Painfully, he pushed himself up. Leaving bloody footprints on the carpet, he limped to the stand where Callandor rested. Blood from hundreds of cuts covered him. He lifted the sword, and its glassy length glowed with the Power flowing into it. The Sword That Is Not a Sword.
The Terrible Writing That Is Not Terrible
Yes, it’s true, Robert Jordan is no literary maestro. His sentences can be clumsy, his pacing can be so bad it can make fans fling the books into a fire, and even his smartest characters can come across as a bit dumb sometimes.
This book, though, was fantastic. I really enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because I started with low expectations; maybe it’s because I’m reading the story not the sentences; maybe it’s because J is super fond of the series and I’m super fond of him; or maybe, god forbid, it’s because Jordan actually crafts a really interesting world with characters you care about and huge events.
I’m going to go all out with the spoilers here, so you know, avert your eyes etcetera.
First epic thing: Rand goes into the magic-mist covered valley of Rhuidean (pronounced, according to the guide at the back of the book, ‘RHUY-dee-ahn’ – more on this later). There, he has a series of visions that show the history of the world back to before the ‘Breaking’, i.e. the time when all hell broke loose and civilisation had to start again from scratch. THERE ARE CARS THERE. And aircraft and stuff. And later, Lanfear talks about there having been space travel and knowledge of what the stars were made of. Awesome. If the series ends without giving more detail about this I will be really, really frustrated.
Second epic thing: Perrin and the Two Rivers. He, and we with him, go back home for the first time. There are battles. We get to know Perrin better, and love him; we get to know Faile better, and she shits us off majorly with her frustrating passive-aggressive coy-manipulative horridness (or is it just me), then redeems herself in a not-unexpected (but still great) twist at the end.
Third epic thing: the Sea Folk and their secrets. No, not the secret about how they all go tits-out the moment the ships lose sight of the shore. The other secret, about the Channeling.
I think I enjoyed this book more than any of the others so far…
Gender and Wheel of Time
… even given the really jarring statements about gender that run through the whole book.
I’ve been putting off writing about gender in Wheel of Time until now because it’s taken me a while to work out just how I feel about it. Right now, I think I’d summarise it like this: Jordan has created a world where the genders are separate but equal – a perfectly fine fantasy-world philosophy, but one which is then muddied by his own dodgy writing.
The ‘separate but equal’ thing is quite interesting. As I’ve written before, I think ‘separateness’ is a false theory of gender – in the real world, at least. I don’t believe men and women are from different planets at all and I think socialising us thusly just diminishes everyone’s potential. (I don’t mean I think we’re all the same; I think there are heaps of different ‘planets’ and who comes from what isn’t split along gender lines.)
But in Wheel of Time Jordan has written this separateness as one of the laws of physics, if you will. There are two distinct sources of magic power, and they are gender-specific – women wield saidar and men saidin. But saidin has been poisoned by evil, and any man who has the ability to channel it must be found and neutralised before it sends him insane. Thus, there’s an asymmetry: all magic (and hence most power) is wielded by female Aes Sedai, which often makes men distrustful of them.
There was a saying: “A man will cut off his own hand to get rid of a splinter before asking help from Aes Sedai.” Women meant it as a comment on men’s stubborn foolishness, but Min had heard some men say the loss of a hand might be the better decision.
Enter our hero Rand, a man who can channel the power, but who is also prophesied to save the whole world from evil. This will upset the status quo in huge and interesting ways. Cue the next fourteen novels.
This basic premise is all reinforced in The Shadow Rising when we learn something new: that long, long ago two people did discover a new source of power that could be used by men and women equally. What happened when they had the audacity to try and use it together? They unleashed evil that destroyed the world, that’s what. Let that be a lesson to those of you who think men and women can work in harmony.
The separateness isn’t confined to magic-capable Aes Sedai, though. It trickles down to separateness of gender roles in cities (for example, Cairhien is only ruled by women) and small towns (Emond’s Field is governed by separate men’s and women’s councils). It’s a world of a dozen cultures but all of them have specific gender roles – even the warrior race of Aiel, where although women often fight alongside men they have special girls’ games and rules.
All this bugs me, but for the sake of the books I accept it as being an axiom of the world and move on. So accepting separateness, what about equality?
Jordan is pretty fair to his male and female characters in spreading around the heroism and adventures. Egwene and Nynaeve and Elayne go off doing daring and dangerous and important things. Sure, they’re not special prophesied ta’veren like Matt and Perrin and Rand (why not? They shape events just as much) but whatever. The message is, women and men can both do interesting things and do them well. All good. (Except for the cover image, which choses to ignore all that and do its own thing entirely.)
But then this whole thing – this axiom of ‘separate but equal’ from which interesting fictional societies can be derived – is all clouded up into a mess by Jordan’s continual use of lazy, sexist, throwaway statements by pretty much all of the major characters. Just some of the many examples:
- ‘She thought the Creator must have been tired when it came time to make men; sometimes they hardly seemed human.’ (Min, p12)
- ‘Women were odd’ (Rand, p65)
- ‘A man could go crazy trying to understand women, or any nation and any station in life’ (Rand, p84)
- ‘Rand al’Thor is a mule-headed, stone-willed fool of a … a … a man!’ (Moiraine, p114)
- ‘Two Rivers women never have any trouble with men’ (Nynaeve, p114)
- ‘Women were always dusting and straightening, even things that did not need it.’ (Mat, p243)
- ‘He may be a man, but he is not a complete dolt.’ (Nynaeve, p267)
- ‘Men needed a firm hand’ (Elayne, p267)
- ‘Men. […] Did they never grow up? (Egwene, p367)
- ‘Women would talk about anything; they had no restraint at all.’ (Perrin, p458)
- ‘Line up and shut up. You sound like the Women’s Circle meeting in a wardrobe.’ (Perrin, p543)
- ‘Women never understood.’ (Rand, p571)
- A female Aiel Wise One’s role is ‘making a [male] clan chief do what you want rather than what he wants.’ (Rhuarc, p611)
- ‘Very likely Thom and Domon would get in a fistfight to complete it. Men. That was the only comment she could think of.’ (Elayne, p665)
- ‘Men will talk if their coats are afire.’ (Ila, p685)
- ‘Tending the sick is no business of men.’ (plump Tinker woman, p686)
- ‘A Myrddraal has less cunning than a woman, and a Trolloc fights with more honour.’ (Gaul, p701)
- ‘”He is a prickly man, hard to know and difficult to deal with, and – ” He cut off as Lian murmured softly, “Is there any other kind?”‘ (p828)
This really, really annoyed me all the way through the book. There’s no plot-based need for everyone to be such bigots. The fact everyone says this stuff, regardless of race or culture or experience or seniority or gender, strips any significance from these statements other than Jordan is either a jerk or, more likely, blind to his own sexism.*
For example, Jordan sets up the Aiel to be this culture so emancipated you feel it’s meant to be shocking: women and men can fight side by side as equally formidable warriors. But then he has heroic Gaul saying ‘A Myrddraal has less cunning than a woman, and a trolloc fights with more honour.’ That’d be like pointing to some country and saying ‘Look, that’s a model of racial integration and equality’ while one of its white role models says stuff like ‘Black people are as shifty and untrustworthy as the devil.’ And vice versa. And just because both sides are flinging shit at each other doesn’t mean the shit cancels itself out.
Do you think I’m being touchy? Replace any instance of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in the above quotes with ‘Jew’ or ‘black’ or ‘liberal’ or whatever and see if it still sounds folksy and flippant. Nynaeve: ‘He may be a Muslim, but he is not a complete dolt.’ Sigh.
Before I move on, just one last note on gender. Did you notice how pretty much all of the main female characters lost their clothes at one stage or another in this book? It was like a Benny Hill episode. There’s Lanfear in Rand’s dream – and zip! there go all her clothes! She’s diving in the nip! There’s Aes Sedai CEO Siuan and her PA Liane in prison, and whoop! Now they’re ‘clad only in bruises and welts’. Here’s Amathera, Panarch of Tanchio, in her chambers, and look out lads! She’s wearing nothing but a crown, a stole and a ‘glistening coat of sweat’. And what do we have here? It’s Nynaeve and Egeanin caught out wearing only their underwear! Zounds! Stay tuned for later where they are forced to wear scandalously revealing clothes while repeatedly having narrative attention drawn to pendants that ‘hang between their breasts’. Want more? Here’s Moghedian wearing a see-through dress. Here’s Berelain wearing a see-through dress. Here’s Rendra wearing a see-through dress. Bored yet? No? Here’s Coine and Jorin ‘doffing their blouses’ to go topless. And let’s end by making Moiraine and Aviendha run down a mountain naked so they can visit Rhuidean, even though Mat and Rand are able to do the same thing clothed.
Nudity is used to show humiliation of women (Amathera, Nynaeve, Egeanin, Siuan, Liane), portray them as manipulative and evil (Lanfear, Moghedian, Berelain) or humble them (Aviendha, Moiraine). Occasionally it plays a legitimate part in world and culture building (Coine, Jorin, Rendra) but you still feel it’s just there for the male reader’s gaze. Evidence A: the fact no men have self-conscious body-description scenes, or get naked except one short sentence on page 898 where Rand fleetingly sees Mat ‘naked and bound, snarling’ as part of a series of visions. Anyway. Whatever. Enough of this. Let’s move on.
Every book in the series so far has a glossary at the back, so you can remind yourself which character is which and work out how their names are pronounced.
This pronunciation guide is pretty entertaining. It’s full of strangely placed ‘h’s (Chaendaer – CHAY-ehn-DARE; Carridin – CAHR-ih-dihn; the unfathomable Gaul – GAHWL; etc) and totally unhelpful choices (Rhuidean – RHUY-dee-ahn. Is that RHUY as in ROY or ROO-EE or RYE?) and bad choices for readers of different accents (trollocs – TRAHL-lohks; why not chose TROLL-locks and avoid forcing a jarring American accent on everyone?)
Anyway, what was I saying just now?
Oh yeah, I was saying that I really enjoyed reading this book. Once you gloss over all that stuff I’ve spent most of this post ranting about – and even if you’re only partly successful at best, like me – you get caught up in the story, and you find yourself lapping up descriptions of street scenes in Tanchio or the weaving of streams of Air and Water on some Sea Folk ship, and pretty soon you’re turning pages hungry for what comes next. And looking forward to the next ten books. Ten more. Oh me oh my.
* I have just thought of another option – that this is a carefully crafted part of the overarching, 14-book plot that involves an eventual reunification of saidin and saidar and a scene where everyone looks back, laughing, saying ‘can you believe we used to be such jerks? I’m so glad our journey helped us grow to become enlightened post-sexism beings.’