Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Wheel of Time is probably the most popular contemporary epic fantasy series and one of the most popular of all time. It’s huge both in volume and popularity – a new book in this series is sure to make the New York Times Best Seller list and crack the top10 over at Amazon.com. Legions of fans interact at various websites and message boards where they spend their time theorizing about the books, role playing, or just enjoying the company of others who enjoy the same books. The Gathering Storm (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) is the 12th book out of an anticipated 14 in The Wheel of Time (not counting one prequel).

So, what makes a late series book such a big deal beyond the much needed fix for fans? This is the first book of the series published since its author and creator,
Robert Jordan, sadly and prematurely left this world after a battle with terminal illness. Honoring Jordan’s wishes that someone complete the series, his estate asked Brandon Sanderson if he was willing to take on the task. Full of mixed emotions (after all, Sanderson himself was a fan before he was a writer), he accepted the job. Armed with hundreds of thousands of pages of notes, completed, semi-completed and outlined text, dictation from Jordan’s last days, two extremely knowledgeable assistants, Jordan’s widow and long-time editor, and the passion of both a fan and a writer, Sanderson offers our first view of how he will complete the series – honoring Jordan’s style and plan while not pretending to be Jordan, and offering a bit of himself to the story.

The Gathering Storm is the 12th book of a series, so any discussion will contain some few ‘spoilers’ of previous books. Nothing big is revealed of past books, but the discussion alone allows clues of what has happened before. Likewise, with a story of this magnitude and fans as passionate as Wheel of Time fans, any spoiler (perceived or real) of The Gathering Storm is quite controversial. This review does not contain what I would consider a single spoiler, however, it does discuss the characters of the book, I address the story-arcs of these characters, I discuss how these characters add to or take away from this book, and I even include a few teases that don’t spoil, but can add to speculation for those that haven’t read the book and should be recognizable to those that have. Some will consider such things to be spoilers, know that no plot revelations occur – but read at your own risk. This review is intended to be ‘safe’ territory and along those lines, if you do choose to comment, please refrain from including spoilers – I will remove any comments that I feel violate the spirit of this being safe territory.

It’s also appropriate for me to say that I’ve been one of those insane fans endlessly discussing these books on the internet. I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since the mid-1990s and I’ve re-read the series multiple times. I think true objectivity in reviews is a fallacy, but I do believe that reviews need to be thorough and fair. So know that I’m a biased fanboy but also someone striving to write a decent, holistic view of The Gathering Storm that won’t come off feeling liked the biased praise of just another blind fan. It’s also worth knowing that I did not re-read the series before reading The Gathering Storm and the last Wheel of Time book I read was Knife of Dreams (
US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) when it was released several years ago. I come into this book as a fan who knows a lot about the series but not off a fresh re-read of events that have come before with a strong feel for the tone of Jordan’s world.

The Gathering Storm is primarily the story of Rand and Egwene. The last few books have typically only given us bits and pieces of Rand’s story through the view of others. Here, Rand is front and center. Likewise, the other primary story we follow is that of Egwene and the divided White Tower. Mat and Perrin both make appearances, but their time is limited and Elayne is absent altogether.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Wheel of Time is how it presents archetypes. Many of the characters and events of the series are distant interpretations of the archetypes of various cultures of our own world, often twisted and nearly unrecognizable. The Gathering Storm takes a step back from this – this is not a big picture book. Instead, it turns inward – the threats are not as external, but primarily threats from within. This approach is exemplified by the two story-arcs concentrated on – Egwene and Rand. Rand is The Dragon Reborn, the man destined and cursed to save the world (or destroy it). Rand’s decent into darkness and madness has been well documented throughout the series, though mainly approached through the view of others. In The Gathering Storm, much of the time is spent in Rand’s own view. And the resulting interpretation has to be that things are even worse than we suspected. Rand is dark, as dark as the Shadow he’s destined to battle, and events in this book only push him further. A victory at the hands of Rand may be no victory at all. The primary battle fought is within Rand – will darkness or light reign? Sure, along the way he may tangle with a Forsaken or three, but the primary battle is internal, with the few external forces present fighting for one outcome or the other.

The same internal conflict is present in Egwene’s story. The White Tower is divided and must stand united to face the coming Final Battle. The rebel forces loyal to her lay siege and she’s captive to her rival in the White Tower. Her focus is inward – in healing the White Tower, whatever the cost to herself.

Rand’s story is dark, depressing and often seemingly devoid of hope. Balancing this is Egwene, who’s story is hopeful, even inspiring. As Rand descends further into darkness, Egwene shines. It’s appropriate that the pivotal moment in Rand’s internal struggle, indeed the final moment of The Gathering Storm occurs in relative close proximity to Egwene.

Honestly, and bluntly, the few chapters devoted to Perrin and Mat are unnecessary bulk to this already long book. Neither fit in well with the internal struggles discussed above (though arguments could be made) and they feel out of balance in an otherwise well-balanced story. The only justification for their inclusion in this story is that fans would have been outraged at their absence, particularly in the case of fan-favorite, Mat. However, I will admit, that Mat’s meeting with Verin Sedai leaves me wanting, no needing, to know more (particularly after events that occur later in the book).

I feel that the pace of The Gathering Storm generally shows some very real improvement over recent volumes of The Wheel of Time. The internal battles described above are well presented, with little wasted space. As mentioned, the pace stumbles a bit with Mat and Perrin, but fans will likely react favorably to seeing old friends again. The beginning is where Sanderson is frustratingly true to Robert Jordan. The first few chapters are full of infodumps – yes, with the length of this series and time since the reader last saw these characters, it’s good to get a bit of a reminder, but as with other volumes in the series, it quickly annoys. This is perhaps the only glaring example of where I could sense Sanderson striving to be like Jordan. Thankfully, such blatant infodumps are rare later in the story. Otherwise, Sanderson succeeds by blending in – this does feel like Robert Jordan’s world. I’m sure many a fan will see (or imagine that they see) Sanderson’s imprint on their beloved series and find complaint. But, from my viewpoint, which is one where I haven’t read the other books in the series for several years, I think that Sanderson does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of The Wheel of Time, (generally) without reading like a simple copy.

In all this, The Gathering Storm comes across as I expected – this is a book that those who are still excited about The Wheel of Time will love and it’s a book that will have plenty to complain about for those seeking it. Sanderson does an admirable job of picking up a series at its climax and staying true to it and its fans. Exciting events occur, longstanding mysteries revealed, plots and arcs come to fruition – some scenes in this book will become iconic to the series as a whole. But, the Last Battle hasn’t yet begun, the characters still haven’t been brought together, and major anticipated events remain. All in all, I couldn’t be happier – reading The Gathering Storm brought back my love for these characters and this world. They’ve been a part of my life for nearly 15 years and getting more was a joy. The series is on the right track and Sanderson has proven to me that he deserves to be in the driver’s seat – I simply can’t wait to read what comes next. 9/10*




*remember, I’m a fanboy and these ratings reflect my overall enjoyment of book, which in the case of a Wheel of Time book, will always be high.

20 comments:

renasko said...

I was waiting for you to get into the good meat of what you liked about the book, and you delivered with that last paragraph.

Will be checking this out, very soon.

Tia Nevitt said...

Wow; I really love that bookshelf! Makes me wonder which author I would honor by a spot in the middle like that.

Sadly, book six was the last one that I read. I loved all of them until that novel, but I decided to buy the rest of the novels in WOT when the last one came out. I thought there would be 9 or 10 books, but I'm still waiting.

Maggie said...

What a great review! Thanks, also, for spoiler-free hints; I won't be able to get my copy until Friday, so I'm avoiding the fan forums to stay unspoiled. Luckily, your review was a perfect antidote- able to enjoy the excitement without ruining all the surprises. Well done.

From what you (and others who had advance reviews, like Jason of DM and Leigh from Tor... etc) have said, I'm so unbelievably pumped. Despite her flaws, I've always been a huge Egwene fan, so I can't wait to see her kick butt and take names in this book. Hurrah!

PeterWilliam said...

Well done. Thanks, Ken. I can't wait to get mine. Unfortunately, I'll have to shelf something in favor of it, but since I like WoT, Jordan and Sanderson, I can't possibily lose on this one.

Neth said...

Thanks all.

-Tia, the book don't actually reside there - they are properly shelved with the other books. I just though it make a nice photo in that spot. Usually there is a nice mineral specimen of malachite, azurite and a few others in that spot.

Anonymous said...

Did you feel, like Pat, that some of the characterizations were off? As he puts it: like they were being played by different actors.

Neth said...

@Anon,

It's hard to say. Rand and Egwene were spot on. Nynaeve seems less annoying, which I think is a good thing. Mat also felt a bit off - but I think that's more of an issue that he shouldn't have been in the book at all. His chapters felt forced to be in the book - I think (hope) that's the real issue.

Anonymous said...

Matt was off. Aviendha was way off in my opinion. Overall good but I had some real issues with several parts.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I'll never read one of your reveiws again before reading the book. You specifically said 'NO spoilers' and went to great length to reassure me that you wouldn't ruin anything.

Then one of the first things you mention is a meeting between Matt and Verin. Don't you know what a spoiler is? Apparently not.

Neth said...

@anon

I'd argue that it's you that has no understanding of what a spoiler is - revealing that Matt and Verin meet is not a spoiler (or at the very most an extremely minor one), particularly after we know from KOD that Verin was seeking out Mat.

If I had discussed the details/outcome of that meeting, that would be spoiler. I said to read at your own risk since people have different ideas of what a spoiler is, you seem to be on the extreme end of this spectrum and I'd advise you to not read any reviews with such a definition of spoilers.

Fence said...

I've skipped a lot the review, no spoilers for me, but like you I haven't reread the series in a few years. I did mean to before this came out, but just haven't had the time. The book is coming to work, I know because I ordered 3 copies of all the series for our libraries so I'll read it then. I prefer to buy the pbks, they fit together on the shelves much nicer :)

phil said...

I found that the characterizations and descriptions were a bit cruder in TGS than in the other books. Characters expressed opinions that they didn't have in the previous books, that wasn't anything like in the previous books, issues that were on the periphery before have been discussed for no real reason, and many characters seem gentler. This doesn't mean that TGS is a bad book, it isn't but there are these differences all the same.

MW said...

I've been reading these books since I was in Grade 11. I'm now in my 30s and a parent (weird).

I thought the Prologue and early chapters were the most awkward (that farmer in the beginning is brutal), but Sanderson really hit his stride with the Egwene and Rand storylines. The characters around them (with the exception of Gawyn, who is at loose ends most of the time) also read well.

Aviendha's storyline had little to go on for most of the book -- I think that's why her voice felt a little off. You can only have someone sitting around for so long before it gets tedious. I'm willing to bet the same would be true if Jordan had written it.

Likewise, Perrin felt a bit hollow, but we didn't get to see him doing anything of significance.

The truest criticism I've seen is that Sanderson hasn't grasped Mat's sense of humour. His interactions with Tallamanes were also a bit off.

But based on the bulk of this novel, I'm willing to give Sanderson the benefit of the doubt and see what he does with Perrin and Mat in the next book.

I enjoyed this installment and am pleased to see two major plotlines come to an end.

Josh Carr Superstar said...

Have you seen the video on Amazon With Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordans Widow? (sorry I don't remember her name, Harriet?)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m33WT5KE5TG260

I haven't read the Gathering Storm yet.

I just finished a book you all would love (in fact Neth I would love to read your review of it)

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown
here is a link: http://johndbrown.com/novels/

Neth said...

@Josh

I do have a copy of Brown's book from Tor. It looks good and it's been getting pretty good reviews so far. I plan to read it, though I don't know when I'll get to it.

He's doing a signing in Arizona next week - I hope to go to it, but it's looking doubtful at the moment.

And yes, I've seen the video - that one and a number of others are embedded in other posts on this blog.

Brett said...

Good review, and it is an excellent WOT book - easily in the top three (and the Rand parts are my favorite in the series).

Nynaeve seems less annoying, which I think is a good thing.

Yup. I usually dislike the Nynaeve parts, but I actually liked the ones she had here.

Mat was off, but I'm giving Sanderson some leeway on that - he was probably a tricky, idiosyncratic character to right, with his own peculiar sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

Ya, I would agree Mat, Nynaeve, and Aviendha were different, but like Neth mentioned, they are displayed differntly due to their part in the book. Aviendha needed to make the transition to wise one eventually. Mat didn't do anything but set up the plot for whatever was in the envelope. Finally, I personally just hated reading from Nynaeve's point of view because of how conceited she was, so I think it's much better in this book. Other than that, I didn't pick up any major differences either.

Anonymous said...

I read TGS in two days, I couldn't put it down; to say that I was a thirsty fan is an understatement. As a whole, I enjoyed this much more than some of the later RJ novels; where some fans loved RJ's scene descriptions, towards the last couple of books, it didn't go anywhere.

Not so with this novel. The pacing was perfect. Loved Egwene's storyline, although I always have loved her. In terms of Mat, I feel like one of the few where I could take him or leave him. The last couple of books, his chapters were the ones that I found least interesting.

As for Rand's storyline, I won't mention specifics, but it was beautiful and I was so happy to read it.

Under the Light

Anonymous said...

Neth: Just curious about your opinion. Longtime reader of the series and I've dabbled in enough of Jordan's Conan writing to know that he has at least a faint obsession with spanking. I confess that I was very disappointed that Sanderson not only didn't let go of Egwene's being endlessly spanked in the tower, but that he used spanking in another key scene, as a means of one character's getting through to another character (to put it in a non-spoilerish way). Am I the only one who's noticed the persistence of this regrettably lurid Jordan-ism? I think the first appearance of it in the WOT was when Perrin applied some husbandly discipline to Faile in the fourth or fifth book. Since then, we've gotten more and more of it. Are you bugged by it at all? Am I alone in my distaste?

Neth said...

@Anon

You are not alone in noticing this Jordan's apparent obsession with spanking. I'm re-reading the series again now (well, actually listening on audio) and I'm noticing this more than ever. I'm on ACOS and it's getting quite tiresome (lots of references to Bryne spanking Siuan). I think the earliest references come sooner than Perrin and Faile, but I haven't kept track of it that close.

On Sanderson's use - I know that the spanking is something that he's not really thrilled with. He said as much when I talked with him and he's repeated it elsewhere. Wherever he can, Sanderson is preserving things as RJ planned them (and often wrote them before passing on). This includes spanking and such. He has specifically said that he probably would have done that scene differently, but RJ had already at least outlined it (he wasn't specific about how complete it was). I think Sanderson is right to preserve RJ's wishes as much as possible - as a fan that's how I want, annoyances and all.

At the time I found the scene rather amusing, but then I hadn't done a reread in a long time. Now in context with just how much spanking is done in this series, I'm not a big fan of it. It really does seem to be an obsession. It makes me wonder if anyone has ever had the guts/gaul to ask Harriet about it ;)

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