The OF Blog: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, Towers of Midnight

Friday, November 05, 2010

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, Towers of Midnight

"The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.  Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again."
This quote, which opens the main sequence of every single The Wheel of Time book, can, with some alterations be applied to reading, memory, and the impressions formed (and altered) from the commingling of the above.  I am not by nature someone who trusts wholeheartedly my first impressions; too often they change with time and further reflection.  I have found this to be the case with this now-thirteen-volume epic fantasy series.  When I reviewed the twelfth volume (and the first where Brandon Sanderson wrote most of the material in place of the deceased Robert Jordan), The Gathering Storm, in October 2009, I perhaps was a bit too forgiving of that book's shortcomings because I reviewed the book after not having read most of the other volumes since 2000.  Certainly my memory did not jibe too well with my experiences re-reading the first eleven volumes this past spring and writing commentaries on my impressions.   In short, it was a slog re-reading this series.  Not merely because of the myriad subplots nor because there were repetitive and yet shallow social commentaries, but also due to the creaky, non-graceful prose and uneven characterizations that often left me feeling cold.  Despite the change in authors and the plot developments that one might expect in the penultimate volume of such a ponderous multi-volume series, Towers of Midnight, after some reflection, is a flawed volume in a very flawed series.

Most reviews of a thirteenth volume naturally will be the thoughts of fans (or former fans), intended more for those who are going to read the volume regardless of the reviewer's reactions than any such essay being targeted toward those who are unfamiliar with the series.  When I agreed to receive a review copy and to consider writing a review of this book, I did so largely to see just what my reaction would be to the latest installment in a series that has diminished in my esteem over the past decade.  Interestingly, my initial reaction was mostly a sort of backhanded compliment, something along the lines of "Oh!  Sanderson has eschewed having faux bondage scenes in here!  And hey!  I don't have to endure the repetitive thoughts on how this male or female PoV character states their bafflement at the opposite sex!  Sweet!" rather than being wowed by the mechanics of the story.  However, in the interim of nearly three weeks between me receiving a review copy and the writing of this review those initial positive reactions have faded while my unease at the structure of this novel increased.

Doubtless, most fans of the WoT series are just excited to discover that "stuff happens!"  It is true that on a plot level, there are several important reveals that either further or conclude several plot threads, some of which had been left hanging since the earliest volumes of this series.  For those that treat this series as merely an extended Wikipedia summary, doubtless the developments here (from the starting of major combat operations up north to battles in the world of dreams and one male character growing a pair and admitting his own nature to a long-expected rescue of a character left for dead eight volumes ago) make Towers of Midnight an exciting must-read for them.  But for those readers such as myself who wish there would an elegance to the writing or at least a sound structure that limits herky-jerkiness to a minimum, this book perhaps might be one of the most poorly-written volumes in a series that is infamous for its sometimes-execrable prose.

In previous reviews of his solo efforts, I have noted, if usually in passing, that Sanderson's prose rarely is more than "serviceable."  There is nothing inherently wrong with aiming for "invisible prose"; I just have different preferences.  However, in this volume and much more so than in the previous, Sanderson's prose inclinations clash noticeably with those scenes originally written by the deceased Jordan.  Time after time, there would be several pages or chapters full of prose that is short, staccato, and focused more on getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible when suddenly the tone would shift (often, this would be when a character moves to a different locale) and then there would be more ornate descriptive prose.  After a while, it became irritating, often because I would be jarred out of my accustomed reading rhythm just so I could process these narrative shifts before the flow would turn back to the staccato rhythms of before.

Although I am far from a superfan (or WoThead, as some call those fans who obsess over the minute details of the series), it was irritating to see continuity errors.  From how some of the main characters were portrayed (particularly in their interactions with other main characters) to a few of the small details I recalled from re-reading the series a half-year ago, those mistakes in terminology, in characterization, and even in long-established plot lines, these errors contributed to the sense that the writing was uneven at best and poorly-constructed at worst.  These faults are not necessarily all Sanderson's; Jordan's narrative structure had become unwieldy several volumes before, making it near-impossible for anyone to keep things 100% true to each and every one of those minute developments in plot and character.  However, it is telling when they are numerous enough that they grate on someone who doesn't devote much time at all to thinking about this bloated series.

Furthermore, the character developments were often too abrupt.  At the end of the last volume, the reader sees the Dragon Reborn's epiphany on Dragonmount.  But when Rand appears first, he has morphed into a sort of messianic figure; there is a sense of falseness that rings in that scene and subsequent ones because it is so jarring and it goes against the grain of the previous few volumes.  To a lesser degree, this is seen in Egwene and Perrin's scenes.  Despite writing a nearly 900 page book, Sanderson has written a volume that lacks adequate character transitions.  This failure lessens the power of the transformations that do occur in this volume, as they feel flat and less emotional than they perhaps should have been, due to the lack of development that sets up these drastic changes.

This sloppiness and sketchiness even appears in the internal chronology of scenes.  Without much in the way of explanation, several subplots in Towers of Midnight are a month or more behind others that were treated in The Gathering Storm.  In one memorable moment, the character Tam al'Thor, the adoptive father of Rand, appears in two distinct places (and times) within a span of a handful of chapters, with virtually nothing in the way of referring back to events in the previous volume that set up those situations.  It's the little things like this that dampened my initial enjoyment of this book.  Almost every subplot contains these little problems.  Individually, they would not effect my reaction to the story, but cumulatively they downgrade Towers of Midnight from an enjoyable addition to the WoT story to being one of the most problematic books in the entire series.  Recommended only for those who are committed to finishing this series to the (perhaps) bitter end.

13 comments:

Derrick said...

Now I'm really looking forward to this :-)
I have to admit, I'll be one to stick it out to the bitter end. So a review like this I find helpful because now I know what I'll be getting into next year when I start rereading the whole series for the final volume.

Sorry you couldn't find any enjoyment out of it though...

Anonymous said...

BASTARD! WHEEL OF TIME I SPEND SO MUCH TIME ON I SPEND MOST oF mY FREE TIME not ON MMA OR FAMILY GUY reading and READING and now you TELL ME my READING means NOTHING. IF YOU POOP ON THE WHEEL, i FART ON YOUR BLOG.

Larry said...

Derrick,

There was some enjoyment, but it was dampened by the problems I found once I glanced back through the book after reading it the first time. It's just a middling volume in that series, due to the writing, but not the worst of the bunch.

Anon,

Your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!

Satya said...

Larry

I discovered your blog a few months back and firstly, I would like to say thank you. I have discovered quite a few books that I like through your reviews.

I have been a big fan of the Wheel of Time series ever since I read it as a impressionable 14 year old in 2005. I'll be honest, I love that series. Why? I don't really know. I have never objectively looked at it.



So when I read your reviews of the WoT books, I was pretty jangled by your less than glowing reviews of these Books. I get the fact that you find them filled with a lot of repetitive, filler stuff. I get that you actually don't like the ornate descriptions RJ was found of.

But when you say that the writing is bad. That I don't get. Maybe I have not been exposed to what you would classify as "good writing". From what I have seen, more often then not, what you call "good writing" tends to be works by obscure Europeans and/or translations of foreign authors. And unfortunately as a college going student living in India, I rarely find these books that you mentioned.

Wooh, tangent....

So back to my point. Would you mind discussing why you say that WoT is more often then not filled with problems and Bad writing ??
I would really appreciate that.

:)

Eric M. Edwards said...

@Satya

Oh, you shouldn't encourage him. Don't feed the squirrel!

But seriously, it is a load of mostly bad writing. Jordan was good at a number of things, but oddly enough, well written prose wasn't one of them.

I think Adam Robert's reviews of the WoT book are worth a look at as well. Funny and you really feel for him having to slog through them all:

http://punkadiddle.blogspot.com/2010/06/robert-jordan-wheel-of-time-1990-2005.html

Eric

Larry said...

Satya,

When I refer to poor writing in the WoT series, I generally have a few things in mind. Although I generally don't have a specific prose style that I favor, I do prefer the style to match the story being told. There were numerous times in reading and re-reading the WoT series where the descriptive scenes jar too much with the characters' internal monologues. Leaving aside the characterization issues, the narrative often feels as though it is being stretched out too far, that Jordan (referring here to the first 11 books and the prequel) wanted to have evocative scenes, but the layout was that which is typically seen in simpler narratives; he just tries at times to do too much with several scenes. The result for me is a sense of disjointment.

Also, while repetitiveness can be used sparingly to reinforce perceptions of characters and situations, too often Jordan would repeat the same information in virtually the same fashions. I'm a reader who remembers a lot of what he reads the first time, so this just felt as though the author were employing a sledgehammer when a chisel hammer would suffice.

Then there are issues with the pacing of the narrative. I have felt for years that Jordan made a major mistake in having so many divergent subplots. There were very few well-developed plot arcs that were concluded in a timely fashion (say within 2-3 books). Too often, a sense of dragging out occurred because in order to get the internal chronologies to synchronize, one particular character (Perrin) had very little to do over books 7-12; his story was actually relatively compact compared to others, but due to the need to have his subplot (the abduction/rescue of his wife primarily) resolved, the reader would get maybe 2-3 chapters, half of which would be a recapitulation of the previous volume(s). That, to me, marks very sloppy plotting.

There are other quibbles I could make, but hopefully these main ones will help you understand better why I express my dismay at the writing/plotting found in this series. As for other writers, I'll be reviewing some classics that I hope are available in India as well! I know the frustration of not being able to find desired books cheaply - I have to import several books from Spain and I have to pay shipping costs that are more than the books themselves!

Larry said...

Oh, and what Eric says above as well. Roberts' reviews contain some good analysis behind (within?) the snark :D

Anonymous said...

Eh...

I didn't think one day I would agree with so much in one of WOT reviews, or let alone find you lenient in places.

TOM is a train wreck. As a fan, its only real quality is that it brings me the answers to what RJ had planned. As for providing them to me in an exciting reading experience.. so much for that. If it wasn't a WOT book, I would have given it up midway.

Other than that, I think it's the worst novel I've read in a long time, and perhaps the most badly edited novel I've ever read. I wonder if Tor has ever published anything this unready to go to printing...

It's a stylistic mess, full of grammatical errors (and it needs to be fairly bad for me to even notice that, in English), full of continuity problems. Brandon's decision re: the book split called for him to be extremely cautious with the timelines now, to make this work, to respect the chronology of events, to leave pointers. It called for using the swirling colours device even more and cleverly, to bring back the motifs from Rand's story and wield the thematic elements from each story line together. Sanderson rather let it become totally disjointed. He rather attempted to keep it all as vague as possible, to blur any mistake. This just didn't work, at all. This just brought the whole further still from the WOT style.

I don't think it's too fair to blame Jordan for much or any of this. Sure enough, he's struggled massively (and didn't always won the struggle) with the mid-late series, and it is reflected in books 8-9-10 in particular. COT had one redeeming quality, and it was that Jordan "sacrificed" a WOT book to be almost entirely the set up for the next one. It had least let him, at last, align all his ducks with KOD, and get ready for the long planned finale.

Despite the mess, it's really obvious now what Jordan planned, and why it was so important to him to stick to his plans, even if his storylines were unbalanced until then, and it caused him much problems. His finale called for the four main storylines to have reached a specific point, and run from there in parallel, each contributing to a global growing darkness, until a deadlock was reached, and Rand finally broke it. Sanderson ruined all this, by anticipating Rand's epiphany than going back to the two storylines that didn't have enough dramatic impact left to run on their own, without Egwene's and Rand's to increase their gloom.

Brandon has now squandared a lot of the struggle RJ made to get things back on track, and he's managed to make an even bigger mess out of the finale than anything Jordan had written. We'll never know if Jordan would have pulled it off, but on paper, it would have worked much better already, with the four stories running in parralel, and the climactic breakings of the four deadlocks happening at the conclusion of act 2.

TOM is the worst WOT book by a fair margin, and certainly the worst, least achieved and most badly planned novel Sanderson has written too.

Highly disappointing.

-Dom-

Larry said...

Dom,

It might be that I'm not as much of a fan of the series as you are, but I think I was perhaps more lenient simply because I hadn't devoted as much thought to the overall structure of the series as you have. Based on what you've said and what I recall from my few (usually no more than two reads) times reading/re-reading the previous 4 books, ToM was even more of a structural mess than I had first presumed.

I recall a conversation you and I had on the RAFO forums about "Dune 7" and the peeks we get into the original narrative plans of Frank Herbert that are embedded within the dross of KLA and Brian Herbert. It sounds as though this is what occurred here, although perhaps I'm in a more generous mood and won't castigate Sanderson quite as much as what those two have received (and deserved, for the most part) for their hack work with the Dune setting. But yes, it looks increasingly likely that the final WoT volume may be weaker than previously anticipated.

dcole said...

Well it seems now given his death and your general hatred of western literature as opposed to spanish literature out of some sort of misplace conquers quilt I suppose you have jumped whole heartedly onto the hate robert jordan bandwagon. Can't say I'm suprised as your dislike of epic fantasies and your dislike of more escapist literature (and your love for vandemmer who I can't stand and who loves to cut down Jordan) is well known. Suffice it to say that though I to like gene wolf and the prince of nothing series I dissagree totally with your first paragraph about the series in general (and have disagreed with your comments on the reread) but then as your hatred for lord of the rings is also well known and my disagreement with you their I suppose my response isn't much a suprise either. Ah well will keep reading your blog but I do skip the non-sci stuff (why are you reviewing moby dick of all things) and the spanish stuff (as I don't and never will speak spanish) so this just gives me more to skip, as I suppose Sandersons stuff you will love to hate on now to.

dcole said...

To respond to the more specifics on writing style. I don't get the descriptions not matching up with the type of story being told. This isn't a simple adventure story and a more descriptive style is appropriate to the story he is telling. I agree some things were dragged out to far but the subplots give a feel of a full world that has other things going on than just the little bit we see and that I like (but then you are not a fan of worldbuilding either see again your comments on Lord of The rings and especially the elven stuff published later)but ah well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the reviewer and DOM and everyone else who criticized Sanderson's writing. It's lazy and pretty horrific. To give just one example among many, I lost track of the number of characters who opened or continued dialogue using the word "Anyway." Do you really want Aes Sedai and major male characters coming across as valley girls? Things like this are jarring and made me feel like I was reading mediocre fan fiction.

I say this all from the perspective of someone who loves WoT, and who greatly enjoyed The Gathering Storm and count it among the best novels of the series.

The wheels fell of the bus BIGTIME here. I only hope Jordan left more completed scenes for the last installment. I no longer trust Sanderson to do the job right.

--Nick

Sean May said...

I'm a longtime fan of the Wheel of Time, although not quite a WoThead and I maintain a high level of affection for the series, but I pretty much agree with everything written here.

Jordan's authorial ambition for the series overleaped itself. The series peaked in book 6, but then got lost in plots and subplots. Crossroads of Twilight was a travesty; I struggled to muster any enthusiasm for Knife of Dream. The Gathering Storm, on the other hand, rekindled my interest - I thought it was pretty well handled. But then came Towers of Midnight - full of bad English and confusing non-linear transitions that made me think a Forsaken must have been masquerading as Rand's dad.

However, none of that will stop me buying A Memory of Light as soon as it comes out and reading it ASAP. Hopefully, someone will edit the final book thoroughly before it gets published.

 
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