Friday, November 05, 2010

Review of Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

In 2007, James Oliver Rigney, who authored the best-selling Wheel of Time series under the pseudonym Robert Jordan, died.  He had not yet completed the series.  His widow selected Brandon Sanderson, the author of the Mistborn series, to finish the work.

The first result of that effort was The Gathering Storm, released last year.  It was a promising effort which, despite some flaws, captured the spirit of the Wheel of Time and moved the plot towards completion.  Now the second book, Towers of Midnight, has come out.  How does it compare?

I hate to say it, but I was disappointed.  As much as I like the Wheel of Time, and Brandon Sanderson's work, this one doesn't feel quite right.  Or maybe, it's because I like them both so much that I was disappointed.  It's not a bad book.  It's about average for a Wheel of Time book, which makes it above average, even good, compared to a lot of fantasy fiction.  But I expected better from the penultimate book of this 14 book series.

The first problem I noticed is one of chronology.  Much of this book focuses on Mat and Perrin, and follows their character arcs as they are prepared for the Last Battle.  I found both these stories engaging and productive (something which Jordan's books sometimes just aren't).  The problem is that their stories begin well before the end of the last book.   Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that Brandon switches viewpoints much more often than Jordan did, and their chapters were interspersed with Rand's and Egwene's chapters,which start after the end of the last book.  So one chapter you jump ahead in time, and the next you jump backwards.  This leads to some odd moments, such as Tam al'Thor being in two places at once. 

The second problem is one of characterization.  Most of the characters are fine.  Perrin, in particular, I think is handled well, finally growing into his role.  It was a little quick after just wanting to be a blacksmith for the past 12 books, but there really wasn't a lot of time left, and it happened in a way that made sense.  Elayne's a lot nicer than she used to be (since when did she feel affection for Galad?).  But since a lot of people didn't like the old Elayne, we'll just say she's mellowed with pregnancy and move on. Rand.... I'm not sure what to make of Rand.  It's good to see him sane again, but throughout this book he's just a little bit too perfect.  Messianic, in fact.  I know that he's supposed to be taking on a messianic role, but I'd prefer it if he were closer to how he was in earlier books, rather than suddenly being wise and calm and kind of dull.

Mat... ah, Mat.  It's sad to say, but I don't think Brandon really gets Mat.  Mat's supposed to be funny, and he is, but Brandon's Mat is... well, he's kind of dumb.  Now Mat's certainly not an intellectual, and he can be foolish, but Jordan's Mat is clever.  Very clever, in fact.  He has to be, in order to be the best general of this age.  His foolishness is due to the fact that he doesn't think things through.  Not because he can't see the consequences, but because he doesn't bother to consider them. He shines when he's forced to think and plan, such as when he's leading a battle.  It's hard to see how Brandon's Mat could ever be a successful general, even with his luck and the memories in his head.

One particularly egregious scene comes when he's explaining why he doesn't want to be a noble.  It's the boots.  A normal man only needs three pairs of boots, but a nobleman needs dozens.  He doesn't want to deal with that.  Another character asks whether that's a metaphor (doing so with one of those jarringly modern phrases that Brandon sometimes uses), and Mat explains that no, he's talking about boots.  Now, aside from the fact that Mat's shown the most interest in clothes of any male character (though he'll deny it if asked), the simple fact is that it's obvious why Mat dislikes nobles and doesn't want to be one, and that he's fully aware of those reasons. Mat simply values his freedom too much.  Nobles (and Aes Sedai) threaten that by telling him what to do.  Mat doesn't let anyone tell him what to do.  And worse, they try to manipulate, bully, and force him to do what they want, and Mat can't stand that.  As for why he doesn't want to be a noble, he realizes that being one would threaten his freedom even more.  The Pattern has had to drag Mat kicking and screaming into the responsibility he does have.  While he'll do his job as well as he's able (he doesn't like responsibility, but he definitely feels a sense of duty), he'll do his best not to take on any more responsibility than he absolutely has to.  Unfortunately, that really doesn't come through in Brandon's Mat.

Finally, there were a few continuity errors.  This was the book where the characters finally start learning each others' secrets.  The problem was, Brandon lost track of who knew what secrets.  For example, he forgot that Perrin's Asha'man told him about saidin's cleansing right after it happened.  And there were a few places where people suddenly knew things, and we're left to wonder whether Brandon just forgot or the reveal happened off-screen.  There were other places where it looks like Brandon might have forgotten a detail earlier and then hastily tacked it on in the revision.  And at least one reveal that I think should have gotten more attention, and resolution, than it did.

Okay, now that I've listed all the things that the book did wrong, did it do anything right?  Well, yes, it did quite a bit right.  Even with the Mat characterization off, I think Brandon managed the character arcs of Mat and Perrin very well.  They both grew into the roles they would need to fill in the final book.  Granted, Mat didn't have as far to go as Perrin, who had gotten stuck a while back.  Perrin gets to resolve a few nagging issues, and then make something really, really cool.  Mat, even suffering from a sudden drop in IQ, managed to accomplish some things which we've been waiting a long time for.  I think the cover of the book is enough that it's not a spoiler to say that he finally made it to the Tower of Ghenji.  Not all of that went as I expected, but the final key was very clever.  I didn't see it coming at all, but it made perfect sense once it did.  Other plot threads were resolved at an alarming rate... something I don't think Jordan could have done as well as Brandon, not without giving many of them short shrift.  But don't think that this was just about wrapping up plot threads that have been hanging for a long time.  There were a few surprises that actually, sincerely shocked me.  Pay attention to Aviendha--that was one of those scenes where I was thinking "let's get back to someone interesting" until I realized just how intriguing what was happening was.  And the epilogue... well, let's just say Olver's first POV is a gut-wrencher.

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