Obligatory Reaction to The Gathering Storm

No, this is not a reference to the National Academy of Sciences report from a few years ago. This has to do with the newest Wheel of Time book, because while I'm a long distance removed from my Usenet days, some habits die hard.

If you haven't read the previous eleven books, none of what follows will make any sense. If you haven't read the latest volume, don't click below the fold unless you want everything spoiled for you.

So, how does Brandon Sanderson do at filling Robert Jordan's shoes?

The short answer is: Pretty darn good. He doesn't exactly match the style of the earlier books, but he gets close enough to the feel to keep me reading, and most of what happens feels true to the story and characters as previously established. The Egwene plot in particular is very well done.

The one real disappointment, for me, was the Mat sections. These have always been my favorite (save for the excruciating Tylin Episode), I think because he was the character Jordan seemed to be the most comfortable with. Sanderson... doesn't seem that way.

The first thing that really flagged it for me was the cursing. Mat's dialogue has always been peppered with the euphemisms Jordan used for curse words-- "blood and ashes," "flaming," "burn me," etc. The words themselves aren't curse words in American idiom, but they were deployed with the same natural rhythm of normal profanity.

In this book, they're all off. For one thing, the variety of curses seems to have dropped-- in earlier books, Mat switched it up a lot, but here it was "burn me!" over, and over, and over. They're also not really placed correctly, though it's harder to articulate that. I suspect that the problem is that Sanderson, who seems like a Very Nice Boy, is not much of a curser himself, and thus doesn't have the natural feel for when and how to use profanity.

This may seem like a really minor point, but it's one of the things that makes Mat in this book seem like more of a collection of tics and catchphrases, and less a fully realized character. It doesn't help that the bulk of his plot arc (the Village of the Damned sequence) seems to have wandered in from an entirely different sort of book. It may be that the new-look Mat will grow on me when he gets more time on camera in the next volumes, but the short sections he got here were among the few false notes in the book.

The improved treatment of some of the other characters partially makes up for it. Rand gets more screen time, and has a little more depth than he's had in a while, and the Egwene sections are stellar. Even Gawyn comes off as less of a blithering idiot than he has in previous books.

I continue to be absolutely baffled at what in hell Cadsuane's genius plan is supposed to be. She goes on and on about how she's going to teach Rand to remember his humanity, blah, blah, blah, but there's a sort of Underpants Gnomes quality to her reasoning. As near as I can tell, her plan goes like this:

  • Step One: Irritate the living shit out of Rand by badgering him and ordering him around.
  • Step Two: {crickets chirping}
  • Step Three: We're all saved!

What's particularly baffling about this is that it almost seems like we're supposed to side with her. These aren't generally terribly subtle books, and if she was really supposed to be a villain, she'd be... more villainous. But she's not, and characters who have previously been established as sensible and right-thinking are on her side.

And, really, her stated goal is a good one. It's just that I can't see any sane way to connect her actions in the books with her stated goal. She goes about what she's doing in a way that is just about as wrong as it's possible to be, at every turn. And yet, other characters react to her as if what she's doing makes perfect sense.

It's really annoying, and I have expended far too much mental energy trying to figure out some angle from which her actions might seem to make sense. I really just don't get it, and it weakens the impact of most of her later scenes.

Speaking of weakening impacts, the less said about the whole Semirhage subplot, the better. The spanking thing was so farcical that it badly undercut her climactic scene and death. I mean, really...

And, while I'm talking about characters whose farcical behavior undercuts their menace, Elaida doesn't fare well in this book. We've gotten POV sections from her in the past, which are a little hard to square with her evil-queen-from-a-Disney-movie turn here. She's just a little too freaky to take as seriously as she ought to be taken.

Neither of those are things that are Sanderson's fault, though. The Elaida stuff was set in motion a while ago, and the Semirhage business is entirely consistent with the way Jordan handled some of the other plots.

The Egwene bits really are masterful, though, and Verin's death scene was terrific. It tied up a whole mess of loose ends, though I can't help wondering how she picked that exact moment as the time to wrap everything up. Any time in the previous three books or so would've done just as well. Still, it's nice to see the Tower civil war stuff wrapped up.

The book also benefits from leaving out some of the most deeply annoying plots. Elayne doesn't appear at all, that I recall, nor does Padan Fain. Perrin gets a couple of vaguely troubling chapters, and Faile one sort of touching scene, but their quarrels were mostly pushed off-stage. There's no Taim, either, probably because adding his mustache-twirling evil to Elaida's would've been a bit much even for a Wheel of Time book.

I realize I'm mostly picking nits, here, which may give a more negative overall impression of the book than I intend. I did enjoy it quite a bit-- it has most of the same compulsively readable quality that the earlier books have, and Stuff Happens. And then some.

Really, if you want to know my opinion, you don't have to look any farther than the fact that I'm typing all this at 11:30 on a Friday night. It kept me up late several nights running, despite a crushing pile of grading and class prep to be dealt with. That's pretty high praise, at this point.

More like this

I think the best review I can give for the book is that it's Robert Jordan as written by Brandon Sanderson. If you haven't read both, that's useless of course, but it you have, it's all you need to know.

By Aaron Bergman (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

I enjoyed it as the next Wheel of Time book, which I think is a point in Sanderson's favor. It definitely had a different flavor, but it was still Wheel of Time.

Re Mat: 100% agree. It really grated on me during the whole plan to get into the town where Verin was at. He was handing scripts to people regarding their characters they were playing and it just didn't feel right. I couldn't see Mat writing out pages of backstory on characters they would be playing to infiltrate the town.

Re Cadsuane: I think Tam says it best when he calls her a bully to her face.

By Dave Smith (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

I absolutely agree with you on the 'spanking' subplot, although I appreciated the reference to our 'guests' over in Cuba, which I don't doubt was Brandon's touch.

I find it interesting how so many reviews, such as yours, mention so many of the novels shortcomings but fail to give it a generally negative appraisal. I think the 'too soon' syndrome might apply, so I am very curious to see what the reviews of Towers of Midnight will be like.

I fell off the Wheel some time after the Tower civil war. Maybe I've got the wrong end of the stick, but too many characters did completely baffling things, that no-one else in the book noticed made no sense (sounds like the Cunning Plan you mention). The author(s) need to get some more people to read the manuscript for feedback.

The thing that finally knocked me off the series was the women. It just grates me when such a large proportion of the women seem to be snarky and irrational. All of the actions that make no sense, as above, seem to come from women. It's like the author thinks that women really are inscrutable creatures from another world, so if you make them do things you and your audience don't understand then this is good characterisation.

Yeah, maybe I have too-high expectations from my pulp. But Game of Thrones ruined me for a lot of fiction...

I think this review gets it pretty much spot-on.

The Egwene plot was good stuff; fortunately, there was a lot of time spent on it.

Sanderson gets a reasonable enough facsimile of almost all the major characters, except Mat. Mat is frankly just "off". Which is too bad, since I suspect I'm hardly alone in having Mat as a favorite character. Oh, and also Nynaeve struck me as a bit off, too. Which I don't care as much about, and anyway, in some ways, Sanderson's version of Nynaeve may be an improvement.

The point of Cadsuane, I've about decided, is to show a character who is "right" about some things, but is "wrong" about others, and is so arrogant and high-handed about it to boot that she ends up counter-productive. Or something like that.

Another high point, Rand was actually somewhat interesting for the first time in several books.

Bottom line...I'll definitely stick around for the next installment, with fingers crossed that he gets a better fix on Mat...

the thing that has me baffled is that Rand continues to be a complete prick through the entire book, enough that I want to just skip his chapters completely.

100% agree with you on Mat.

Biggest let down was Elaida. The last 2-3 books seem to be a blur to me, but I didn't recall her being like this. I was really hoping she would be redeemed by doing some good. Even if she single handedly frees all the damane, I don't feel it will do my former expectations of her any justice.

I did not like Verin confiding with Egwene. I really don't trust Egwene. She doesn't really seem loyal.

I thought the Egwene stuff read the strongest and most Jordan-like of all. (It also happens to be my favourite subplot. I like Rand the least of all the main chars, although Perrin kinda drives me insane with how SLOW he is to get certain things. He's not a dumb character, but man.)

By PixelFish (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink