Monday, November 01, 2010

Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

First, if you are looking for an objective review about Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), stop now. I don’t believe that objectivity in reviews truly exists or that seeking it is particularly wise, but that is aside the point – the point is that I have been (arguably) a rabid fan of the Wheel of Time since the early 1990s (as I describe in detail elsewhere) and I won’t even pretend that I can approach a Wheel of Time book from any other perspective. But I will give my honest (if excited) thoughts on Towers of Midnight. Since this is the 13th book of the series, spoilers for the previous 12 books are implied in this review and by discussing this book at all, some of what I say will be considered spoilers for fans. I do not reveal any major plot spoilers for the book; however I do discuss the direction of characters and even a few of the long-standing mysteries of the Wheel of Time series – though I do not reveal how those mysteries turn out. You have been warned.

My initial reaction to reading Towers of Midnight involved many incomprehensible noisy antics that roughly translate into an expression of awesomeness. Now keep in mind that I stayed up well past my bed time in the 3, sleep deprived days it took me to finish (I couldn’t completely abandon the responsibilities of real life) and during those late nights I consumed far more scotch than my typical nightcap. Wheel of Time fans are familiar with the significance of laughter and tears to the series and my prediction is that Wheel of Time fans will experience laughter and tears of their own while reading this. My own whiskey-lubricated tears came as Randzen (yes, I call him Randzen now, you will see why) reunites with his surrogate father after the harsh events near the close of The Gathering Storm (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review). It should be no surprise that laughter came from the direction of Mat, who really missed his calling as a scribe.

Many fans have noticed shifts in style with Brandon Sanderson writing The Gathering Storm and this becomes even more evident in Towers of Midnight. Sanderson simply isn’t as subtle of a writer as Jordan and Towers of Midnight is not a book that lends itself to subtly. Sanderson just doesn’t have the time or space here to write as Jordan would have. I’m not saying that Sanderson is writing in his own style – he is still attempting to be true to Jordan’s writing style, but it feels less true here than it did in The Gathering Storm. I think it’s probably best approached that these last three books penned by Brandon Sanderson really should be read as single volume within this series. The Gathering Storm was the first third – Sanderson established his version of Jordan’s style in this first third, for the second third he doesn’t try so hard at it, mostly he’s down to business and getting it done – and for the most part, he’s getting it done very well.

Jordan was the dealer, but it’s now Sanderson’s job to play out the hand. Sanderson plays a bit of a different game than Jordan probably would have, but the cards are same. Some will use Towers of Midnight to say that Sanderson plays the game much better than Jordan ever did, others will say that Jordan would have played superior to Sanderson. How the two games may have related really doesn’t matter anymore – focus on the game at hand. And Sanderson plays admirably with the cards he’s dealt and in my opinion comes out way ahead at the end.

The Last Battle is coming and it’s time for Sanderson to get the cards in alignment. This means a lot needs to be crammed into the book. At times things feel rushed – sometimes very rushed. Some scenes that have been building for several books, have a payoff that is a bit of a let-down. I get the sense that Sanderson really had to slash many of the plotlines he wanted to address, ultimately giving us only the minimum.  It’s a shame, if understandable – the only thing worse would have been this book dragging out.

One way Sanderson attempts to mollify this is through the use of multiple points of view in each chapter. This technique is not new to Wheel of Time books, but is much more prevalent in Towers of Midnight than in previous books. In the past the use of multiple points of view has been mostly limited to people within the same plot line, in Towers of Midnight Sanderson often uses another point of view within a chapter to shift to another plot-line that is more thematically related rather than plot-related. In the end I felt this technique was only partially successful.

Many fans have debated just how ‘right’ Sanderson gets the voices of the characters of the Wheel of Time. For The Gathering Storm, many Mat felt a bit off – even me. In Towers of Midnight Sanderson seemingly deals with many more characters and early discussions often hint at more off-ness in Sanderson’s characterizations. In retrospect and considering my recent re-read of the series, I feel that Sanderson actually did quite well with Mat. Mat’s character has been growing in this direction for a while now and I think Sanderson is taking a bit too much blame for shifts in Mat’s character that Jordan planned and began to execute. This is only enhanced by the mind-view fans often hold of Mat as the best Wheel of Time character, where they selectively remember aspects of Mat’s character. Anyway, I think readers will be much happier with Mat in Towers of Midnight. Other characters may be a bit more debatable – Morgase, Aviendha, Elayne, etc. I’ll argue that people hated those points of view when Jordan wrote them and in that respect nothing has changed. Not every character can be a favorite, nor should they be.

The Gathering Storm was undeniably Rand and Egwene’s book, with only token appearances (if any) from other characters. Towers of Midnight belongs to Perrin and Mat, and in my opinion more to Perrin. Yes, we see a fair amount from Rand and Egwene and we get caught up with Elayne and some of the minor characters. Many long anticipated scenes happen, and quite a few don’t. And just to make the fans cringe a bit – Towers of Midnight has a lot in common with Crossroads of Twilight – much of the book is spent catching up events that occurred at the end of the previous book.

As I said before, no real spoilers will be revealed, but for the next couple of paragraphs I go into a bit more detail and you may want to skip to the last paragraph.

As I said above, this book largely belongs to Perrin. Yes Mat plays a big role as cover flap reveals, but in many ways it’s a predictable role. Now Perrin has been a stagnant and rather annoying character for quite some time now (sure this is debatable, but also true for many Wheel of Time fans). So I must say, thank you Brandon Sanderson for making Perrin interesting again. For the first parts of Towers of Midnight Perrin remains much the same, but he finally grows. Of the three ta’veren, Perrin has often seemed to lesser in spite of many remarkable accomplishments and his ability to commune with wolves. That feeling of lesser ends, fans rejoice.

Another interesting shift is that we get signs of Aviendha actually having significance. Min started showing sings in The Gathering Storm that she has a role to play beyond her visions. Elayne has always had a clear role as an Aes Sedai and the now Queen of Andor. But at least in my opinion, Aviendha hasn’t done much in a long while. In many ways what she does in Towers of Midnight is small, in other ways it may be the most significant thing that happens in this book. Her scenes were among the most well-written and touching in the entire book, they also felt out of place and pace with the rest of the book and were among the scenes I enjoyed the least.

What we do see of Rand and Egwene is good, but in some ways a bit of let down. After Rand’s epiphany at the close of The Gathering Storm he is changed, he is now Randzen – I add the zen to the end of his name because is distinctly Zen-like, a Buddha, a Jesus, a true Savior to be. He doesn’t feel like the Rand we’ve known – I really came to dislike reading about Rand because of how dark he became, and now that he has at least seemingly gotten past that, it’s a big shift. I’m honestly still a bit undecided on how I feel about it. Randzen may be just a bit too perfect, a bit of a ‘Gary Stu’.

Which brings me to Egwene – Egwene’s plotline in The Gathering Storm was the one I enjoyed most. And in my recent re-read of the series I’ve found myself really enjoying her maneuverings since becoming Amyrlin. In Towers of Midnight, a confrontation that many have been anticipating does occur. Egwene predictably come out ahead, and I think many will say that she is a bit too much of a Mary Sue in it (and they may be right). Egwene’s plotline may have been damaged most by the hectic pace of this book – that and the presence of Gawyn. Thankfully, Gawyn too seems to improve, but I could still do with less of him.

A few other things occur that I just have to mention. The real hard core fans all know that who killed Asmodean has been a mystery obsessed over since the 1990s. Countless theories have been written (including a few by me) and questioners have long tried to pry the information out Robert Jordan while he was still with us and now Brandon Sanderson and other Team Jordan members. Well, the reveal occurs in this book – we now know who killed Asmodean, though the exact circumstances were not described in detail. I enjoyed the reveal – it was subtle and left plenty of wiggle room, but the glossary in no uncertain terms spells out who killed Asmodean, or did it? I think the most stubborn of fans may continue to debate (but I’m looking forward to saying ‘I told you so’ to a few individuals out there).

One of the more amusing aspects of Jordan’s writings over the years has been his inclusion of apparent euphemisms in the Wheel of Time world, often as the name of inns. They sound suggestive and there have been plenty of instances of them being discussed in detail. In Towers of Midnight the readers actually get to see one of these euphemisms in action – easing the badger. Who does such a thing? Is it literal or figurative? What is the story? I’ll let you all find out for yourselves. For me, I laughed and rolled my eyes at the same time.

In summary, I really enjoyed Towers of Midnight as I imagine most fans will. A lot happens, many theories die an agonizing death and many play out pretty well as anticipated. What may be a bit more unexpected are the new things we see – the end is nigh, but there is a lot left to happen. Some characters people want to see aren’t to be found, some resolutions we are begging for still remain, but this is a book of action. There are issues, and it certainly isn’t the thematically coherent volume that The Gathering Storm was. However, it is a book to bring laughter and tears to legions of fans. The biggest tears of all because of the ending – no, not that, but because this book basically ends grasping to the edge of a cliff. The resolutions we get are great, but I can’t help but beg to know what’s going to happen next – bring on A Memory of Light. 8/10


Neth said...

and for those who want to comment (and please do), let's keep spoilers out of them.

Fence said...

I'm waiting for the paperback before I buy. A hardback just looks odd next to the 12 other paperbacks. Luckily I work in a library and we already have this on order. WOn't be long before it arrives. Hopefully.

Glad to hear that Perrin is growing, he used to be my favourite character way back when. And on my most recent reread I found Egwene to be surprisingly interesting too

Brett said...

I liked Randzen.

Perrin was okay, but his first couple parts were a little too angsty.

The problem for me with Mat is that his narrative voice in his viewpoint chapters is just incredibly annoying to read. Yes, Mat, you're a married man, women are troublesome - we get it. No need for Sanderson to be constantly re-stating and re-emphasizing that.

The whole "mandatory coupling" thing seems to strike again. There's, what, three get-togethers in this book (without spoiling too much)?

I will say that Faile (and it will always be pronounced "FAIL" in my mind) is much better.

Anonymous said...

I would love me some more Randzen.

I unlike some likes the Perrin focused povs, even the earliest ones. I love angst. I love how it was written, everything just flowed really well while I'm reading his parts. I even think RJ wrote most of it.

I somewhat dislike Mat's letter, I didn't find in funny in the least. It seemed too extreme for him.

The Morgase revelation was kind of a letdown but the battle after that was epic.

Gawyn and Egwene, both deserves a kick in the ass.

Elayne, I actually like her how BS wrote her, her bitchiness, stupidity/recklessness really shine through .

Noal, disappointing. BS was too busy finishing the book for him to give such a minor character a much better ending.

Olver, I like the damn punk. Mat's going to pay for that damn letter.

I'm dissatisfied was that Randzen wasn't able to do anything about Black Tower and Taim. I guess their going to leave that epic showdown to the last book.

Brandon Sanderson deserves a lot of kudos for doing such a fantastic job writing RJ's story.

I rate TOM as the best fantasy book I've read this year.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate the honest review. I frankly found Towers of Midnight to be one of the worst books of the series, but if others disagree, I have no problem with it.

Jordan gave his characters so many problems and character issues that it seemed as if he could never untangle them. To fix this, it feels as if Brandon Sanderson has "Mary Sued" almost every main character. They have ALL become Zen-masters in their own way.

I know it's a fantasy standard, but the degree of self-righteous perfection displayed by many of these VERY young characters in the face of numerous others with far more experience has absolutely destroyed the series for me.

I'll leave spoilers out as far as I can but... Galad in the early chapters? His character was utterly WRONG, displaying a grace and perfection and wisdom he never has before, just to push the story forward.

Egwene? Mary Sue'd from her very first chapter in TGS. Are we really to believe this 20ish year old girl is suddenly talking circles around every other woman alive?

At least Rand(zen) has an excuse. The seamless merging of his personality and very being with a man who WAS recognized as among the wisest and most powerful to ever live at least makes Rand's Jesusification make sense. But when the same thing happens with every other character int he story, Galad, Egwene, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve... these characters are ALL suddenly tying their elders in knots with a few choice words. I understand there was a lot of plot to be advanced, but I would frankly have rather seen some of them simply ignored than have any immersion utterly crushed by this juvenile handling.

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading the book and was a little disapointed with the way direction mat's character has taken. He now seems to be a childish lout, who swears in his sentences for the sake of it. Previous books yes he swore, but it wasn't over the top, also he showed a lot more wit, which was what i loved. The letter BS has him write is just stupidly childish; no wisdom from his past memories.

I did think perrin's character was a lot better. typically he was a character who's chapters i would skip over in the books, but found his a bit more interesting to read.

Wait and see how it all ends, you can't help wondering though if this was the direction RJ would have taken with the story in general.

Anonymous said...

Um, guy complaining about the Mary Sues. . . I'd like to introduce you to a series called the Wheel of Time. In it, 20-somethings are pre-destined to save a world filled with older, wiser people. They take command, people follow them, and fate is in their back pocket.

Rand beats a Forsaken head-to-head in the first book. Then another in the fourth book, before his Lews Therin memories surface.

Perrin rallies his country and destroys a massive invasion force.

You complain about Egwene, yet in, what, the 3rd book she's sent off to hunt for powerful, experienced villains? And wins? Plenty of other examples, but no point listing all of them.

The series makes it clear that, when all is said and done, the only antagonist who can really destroy Our Heroes is the Dark One, the drama is in positioning all the small pieces, to see who has the advantage in the end.

The general prowess of these young ones has been a gripe since day one. Some, like me, don't care, since if they weren't so good, they wouldn't be in the middle of world-shaking evnets. But it's been there.

Anonymous said...

I gave TOM a 9/10.

For some reason I felt let down by Mat,Thom,and Noals' journey through the Tower of Ghenji. My anticipation was so high for it. I still enjoyed that part of the book very much. I really enjoyed the scene with Rand and Tam. The meeting between Rand and Egwene. This book really is about the development of Perrin. His battle scenes are very cool; reminiscient of the matrix. The scene with Perrin that begins on pg. 608 is one to definitely remember. Aviendhas' few chapters are very interesting and well written.
Can't wait for "Memory of Light"


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