The OF Blog: WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, The Shadow Rising

Sunday, April 25, 2010

WoT Ten Years Later: Robert Jordan, The Shadow Rising

In my last commentary, I commented about how one of the major reasons why I decided to do these re-reading projects was to learn more about myself as a reader and critic and to explore how my takes on various novels had changed over an intervening period of several years. For the first three WoT novels, my overall attitude had shifted only slightly.  I still liked the first book, The Eye of the World, better than the second and third volumes, The Great Hunt and The Dragon RebornWhat I liked and why, however, had changed, sometimes drastically. 

In particular, I found even the first three volumes to contain several annoying features.  Among them, average, pedestrian prose, laziness in using quirks and invented stereotypes to describe characters and imagined cultures, and the beginnings of what author/critic Adam Roberts has referred to as "decor-porn."  Despite these annoying narrative features, I was able to enjoy those three volumes as long as I focused on viewing the books as a sort of quest narrative.  If I had devoted more time to looking at the numerous "prophecies" and their ilk and tried to predict as-yet-untold events rather than concentrating on the story at hand, I suspect I would have grown bored quicker than I have.

The fourth volume, The Shadow Rising, marks a pivotal change in the WoT series.  This is the place where, for better or for worse (and I'm more inclined to say for the worse), Jordan decides to expand the narrative beyond what had first appeared to be a bog-standard epic fantasy quest to defeat the heinous forces of EVIL.  It is here where elements of court intrigue and political manipulation are grafted onto the original quest narrative tree.  The resulting mixture is a nearly 1000 page (MMPB) Frankenstein's monster that contains more splitting narratives and fewer resolutions than was found in the first three volumes.

When I first read this book back in November 1997, it took me a while to get into the story, largely because there are nearly 300 pages of setup and awkward character interactions before the young folk gathered in the Stone of Tear split into three groups to go on their not-quite-so-merry ways.  I have remarked before on the unfortunate tendency of Jordan to overdescribe his characters and settings.  I found this to be the case this time through, almost to the point of me being tempted to skip whole sections and even chapters.  That old adage of sometimes less being more fits this series and particularly this novel nicely. 

Perhaps it is due to my advancing age, but at 35, I found myself not relating to these characters as much as I perhaps had done (to a degree, that is) when I was barely 23.  A sniff here, a puzzled frown there, all sorts of confusions about what the other gender might mean by their comments and gestures.  While doubtless this was intentional in part, perhaps to try for a sort of comedy of manners routine, the repetitiveness in the types of responses to these situations quickly made those exchanges tedious to read.  Although the frequency decreased after the characters split up to go on their own subplot ways, it still left me asking myself if I were reading some sort of bad reworking of Sweet Valley High in an epic fantasy setting.  Maybe there is indeed something to the belief that people will interpret events differently as they age.

Besides the love trysts and sniffs, the dialogue was at best serviceable and at worst, utterly atrocious.  Jordan rarely is considered to be an even average prose stylist, but in this book, with its attempts to cover four subplots (the three branching off from the Stone of Tear and the other from the Aes Sedai stronghold of Tar Valon), most everything felt forced.  The scenes in the rural Two Rivers district, where the three main male characters were raised, felt at times as if I were reading a sort of fantasy Braveheart, with the appearance of an unlikely leader, Perrin, to rally the villagers to protect their homes.  Although I can understand why many readers would enjoy such scenes (the excitement, the fighting, the feel-good ending), it just didn't work well for me at the end.  It just felt clichéd in its approach toward both Hero (Perrin) and villagers and the author's decision to have large chapter chunks devoted to the four separate subplots often left too much of a space between developments in these subplots.  The Perrin subplot in particular suffered from this herky-jerkiness in the switching from locale to locale.

The main subplot, that of Rand's journey into the Aiel wastelands, was better done.  For those readers who prefer to immerse themselves in an author's imagined setting and "history," the chapters devoted to Rand's discovery of who his ancestors were and why the Aiel were where they were doubtless were major draws.  Although at times I thought the made-up history lessons were a bit much, they do serve to set up so much of what happens afterward when Rand is proclaimed the Car'a'carn, or Chief of Chiefs (but not the God of Thunder and Rock'n'Roll, although considering a pivotal scene late in the novel, even that august title could have been applied to him).  This was perhaps the best subplot in the novel and maybe even in the series to date, although it too was weakened somewhat by the need to switch to the other subplots.

The third subplot involving one of Rand's squeezes, the princess/Daughter-Heir Elayne and the former Two Rivers Wisdom Nynaeve (I want to pronounce her name as "naive," but it's NY-nehve, or something like that) felt more like a Scooby Doo mystery investigation or perhaps a Nancy Drew comparison might be more apt.  They are off to the west coast to catch some waves and to track down the 11 missing members of the EVIL Black Ajah, the quasi-secret part of the Aes Sedai  who worship the Dark Side.  This subplot was weaker than the first two, not just because of the fissured narrative, but also because it felt much less complete than the other two.  Yes, they accomplish part of their task, but the lack of a true resolution left this subplot feeling more as though it had ended in the middle rather than pausing at an appropriate point.

The final subplot, the barely discussed White Tower one involving the second of Rand's ladies, Min, and the Aes Sedai, perhaps should have been left out of this novel altogether, as less than a handful of chapters were devoted to narrating Min's arrival and the subsequent division of the White Tower.  I suspect this could have been shifted over to the fifth book and a more complete narrative could have been established there.  As it stands, these chapters were quite annoying, as they basically served to break up the flow of reading one of the other subplots.

When I finally finished this mammoth book, I found myself musing that the overall effect was much less than I had recalled it being.  In the decade-long interim between my reads of this book, I have shifted away from being someone who reads just for content and more toward a reader who values style and presentation just as much.  For readers who want to read an epic fantasy mostly to lose one's self in the created history and perhaps in the speculations that can be generated from "prophecy" foreshadowings, The Shadow Rising may be like manna from heaven.  For those who like a limited number of subplots and PoV characters, this book may be slightly frustrating.  For those, such as myself, who want well-presented prose and dynamic, well-drawn characters, this book probably will be a disappointment.  But I soldier on, fearing the Circus scene that I vaguely recall being in the next volume, The Fires of Heaven.


bookrazy said...

laziness in using quirks and invented stereotypes to describe characters and imagined cultures

Interesting you should mention this, given the rather active debate on this very subject in Westeros at the moment.

As people pointed out over there, the question is, is Jordan using these stereotypes to show us how the characters perceive various cultures or is it a sign of lazy worldbuilding on his part.

Given how many times these stereotypes are broken, I'd lean towards the former.

As for the characterization, except for the inane romances, I have to completely disagree. Maybe the prose and the style may have hobbled the execution, but this book has plenty of great character moments, and many more instances of character growth than the previous books. It is certainly why I myself stuck to this series.

Larry Nolen said...

One of the best parts about doing these reflective re-reads is getting comments that differ significantly from my own takes, but yet offer more for those who've never read the series to consider. Thanks for commenting, first off.

Secondly, I've only skimmed through some of those threads there, as I haven't been in the mood lately to post much there. Perhaps there are things in favor of your points that I'll encounter in the latter books. But I suspect it might be a mixture - of something that is intended to be one way, but which is, as you say, "hobbled" by its presentation (or rather, the number of times it is presented. I'm nearly 100 pages into FoH and having things I've "known" for four books now repeated as if I had never known them is irritating). I wonder if the "character moments" are lost in the irritation at how they are presented. But what was your favorite one, if I may ask?

bookrazy said...

Hmmm... my favorite moment... Well, the one where Rand says "I won't be chased anymore. Not even out of a bed."

Those two sentences pretty much sum up what has changed in Rand, right? He might not like it anymore, but they guy knows he's got a lot to do, and he's not going to wait till he has to react to something.

The Rand in this book is certainly very different from the brief glimpses of him we see in the previous book. From doubting, he has come to a level of certainty. Slow as the start might seem, I feel it allowed Jordan to handle this transition in a believable manner.

About the repetitive nature of certain pieces of knowledge... it is beyond irritating, especially when you're reading the books in a row, but I think this is one thing that contributed to the commercial success of the series. Casual readers who were reading this book after a year's gap may well have appreciated the tiny recaps of relevant issues.

Anonymous said...

Larry - I wouldn't punish RJ for excess exposition in the first 100 pages of each book. Done for a purpose, given the complexity of the series and given that people don't always get to pick things up in the proper order.

TDR is where RJ grabbed me but TSR is where he kept me. You don't like the opening up of the world away from the key PoV chatacters - that is precisely what I like about it compared to other fantasy works. It begins to show the complexity of the issues the main character will face in getting to the final battle - opposition from various Randland kingdoms and leadership, the need to lead and surmount opposition from the leadership of the Aiel, internal politics among the Aes Sedai, presence of evil doers among the AS, continued opposition from (and interesting internal disputes among) the powerful Forsaken, and the presence of other "wild card" bad actors (such as Slayer), and "wild card" other cultures, such as the Sea Folk. I also see very good character development from Rand and especially from Mat.

You don't like them but I also very much like the expansion of prophecy that happens in this book. They are entertaining in their own right and set up a series of complex puzzles that offer clues to where the series in heading later in the books.

So, if you don't like the character expansion and don't like the prophecy elements, I can see why you don't like WoT very much. You focus on the things that the fans don't even like very much - the more cartoonish elements of many of the characters and ignore the elements that make it special. RJ is exceedingly good at working complex plot foreshadowing into the mix - that is his great strength as a writer, and it is why so many people love the books. He also uses the cartoonish elements of the characters to very good comic effect - especially in this book in the characters of Nyneave (who is insanely brave but chronically lacking in self-awareness of her own strengths and weaknesses) and Elayne, and especially with Mat in future books.

My favorite scenes are Rand's trip into the pillars - and favorite character arc is the continued development of Mat that comes to fruition in, IMO, the best sequence of chapters in the entire series - Mat's role in the pre-, during and post-and during battle sequences in TFOH. Did you also catch some of his subtle jokes - like the Mercedes Benz insignia in the storehouse of the Stone of Tear?


Larry Nolen said...

Good point about Rand's character. So far, he hasn't annoyed me like most of the others, although it's starting to creep in a bit as I progress in FoH.


When it's nearly the length of most of the books I prefer to read (i.e. nearly 300 pages), it does begin to get a bit old. It's something that also troubled me about the Malazan series, if I recall correctly. I don't think the WoT series is all that complex, to be honest. Lengthy and with a tendency to be prolixity, yes, but there's no real depth of character nor are there the types of thematic issues that I'm encountering as I re-read the Dune Chronicles of Frank Herbert.

As for the "puzzles", I just don't think much of them. Perhaps this is due to the type of puzzle novels that I do enjoy reading. Gene Wolfe and Umberto Eco, for example, are both talented prose writers and exquisite puzzle developers. Neither one has as much "fat" on their prose as this series appears to me. I can see where others might enjoy and even understand why to an extent, but from where I'm coming, it's just not clicking now in a spot that before I read those other authors, it might have to some extent.

Amy said...

Well, I went in to my re-read seeming to remember that I really disliked this book, and so was pleased to enjoy it. LONG and wordy, of course, but it did hold my interest. The excessive repetitions of the same things continued and remained frustrating, and sometimes the characters are so stupid I wanted to slap them... but overall still a good re-read.

The white tower still holds my interest, but parts of the Two Rivers narrative were very forced I would agree, and Elayne and Nyneave's story was just... frustratingly annoying.

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