Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan, 1992

Outside in the darkness, a cock crowed. Mat shifted uneasily and told himself not to be foolish. No one was going to die.

His eyes dropped to his cards--and blinked. The Amyrlin's flame had been replaced by a knife. While he was telling himself he was tired and seeing things, she plunged the tiny blade into the back of his hand.

With a hoarse yell, he flung the cards away and hurled himself backward, overturning his chair, kicking the table with both feet as he fell. The air seemed to thicken like honey. Everything moved as if time had slowed, but at the same time everything seemed to happen at once. Other cries echoed his, hollow shouts reverberating inside a cavern. He and the chair floated back and down; the table floated upward.

The Ruler of Flames hung in the air, growing larger, staring at him with a cruel smile. Now close to life-size, she started to step out of the card; she was still a painted shape, with no depth, but she reached for him with her blade, red with his blood as though it had already been driven into his heart. Beside her the Ruler of Cups began to grow, the Tairen High Lord drawing his sword.

Mat floated, yet somehow he managed to reach the dagger in his left sleeve, and hurl it in the same motion, straight for the Amyrlin's heart. If this thing had a heart. The second knife came into his left hand smoothly and left more smoothly. The two blades drifted through the air like thistledown. He wanted to scream, but that first yell of shock and outrage still filled his mouth. The Ruler of Rods was expanding beside the first two cards, the Queen of Andor gripping the rod like a bludgeon, her red-gold hair framing a madwoman's snarl.

He was still falling, still yelling that drawn-out yell. The Amyrlin was free of her card, the High Lord striding out with his sword. The flat shapes moved almost as slowly as he. Almost. He had proof the steel in their hands could cut, and no doubt the rod could crack a skull. His skull. ---- (page 71)

I have read many better authors than Robert Jordan, and many better books than The Shadow Rising. At best, Jordan's writing is workmanlike; at worst, it's absurd. There is not a page of Shadow that isn't goofy in some way, or a little bit dumb, or derivative of other, better novels. The Wheel of Time books are not good books, to put it bluntly.

But it's been a few days since I finished the latest tome, and I still miss it. I've moved on to other books, but I still keep turning to pick it up again, and I feel nothing but disappointment when I remember that I won't be reading the next one for a while.

I think it's the sheer force of Jordan's storytelling that makes the books so much damn fun. He's not poetic like Tolkien, or brilliantly complex like Martin. The Wheel of Time series is extremely enjoyable, and I'm not saying it has nothing to say, but it doesn't come close to some of its peers in scope or import. What it is is pure storytelling goodness. Like Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, the Wheel of Time draws you in by wedding tried-and-true fantasy tropes to solid world-building and fun character development. Shadow may be the longest, messiest entry yet in an already long and messy series, but it's my favorite so far.

The Dragon Reborn ended with our heroes all reunited once again inside the impregnable Stone of Tear. No longer running from his identity, Rand must shoulder the burden of being the Dragon, pulled in different directions by competing factions. Making the unpopular decision to journey into the uncharted Aiel Waste, Rand has to face a nation of hostile, alien people who may not want him as their new leader--as well as more than one deadly enemy hiding in plain sight.

Meanwhile, Perrin and Faile travel back to Emond's Field to help the villagers in their war against a horde of bloodthirsty Trollocs (and an equally dangerous force of Whitecloaks), Nynaeve and Elayne hunt the Black Ajah in the troubled city of Tanchico, Egwene learns more about Dreaming from the Aiel Wise Ones, a shocking schism occurs among the Aes Sedai, and Mat--well, Mat doesn't have a lot to do, but he's still awesome.

There's a lot of plot crammed into Shadow, and dozens of plot threads and characters being introduced and reintroduced. Other than a ponderous, saggy stretch at the very beginning, the book is rarely boring, and although the pace is not exactly breakneck (the book is a thousand pages, after all), events unfold at a pretty good clip. Jordan is not a world-class plotter, but he's more than competent at winding up tension and some of his clue-dropping is downright sly.

Jordan has never been very good at evenly distributing storylines, and the intersection of the various narratives and character perspectives is choppy, to say the least. However, every main story in the book is solid. After being largely MIA for Dragon, Rand gets a decent chunk of Shadow to himself, though his motivations tend to be murky even when we're sharing his head. Jordan has so far been doing a nice job of showing his slow descent into semi-madness, which could be as a result of the Dark One's taint or just because he's lonely, isolated and has no one to trust.

Perrin's story is the longest in the book, and probably the best overall. I will go on record as really disliking Faile at the beginning of the novel, and hoping to hell that she and Perrin wouldn't fall madly in technicolored Wuv. Naturally, they do, and by the end of the book I was actually enjoying their relationship. Perrin has grown a lot as a character, and seeing him inadvertently take command of the Two Rivers is a blast, even if it is Fantasy Cliche 101. It's also fun to see some of the Emond's Field characters that we haven't seen since The Eye of the World, as well as getting some genuine forward movement with the Whitecloak storyline, which has been snailing along for a while now. The final battle between the villagers and a massive army of Trollocs is one of the most viscerally satisfying sequences in the series so far, for my money. Even a rather tepid mystery subplot can't stop this storyline from being a standout.

The Nynaeve/Elayne/Egeanin story in Tanchico is choppier, but still worthy. Elayne gets her largest amount of character development since her introduction, and Egeanin (a character who had one brief scene in The Great Hunt) emerges as one of the more nuanced figures in the series so far. Jordan is not known for his brilliantly depicted character interactions, but the different-worlds friendship between Elayne, Nynaeve and Egeanin is one of the more interesting and effective dynamics in the book. And let's not forget Thom, who is emerging as one of the best, but least-used, characters in the saga.

Even though it's arguably the most important storyline in the novel, the White Tower schism gets only a few chapters. This surprised me, since Jordan is usually fond of stretching out key events, not abridging them. Still, it's an exciting development, and one that promises to bring an interesting conflict to the later installments. The Aes Sedai are arguably the largest and most powerful group in the WoT universe, and seeing them turn on each other is going to be exciting.

Throughout the novel, the classic Robert Jordan flaws are all very much in evidence (almost endearingly so). The man cannot write a compelling villain to save his life. Shadow is overflowing with baddies, all with the complexity of cardboard. Okay, Liandrin is a little creepy, but she's the only one I can think of. Several Forsaken show up over the course of the book, and they're all almost comically toothless. For all of her supposed power, Lanfear does nothing but sneer and Nynaeve singlehandedly defeats Moghedien with little trouble (granted, this is a very satisfyingly badass moment for Nynaeve). Jordan's device of throwing in a Trolloc attack whenever things get dull is getting very old, too. Not to mention his gender-politics motif, which can be utterly exhausting in its tenacity.

But there are flashes of something else in Shadow; brief moments where Jordan truly shines. The sequence in which Rand relives the history of the Aiel is almost certainly the best piece of writing I've seen from Jordan so far. Those two chapters are almost exquisite in the way they fit together like a backwards puzzle, providing a jaw-dropping glance at the Age of Legends. It is moments like that when you can truly see the staggering scope of what Jordan has created. It's moments like that when you see the Wheel of Time for what it is: a true saga, one that sucks you in and holds you spellbound, even for a thousand pages. And goodness knows, there's a lot more to go.

NEXT UP: The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot.

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