Winter's Heart: Book Nine of The Wheel of Time
by Robert Jordan
(Orbit, £17.99, 668 pages, hardback, published 2000.)
Rand al'Thor, the reincarnated soul of Lews Therin Telamond, aka The Dragon Reborn, aka The Car'a'Carn, aka The Coramoor, is on the run from renegade Ashaman (that is, men who can channel the tainted 'Male' half of the One Power). Fleeing from one city to another with Min Farshaw (whom he's in love with), he weaves a cunning web of deceit intended to draw his enemies to destruction. In the meantime, his childhood friend, Perrin Aybara, pursues his kidnapped wife Faile through the trackless snowy forests of Ghealdan. Oh yes, and Morgase Trakand, ex-queen of Andor, aka Maighdin, as well as Alliandre, current Queen of Ghealdan (she doesn't have an alias) have also been kidnapped. Also in the meantime, his other childhood friend, Mat Cauthon, is slowly recuperating from his wounds while providing a little light 'between-the-sheets' entertainment for the Queen of Altara and scheming to escape the Seanchan (who, having completed the 'Hailene' or Forerunning, are now busy performing the 'Corenne' or Return) who have occupied the city of Ebou Dar. In the meantime (still), Elayne, Daughter-Heir to Andor (whom Rand al'Thor is also in love with), struggles to cement her hold on the succession to Andor's Rose-Throne while simultaneously intending to lodge a claim to the Sun-Throne of Cairhien, when she has a free moment from swearing First-Sistership with the Aiel apprentice Wise One Aviendha (with whom Rand al'Thor, needless to say, is in love). In the meantime (yes, still), Egwene al'Vere, newly elected Amyrlin Seat to the Rebel Aes Sedai is intent upon attacking Tar Valon and throwing down the usurper Elaida. And, in the meantime (yes! yes! more!!!) the Chosen are still lurking and back-stabbing, plots are ravelling and unravelling quicker than the eye can see, people you thought were dead in volume three are being brought back to life (but with different names and genders so you can't quite tell who they are), others whom you thought were marched out of the story in book five are being marched back in, whole massive elements of the story are being shamefully neglected and more and more hoardes of new characters with more and more completely unmemorable and hopelessly complicated names are being shovelled into an epic tale so crammed with characters and plotlines that it surpasses the ability of the most dedicated reader to keep it all intact in their head...
Confused yet? And so you should be!
I am not going to attempt to give a reasoned presentation of the plotlines that this particular segment of Jordan's tale presents to the reader. If you know the story this far, fine, what I'm commenting on is whether this volume is a satisfying read. If you don't know Jordan's work, then a review of the ninth volume is no place to start. Go read book one, The Eye of the World. It's a bit slow to start with, but persevere, books two through five are ripping stuff!
The Ninth volume of Jordan's massive 'open-ended-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see' series starts, as usual, with a prologue which dances from one character to another and sets a half dozen or so of his endlessly entwined plotlines spinning. It's by no means a neat and concise prologue however: it runs to page 88! However, having followed Jordan's work to this point, I've come to the conclusion that he really has no choice but to do this. The books are so massive, the time between each publication so long, the cast of characters so enormous, the plotlines so various and far-flung, that to get the reader back into the story he simply has to throw in these 're-introductions' at the start. If he didn't, you'd have no choice but to go back and re-read the preceding book, or two, or three! or be utterly unable to make any sense of it all.
Indeed, so huge and sprawling is the scope of Jordan's tale, that even within a 668 page book, there just isn't room for him to give attention to all the protagonists who are, or have been, in play. Worse, though he may introduce new directions and plot developments within the first third of the book (largely devoted to Perrin) he does not have the space, or perhaps the inclination to return to and resolve these situations before the end of the book. Worse still, he is completely capable of ignoring major situations, such as the arrival of the rebel Aes Sedai at Tar Valon, which closed book eight, and not permitting them a look-in throughout the entire volume.
Jordan can do this, partly, because he's playing games with the series' timeline. Book eight ends at the moment when Egwene and her rebels travel to Tar Valon and invest it in a seige, but book nine opens some days, or even more than a week before this happens... and in a sense the story does not catch up to itself (in that the reader does not reach the same chronological moment) until a good four-fifths of the book have elapsed.
Sloppy story-telling. I don't think Jordan has inflicted this kind of forced back-pedalling on his readers before, and it doesn't feel good. But, alas, it's only a symptom of the big problem that Jordan has with his big big tale.
Pace. Pace is the killer, pace is almost, almost but not quite! a story wrecker.
The Prologue swings along at a sharp clip. But after page 88 you just feel things beginning to slow down. Jordan indulges in his details, drawing out hours and days on the page into hours and days for the reader. By the middle of the book the plot is advancing at the speed of treacle oozing down a five degree slope. Complications pile atop complications and characters dance off sideways into digressions that leave one chewing the carpet in frustration (Mat Cauthon's portion of the book is particularly prone to this tendency). At about page 500 one has the sensation of wading hip deep through mud.
None of which is to say that the writing is bad. It isn't. Nor that the story is uninvolving. After spending something like 5,000 pages with these characters one is helplessly hooked and cannot resist wanting to know what comes next. What it does mean, is that Jordan seems to have one foot on the accelerator, and the other on the brake. In the last 150 pages the story suddenly seems to lurch forward. Tension leaps (it doesn't skyrocket, but it definitely leaps) as Mat Cauthon struggles to untangle himself from the Seanchan occupied city of Ebou Dar. It recedes a little as the focus suddenly cuts back to Rand, but as usual Jordan pulls out a flamboyant 'show-stopper' confrontation for the volume's close.
What does it all add up to? Well, Jordan seems to be operating on the principle that if he supplies an initial high-paced 100 pages, and a concluding high-paced 100 pages, the soft, slow mush in the middle won't worry the reader... He also seems to think that having supplied his prologue he doesn't need to do anything to keep the reader current with all the other loose ends (lord! there are so many of them!) that have been left over from previous books. I ask you, whatever has been happening to Galad? How can we have a whole volume without a single look at Elaida's situation? Wherever has Loial ended up? What are the Aiel tribes loyal to Rand doing all this time?
Jordan should have let a hundred pages or so of stuffing out of this volume and provided a half dozen additional, short, chapters to keep the whole saga current and alive in his reader's mind. This book is very far from being any sort of compulsive page turner, for too much of its length it's a grind.
Few people who have followed Jordan this far are going to give up on him now. But I'm certain that the highpoint of the series came in book four (The Shadow Rising). That had a genuinely clever plot at its heart, which worked out fully in the course of the single volume without anything serious being left hanging. It had mythic resonance and power as Rand looked back through time during his testing at the Aiel city of Rhuidean. It also had a sense of new discovery as Rand and his companions travelled through the Aiel lands and learned about a wholly foreign people.
Since that point, the story has, well, 'continued', rather than truly progressed, the intensity of the writing has fallen off and as for the plotlines... dear lord! there are so many loose ends, and Jordan is content to leave them flopping about uselessly for so long!
Ultimately I just have to heave a big sigh of exasperation. You have to keep reading, but at the same time you pray that Jordan gets a new editor who can make him focus more closely on what matters and pay due attention to the full scope of his work, not leave little bits of it dangling in mid-air for volume after volume after volume...
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© Simeon Shoul 22 September 2001