. 'Ogier's ears went stiff with shock' [257]. 'The woman frowned and lowered her chins' [784]. You know the way that, when somebody throws a pencil at your nose, it squeezes perspiration from the whole spread of your skin?
Damp heat hit her like a stick between the eyes. Sweat popped out of every pore. [584]
Now some of this, I’ll confess, had to do with the rapidity of my reading of the book. Encountering the phrase ‘the fork bearded fellow with a ruby the size of a piegon’s egg in his ear’ [227] I clocked the fork, egg and ear-insertion and thought ‘say what?’ But in such cases I can always re-read to get a clearer sense of what the writer is on about. Clumsily on about in this case.

Another feature of the style is the way Jordan scatters the text with cod-proverbial wisdom. He gets this from Tolkien too, I think; except that where Tolkien’s invented proverbs generally feel right (‘grief is a hone to a hard mind’), Jordan’s feel either flabby or else goatblinkingly-incomprehensible. Some examples.

"There's no time for winking at the men when you're busy bailing the boat." [29] OK. I get this.

"On the heights, the paths are paved with daggers." [43] Laid flat, this would surely result in a perfectly serviceable, if expensive, road. Laid edge-upwards, you’d probably want to walk alongside it rather than on it. Either way it seems self-defeating.

"As well you try to understand the sun, Perrin. It simply is, and it is not to be understood. You cannot live without it, but it exacts a price. So with women." [417] I don’t understand this one at all. What price? Is the meaning here: ‘if you’re staked out underneath a woman with your eyelids cut off you’ll go blind?’ Does that count as ‘proverbial’?

The sling has been used. The shepherd holds the sword. [775] Um. OK. This is one of those 'the wild geese fly south at noon' style statements.

A weeping woman is a bucket with no bottom” [117] But this can't be right. ‘When a woman weeps it’s like all the water gushes out in one go and then she’s dry’? Presumably not. ‘Don’t try gathering water in a weeping woman.’ What?

I could have shaved myself with one sneeze.’ [55] What?

Otherwise, despite the addition of a metric tonne of detail, Jordan's imaginary world feels more-and-more ersatz/theme-park and less-and-less authentically rendered.
[It was] a large room with a high ceiling. A rope strung along waist-high posts would keep anyone from going too close to the things displayed on stands and in open-fronted cabinets. [199]
Can you imagine a room like that in Middle Earth? As the Old English proverb has it: better a dinner of herbs where authenticity is, than a stalled ox and a National Trust Property thereby.


Ian Sales said...

One of my complaints with Jordan's writing when I read the books was the way the subject of a sentence would change from one clause to the next. I remember remarking on it at the time.

And yet there's something soap-opera-ish about the series that pulls you along with each installment... until eventually you bog down as the pace of the narrative sloooooows to a standstill in book 9 or 10.

Larry said...

I remember quite a few discussions with people who still enjoy the WoT series where one of the arguments about Jordan's writing style is that it shares more in common (especially from the fourth volume onwards) with mid-19th century literature, particularly that of Dumas.

I could see the point about how the description on top of description might end up setting the stage for an agreeable melodrama. Then I re-read Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo for the first time in a dozen years a few months ago (this time in French) and the prose was so atrocious that I almost stopped reading the 1700 page monstrosity. Perhaps the same holds true for the WoT series - the poor prose somehow creates a melodrama that sucks in its readers until the weight of the description-rich prose crushes them later on?

Jonathan M said...

I quite like Dumas' prose style.

I haven't read the Count of Monte Cristo but I have read the Musketeers and some of his short fiction and I really like the degree to which his tongue is planted in his cheek. The foreground of Dumas is always about heroic and honour-bound men but I think the subtext is invariably about said men being actually quite silly. It's possible that Jordan has a similar prose style but I doubt that he has that satirical edge.

Bruce the Loon said...

"The sling has been used. The shepherd holds the sword" is not a proverb or bit of wisdom. It is a coded message from one Aes Sedai to another about Rand.

And you have to admit the shave with a sneeze, if you actually understand the context around it, is one of the funniest throw-away lines in the books.

Larry said...


I like The Three Muskateers as well and Dumas' prolixity is better employed there, as there was no need on his part to build extra suspense by adding on more elaborate subplots and descriptive prose; the pacing was much quicker and the prose therefore was more excusable, I thought. Never thought about Dumas being satirical in that novel; might have to re-read that novel to see if I can detect it.

Of course, that raises another point - is there any element of satire in the WoT series? I don't seem to recall there being any. A pity, since it might have helped with the slower subplots.

GeoX said...

Congratulations: you've added a new word to the internet!

Rajashekar Iyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rajashekar Iyer said...

Frankly, the greatest irony here is that Jordan is being accused of extending a thin plot in a series of reviews that do nothing but belabor the same complaints.

In the first review, everything was about the Tolkien-rip-off-iness of Jordan's story, with no acknowledgment of other, more strong, influences.

Here, its Herbert Jordan copied from, no matter that there are so many more influences on Jordan's portrayal of Aiel culture and history.

Then there are the same old demands for more obvious sex scenes, with no explanations for why this makes sense from the view point of teenagers from a secluded, puritan village. After all, whoever heard of an adult novel without explicit sex?

Anyway, I cannot wait for eight more versions of the same old gripes. Brilliant stuff.

Adam Roberts said...

Rajashekar: re. the first word of your comment. I'm glad you feel able to be frank.

GeoX: I'm very proud.

Ian, Larry, I'm with Jonathan in that I qute like Dumas, both his fruity prose and his gnashing melodrama. And as I say, I had no problem with the prose in the first book. It seems to me the writing is getting measurably worse as the series progresses.

Larry said...

I guess it may depend on which Dumas is read most/last, then? I'm still planning on re-reading Queen Margot sometime.

Interesting that you find the prose to be getting progressively worse. I thought the first three books were worse than this one in that department, but then again, I haven't read any but the last couple in the past decade, so my memory may be fuzzy on that.

One question for you: Are you planning on discussing any of the thematic elements that Jordan did attempt to embed in this series? Or is the focus in these reviews going to remain more on the mechanics of the prose and characterizations?

OK, I guess that was two questions, but liberal arts grads aren't the strongest in math.

Mark_W said...

Adam, in comments above: It seems to me the writing is getting measurably worse as the series progresses.

Indeed, it was this feeling that led this particular Ridder to give up (before I’d even got this far, to be fair.) It wasn’t so much that I thought Jordan a bad writer – I encountered him at the “right age”, if that means anything, through his Conan books, which still seem to me the best Howard pastiches, and tried the WoT because I was, at the time, already a fan, but I did eventually feel (rightly or wrongly) that he wasn’t trying as hard as he did with Conan...It wasn’t the sheer weight of words (in his Science Fiction Weekly review of my own favourite “long is good” example (Mary Gentle’s Ash) John Clute lists several other gargantuan works (or series of works) that he thinks worth their number of words: Crowley’s Aegypt, Moorcock’s Pyat, and LoTR among them) but the billions of words in the WoT didn’t seem to producing the same effect on me that Tolkien’s (or Gentle’s or Dumas’s, or whoever’s, did.) There wasn’t even enough Spoilbinding to keep me going, in the end, although I might just be unusually impatient (and may have given up just before all the really good bits, of course.)

Cod-proverbial wisdom.

My favourite (not Jordan's fault) is “a sight for sore eyes.” Why on earth would you want to look at something that makes your eyes sore? Or, if your eyes are already sore, why exercise them further rather than put some drops in and repair to a darkened room???


Samuel W said...

One thing I've been getting from your reviews is very much a feel of 'look at what he says and nothing else'.

When you consider the Aiel plotline in this book, and how fundamentally shaken their culture is by the information revealed to the masses by Rand and the leaders. Their history is entirely different from what they thought. The tenets of their beliefs have been shaken to the core. It has (in-part)caused a schism in the Aiel like they have never seen before.

The lack of understanding about this, has made me question, more than I already was, whether you should look beyond the text and into the larger picture.

Yes, Jordans writings has its flaws, but I also feel that you are missing out on important details - possibly by treating it as a YA series?

I have never heard it called a YA series, although that is when most people pickup the first book. I'd say it's far more into the adult age-range, with just a bit of periphery at the beginning that makes it somewhat YA.

After all, only the first two books have been specifically released in YA editions.

Lavanya Vijayaraghavan said...

fantastic blog! nearly streaked my beard laffing (or would've if i had one). just a thought - isn't the wheel of time rather stars-warish? you know, "it is your destinyyyyyy.." said siu-wan kenobi..
and "there is another.. your brotherrrr (galad damodred)"