So, Book 7 ended with Rand killing the ‘forsaken’ Sammael in characteristically understated fashion (‘Screaming, Rand swept the balefire down toward the square, the rubble collapsing on itself, swept down death out of time—and let saidin go before the bar of white touched the lake of Mashadar that now rolled across the square, billowing past the Waygate toward rivers of glowing fray that flowed out from another palace on the other side bang crash wow! kaboom crsssh-crassh haha!’). Book 8 takes up the story, but does so in a one-step-forward-one-step-back sort of way. Or to be more precise, in a no-steps-forward-no-steps-back manner. An army of Seanchan rampages through the world. Some of Rand’s own followers are plotting against him. Nynaeve and Elayne finally get hold of the bowl of the winds that they’ve spent, I suppose, two books looking for, and use it to heal the weather. Then there’s a lengthy, minutely shuffling build-up to another big climactic battle. At the end of Wotviii we don’t seem to be any further forward than we were at the end of Wotvii. Rand is still going bonkers, but very slowly. His mates are still moodling around, except for Mat, who wasn’t in this one at all. Unless he was, and I missed him.
Is the novel too padded? Well, there’s a great many characters’ points-of-view that need to be orchestrated, and a lot of …. Oh! Time for a tea-break!
Careful of the silver pitcher’s heat, Cadsuane poured a cup of tea, testing the thin green porcelain cup for warmth. As might have been expected in silver, the tea had cooled quickly. Channeling briefly, she heated it again. The dark tea tasted too much of mint; Cairhienin used mint entirely too freely in her opinion. She did not offer a cup to … Right. Always refreshing, a nice cup of tea. On we go. So, there’s evil plotting, and several battles, and an explosion in the—ah! Stop! Time for another tea-break!
Egwene went in to find everything in readiness. Selame was just setting a tea tray on the writing table … The tea tasted of mint. In this weather! Selame was a trial … The question is not ‘is it padded?’ The question is: ‘could it be more padded? When Jordan calls one chapter ‘The Extra Bit’ is he kidding? I thought I understood, broadly, the appeal of Epic Fantasy. Surely readers don’t go to Epic Fantasy for endless descriptions of clothing, furniture, fabrics, and characters constantly drinking cups of mint tea? Does Jordan think his readership are all senior citizens?
No, but, wait: I spoke too soon! Here’s some excitement! Adelas and Isman, two important Aes Sedai, have been assassinated! Stumbling across the dead bodies—Birgitte draws her belt knife—Nynaeve surveys the scene, and
Dipping her finger into the teapot, she touched it to the tip of her tongue, then spat vigorously and emptied the whole teapot into the table in a wash of tea and tea leaves.Assassinated by tea! Fitting, fitting. Not so much Epic Pooh as Epic Miss Marple.
Why am I persevering with this series? Commentators on previous posts have, courteously for the most part, suggested I should stop reading, since I’m not enjoying it . At the very least, they say, I should stop publishing posts that insult the work of a (as they note) much more successful author than I am myself. By insulting the Wheel of Time I insult them, those fans who love the wheel of time. And they have the kernel of an important point. At the very least, it would be worthwhile considering whether, since so many love it so, I am missing something important.
It’s a good question. What do fans see in it? What-what? What moves people who seem otherwise rational beings to insist that Robert Jordan is not only good, he’s far superior to Tolkien and Flaubert. Is that a piece of Dadaist derangement-of-the-sensibilities anti-criticism? Look at it again: 'Jordan is a better writer than Flaubert and a better subcreator than Tolkien'. Permit me to slip once again into George III idiom: what-what?
I don’t get it.
Why do I persevere? Because I said I would; and because I’ve been thinking about pulling together some critical writing on Fantasy as a mode, and to that end I’ve been noting the holes in my reading. I know Tolkien frighteningly well, and it used to be the case that I was pretty well-read in the post-Tolkien tradition: Lewis's Narnia; Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea; Stephen Donaldson’s The Land, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar, Gene Wolfe’s variously shaped suns, Alan Garner, Adams (Rich, not Doug), Peake, Lloyd Alexander, Silverberg's Majipoor, Zelazny, Louise Cooper, Ray Feist, Rob Holdstock, Jack Vance, the sublime Sheri Tepper. I read hundreds of Arthurian fantasies to write this, now long out-of-print critical study. The last big-book non-Arthurian Fantasy series I read entire was probably Tad Williams’ Memory Thorn and Sorrow, when it came out (which dates me), though I’ve read individual volumes of Robin Hobb, Steve Erikson, Steph Swainston, Miéville of course—and it goes without saying I’ve read Pratchett, Rowling and Pullman. And, to leapfrog to recent years, I’ve read books by, for example, James Barclay, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan (but more because these gentlemen are friends of mine than for any yearning I had to immerse myself again in Epic Fantasy). In all these cases I very much enjoyed what I read; in some cases it moved me very much; and for some of these writers—Le Guin, say—I feel something approach writerly reverance. But I’m too ignorant of the 1990s and much of the noughties. That’s one reason why I decided to give Jordan a whirl.
I get that for many people the deal is escape. Leave your worries behind; you enter this better world. It’s a world in which you don’t work in the accounts department of a mid-size educational supplies firm; where, instead, you live in a palace and command servants and have magic powers and enjoy exciting sex with beautiful people and are able to vent your repressed aggression in fighty-fight. Jordan’s twist on this venerable textual strategy is, partly, giving his readers much more detail than his market rivals; and partly, more cannily, creating the illusion of psychological depth. Simple wish-fulfilment gets old too soon; so Jordan's Alexander-the-Great-alike is troubled by the fear he’s going mad. It’s not much, but it’s enough to separate him from the bulk of competitors. And otherwise, the wotworld is coloured and detailed like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and to similar aesthetic effect—viz., the embourgeiosification and prettifying of a notional past:
Across the harbour the wind roared, tossing small ships and large, across the city itself, gleaming white beneath the unfettered sun, spires and walls and color-ringed domes, streets and canals bustling with storied southern industry. Around the shining domes and slender towers of the Tarasin Palace the wind swirled, carrying the tang of salt, lifting the flag of Altara, two golden leopards on a field of red and blue. But—I keep coming back to this. But—really, it screams from the books—but it is all terribly written. I don’t just mean the style, although the style is awful. I mean the whole kit-and-kaboodle: the overall structure, and the narrative, the pacing and focalisation, the characterisation, the dialogue, the tone. All of it. The writing is bad from the get-go. ‘She managed to be pretty if not beautiful despite a nose that was overbold at best’—at best? How would it have been if it had been the worst? ‘Gaunt cheeks and a narrow nose hid the ageless quality of the red sister’s features’: so ‘cheeks’ and ‘nose’ don’t count as features?
Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair, a demanding stare of impatience so loud she night as well have shouted. Her eyes are black, they’re white, her eyebrows are escaping, her gaze is audible. This, this is terrible writing.
And this is the part I can’t seem to get my head around: the fans know that it’s terribly written. They know and they don’t care. Why don’t they care? I don’t know why they don’t care. After finishing Wotviii, and after writing most of this post, I googled for some reviews; and I found this sfsite piece by James Seidman:
In the book, Jordan succeeds in carrying forward his stunning world building in this detailed story of a struggle between good and evil … Yet, after reading A Path of Daggers, I found myself wishing that Jordan had succeeded in his original goal of completing the story in eight books, rather than the current estimate of twelve. While the novel certainly advances the plot of the series, it fails to really introduce many new themes to keep the story fresh…. I don't want to leave the impression that A Path of Daggers is a bad book or boring. It's a piece of excellent writing that is part of an excellent series. However, this particular piece of The Wheel of Time, taken by itself, seems to drag on. It seems like Jordan could have focused on progressing certain plot lines faster to give more of a sense of progress. Fortunately, several things happen at the very end of the book that suggest that the ninth book will again be refreshing and different. I would suggest that readers with enough patience wait for the ninth book to come out, then read it back-to-back with A Path of Daggers. This will probably hide any of the book's shortcomings and lead to a more pleasurable reading experience.This is, I think, one of the most astonishing reviews I have ever read. Seidman describes the book as ‘stunning’ and uses the superlative ‘excellent’ twice despite conceding that the novel is stale, draggy and possessed of unpleasant shortcomings. He then suggests how a reader might get through the volume in such a way as to camouflage precisely those shortcomings. Assuming that ‘stunning’ is not being deployed in its abattoir bolt-gun sense, and putting aside the theory that ‘excellent’ is used sarcastically, this amounts to a reviewer saying ‘vol 8 is an excellent novel, although, obviously in a shit way, but maybe volume 9 won’t be so shit, and maybe, if you swallow them both together, that as yet unwritten book will be sweet enough to disguise the shitty taste of this one.’
What to say to such a review other than: don't! Please don't! The libraries of the world are crammed with beautiful, powerful, moving, mindblowing literature! Read some of that instead!
‘I don’t care!’ you cry. ‘I don’t want good writing! I just want to get away to Wotworld for a while!’
Well, hey. Sure. We’re all a bit ground-down by life, I know. We all want to get a little drunk, from time to time, so as to ameliorate the grind; to step through the portal to somewhere more appealing. But getting drunk doesn’t have to mean sitting on a park bench with a 2-litre plastic bottle of strong cider. It is possible to get something more refined from the experience. How can I communicate this fundamental truth about art to you? Is there any point in me telling you: ‘look, if you just try this Château Margaux 1787, you’ll get all the intoxication you want but also a really beautiful drinking experience …’? Because, here’s the thing; with alcohol, supermarket cider is cheaper than fine wines (that of course dictates why different people drink the one and the other). But with books the difference in quality is not reflected in the cover price! Maybe it should be. Maybe it ought to cost £1:99 to buy a Robert Jordan novel and £45.99 to buy a Vladimir Nabokov one. But it doesn’t! Amazingly, it doesn’t! There is nothing stopping you going for the higher quality experience! Honestly!