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.