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Knife of Dreams:
Book Eleven of The Wheel of Time

by Robert Jordan

(Orbit, £8.99, 813 pages, paperback, first published 2005, this edition published 3 August 2006.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanThe eleventh instalment in Robert Jordan's immense fantasy saga begins as usual with a rapid-fire shuffle through the myriad secondary plot-lines that jostle for attention, with one or two of the primary plot-lines thrown in for good measure. It's a relief, in some measure, to finally renew acquaintance with some characters you last met a book back, or two books back, and you count yourself lucky if you remember, given the blizzard of names you have to keep in mind, just who some of these people are!

Still, at least, after the 91 page prologue, you are somewhat back in gear and may begin to recall pretty much what was going on.

The main lines of the plot are still pretty much what they were back in volume ten, or for that matter volume nine. Mat is doing his best to sneak out of Altara, with Tuon, heiress to the Empire of the Seanchan as his 'not quite' prisoner. Perrin is still attempting to manoeuvre enough pieces into place so as to free his wife Faile from the Shaido Aiel, while Rand attempts to negotiate a truce with the invading Seanchan, the better to concentrate his attention on Tarmon Gai'don, the imminent Final Battle with the Forces of Evil.

At the same time there are two major sieges being fought; Egwene, or at least the Aes Sedai loyal to Egwene as she herself got captured at the end of volume ten, are trying to fight (or talk) their way into Tar Valon, while Elaine, Daughter-Heir to the Kingdom of Andor, is trying to stop her rival for the throne, Arymilla, from fighting her way into Caemlyn.

It is a relief to find Jordan only trying to juggle five major plot-lines in the space of a single set of covers. Of course there's plenty of action bubbling around the edges (conspiracy, betrayal, intrigue), but by and large he manages to remain focussed in a fashion that has been eluding him for some time. The result is that this book has more pace than the previous few instalments. That is not to say that it actually has a lot of pace; for it doesn't. The first half still drags badly, particularly as Jordan seems addicted to recounting a variety of domestic trivia, most notably relating to Elayne's advancing pregnancy, but by about the 400 page mark several characters have (at long last) managed to shake themselves loose from encumbrances that have kept them practically nailed in place for an awfully long time, and are making tangible progress.

This, of course, is what an epic story needs. It needs progression within each volume. Someone, somehow, on the side of Good, needs to take at least one step forward, and it would be better by far if major plot developments could be achieved within each volume. For too long Jordan has seemed to lose sight of this and the result has been a dreadful, grinding, feeling of lethargy as several 700+ page volumes have gone past with very little serious plot progression.

By the end of the book most of the major characters have realigned themselves, and are heading in what seems to be 'the right direction.' Several longstanding situations have been resolved, and one or two of the obscure mysteries that have been hanging around (such as who, exactly, has been reincarnated among the Chosen) are at last clarifying. The total result is not gripping, but it is reasonably satisfying.

With his plot back under some kind of control, we still have to consider the quality of Jordan's writing. For the most part it is reasonably effective; solid, workmanlike prose, and effectively portrayed characters. Nonetheless, Jordan does miss a few opportunities to lift his writing, and his characters to a higher level. The most obvious of these comes on pages 224-226, where Mat encounters the ruins of an ancient city while riding in the hills with Tuon. He recalls a time when that city was alive and vibrant, and muses upon it briefly... What he doesn't do is say anything out loud. In failing to have Mat speak at this moment Jordan shuts down what should have been a brief and telling exchange between him and Tuon, a moment when he reveals a part of himself she was unaware of, displaying depths, and knowledge, she did not previously discern in him. It's a shame when moments such as these are lost, and a sign of less than brilliant editing.

At the end of Knife of Dreams one is left hoping that Jordan will maintain the same pace of development and progression throughout the next volume. If he can do that then he has some hope, in the distant future, of bringing to a close a major fantasy saga that only has a regrettable sag in its middle volumes, rather than one that fundamentally runs into the sand. If, in addition, he strives to do just a little bit more with his characters, he may end up creating something that is truly outstanding.

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