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Book Reflection: The Towers of Midnight [Jun. 30th, 2012|12:36 pm]
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Last fall I read The Towers of Midnight, the penultimate book in the “Wheel of Time” series begun by Robert Jordan, and set to be finished by Brandon Sanderson.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I have all previous “Wheel of Time” books, but I did start to notice places where the pacing tended to lag – it could definitely have used some tightening up in spots. Still, the fact remains that Sanderson is a better writer than Jordan was, and The Towers of Midnight is almost certainly a better book for having him onboard.

That said, Perrin's storyline in particular felt drawn-out to me. Partially because a significant fraction of it consists of sitting around and twiddling thumbs while waiting for the next plot point to arrive; partially because Perrin has always been my least favorite among the Big Three – not that there's anything particularly wrong with him, I just find him rather less interesting than Rand, and significantly less entertaining than Mat. His character arc – which appears to get its' resolution in this book – also strikes me as the weakest of the three. For ten books now he's been running from his connection to wolves because he's afraid of losing his humanity, and when Hopper finally convinces him it doesn't work that way, the reader is left wondering why on Earth he didn't realize that ages ago. (Mind you, the main reason Perrin was afraid of losing his humanity to the wolves was due to an encounter in book three with another wolf brother who went over to his wolf nature; and I think it's pretty neat that in this book, he encounters the same guy in the wolf dream, and discovers that far from accidentally slipping into a wolf mind, the man voluntarily went over because the circumstances of his human life were too painful for him to bear.)

I felt the conflict between Perrin and Galad was rather overplayed, but I did appreciate the latter's prominence in the story. I was ambivalent about Galad through most of the series, but when he came out a hero at the beginning of the eleventh book, Knife of Dreams, I became a fan. I don't object to pairing him off with Berelain, I think there could be an interesting idea or two there, but having them fall in love at first sight rather undermines the whole deal. It struck me as particularly forced and stupid in a series with a very patchy record when it comes to establishing romantic pairings.

Another thing I liked was Galad finally unmasking Morgase for Perrin and Faile. It's been, what, four books? Five? And now, finally the payoff.

The big event for Egwene in this book is her confrontation with and defeat of Massaana, the Forsaken who's been hanging around the White Tower causing no good for the last six or eight books. In the end, it was less awesome than it could have been – she realizes how she can get the upper hand over Massaana, and after that, the Forsaken goes right over like a bowling pin. Pretty cool, but it falls far short of epic.

During the fight with Black Ajah sisters which precedes Egwene's victory over Massaana, minor character Nicola Treehill gets caught in the crossfire and killed. Now, I'm not particularly attached to the character of Nicola, I can accept killing her off, but it just seems so pointless. She barely appears in the book at all, then she pops up in the world of dreams and almost instantaneously gets blasted. How is this a conclusion to her character arc? Heck, it isn't even relevant to Egwene's character arc (not that fridging Nicola would necessarily be better), and it isn't a plot point, let alone a crucial plot point. So why bother including her at all?

It's as if Robert Jordan included Nicola's death in his notes, but not what it was supposed to accomplish, and Brandon Sanderson was so disinterested in the character that he couldn't be bothered to come up with a way to make her death fit into the rest of the story.

I don't have much to say about Rand's story arc in this book – except for the part where he and Min travel to one of those big capital cities which has slipped into poverty and despair (I think it's Bandar Eban). I love the way Rand and Min are walking among these people who are in the absolute depths of misery, and then suddenly Min's precognition kicks in, and as she looks at all these people in the most wretched circumstances imaginable, she starts pointing out women and men who are going to rise to greatness. To me, that's such a hopeful message about humanity's potential to rise above even the worst circumstances and do great deeds – I could almost cry.

Of course, it's slightly undermined by the fact that Rand and Min themselves prove to be the catalyst for the changeover from despair to recovery, which practically amounts to saying that people can only emancipate themselves from misery through divine intervention*. It's still pretty great though, and I console myself that Rand's ta'veren powers only make extraordinary events more likely, rather than creating them ex nihilo – ultimately, those people still bounced back because the potential to do so was within them all along.

*I recognize this is precisely what many theists actually believe, and I don't mean to diss that belief here. When you're talking about, e.g. the AA principle of accepting the aid of a higher power, that's a very democratic kind of supernatural intervention open to everyone, whereas what we see here is more like the Calvinist notion of the Elect.

Mat makes out pretty well in this book, narrative-wise. He finally takes out the gholam midway through, and in a way which makes perfect sense but I did not at all see coming (pushing it through a Skimming gateway so it falls into nothingness, rather than manipulating Mat's amulet, which it seemed to be allergic to). And the climax for Towers of Midnight revolves around a neat sequence of Mat, Thom, and Noal Charin raiding the Tower of Ghenjei and rescuing Moiraine from the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn; I especially liked the way they figured out how to get to the center of the Tower, which at one point necessitated walking down one hallway to an intersection, and then walking back up the exact same hallway.

Unfortunately, when Mat makes a bargain with the Eelfinn, he accidentally provides a loophole for the Aelfinn to attack them. This sparks a desperate flight, which necessitates a Noble Sacrifice from Noal to allow Mat, Thom, and Moiraine to escape, as if you weren't expecting something like that to happen anyway. I don't particularly object to killing off Noal (though it was horribly predictable), and I think Mat's mistake in making the bargain was well-judged, but I'm comfortable by the linking of the two: Noal only died because Mat screwed up.

Noal also turns out to be the legendary explorer Jain Farstrider. I forget now whether I figured this out on my own or read some fan speculation at one point, but either way, I saw this reveal coming way ahead of time. But in the end, it was kind of pointless. Sure, it illuminates more of the character of Noal, but what difference does it make that he also happened to be Jain Farstrider? None that I can see, and since the character gets killed off immediately after the reveal, the chances of his true identity having any further effect on the larger “Wheel of Time” story are effectively nil. They're called “plot twists” because they're supposed to have some sort of repercussions on the plot – twists for the sake of having a twist are at best hollow and and worst a waste of time.

In the epilogue, we finally find out the contents of the letter Verin left with Mat in the previous book – I was curious to find out what it was, of course, but even more curious to find out why Verin's conditions were either a) Mat opens the letter after a couple days and follows the instructions therein, or b) he waits twenty days in Caemlyn and then consider his obligation discharged. Well it turns out, that twenty-day grace period was a failed Batman Gambit on Verin's part, overestimating Mat's curiosity and underestimating his distrust of Aes Sedai. She didn't expect his hanging around for an extra twenty days to change anything, she just expected his self-control to crumble after a few days (she says as much in her letter). If not for a freak accident, they might never have learned of the vast Trolloc army on its way until Caemlyn was already overrun.

I said in my reflection upon the previous book that I couldn't see Sanderson's influence at work, aside from maybe a general increase in writing quality – well with The Towers of Midnight, his fingerprints begin to show through a lot more clearly. I'm thinking specifically of Mat's conversation with Setalle Anan on the subject of boots, which she identifies as a socio-political metaphor for something-or-other, to to which Mat replies, essentially: “whu?” The metaphor itself is okay, but the ensuing lampshade-hanging joke, apart from being very weak, makes the conversation feel like something lifted straight out of Sanderson's Alcatraz Smedry series – it would certainly suit that setting more than “The Wheel of Time,” where I wouldn't think the characters even use the term “metaphor,” let alone “socio-political.”

Speaking of socio-political issues and the Alctaraz Smedry books, Towers of Midnight also addresses topics of leadership and governance, specifically lordship and rulership. The “enlightened” conclusion is that these should be awarded on a meritocratic basis, but the institution of absolute rulership is never called into question. Sanderson's elitist cred is maintained.

One of the (many) subplots in this book involves affairs at the Black Tower where the Asha'man loyal to Rand are growing increasingly at odds with the ones answering to Mazrim Taim. Throughout the book, some of the loyalist Asha'man and the Aes Sedai emissaries to the Black Tower begin acting oddly, shunning their friends and getting in close with Taim's people, raising the suspicions of their comrades, who form an alliance in the epilogue. My guess is that this is the long-awaited second shoe from way back in book three where Egwene discovered that Channelers can be turned to the dark side by thirteen Dread Lords Channeling through thirteen Myrddraal. I also suspect that the process is permanent, which is a shame, as one of the victims is Tarna Feir, the Red Sister who was Elaida's ambassador to Salidar, and took a stern but ultimately kindly big sister approach to Nynaeve, and I took a shine to her for it.

Oh, and Asmodean's killer? Still unrevealed. Brandon Sanderson is obviously milking that fan speculation for all its worth. For the record, I'm still betting on Isam/Lord Luc/Slayer.

Later, everybody.
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