Friday, 9 April 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 5: The Fires of Heaven (1993)

None of the previous volumes in this series are what you would call fast-paced (although I concede the first one had a reasonable, if stately, momentum to it); but this book is slower than a slug on mogadon. By this stage in his series Jordan had evidently, and I think unwisely, decided to jettison ‘stuff happening’ as the organising principle of his fiction in favour of ‘characters talking, backstorying, bickering, flirting, fretting over their motivations and wearing painstakingly described clothing’. Of course, Jordan’s previous model of ‘stuff happening’ was ‘meandering characters getting intermittently attacked by trollocs.’ But it was better than what we get here. The thing is, it so happens I have a very high tolerance for, and in some cases, deep love for novels in which nothing happens. A novel in which nothing happens can be a wonderful read. This is not such a novel. Nothing happens here in a maddeningly faffy, self-regarding, high-school-soap-opera sort of a way. Then at the very end there’s a big set-piece Fighty-fight, although the notional drama of it bounced off my soggily worn-down imagination.

Tedium, oh tedium. Or, indeed, something stronger than tedium: coffeedium. Tripleexpressodium. Rand leads an enormous army of his super-warrior ‘Aiel’, and there’s some dull, laboriously described but hard-to-visualise military stuff, all lead-up and no pay-off. More, Jordan assumes we will be fascinated by which adolescent crush is uppermost in his hero’s life.

Sex, which in the previous installments had been non-existent or else Carry-On euphemistic, here comes out of the wardrobe, and its a ghastly sight. Pantechniconloads of beautiful girls fling themselves at the main guy, Rand, and he worrits and ponders which of them, or which several of them, he fancies the most. Rand by name, Randy by nature. But, oh, and woe, and oh dear the novel’s sexual politics is offensively narrow and essentialist, to the point often of being actively gynaphobic: women in fancy dress granted notional ‘powers’ by authorial fiat, set up as ‘strong women’ in order to be humbled, magically enslaved, spanked or forced to perform humiliatingly menial tasks. J.'s male characters complain endlessly that they 'don't understand women'; but I don't know why. The key Jordanverse women are either transparently vain, or man-hating, or both.

And, gosh, but there are a lot of boobies in this novel. Really, lots and lots. Low-cut dresses, boobies, silk clinging to breasts, cleavage, lady lumps, bosoms. Jordan can't stop going on about them. It’s embarrassing.

Otherwise, the Bene Gesserit characters go after their ‘black’ chapter, and Mat uses his nifty ability to channel all the Great Military leaders there have ever been in all time ever. Perrin doesn’t appear to be in the novel at all. Or else Perrin is in the novel but my imagination and memory were so stupefied by the reading process that I don’t remember him. But, then again, what do I remember about this novel? Its interminability, mostly; its details hardly at all.

Now, see, I’ll give you an example: two of Jordan’s most powerful, if nascent, female magicians, Nynaeve and Elayne, join a travelling circus in this instalment. That either happened, or else my heat-oppressed brain has somehow muddled childhood memories of watching Dumbo in with memories of reading this book (Elayne learns to walk on a tightrope! Nynaeve has to fend off the circus-owner who has a crush on her!) Elayne and Nynaeve spend a lot of the novel bickering, whingeing and complaining. Characters wander about. The evil characters compound their banality and thinness with stupidity and incompetence. Nothing is resolved. This does not make for interesting reading.

Also, I have no idea why the novel is called 'Fires of Heaven', unless it is to mock me by reminding me of this vastly superior novel. I don't recall there being any heavenly fires in Jordan's book. But it is conceivable that they're there, I read them, and all thought of them has fallen out of the gash in the back of my imagination caused by being rear-ended by this clanking juggernaut of a book.

39 comments:

JDH1973 said...

You complain a lot about Jordan's long-winded descriptions, but thus far all you've said in 5 reviews is that you think Jordan is long-winded and unimaginative. Do you have a real purpose in this other than to bash a more successful author?

Paul said...

Wow you are carrying on, showing your masochistic tendencies?

thanks for reading this so I'll never have to :)

Roll on the 1056 pages of the Lord of Chaos next (eek!)

I would have to be paid to read this(not a dig at those who enjoy Robert Jordan's writing as we've got different tastes)

Drew said...

I think a lot of fans share your overall impression. Nostalgia drives many to continue with the series though their tastes have matured. I am one of them - I can barely restrain myself from laughing when I go back and re-read Books 1 - 5. The prequel did make me crack up, though. If you thought the later books infodumped, wait until you encounter the name dropping in "New Spring".

The Witchfinder said...

"Do you have a real purpose in this other than to bash a more successful author?"

Hahaha, that's awesome.

Miles said...

I think what JDH1973 is saying is that only JK Rowling or perhaps Stephanie Meyer is allowed to write critical pieces on fantasy literature.

Anyway, even back when I was reading this series in my youth, this volume was a stinker. Most of my friends skipped huge sections of this book, particularly the traveling circus portions.

Larry said...

You finally hit the circus part, huh? There's an entire city scene coming up that'll last much, much longer than that, in case you need to be prepared for lengthy stays.

Do have one question for you since you're nearing the halfway point: After five volumes, has the storylines so far been anywhere near what you expected before you began reading the books, or have your expectations shifted with each passing book?

JDH1973 said...

I'm not saying that Dr. Roberts isn't allowed to write a review, I just find it amusing that he's not actually reviewing anything! He's making a series of snarky blog posts about how much he dislikes the WoT series, which is fair enough, I don't much care about his opinion, but he reminds me a lot of Rush Limbaugh or one of the crazy Fox News people who are using a public forum to say whatever they wish in the name of "news".

I expect more from a professor of creative writing and literature. I wonder what he would say to a student who turned in work as shoddy as this.

GeoX said...

I dunno, man--for informal blog posts, they seem pretty perceptive to me. And how much Deep Thought is one REQUIRED to devote to terrible books, anyway? I have no idea what you would PREFER him to be doing, but if you don't like it, there are many thousands of questionably-literate amazon reviews you could check out instead.

黃政弘 said...

死亡是悲哀的,但活得不快樂更悲哀。..................................................

marco said...

黃政弘 said it better than I could have

JDH1973 said...

I was led here by another poster, and perhaps I am being overly harsh on these posts because Roberts is a professor. This was positioned to me as a review, like the other posts he seems to have on this site, not a roast on a series nearly everyone on earth could tell you is long winded and poorly written. I say teach us something Professor.

I'd also say as a blogger he needs to work on his sarcasm and actually read the series rather than just skim it if he wants to have a go at making this funny.

Paul said...

Ahh but JDH1973 Adam says 'This blog is for me to keep note of what I've been reading, watching or hearing. Just that.' on the main page of this blog.

it's not meant to be deep literary criticism..

Michael said...

"I have a very high tolerance for, and in some cases, deep love for novels in which nothing happens."

Intriguing ... such as?

Larry said...

I guessing it's Beckett's Waiting for Godot - who else is entering the betting pool? :P

GeoX said...

Beckett wrote some novels that might fall under this heading, but Waiting for Godot isn't one of them, what with not being a novel and all.

I was gonna say Proust, but I suppose it depends on your definition of "nothing."

Larry said...

True, I guess Malloy would be more suitable, then? Still need to read Proust, though.

Misanthrope said...

Haha! I'm actually a fan of the WoT books, but I love reading Mr Roberts' take on them. Don't mind the spoilsports, keep on rollin'. I'm interested to see how far you will get before giving up (there are a few coming up which even I had difficulties with!)

Adam Roberts said...

Michael, Larry, Geox: the whole of Beckett's incomparable trilogy fits the bill; Molloy, yes; but I think I prefer Malone Dies. And, yes, there are quite long stretches of Proust in which nothing happens which are sublime. Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading too. For a more modern example: Adam Mars Jones Pilcrow is very good.

Adam Roberts said...

JDH1973: "... as a blogger he needs to work on his sarcasm and actually read the series rather than just skim it if he wants to have a go at making this funny...."

Ooh, I think 'making this funny' is beyond me. A man's got to know his limitations.

Adam Roberts said...

Larry: "Do have one question for you since you're nearing the halfway point: After five volumes, has the storylines so far been anywhere near what you expected before you began reading the books, or have your expectations shifted with each passing book?"

The first book is not bad; but from book 2 on it has pretty consistently failed to rise to expectations. Not just in terms of pace, or readerly immersion; but with respect to things like the 'deep time' promised in vol. 1, which each successive vol seems to narrow.

owlrigh said...

I'm enjoying reading these first-looks of yours; it's not often you come across someone giving their first take on the Wheel of Time series. As someone who's been reading them since, er, well. Way too long. You've got a long trudge ahead of you, if you make it!

JDH1973 said...

Yes Dr. Roberts, it's clearly beyond you.

I find it interesting that someone with your academic credentials is so lazy in your posts. Any asshole can sit back and make bitchy comments... I do it all the time!

I have no problem with what you are actually saying, Jordan wasn't a bard, but I wonder about your motivations. IMO you just come across as bitter.

It must be nice to attack a dead man's work knowing he won't be able to either explain his story in the public forum, or have a little fun with your writing. Why not "review" someone who can actually respond? Afraid other fantasy or Sci-Fi authors don't know who you are?

Larry said...

Haven't read the Jones; might have to look into that. Brian Evenson was the one who got me interested in some of Beckett's works when I interviewed him last year and I really need to read more than excerpts I think.

As for the failed expectations, is it a case of the "remoteness" also becoming something almost pornographic in its laborious detail of almost every single moment? It'll be interesting to read your takes of the next few novels.

Rajashekar Iyer said...

Setting aside what I think of this review and my different views on Jordan's work, I have a question:

What do you think contributes to the commercial success of this series?

Even the most ardent fan of Jordan's would agree that the books have a slow pace (though how bad they think this is will differ, of course). So, it cannot simply be that like many popular authors, say Dan Brown for example, Jordan's books consist of a series of racy events.

So what is it that has resulted in 44 million books of this series being sold?

Adam Roberts said...

JDH1973: "Yes Dr. Roberts, it's clearly beyond you."

Actually, addressing me as 'Dr Roberts' isn't correct.

"I have no problem with what you are actually saying ..."

Really? That's strange, because you give the strong impresssion of somebody who has a problem with what I am actually saying.

"IMO you just come across as bitter."

'IMO' stands for 'in my opinion', doesn't it? It's good that you have an opinion. People are entitled to their opinion, after all.

"Why not "review" someone who can actually respond? Afraid other fantasy or Sci-Fi authors don't know who you are?"

Yes, some day I must get around to reviewing a book by somebody who is still alive. Somebody who can actually respond. Yes, it's a shame I've never done that.

Adam Roberts said...

Rajashekar: "What do you think contributes to the commercial success of this series? "

Now that is an interesting question. You're quite right, there's no denying the books' enormous, and continuing, success. And I very much take the force of your (diplomatically restrained, but spot-on) imputation too: that I'm missing something significant here.

There's something or things about this series has resulted not just in many people reading them, but a good number falling in love with them too. Not me, or not so far at any rate, but I probably need to be more open to whatever this 'thing' or 'things' is/are. Part of me thinks it must have to do with the series sheer length; which by a sort of textual brute force can replicate the immersiveness a more skillful writer achieves through style, worldbuilding or character. The shift (as in Star Wars) into increasingly obviously sexualised territory can't have hurt either: I can imagine readers growing up reading the series.

Adam Roberts said...

Or, thinking a little more about this (and picking up on Larry's perceptive comment): by 'length' I suppose I mean more than just bulk of pages. I mean the immense accumulation of and attention to trivial details.

Put it this way: there's an interesting bifurcation in the 'market' (horrid term) for SF and Fantasy: on the one hand the texts themselves (as it might be: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) which provide one sort of pleasure, and on the other immensely detailed and elongated fan encyclopedia-style anatomies and extensions of those texts: all the Star Wars novelisations, all the books of ships specs and timelines and whatnot. This latter body of writing appeals to a subset of broader fandom, those SFF fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world.

Now what's happening with WoT, it seems to me, is that after a conventional opening, the series is increasingly turning into a man-and-fly-in-the-matter-transporter-together mutant melding of these two modes of text. Each installment devotes a certain amount of energy to moving the story on, and much more to encyclopedically anatomizing world and character.

marco said...

It's good that you have an opinion. People are entitled to their opinion, after all.

"Opinions are like assholes: everyone's got one, and they all stink."

I think both of you, Jdh1973 and Dr. Roberts, should take a moment to reflect on 黃政弘 's sound advice. There's already so much sadness in the world.

redrichie said...

Re: the length of these types of series.

I've read in a few different places - possibly Clay Shirky or Jakob Nielson - that long books (in the vein of Dumas, Dickens and Dostoevsky - apologies for the alliteration) aren't popular anymore because people have more ways to spend their free time. The argument runs that because of the 'net and computer games, people aren't going to be willing to read books in excess of 500 pages because they have plenty of other more exciting ways to spend their time.

I find this, um intriguing, in light of your reviews because in the most recent such article I read, the author was talking about an old Japanese novel which seemed to do *exactly* what you're describing in the Jordan books (in short, waffle). He suggested that these types of novel can't be successful anymore, especially amongst "the kids." This seems odd, as aren't many of these multi-fat-volume series of fantasy novels devoured by younger readers?

Naturally there is a certain amount of confirmation bias in all this (in the sense that for a series to become a series the early volumes have to be successful for publishers to continue to support them and so on), but those that are successful are also amongst the more successful in the genre, often outselling their leaner competitors?

Of course, I'm oversimplifying in all this; but the success of these types of novel does seem to run counter to the current received wisdom that people don't have time to read.

[Actually, not to continue too much with my digression, but I have trouble with these comparisons anyway, as not only did people not have computers and telly in the 19th Century, but there were also far fewer books published and I'd hazard a guess that fewer people read for
pleasure, if at all, which means that all of these articles may be a nonsense anyway.]

Rajashekar Iyer said...

Now that is an interesting question. You're quite right, there's no denying the books' enormous, and continuing, success. And I very much take the force of your (diplomatically restrained, but spot-on) imputation too: that I'm missing something significant here.

Thank you.


There's something or things about this series has resulted not just in many people reading them, but a good number falling in love with them too. Not me, or not so far at any rate, but I probably need to be more open to whatever this 'thing' or 'things' is/are. Part of me thinks it must have to do with the series sheer length; which by a sort of textual brute force can replicate the immersiveness a more skillful writer achieves through style, worldbuilding or character. The shift (as in Star Wars) into increasingly obviously sexualised territory can't have hurt either: I can imagine readers growing up reading the series.

In essence, then, you're arguing that the sheer length of the novels simulates a world and characters of depth?

While I cannot disagree totally, there has to be something more. "Brute force" makes little sense in the context of millions of readers voluntarily buying and reading this series.

There has to be something in the story that allows the author to get away with the extraordinary length, right?

If this were a three book series with the second book being slow and wordy, you can always argue that the promise of the first book, and the expectation of more good work kept them at it.

But based on many polls of readers, it seems that books 4-6 (and maybe 7) are in general far more appreciated and considered far better plotted than the first three.

It is only as late as book 8 that many people start having issues with the series, with book 10 receiving some really negative reactions even from fans. 11 and 12 have been much better received, hailed as a return to the form of books 4-6.

Now, I have reasons for my liking the books, and would naturally be inclined to list them as reasons for the commercial success of the series, but given that you're reading them for the first time, I'd be interested to see what you think.

Adam Whitehead said...

An early critique of the series I read back in the late 1990s (by a fan) likened its success to Stephen King, stating that just as Stephen King had built his name in the 1970s and 1980s producing updated, easy-to-read variations on previous horror story ideas (which is a bit of a generalisation if you ask me, but there you go), so Robert Jordan was producing an updated, easy-to-read variation on the Tolkienesque epic (although I don't think he meant it in the negative, 'Tolkien-lite' way it could be interpreted as). It's not uncommon to see modern fantasy readers (of any stripe) calling Tolkien boring or unreadable or too literary yet holding WoT up as a fantastic series.

Yet that cannot be the whole story, as I know many huge Tolkien fans who also love WoT. I think WoT does expand on some Tolkienesque elements, such as the worldbuilding (I can imagine Tolkien approving of the idea of readers of this series being able to put together forty-page essays on the backstory of Andor) and the mix-it-up approach to mythology, with Jordan cribbing extensively from from Hindu, Japanese and Norse mythology and bolting elements into the Arthurian legend, the LotR itself (LotR is itself a story and legend in the WoT universe, amusingly) and even SF (Dune is definitely an influence, although possibly more of an unconscious one).

To boil it down, WoT is an easily-approachable epic, a work that aspires to the ideas of LotR and WAR AND PEACE but doing so in far more easy-to-read manner (but arguably in doing so sacrifices some of the elements that make those works more interesting), complete with a large cast of characters pursuing both large-scale, epic stories and also more soap opera-like relationships and storylines.

Whilst broadly I enjoy WoT for what it is, I do wish that Jordan had spent more time on more interesting elements, such as the interface with mythology ("Hang on, Shiva and Kali just showed up, what's going on there?") or the much more intriguing SF/fantasy mash-up of the Age of Legends we get occasional hints of, and sounds like it would have made just as viable, if not more, a story.

Jared said...

This is a brilliant review.

I actually gave up on Jordan after book 5, it was so awful. Pretty much for all the reasons you describe. Well done.

Емануил said...

At JDH:

There's hardly a sentence in this sieris that hasn't got flaws. I have no idea how Adam (Mr. Roberts?) has been able to go through seven of the books already; I feel compelled to turn my head away and grind my teeth in frustration after almost every paragraph...

Which to come to my point, IS a big deal, although for you it clearly isn't. The idea is to evoke a fantasy world, not, as Adam says, a theme-park. And yes, thematic analysis and acknowledgment of some of the plotlines' significance would probably be a valid perspective to take on the books (which, I am guessing, is what you would like to see, and not Adam, the unknown science fiction author's (though, I'm guessing, unknown only to you...) snarky and envious(aaaargh, hates the envy, we doo!) comments about relatively unimportant things like bad prose and ready-made worldbuilding....

Anyway, I can't imagine what form that kind of thematic analysis would take, other than:

"Well, I GUESS that's what he was trying to describe/show/imply, but it's like trying to listen to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" as performed by some drunk Russians on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVEhtaWS7LE)"

You see, prose MATTERS. Like, you know, for example, sound matters in music and paint matters in painting....

And it is generally considered an adult series, which just makes things worse. Cause then it competes with Bakker's Prince of Nothing, Martin's ASOIAF, Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen and Sanderson's Mistborn. To just name a few of the more recent ones.

Емануил said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shilyana said...

GRRM ASOAIF, Sanderson's Mistborn, didn't read the other two.

Something you might not have noticed they share with WoT : much talking, not that much action. But then, you all seem to consider HF should be written the way SMF is... Frankly, if what you want is action, then go and read terry brook's shannara or terry goodkind's Sword of Truth... Or even Eddings' Belgariad. But don't ask for a deep, well built universe (btw the sisters of the light / of the dark are, when you look at their magic, direct spinoffs of jordanian aes sedai)

The point is, notwithstanding Mr Jordan's sometimes questionabale prose - though most of the time I have no problem with it - his universe is, by far, the richest you can find anywhere in High Fantasy novels (to that day).

Can't see where you got the notion this was considered an adult series though... And, anyway, can't see where you got the notion Mistborn was an adult series, by the way :o Sure, there's some little gore, but not that much worse than some points in wot (talking about book 2, for example, where, curiously, mr roberts didn't mention the impaled fade. But that's not the point i'm trying to make).

Oh, and i don't remember who said Dumas' prose sucked, but frankly, that person should go dump his head in a water bucket and leave it there for a good hour... Les Trois Mousquetaires, La Reine Margot, Le Comte de Monté-Cristo, and even Vingt Ans Après or Le Vicomte de Bragellonne (yeah, that scary 2.4k pages worth of french politics :o) are enjoyable. I recall Proust has been mentionned too ; Proust is well known for sentences two-pages-long which do nothing but describe. La Recherche du Temps Perdu is a masterpiece. Just because you don't like the style (I certainly don't) doesn't make it bad, folks.

Back to the wheel.

As for what makes this series such a success... Again, mistake on your part, I'd say. You see, I'm the kind of guy to get completely lost in a book ; and on my first read of WoT, I felt like I only skimmed the surface. You noted, in your review of book 1, the most obvious references - lenn & Merk -, but they are what I just said they were. Obvious. What makes the succes of this series is that it is much, much deeper than it looks. I couldn't enter the detail of metaphysical discussions I've had about it, but trust me on that one, we went pretty far.

Shilyana said...

It is true, and no one can deny it, that the pace is slow. But, hell, again, Sanderson's Mistborn and/or GRRM's aSoIaF, or even Fallon's Wolfblade, or Abercrombie's First Law, or even Silhöl's books... The pace is slow. Does that in itself make them bad books? I daresay that if every slow-paced books were bad, there wouldn't be a single high fantasy good book...

Also. I couldn't help but note that you threw Arthur as if it was a shortcoming... Again, yes, upon skimming the book I guess you could see it that way. Remember though : Arthur Pendragon is a legend in our own time... and our own time is, after all, part of the Wheel. Thus, Arthur Pendragon is part of it. Thus, Artur Paendrag Tanreall deserves its place in this universe, logically.

Now, about sex. I daresay I read a lot of fantasy, and in med-fan, the most explicit it ever got for me was in GRRM's asoaif (jaime / cersei, on the altar, during her moon blood) or, admittedly, some (not numerous scenes) in fallon's chronicles of Hythria, the most explicit i've read being in abercrombie's first law. Even in those books, it's not - by far, and that's for the best, i'm not reading fantasy for that - the dominant part of the tale, is it? Now, you'd have, anyway, to agree that all-out porn would not suit the mommy's girl that elayne is in the early books :D
And, again, I personally don't consider those as adult books anyway... or perhaps, adult in the sense that a child could but fail to see the "big picture", whereas the gore/sex adult part would be, indeed, more appropriate for GRRM or Abercrombie's books

Also - just a thought - you seem to put an emphasis on the "black" part. I mean, black is a pretty cool colour (yeah, I know, it's not even a colour, but let's not be nitpicky about that) and traditionally / stereotipically used as the "evil" color. That, and fire are, in our world, what the devil is known for. Our world, which is also theirs. Shai'Tan is nothing more than our dear old devil ; and, considering that throughout the ages most religions clad their devils or demons in black, we can safely assume that it will be the same in the future, right?


So, all in all, I'd say your review would be that of a - sorry if that sounds insulting, it shouldn't - casual fantasy reader. By that, I mean that, beyond the quality of the writing - which, I have to admit, is sometimes something of a disappointment in RJ's WoT - what you seem to be asking for is a simple universe, where you know at first look if someone is good or evil, and the hero goes on with his almighty powers, blasts the evil villains into oblivion, and then goes home with his beautiful bride where they lived happily ever after... (Sword and Magic Fantasy, in short). You have a right to your own tastes ; but what if some peoples like more intricate universes?
GRRM for instance. Great books. Kinda slow paced, though admittedly a bit faster than WoT. Kinda long in the coming, but hell, we've waited for 4 years now we can wait a bit longer. Ask yourself this : how much of it can be interpreted as critics / references to our own world? Look. Hard. You might want to take a look at the middle-age french houses, especially considering the pics on the shields... I daresay some should sound familiar :)
That's also what makes that kind of series great. Because they sound like it could have been real, and get you to think - hard - about it. It's not simple fun, you don't pick these books just for fun. They are a whole lot more than that.

Shilyana said...

oh, and I need an edit button, because upon rereading, I noticed that I've got two different things that are both the most explicit I've read. Sorry about that, guess I got carried away.

Matt Scrivner said...

"Fires of Heaven" refers to the vastly overstated fact that summer is never-ending and scorches nearly every bit of plant life off the surface of the ground.

Even though I enjoy the books, I'm very much in agreement with the things you find unlikable. That said, I'm not well-read enough to share many of your disappointments in the narrative.

Looking forward to seeing what you think of the newest volume realized by Sanderson.

Nick said...

@JDH1973
Google Hugo Nominations. Our host has already done plenty to ensure that the world of SF/F fandom knows exactly who he is.

Also, btb, others have already pointed you at where, in plain English, this site identifies that its a personal log. Continuing to put the emphasis on it that you have is just making you look simple.