Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan, 1993

Mat swung the staff with all his strength. The thick wood smashed into the man's head, the hood of his cloak only partly muffling a sound like a melon hitting the floor.

The man fell across the tiller, shoving it over, and the vessel lurched, staggering Mat. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a shape rising out of the shadows by the railing, and the gleam of a blade, and he knew he would never get his staff around before it struck home. Something else that shone streaked through the night and merged with the dark shape with a dull
thunk. The rising motion became a fall, and a man sprawled almost at Mat's feet.

A babble of voices rose belowdecks as the ship swung again, the tiller shifting with the first man's weight.

Thom limped from the hatch in cloak and smallclothes, raising the shutter on a bull's-eye lantern. "You were lucky, boy. One of those below had this lantern. Could have set the ship on fire, lying there." The light showed a knife hilt sticking up from the chest of a man with dead, staring eyes. Mat had never seen him before; he was sure he would have remembered someone with that many scars on his face. Thom kicked a dagger away from the dead man's outflung hand, then bent to retrieve his own knife, wiping the blade on the corpse's cloak. "Very lucky, boy. Very lucky indeed."
--- (page 371)

The Wheel of Time series, at least its first three books, is not something that can really be examined from a critical perspective, because it would fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. It kind of reminds me of the original Star Wars trilogy: no one is going to hold it up as an example of great writing, but it's a work of uncommonly good storytelling. The Dragon Reborn, like its predecessors, is great storytelling, whatever its other faults (and they are many). It's a big, goofy, apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery saga, replete with battle scenes, sage mentors, grade-school romance, nasty monsters, heroes with hidden and awesome powers. You can't help but love it a little.

After pronouncing himself the Dragon Reborn in The Great Hunt, Rand al'Thor finds himself thrust into a life he never wanted, as leader of an army. When he begins having dreams of an ancient sword hidden in the city of Tear (which will be able to confirm that he truly is the Dragon, or something), he runs from his new responsibilities to go after it on his own.

Meanwhile, Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne are enlisted by the Amyrlin Seat to track down the group of Black Ajah that menaced them in the previous book, Perrin finds himself torn between wolf and man while hunting for Rand, and Mat attempts to get the hell out of Dodge, while dealing with a mysterious new power of his own. Everyone, however, is inexorably drawn to Tear for another confrontation with the Dark One.

The really strange thing about Dragon is that Rand barely shows up, except in brief snippets. The other main characters are the real focus here. It's an unusual move on Jordan's part, especially considering what a conventional Bildungsroman the first two books were. The book suffers a little from not having a central figure, but it's also a good way to flesh out characters like Perrin, Mat and Elayne, who have gotten marginalized in favor of Rand in the past.

Mat is really the book's breakout character; he's much more fun to read about than Egwene or Perrin. With so much craziness going on, it's nice to have a character with a sense of humor (if there's anything that annoys me about Jordan's style, it's his straight-faced approach to everything, no matter how nutty). His rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold characterization is nothing new, and Jordan deals with it in a characteristically over-obvious way, but it still works. Perrin also gets some good development, as he evolves from being just a taciturn Rand-clone. The last third of the book saddles him with an annoying love interest, though, which is kind of a drag.

It's the trio of Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne (known to fans as the Supergirls) who are really aggravating in this volume. Jordan's gender-wars angle is one of the worst things about the series so far, and his female characters so often come off as dumb, petty or shrewish. Admittedly, his male characters sometimes do, too, but he commits some pretty egregious errors in characterization with the Supergirls. Egwene is too bland, Nynaeve too belligerent and Elayne too underwritten. Some of their segments do work, but overall I'd much rather be reading about Min or Moiraine.

Dragon's plot is remarkably similar to The Great Hunt's in a lot of ways: a basic quest narrative with a bunch of plot threads all leading up to one climax. The final chapters where everything converges are a lot of fun, but not really worth a whole book's build-up, since none of the surprises are really that surprising. Jordan takes a lot of shortcuts on the way and downright cheats in order to make the story fit together. His huge over-reliance on dreams is worse here than in the previous two books; he uses them to either make the plot work or to make already obvious thematic points even more overt. I've said it since the first book: he's much better at grounded, real-world action/adventure than airy-fairy metapsychics (that's not to say that his action scenes obey the laws of physics; his heroes routinely take down dozens of baddies singlehandedly).

And I must say, that if there's one thing that the series is missing so far, it's a decent villain. Fantasy series usually have memorably nasty bad guys (Gollum, Voldemort and Cersei Lannister are three that leap to mind), but Jordan hasn't produced even one. Padan Fain, who was just creepy enough to be passable, only makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in this one, which leaves us with a bland assortment of generic mustache-twirlers. Like Lanfear, who's too transparently and uninterestingly eeevil to work, or the book's main Big Bad, who is only revealed at the end, and sitting here right now, I honestly can't recall anything about him. And Ba'alzamon just makes me think of Buffy: "Yeah, we get it, you're evil. Do we have to talk about it all day?"

Maybe it's just me, but I think that Jordan's writing may have dipped in quality between the last book and this one. Descriptions are more repetitive (how many identical wharfs are there in this universe?), dialogue is hokier and more contrived, the plot points more belabored. The pacing is also off, and the multiple narrative threads don't fit together as smoothly as they should. In a lot of ways, Dragon is a rather rough novel. But then, so were the others, especially The Eye of the World.

The fact that Dragon is something of a mess is beside the point, though. It's not really supposed to be good, it's supposed to be fun. And it is, pure escapist entertainment. There is not much going on under the surface here, not much by way of truth or beauty or insight. It resembles George R. R. Martin's series in the same way a donkey resembles an elephant. Dragon is shambling and ungainly, but it's a treat, too, the kind of book that you're eager to jump back into, much as you may criticize it. If the Wheel of Time continues to be this entertaining, I'm along for the--very, very long--ride.

NEXT UP: Elizabeth George's A Great Deliverance. Yes, I know. Another British mystery. What can I say?

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