The Dragon Reborn Reread

In some ways, The Dragon Reborn is the first true Wheel of Time book. This is the one where Jordan’s completely hit his stride. It builds to a definite ending from almost page one, and just clicks in a way that’s hard to describe, but easy to recognize. It’s perhaps the truest representation of what I think of when I talk about the series. If someone could only ever read one book in the series, I’d recommend that it be this one.

 

That said, do I like it now as much as I did in previous reads?

 

Mostly.

 

The depth and variety of characters is almost unrivaled, in my opinion. We get a half-dozen PoV characters in this book, and not only are their personalities consistent and realistic, but they’re dynamic and layered. We find out that not only do the characters all want more than one thing, but they sometimes tell themselves that they want one thing while there are hints that they actually want something else.

 

The best examples of this are Mat and Nynaeve. The humor in these characters is in large part from how much they lie to themselves. Jordan uses a tight Third Person perspective to turn them into unreliable narrators, shoving their opinions and observations into the narration, while also somehow suggesting that they might be wrong. It was this trick, in large part, that convinced me to be a writer.

 

Speaking of which, Mat is finally on the scene! Not the sickly, paranoid annoyance everyone’s been lugging around for two books. This is the Mat who dances and gambles and never breaks his promises. When people say Mat is their favorite character, this is the book where it started. His every scene in this novel is beautiful.

 

Perrin’s scenes aren’t quite so fun. He’s starting to struggle with problems that will overwhelm his storyline for most of the series. For now, though, we get a clear picture of why he’s struggling. In this book, at least, the struggle feels appropriate and means something. It’s Perrin who gives me my favorite passage in the book.

 

Rand is almost completely absent. That’s quite a departure from the last two books, in which Rand was inarguably the main character. It was a brave choice to have the main character go missing for most of a book, and there are some compelling meta-reasons for him doing this that I’m not going to go into here. Oddly enough, it’s Rand’s few scenes that I have the most problem with. But we’ll get to that in the spoiler section.

 

We get to see multiple cultures in this book. We’ve already seen many of them, and some of them we don’t learn all that much about. That isn’t to say that they’re executed poorly–on the contrary, Jordan’s worldbuilding has always been one of his strengths. Unlike some other books in the series, however, I don’t really feel like “seeing the world” was a primary focus of The Dragon Reborn. This book was about its characters, and its plot. And those shine bright.

 

The pace of this book is really weird. Different storylines start at different points and progress at different speeds, so that they all line up for the ending. It makes the first half of the book very scattered, but allows for what I think is one of Jordan’s best endings.

 

There are still some early-bookisms. The magic system is about 80% in place, but it’s not the concrete, almost scientific system we see in the middle to late part of the series. In dramatic moments, characters will sometimes fall into theatrical, archaic language that lends itself to narm. A romance plot comes oh-so-close to bombing, especially on rereads. And there is the occasional line of prose that could have used an extra polish.

 

Some of these are nitpicky, and some of these did interfere to a small degree with my enjoyment of the book. But none of it prevents The Dragon Reborn from being easily my favorite book in the reread so far, and one of my favorite books of all time.

 

SPOILERS BELOW!

 

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So, you know, beware.

 

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I love the Pedron Niall prologue. It’s always impressed me how fairly Jordan represents the antagonists of the series. (Except Fain, of course, because screw that guy.) Niall’s PoV is one of the best examples. I detest this man, what he stands for, the group he leads, and what they stand for. And yet Jordan made me understand him. Even empathize with him in places. I found things to admire in Niall, and could see why others followed his lead. That is beautiful character work.

 

Perrin at the opening of chapter one is just iconic. The whole sequence with him waiting for the Tinker woman, leading her down into the camp, is begging to be put on film. It’s written so beautifully, too. It truly felt like I was there in the cold with Perrin.

 

Throughout the book, different characters worry that Rand is losing it. Whether that’s Perrin after Rand almost brings the mountain down on them, or Egwene when he almost kills her in Tel’aran’rhiod, or the reader, probably, when Rand has the corpses kneel to him. I think he did go mad, for the last.

 

I loved Aludra popping back up and how fireworks became a plot point again. Everything about that plot thread, actually, all the way to the end of the series, works really well for me. It’s one of the longest-running pieces in the series, without ever overwhelming what I’d consider to be the main points.

 

The failed romance, of course, is Perrin and Faile. I’m one of the few fans who really likes Faile as a character, and even defends THAT ONE PLOT. ( In that I think it should have been a book shorter, but I don’t think it should have been cut completely.) In book four, their romance absolutely works for me. The second half of the book, anyway.

 

But in this book…

 

I don’t remember whether it’s Lan or Moiraine who speculates that Faile is only staring at Perrin because she finds him attractive. Looking at her behavior from this perspective is kind of adorable. She’s trying to act all cool and mysterious, meanwhile she’s fawning over Perrin. In other ways (the “cultural differences” stuff that gets really annoying later), I’m with Perrin all the way.

 

The actual failure comes at the end of the book. Within the space of a few pages, Perrin goes from, “I’m not sure what I think about this Zarine girl,” to, “MY FALCON!” Similar to Egwene and Elayne and Min all saying, “I think we should be friends!” in The Great Hunt, Jordan, that’s not how people work.

 

Naturally my favorite scene in the book is from just before that. The Perrin blacksmith scene. It’s beautiful, and calming, and it makes me as a reader feel at peace just as Perrin does. It’s a moment that Perrin needed, to recenter so he could move forward. It also breaks my heart. I have more to say, but it would spoil the whole series. So I’ll stop there.

 

Every scene from Mat. The duel with Gawyn and Galad. The footpads on the rooftops. Him and Thom adventuring. Aludra. Then Tear, which is even better. Every sentence from Mat’s perspective is perfect, it seems like.

 

I expected to wince as I reread Mat rescuing the Supergirls from the Stone. But to be honest, it’s written wonderfully. I think they’re in the wrong for not appreciating him risking his life to save them from, as he saw it, certain death. But it’s easy to see how patronizing that seems, especially considering that they were so close to escaping on their own, and he is so clueless about why what they’re doing is important. Everyone is in the wrong, unlike how the situation is presented later in the series. So the scene I was expecting to be hard to read was awesome. Everything’s good, then? Right?

 

Except the epilogue. The epilogue is a blemish on the face of a good book. Infodump that we don’t need, characters present only for what exposition they can deliver, new questions raised that are less interesting than the ones this book has answered, and prose that is workmanlike rather than beautiful. It’s not just the worst epilogue I think we get in the series; it’s one of the worst scenes. I’ll see if I run across a scene that I dislike as much as this one. It’s the low bar.

 

My last problem is with Rand’s scenes, particularly during the climax. Rand solving problems using the Power without really knowing how to use it yet is at its absolute worst here. I hope it is, anyway; otherwise, half of next book is going to be hard to get through.

 

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The Great Hunt Reread

It’s been awhile since I posted my thoughts on The Eye of the World, the previous book in Robert Jordan’s Epic Fantasy series The Wheel of Time. I’ve been chipping away at my must-read list, and just got back to my favorite series. Returning to The Wheel of Time always feels like coming home.

 

(The non-spoiler section comes first, as always, but there will be quite a bit to talk about in the spoiler section.)

 

I hadn’t noticed in previous reads of The Great Hunt, but the opening chapters are heavy with recap. If you already know most of the information, it takes a will to claw through some of the exposition-laden dialogue. Thankfully, it feels natural, motivated by the characters and the situations they’re in, so it’s not unbearable. In Epic Fantasy, however, I find I’d rather the authors assume, to some degree, that you’ve read the previous books.

 

Robert Jordan’s prose starts to come together in book two. There’s an understated poetry in his work, and every word matters. His narrative sits snugly in the head of the PoV character’s head for most of each passage, only expanding outward to describe the land at the beginning of each novel. This book contains my second-favorite passage in the series, one of my favorite passages of writing ever put to page. This passage alone makes the book worth reading.

 

Randland (as the world of The Wheel of Time is often called) starts to stand apart from any other Fantasy series. The world becomes one, not just of ruins and castles and fantastic history, but of traditions, old grudges, and prejudices. It becomes a world where the heroes aren’t endangered only by the plotting of evil, but of the greed or indifference of good. It becomes, as I’ve always said, a world of gravity.

 

The world is darker than that of the first book, with promise that it will only grow darker. And yet, it retains an important, heroic glimmer. The world is dangerous, but not cynical. The characters you follow will do what is right, or will try to do what is right, even if it kills them. These remain characters that you care to follow.

 

Rand is still a looking-glass character. It isn’t until the next two books where he grows compelling in his own right, though he remains sympathetic and readable here. Meanwhile, the book grows Nynaeve and Egwene into main characters, and gives Perrin plenty to do. Perspectives from villains fill out most of the rest of the novel, and it’s through these that you get hints at the sheer scope of the world and how deep its murky waters swirl.

 

I’m consistently surprised by how Jordan switches viewpoints. I read a chunk from one character, and he tears me away when I least want to go. I sigh as I see the next chapter will be a different character’s perspective. What I was just reading was so interesting! There were driving questions and mounting tensions! Whatever’s next will be so boring in comparison!

 

Instead, somehow, the next chapter is better than the last. Jordan is great at giving each character secrets and conflicts unique to themselves, even if they are driven by the same main goal. When it’s not suspenseful, it’s exciting. When it’s not exciting, it’s funny. He juggles different kinds of interest very well.

 

But each time he switches, he waits until there’s nowhere you’d rather be than with the current characters, as if he’s a sadistic telepath. It’s both a strength in his writing that each perspective proves so enjoyable, and a weakness that each switch is so reluctant on the part of the reader. Throughout the rest of the series, this is a common problem–though in some books, he balances it much better, so that the reader is always excited to jump to the next character.

 

Sometimes when I reread a book in this series, keeping in mind the ending, I have this thought: There’s only a hundred pages left! But this and this and this need to happen! How’s he going to resolve all of this in time?

 

The last hundred pages of a Wheel of Time novel are truly a marvel to see. Suddenly, we move away from the slow burn typical of the series. Suddenly we’re breakneck down the side of a mountain. And yet it never feels forced. Instead, it feels like payoff. We’ve earned this ending, with all the threads suddenly weaving together in a way that feels meant to be. Jordan hits all the notes, and just as importantly, he gives every moment the time it deserves. I never feel cheated with the ending of a Wheel of Time novel (no, for those of you who’ve read the series, not even during the bad books).

 

The Eye of the World had an ending that really does feel as though it comes out of nowhere, a hijacking of the plot. Though that ending is good, it hardly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the better endings in the series. The Great Hunt is the first ending that lands in true Jordan fashion.

 

To keep this from being an entirely positive review, here are a few nitpicks I have with the novel.

 

The middle of the book slumps in a way that hints at the sluggish pace some of the later books will have. It’s not severe, and it’s not for long, but it’s enough of a problem to mention.

 

There are some minor errors in how the magic systems work that are distracting to someone who knows the magic as intimately as a decades-long fan. It’s still early in a long series, so everything isn’t quite figured out. One gaff in particular made me laugh during a dramatic moment.

 

One middle-rank character starts his story off strong, but seems to fizzle meaninglessly, all to fulfill an important-but-uninteresting A-to-B major plot point. It feels like a waste of a good character, particularly because we don’t see them again for books.

 

Aspects of the ending don’t quite work for me. The pacing and the basic plot are great, but the execution feels a bit too in line with the Tolkien-esque Fantasy to feel like it belonged in this book.

 

As you can probably tell, I’m reaching. None of these problems really affected my enjoyment of the book as a whole. I had a great time reading The Great Hunt. So much so that as soon as I was finished, I picked up book three, which has long been my favorite book in the series. We’ll see how The Dragon Reborn holds up!

 

SPOILERS…

 

 

 

 

NOW!

 

My favorite passage in the book? I win again, Lews Therin. That entire Portal Stone sequence is just breathtaking. My second-favorite passage in the book is Nynaeve’s test to become Accepted. They both get better every time I come back around to reading them.

 

After those, Ingtar’s death is a moment that was absolutely as effective to me as it ever was. Reading his whole journey throughout the novel, knowing why he’s so obsessed with the Horn and reading the foreshadowing in the prose, is just heartbreaking.

 

The Heroes of the Horn and the duel above Falme were the parts that read too Tolkien-esque for my liking. Too 80’s Fantasy, too much enforced sense of wonder. It doesn’t help that “Sheathing the Blade” was as subtle as a sledgehammer on a repeated reading. I thought it was incredibly clever the first time I read it, though, which is what I suppose is truly important.

 

Making Liandrin a traitor was brilliant. Having her be Black Ajah was so obvious that on a first read, I discounted it immediately. Even if I had guessed she would betray them, no way I knew what she’d have planned. Also, Hi Suroth! Didn’t remember you here! Guess you were introduced as a Darkfriend. See you in a few books!

 

Egwene’s time as a damane was effective as well, I suppose. By that I mean that I was nauseous knowing that it was coming up, and I was nauseous the entire time she was Leashed. It is terrifying and sickening. As someone who’s read the whole series and is kind of used to the Seanchan at this point (to say the least), it was a shock to the system and a reminder to really, really hate them. If I never have to read that section again, it’ll be too soon.

 

In trying to use the Portal Stone, Rand almost burns himself out! That was way scarier in future reads than it was the first time. Rand/Hurin/Loial’s time in the Mirror World was necessary, and had plenty of payoff…but was incredibly dull. This was the sag I was referring to. Although the latter portion of that, I liked to play a game called, “Is Lanfear using Compulsion?” The way that Rand’s thought processes are altered–not just what he thinks, but how he thinks–suggests so. I’m sure there’s a canon answer to this, but I lean toward yes.

 

At one point, Rand embraces saidin. The copy of the book I’m reading from isn’t early-edition–there were one or two continuity errors that were fixed in this version–which makes it all the more puzzling that the gaff I mentioned wasn’t fixed.

 

 

Eye of the World Re-read

Let me start with complete honesty, here. The Wheel of Time series is the main reason that I’m writing today. It’s my favorite series, and I tend to read through at least my favorite books every couple of years. This is not going to be an unbiased review of the first book in the series.

What it will be is a post describing some of my impressions of reading this book for the first time in several years. The things that I notice or think about differently, having read the last book, having developed as a writer and editor. Me rambling, basically.

That said, I figure I’ll just start.

The style of the first book is radically different to all following books. It’s a poorly-hidden secret that Jordan intentionally aped Tolkien’s style to a degree, in order to give readers familiar ground to start their journey on. You see it in Moiraine’s tales of Manetheren, the history of Shadar Logoth, and Lan’s past (The fall of Malkier), and in other odd places throughout.

I, for one, feel that he succeeds too well in this. As someone who was never able to make it all the way through Tolkien (aside from The Hobbit, which hardly counts), I found some parts very hard to get through. I can only imagine what it was like for twelve-year-old me. But even aside from these parts, there is sometimes a sense that this is more about the grand world and epic scope and awesome magic than it is about the characters. Thankfully, these moments are relatively rare.

I also noticed that the first four chapters are unbearably slow. I knew this from my first read through, more than ten years ago, and it’s even more true now. When I read it the first time, I saw the purpose behind it. I though it brilliant. I still do. But there must be a way to accomplish it without making these chapters a struggle to read.

Last among these complaints is the “early-bookisms” as most fans of long series call them, or EOTWisms, as Wheel of Time fans might know them. That is, flaws in continuity where the author develops canon after the first book, so that the first book is not consistent with the rest of the series. They’re all over the place in The Eye of the World. They’re hardly a big deal, and can largely be explained away in “head-canon” among fans. But it’s worth mentioning.

Do all of these complaints mean The Eye of the World isn’t a great book?

Don’t be silly! It’s absolutely a great book!

Even in this early novel, Jordan is already showing the seeds of the best parts of the series. He’s writing an unreliable third person limited, with the occasional expertly-worked omniscient/cinematic passages. He can suggest in one sentence both what the PoV character thinks, and that it might not be the truth of the matter. He sets up mysteries that have satisfying conclusions books from now. And he gives us characters to care about, to root for, from page one.

His prose is for the most part fantastic, and he has all but mastered the art of “show vs. tell”. What little we see of the magic system is exciting and almost completely consistent with the rest of the series. And while his plotting at times is similar to the meandering trek that Rothfuss is infamous for, Jordan keeps a single, strong line leading us from beginning to end.

Robert Jordan continues to provide lessons for me as a writer: how to use tight third person narration to create unreliable viewpoints, how to use description to evoke emotion and build tension, how to create characters that, while flawed, still try to be good, still get us to cheer them on. However, as a more mature writer, I can see other lessons he’s taught me. Don’t imitate the style of others to your own detriment. Don’t allow the backstory to overshadow the main plot. Don’t allow your reader to be bored during the introductory chapters.

A part of me, the part of me that was inspired by The Wheel of Time series to become a writer in the first place, is saddened by the fact that there are aspects of The Eye of the World that set examples of what to avoid. But there are, and I will, and I’ll become a stronger writer for doing so.

The Eye of the World comes in near the bottom of a series full of my favorite books ever written. On to The Great Hunt; let’s see how that one holds up, shall we?