Friday, 18 June 2010

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time 11: Knife of Dreams (2005)


I suggest we start by taking a look at the blurb:
As the very fabric of reality wears thin all portents indicate that Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle, is imminent.
Not all the portents, though, surely? For instance, there’s the counter-portent that we’re still two-and-a-half-thousand pages away from even the start of the final volume. So I’m not sure ‘imminent’ is the word I’d use.
--and Rand al’Thor must ready himself to confront the Dark One.
He hasn’t had enough time to ready himself? If eleven fat volumes don’t give him enough time, I’m not sure what meaning the phrase ‘enough time’ can possibly have.
But Rand must first negotiate a truce with the Seanchan armies, as their forces increasingly sap his strength.
That’s a bold move, by the publishers, there. Brave. I mean, putting a reference to ‘sapped strength’ right there, in plain view, on the back of this book.

The cover image, up there, is a bit of a cheat. I actually read this volume (and by ‘read’ I mean ‘forced my weary eyes onward page by tedious page’) in the UK orbit paperback, which has this image on the front:

But the painting cover is so gloriously bad I decided to front the post with it. Bad in a ‘lady goes into a wallpaper shop to find behind the counter not, as she expected, a wallpaper shop assistant, but instead a man dressed as a Spanish conquistador manipulating a life-size ventriloquist dummy whilst a larger feller with three spears sticking out of his arse stands to one side watching’ sort of way.

On the other hand, the Orbit paperback cover has that eye-gladdening ‘Thames Hospicecare 50p’ sticker.

Otherwise, what have we got? Well, stylistically it’s the same hideous jumble, the same self-parodic bloat. Jordan is a writer who writes ‘this fire was not at all small, and the room seemed not far short of hot, a welcome heat that soaked into the flesh and banished shivers’ [343] because he is constitutionally allergic to the phrasing ‘a large fire warmed the room.’ He thinks the former sentence is more precise and therefore evocative. He’s wrong. That's not precision, it’s a finicky fussing textual aspergers, a style that can see nothing but details (and, more to the point, nothing but a certain very limited palate of details – colours of clothing, speed of movement, types of food, gradations of heat and cold—never the telling details great writers master). It is a style wholly incapable of illuminating penetration or evocation. Knife of Dreams is a novel in which this havering, hesitant John Majorish ‘a not un-large fire that was not un-warming’ idiocy has spread into all the limbs of the novel. Quite apart from anything else—‘the fire was hot, a welcome heat that soaked into the flesh and banished shivers’? I ask you. As opposed to a heat that bounces off the flesh and chills the very bones? Because that’s not the sort of heat you want from an open fire. No indeedy.

So, yes, I’m still breaking this butterfly upon the wheel.
Romanda took a longer look, and nearly gasped herself. [508]
I gasped myself the other day, actually. I’ve still got the red mark. Painful. What else? Well, there seemed to be an enormous amount of gathering of skirts in the novel, viz.: ‘Amylia jumped, then gathered her bronze-colored skirts to her knees’ [483].
They were disparate men, alike only in the way a leopard was like a lion. [508]
So these two men were alike in that … they both had four legs?
Gathering her skirts, Malind jumped down and rushed out. [508]
Again with the skirts!
Naris grimaced, before gathering her skirts and darting into the corridor. [343]
OK. I think the skirt gathering point has been made. What I mean is, it’s not as if the novel is all gathering skirts, and nothing but gathering skirts. There’s plenty of other things.
“That would be stealing,” Mistress Anan told him, in a lecturing tone, gathering her cloak around her. [235]
See? Cloak.
First came Seonid, a short woman holding her dark divided skirts up out of the mud.[583]
That one doesn’t even use the word ‘gathering’! This is the kind of stylistic and descriptive variation that makes Jordan the writer he is.
“Fail me, and you’ll regret it!” Gathering the skirts of her silk robe, she scurried away into the crowd. [598]
OK. That one uses ‘gathering.’ I concede that. But, look, there’s plenty you can do with skirts, apart from gathering them up or holding them out of the mud! See:
Her mouth snapped shut, and she smoothed her dark blue skirts unnecessarily…
I rest my case.
…then the small dark woman began walking toward them slowly, holding her pleated skirts up off the damp ground. [607]
Conceivably I rested my case too soon.

The small dark woman is Tuon, a Seanchan princess, and the book gives us a lot of detail, and tells us almost nothing, about her, and her relationship with Mat. There’s also some business with Elayne, and a certain amount of Rand faffing about. Although, to speak truthfully, plotwise there’s not an awful lot to report here. The 90-page prologue does contain some action: tension, a duel, build-up. But it’s a false dawn. The most memorable thing in the novel is that Rand gets his left-hand Luke-Skywalkered. Otherwise a summary of the novel might be: people wear clothes of varying styles and colours; people talk to people about various things; the food is all going off, but that doesn’t stop people eating enormous minutely detailed meals all the time. That aside, what is there in Knife of Dreams but Jordan’s unique prose? That prose ... one last time, for the gipper?
‘On the wind roared … shrieking over military camps near the river where soldiers and camp followers sleeping on the ground suddenly had their blankets stripped off and those in tents awoke to canvas jerking.’ [93] I tried canvas jerking myself, when I was younger. Painful. Or, wait … did I already do that gag?

‘His scowl deepened creases on his flushed face that needed no deepening.’ [124]

‘They slept together like puppies of necessity.’ [168] That’s a quotation from Shakespeare, you know: ‘Cry havoc and let slip/The puppies of necessity.’ Julius Caesar, I think.

‘Only Alliandre was there, lying facedown on her blankets in her collar with a damp cloth dipped in an herbal infusion over her bruised bottom.’ [169] If there's one thing Jordan likes more than attractive women being spanked on their bare arses, it's attractive women learning to love such abusive treatment. The word for this is: cre-e-epy.

‘He must have a leather tongue.’ [176] Must he? What if he doesn’t want one?

‘He was studying the board, when Joline led Teslyn and Edesina into the wagon like haughty on a pedestal, smooth-faced Aes Sedai to their toenails.’ [240] I’m afraid I don’t understand that sentence at all.

‘Essande produced an ivory-backed hairbrush and removed the towel from Elayne’s head.’ [352] Neat trick!

‘Elayne trembled, hands tightening to fists on the arms of her chair.’ [361]

‘Elayne laid one finger atop a bronze horseman less than a hand tall, standing a few leagues west of the city.’ [377] Another neat trick!

‘His ears quivered with embarrassment yet again. He had a great deal to learn about being a husband.’ [414]

‘The face of the man from Shadar Logoth floated in his head for a moment. He looked furious. And near to sicking up.’ [462]

‘She tried to work moisture into her mouth, but it was thick’ [653]

‘She showed him her teeth, hoping he did not take it for a grin.’ [654]

‘Before you can have eyeless prisoners, you need an eyeless victory. What we’ve had are a string of eyeless defeats.’ [737] Wise words.

‘Abruptly Loune seemed to recall who he was talking to. His face turned to dark wood, a hard mask.’ [738] And there’s yet another neat trick!
I tell you what. Let’s give Faile the last word:
‘Faile clasped her hands together. Of course she was solid. Hoisting her robes to avoid any more washing than she absolutely had to do, she began to walk. And then to run. [168]

29 comments:

Larry said...

So, are you going to read the New Spring prequel and the Brandon Sanderson co-authored books, or is this the end of the road for you and WoT?

*sniffs, tugs non-existent braid, readjusts shorts*

Opal said...

I love your criticisms of Wheel of Time, Adam, keep it going! I laugh so much when I read your commentary.

It's painful to read Wheel of Time, I think it shows a massive failure of editorial responsibility. The Robert Jordan books could have been so much better if Tor had an editor like you to tighten up the style, challenge the author on his shallow plot manipulations and unconscious idiosyncrasies, and push him to a deeper understanding of human nature... oh, wait, that couldn't happen.

James Barclay said...

Along that not at all short line that separates the good and the bad, I found this review much more towards the not at all bad area than the negatively good area.

I didn't laugh not very much and discovered, just like a needy inventor on the cusp of despair that my face of stone, when cracked by a smile not at all thin, is far less heavy.

I didn't not like your gathering of sentences and phrases, quotes and asides and in no small way am looking forward to another should you not decide not to render such a wonder.

Miles said...

I'm trying to think of another long-running fantasy series I've read that Adam can take a whack at after he's done with WoT...

Xanth? I think I read about thirteen of those, but they're kind of supposed to be funny.

Sara Douglass's Wayfarer Redemption double trilogy? They're pretty bad, but there are only six of them.

Nobody else I'm aware of has really reached the heights Jordan's attained, I'm afraid.

Samuel W said...

Miles, perhaps Goodkind's Sword of Truth series?

Adam Roberts said...

Larry: I shall not read New Spring. I will read The Gathering Storm, probably (Niall Harrison, that tall man, suggested I review it for Strange Horizons, although I now understand he's found a different person-with-a-PhD to do that).

Strangely I came across a copy of The Gathering Storm, title-page signed by Jordan himself, perhaps from beyond the grave, in the possession of my grey-haired old mother. You need to understand that my mother reads a rhino's-weight in crime novels & whodunnits every month, but never knowingly picks up an SF or F title (she doesn't read my novels, for instance). 'Mum,' I said, chancing upon the vol when visiting last month. 'I didn't realise you were a Robert Jordan reader!' 'Robert Who?' she replied. 'This,' I said, holding up the hefty hardback. 'Oh, that,' she said, vaguely. 'Somebody gave me that. Do you think I should read it?' 'Have you read the previous eleven volumes?' 'No,' she said. 'No I haven't. What happens in them?' I sat down next to her on the sofa. 'Mum,' I said. 'Would you mind if I borrowed this?' 'Take it,' she said, opening the new Dalziel and Pascoe. 'Take it.'

Adam Roberts said...

I was going to respond to Barclay's cruel aspersions, but just now I spotted him: gathering his skirts and running out of the room.

Larry said...

Someone has tried to inflict mental harm to your mother! At least you were there to rescue her by sacrificing more of your remaining sanity to reading it.

Miles said...

Samuel W -- of course! Why didn't I think of that? I've read probably the first, er, seven or eight books in the Sword of Truth series.

It would make a good set of posts since Goodkind seemed to be trying to do WoT better than WoT. Which is interesting since as Adam noted in the early posts on WoT, WoT itself is incredibly derivative.

Goodkind has a female-only society of magic people, a group of evil white-clad religious mercenaries who want to destroy the magic women, a race of elite warriors in the east, etc.

I remember liking SoT better than WoT back when I read them, mainly because the main character wasn't as insufferably dumb as Rand. I wonder how they'd fair in Adam's estimation.

CSA said...

Great review Adam, but i would have thought you'd be sick of all that "gathering" without having to read "gathering storm" now aswell.

I read goodkind's SOT, at roughly the same age as i read WOT. I gave up about book 7 or 8 aswell. (but continued on through WOT, WOT does that say about WOT i thought of SOT?) WOT > SOT , barely.

Goodkinds writing is more enjoyable, in some cases you actually WANT to turn to the next page to see whats going to happen, which can be a novelty when reading some of Jordans later novels. The main character in SOT wasnt as insufferably dumb as Rand, but he was so insufferably self-righteous i wanted to throw up. The bad guys are EVIL muhahaha, and the good guy always see the best in the bad guys until he wins them over to his side or stabs them, rinse repeat for every goodkind novel. The cheese factor is way higher in SOT and goodkind does his best to make the reader actually like the main characters.

I did enjoy them, but obviously not enough to even care how the series ended.

I think you would dislike SOT as much as WOT, but for very different reasons. But it would sure make for entertaining reading for us to see you review them.

Larry said...

People, people! Let's not inflict The Sword of Truth on Adam! He deserves better!

He needs to review the Gor novels.

彥安 said...

You are flattering me..............................................................

CSA said...

Larry, but thats exactly why Adam would write brilliant reviews for them!

Your right, they would be torture for Adam. But the review would be alot more fun for a book he didnt like as opposed to an awesome series like say, er... James Barclay's Raven novels.

Of course, Adam could always just review the SOT TV series... now THAT would be torture.

David Langford said...

Thog is again grateful for heroic research, which will be pillaged for Ansible. Thank you so much for not gathering up your storm and fleeing the room.

As for the Gor books, my own quick sampling may convey their subtle charm.

Jessica said...

The Puppies of Necessity! At last I have my band name...

Baduin said...

You have written a lot about the reasons those books are bad, mostly citing bad style.

This does not seem to be a sensible use of the time spent reading them, however. Bad style can be seen after sampling a few pages.

Much more interesting topic would be: why those books are popular?

C. S. Lewis in Experiment in Criticism gives a good introduction to bad literature. We know that bad style, commonplace descriptions, repetitive action etc in case of bad literature increase, not diminish its popularity.

The book must have some elements which makes reader want to read it, however.

All novels must have certain technical elements to be readable: the rhytm of action/relaxation, victory/defeat, foreshadowing/fulfillment etc. It is very well described here:
http://robin-d-laws.livejournal.com/tag/beat%20analysis

But it is not enough. A novel must have some additional element which is attracting readers. And popular bad novels are especially interested here, because their attractive points are generally very strong and very fundamental.

Gor nothwithstanding, women seem to very reliably buy romances about rich, dark, handsome, dangerous and haughty strangers with some endearing weakness- the romance novels, incl. vampire romances, are written to an industry standard by now.

The reasons why men like thrillers and
technothrillers are equally obvious.

So, what is the fundamental structural element of Wheel of Time, and presumably of long epic fantasy stories in general, which is attracting readers?

Opal said...

@Baduin I'm interested in this question, too. I would guess that AR is reviewing WoT because of its popularity. There are lots of epic fantasies on the market, so it's an interesting question why and how WoT is so highly regarded among fantasy aficionados, and I would like to hear Adam's thought on the themes and why he thinks the series has been so successful.

One positive thing I can say: I find the magic system interesting and resonant with Celtic themes, from the bit I've read about it on the Wheel of Time FAQ. It's still not developed as deeply as it should be.

However repulsive the shallow, repetitive dominance/submission themes and characterizations, I shrug and conclude that it resonates powerfully with many readers.

My theory: if the author had more insight into his themes, the book would have been better-written and have had a touch of the ironical, and would have lost its vast middle-brow audience.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Baduin, I addressed this one a few books back. In general, I think that any mysteriously popular book of this kind has got some kind of sexual fetishism going on for its male adolescent readers. In this case, probably the mild overt heterosexual BDSM stuff, supplemented by mildly covert gay BDSM stuff.

That sounds shallow and reductionistic, but really, how complicated a theory does one need for this kind of book?

Mark_W said...

Rich,

In general, I think that any mysteriously popular book of this kind has got some kind of sexual fetishism going on for its male adolescent readers.

I think you're probably right. To go back to Goodkind's The Sword of Truth, which others have mentioned here, and which personally I found more interesting than the Wheel of Time (not that I've finished SoT either, but I'm still minded to perhaps have another bash, which I won't with WoT), apart from some Jordanian arse-groping ("Michael reached around her with both arms, cupped both hands to her bottom and puller the lower half of her body hard against him." - this happens to the series heroine as early as Chapter 3 of Volume 1!), Wizard's First Rule grinds to a half after several hundred pages for some reasonably full-on fem-dom torture of the hero:

When he didn't move quickly enough for her, she laid the Aegil on his shoulder, pushing him down with it. His right arm went numb with hurt. "Please Mistress Denna, forgive me."

A couple of pages later (p614 if you've got this far): "All right, get up. It's time to begin your training.")

With Jordan, you can perhaps see hints of this in his pre-WoT Conan books, which I still, mayhap foolishly, yet retain a fondness for. (Anyone who [like me, let's be honest] still has the 1985 UK Sphere paperback of Conan The Triumphant can scurry off and re-read pp123-124 for an example...)

Mark_W said...

Rich,

And another thing!

In your comment to Volume 9, Winter's Heart, you spoke about "anti-novels", and "the transformation of writerly trash", and ended by saying you'd wait "and see if anyone else was interested."

I kept meaning to post and say that I was interested, but sadly I had nothing original to add myself, and have since been hunting for the review I was put in mind of. I don't think it's online, but it's John Clute's (ultimately not unfavourable: ["he is a writer of bad sentences that that build into decent paragraphs which cohere into grand sweeps of story"]) review of Tad Williams's Otherland: City of Golden Shadow from Interzone #119 (and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003)

What your comments reminded me of, were, primarily, Clute's rather marvellous phrase that the style of Otherland ("flat and mortuary and belated") suggested that Williams had "not got his Story by the tale"; but also Clute's discussion of 'phatic discourse':

"By increasing the entropy of the scene told -- so that there is insufficient energy left to spook a gnat -- phatic discourse reassures the reader that the book won't bite, that attention need not be paid..."

Though, to go back to what we were discussing above, this on its own is surely not enough to make something popular?

Rich Puchalsky said...

Mark W, thanks for your interest! The foremost anti-novel is Aldiss' Report on Probability A -- I have a post about it somewhere on my blog rpuchalsky.blogspot.com. It uses deliberately "bad" writing -- incessant overdescription of scenes -- in order to subvert the novel itself. Of course, Robert Jordan isn't doing it deliberately, but it can be amusing to read bad novels as if they are avant-grade, since they both share for different reasons a disinclination to write according to accepted standards.

The transformation of waste -- a phrase from a Patti Smith song, as noted in the most recent poem on my blog -- is what I think that literary SF is really about. SF is a lowbrow, pop genre, and literary values are highbrow values, so literary SF involves turning trash into gold. Some time a genius will perhaps write a little bit like Robert Jorden, but deliberately and subversively, and it could be a masterpiece.

That theory of literary SF seems pretty common, to me, among people whose touchstone is PKD. Stanislaw Lem wrote in my opinion some of the best criticism of PKD, and identified his technique as making things out of trash. And the perennial argument among certain literary-SF types is about PKD's sentences: Delany will be quoted to say that they're trashy, and other people will reply that they may be individually jagged, but they have to be that way to make up the whole.

Mark_W said...

Rich,

I shall certainly seek out your blog...Shamefully, I've never read Report On Probability A, though it's on my 'errors-I-should-rectify' list, especially since I have a fondness for B. Aldiss.

(Not least for his marvellous efforts introducing O. Stapledon books: The Last and First Men, says Aldiss, in the introduction to the Pelican edition I have, is "the greatest of the writings of Olaf Stapledon." Later, called upon to introduce Star Maker, for Gollancz's SF Masterworks, he declares it, "the most wonderful novel I have ever read", which is, I suppose, stoutly and brilliantly, just about consistent...)

And the perennial argument among certain literary-SF types is about PKD's sentences: Delany will be quoted to say that they're trashy, and other people will reply that they may be individually jagged, but they have to be that way to make up the whole.

Aye, there's the rub. When does the whole, either accidentally, or deliberately (as in Spinrad's Iron Dream, say?), become more than the sum of its parts?

I've not read the Harry Potter books, myself, but a friend of mine gave the first couple a bash recently, and pronounced them very much not to his taste, but admitted that he came to this conclusion at four in the morning (as the song goes) having been unable to put the blasted things down...

Mark_W

洪筱婷 said...

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JS said...

So...isn't that a Darrell K. Sweet cover painting? I havn't read new sf or fantasy for over fifteen years now, but...but...things have changed, I see.

Well, Sweet was always more detailed than effective but if this is Sweet, something's gone...bad. Of course the complete lack of design as opposed to noodling detail in paperback cover illustration is partly to blame. If Jack Gaughan had done one of his simple cover illustrations, it would be vastly more effective and the figures wouldn't look like the highest achievement of the taxidermist's art.

halojones-fan said...

Oh Jesus, I've got to stop reading, I'm going to laugh too hard and get in trouble...

"puppies of necessity" HNNNN HHNHNHNNNNNN!!! (that sound is me trying not to laugh out loud)

queenwilly said...

...the puppies of necessity.... That can't be true.

I saw Jordan speak in Sydney in the 90s. We were all solid fans (back when the books were good) but the talk became more and more hilarious, as he became more and more pompous and his prose waxed alarmingly like rambunctious puppies scooped up in a gathered skirt.

Bring on the Sanderson reviews!

duality said...

Thank you for making me laugh so heartily Adam. I was in tears and hysterics by your Crossroads review. I'm trying to psych myself up to reread the series before the release of the next installment and your reviews reminded me of the weak writing and mad-den-ing-ly s-l-oo-www pacing that had me skimming through to find a character i gave a damn about. The female characters are an abomination, and as his editor i always wondered why his wife didn't do something about it. I suppose it is nostalgia (i have a vague childhood memory of a time when WoT was a new and exciting series) that has kept me faithful to Jordan. The 3rd Age should have been long put to bed. Please hurry up Sanderson. Thanks for the fun Adam

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