Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This book is the twelfth volume in the Wheel of Time fantasy series, and the first one written after Robert Jordan's death. It's the start of the final trilogy meant to wrap up the series, written by Sanderson based on expanding Jordan's notes and rough material. It's very difficult to assess this book without referring back to my earlier experiences on Wheel of Time. I was fairly strongly drawn by it from three to eight years ago. At a time when I generally turned away from fantasy I continued to purchase and read each successive Wheel of Time book, finding it all quite compelling. It's only comparatively recently that I started to get a lot more skeptical--the glacial pace of the recent series, problems in stock characterization, rampant sexism and shaky worldbuilding. More recently with my consumption of a lot more high-quality recent fantasy I grew even more distant. So, getting around to the latest book had a lot of ambivalence on my part, yet also a desire to see this thing through to the end.

So I read the Gathering Storm, and found it a confirmation of a lot of my hesitation. First it was a lot better than at least the previous five books in the series; things actually
happened, there was resolution and plot advancement, the issues with gender, flatness of the setting and overabundance of description were significantly reduced. And yet, I still saw it as a bad book in many ways. Still absurdly padded, basing itself around very stock characters, featuring awkward descriptive sequences and some plot revelations that frankly weren't worthy any kind of wait. I liked Rand's near-complete breakdown, but Verrin showing up to hand Egswene a list of every single Black Ajah seemed too pat by far, and the slow movement of different groups in the huge caste were largely tedious. If that's how I feel about this book, which in most measurable ways was a major step up, I hardly have a huge amount of respect for the earlier series by default.

The Gathering Storm just feels like so old school fantasy, epic adventure that hasn't worked anything beyond Tolkien without nearly the quality of prose or worldbuilding. We have a completely evil adversary force that's also conveniently incompetent at marshaling it's vast resources. We have the noble, tragic heroes sacrificing their all to fulfill the prophesied ends. We have the sexist gender division and awkward description, if to not quite the same level as with Jordan's work proper. It's all ultimately so lacking in humor or real creativity as to be a significant betrayal of potential--with a metaphysically unbounded universe to deal with the story is ultimately so unambitious and limited in range.

And yet, despite everything I was rather invested in the few slow plot twists and unfolding of epic standoffs and character encounters. For all the padding it it I was only bored for part of the novel, and found a number of major points and particularly the conclusion quite thrilling. Still, given the visibility of the faults at a distance I'd ascribe this impression to residual nostalgia rather than real quality, and wouldn't recommend this book.

Similar to and better than: The Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

Similar to and worse than: The Briar King by Greg Keyes, among others.

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