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Crossroads of Twilight: Book Ten of The Wheel of Time

by Robert Jordan

(Orbit, 700pages, hardback, £17.99, 2003.)

Imagine that you are attending a party. Suddenly, on the other side of the room, you cover scanspot a familiar face. Why, it's your old friend Bob! Smiling, you saunter over. Bob! How good it is to see you again, why, it's been so long... Bob is delighted, he grasps your hand, he claps you on the shoulder. Swiftly you fall to talking over old times. How is Bob's wife, Betty? And Bob's three children, Sam, Jane, and Joe? Does he still do the same work? Oh, he's moved house! Where to? What's it like? The minutes fly past. For, Lordy! How Bob loves to talk! Yes he does! Such a big, hearty, chap, with such a wonderful fund of stories about old, mutual acqaintances!

Oh the endless accounts of people and places, the events both grand and trivial, the highs and lows... you talk and talk and hardly notice the party winding down around you until it is finally time to leave and you take Bob's new number, and he takes yours and you both promise to call, and it's only much later that you realise Bob never really did say much about Betty and Sam and Jane and Joe... and somehow all the really important stuff you wanted to say to him, and to hear from him, never got said...

This is what it is to read a Robert Jordan novel.

To open the first page is to re-encounter a host of old friends, some familiar, some only vaguely recalled. And at first you are delighted to be back among these people, for you have spent so very much time in their company, and have missed them so much! A deluge of information washes over you, but even an 80 page prologue cannot tell you everything you feel you need to know.

Soon you are back in the thick of it, wading through the icy, snow-bound wastes of Ghealdan with Perrin, trudging north from Ebou Dar with Mat, besieging Tar Valon with Egwene, being besieged in Caemlyn with Elayne, doing... well, actually doing not very much with Rand in this book, as he's very much an absent presence. Oh but never mind! Here you are again! What a joy!

If only anything ever happened.

Of course, things do happen, of course there are events, even (the silver lining) hints of plot progression, but Dear Lord, you don't half have to wade through a tonne of fluff to find a nugget of gold!

Jordan is a master of the infinitely-deferred climax. There is no step forward in this novel (hell, there hasn't been once since volume five) without a corresponding step backwards, or perhaps sideways. Indeed, the whole book starts with a great big stride backward. For, as in volume nine, Winter's Heart, Jordan has excused himself from obeying a strict chronological narrative, winding back his timeline so that the concluding event at the end of volume nine, the cleansing of the Male Half of the One Power, has not yet (quite) happened. One by one, you get to watch as each of his widely scattered protagonists (Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Elayne, principally) detect and react to the vast outpouring of power many hundreds of miles away...

This goes on for approximately half the novel, a seemingly unending backdrop. If this is not enough to exasperate the reader, Jordan still can't control his helpless addiction to new plot-lines and new characters. They pop up in the prologue (never to surface again), and are scattered here and there throughout the volume.

Just imagine that good old friend of yours Bob, reminding you, insistently, about that guy, Reggie, whom you both knew when you were in College together, oh c'mon, you must remember Reggie! You, know, the one who got drunk on tequila that time and spray-painted the doors of the library, that Reggie! No, Reggie didn't have a Harley-Davidson, you're getting him confused with Roy. Well, now let me tell you what Reggie's up to now, and hey, he's with this amazing new girl, Claire, oh, I'll tell you all about Claire, she comes from this crazy family, her Mother, now get this...

Jordan, I'm sorry to say, is not a well man. He suffers from that pernicious writer's disease, Epic Sprawl. This story (which he has been writing, let's not forget, since 1990) started as a brisk jog, at times even a sprint, but lately has strolled, hell, it's dawdled, through a total of ten volumes and is not discernibly closer to an ending. Keeping up with all the names and faces, and infinitely proliferating plot lines from previous volumes is hard enough, but the reader is left utterly dazed by the slew of new people and places and narrative directions...

The pleasure of meeting old familiar characters, and the tension of watching them struggle through their lives and master their challenges, is irrevocably soured by the blizzard of digression, the welter of new acquaintances, and the unbelievable mass of trivia with which the story is packed out. Does it matter a damn how reluctant Aviendha is to take a bath, with a servant's help or without it? Who cares about the fact that Valan Luca's wife is a lousy cook? Why dwell so painstakingly upon the progress of Elayne's pregnancy?

Well, perhaps there are crucial plot hooks buried in these doldrums. Let's hope so. Jordan is writing what is, I think, the single longest and most involved Fantasy Epic in the history of the genre. It's unavoidably fascinating for those of us who've made the investment in time (and money!) to buy and read the books, but at the same time it's howlingly frustrating. I cannot point to a single major plot thread which was open and active at the end of book nine which has reached a clear and satisfying conculsion at the end of book ten. Worse thing is, it didn't used to be this way.

After reading Crossroads of Twilight I went back to volume four, The Shadow Rising (still, for my money, the best in the sequence), and skimmed through it. Doing this confirmed for me that Jordan had a far better control of his pacing in earlier volumes. In particular, he was much more adept at juggling separate plot-lines, ducking back and forward between widely separated groups of characters with fine timing, so that each piece of the story always seemed to be moving on. This easy interchange is gone now, and so is the way in which Jordan set up concrete challenges and specific goals for his characters, and decisively answered them within one set of covers.

Two years ago, when I reviewed the previous volume, I ended with the hope "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..." Well, it hasn't happened. Orbit, Jordan's publisher, appears to be perfectly content with this money-spinning series, that looks set to spin on and on and on... Morever, there's going to be a new Wheel of Time novel this year, but it's not another installment in the story, it's a prequel. Well, this is Prequelitis, isn't it? another writer's disease, though one which most authors have the grace to resist until after they've finished their major work.

The Wheel of Time is a remarkable achievment, but it's one that's sagging badly. Complexity and digression seem to have become ends in themselves while narrative force and pace have been abandoned. The tension in the story is a side-effect of our familiarity with the characters and our fondness for them. When they're threatened we feel anxiety, but this is not the result of genuinely good story-telling.

Jordan delivers an equal measure of satisfaction and frustration. Read on you must, but lower your expectations, our good old friend Bob has plenty more irrelevancies up his sleeve...

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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