Robert Jordan: The Fires of Heaven

All around him Aiel, some unclothed or only half but all black-veiled, fought Trollocs with tusked boars’ snouts or wolves’ muzzles or eagles’ beaks, some with heads horned or crested with feathers, wielding those oddly curved swords and spiked axes, hooked tridents and spears. Here and there one used a huge bow to shoot barbed arrows the size of small spears. Men fought alongside the Trollocs, too, in rough coats, with swords, shouting desperately as they died among the thornbushes.


Note: This whole post contains spoilers.

Hey paragraph, we need to stage an intervention.

From the section I quoted above, it’s clear that by this stage Robert Jordan’s editor wasn’t on the ball. Fires of Heaven is the fifth book in the Wheel of Time series, and maybe by this stage Jordan thought he was above editorial direction, or maybe he’d just stopped listening to his wife (who is also his editor). Whatever the cause, the writing’s going further south than ever before.

I can imagine using that quoted paragraph as a lesson in a year seven English class. I’d ask them to point out the ambiguities and identify the misuse of commas, and challenge them to rewrite it more clearly. (Also, that last clause is strange enough to give me the giggles.)The problem is that part of me thinks the exercise could backfire: ‘If he can write like this and be a best-seller, then why bother learning to write any better?’ You bother because, unchecked, by the time you reach book nine your most devoted fans are literally flinging your books into bonfires (as mentioned in my post on Book Four).

As I’ve also mentioned before, I have the lucky ability to go into a reading mode where I don’t see the sentences, only what’s going on in the story. Unlike some others, this ‘word gloss’ lets me get through these books relatively unscathed, and I get to enjoy them.

I don’t, however, have ‘gender gloss’

The gender stuff is still grating. Nynaeve and Elayne literally join a circus at one point and spend a tedious few hundred pages feeling very strongly about the low cut of their dresses. The exiled Aes Sedai continue to treat their students appallingly, with chores and punishments and zero respect or reward. Every second conversation is a man saying how difficult women are to understand (even Lan! Oh Lan, I expected better) or a woman saying how ‘wool-headed’ men are. Also, Leane – the right-hand woman to the former leader of the world – teaching herself how to manipulate men by flirting… *HEADDESK* (as Tor reviewer Leigh would say).

More and more it seems that Robert Jordan really wants his books to be respectful of women but just struggles to work out what a world like that would look like.

Still, despite all this, the girls do get to go and do brilliant stuff. Nynaeve is so, so wonderful – once you get past all the dress-fretting and the blushing and the scolding and braid-tugging etc. And this brings me to the next section.

Oh, the wonderfulness

After slogging through the interminable middle 500 pages of this novel, you’re rewarded with a cracking finale. Nynaeve engages in the kind of morally-instructive struggle that makes the Harry Potter novels shine – she faces her fears and is terrified, but gets on with things anyway. She PWNS Moghedien (had to think for a while to remember the name – what sort of author calls four main female characters names as similar as Elayne, Moiraine, Morgase and Moghedien anyway?) and is so smart and wonderful. And this part ends on such a great note – with her working out how to get out Moghedien out of Tel’aran’rhiod without letting go of her.

There’s the stuff with Rand and that Forsaken guy, and Moiraine and Lanfear, and Mat (great scene, with Mat trying to leave during the battle and ending up getting more and more enmeshed). But Nynaeve is the hero and I love her. (Also want to punch her half the time.)

The matter of the middle 500 pages

A digression: I recently wrote a short story myself. The word limit was 500 words, but my draft ran to 800. I showed a friend who is a much more experienced and talented writer than me, and she showed me some tricks to cut out the chaff: rewrite dialogue as description; cut out stuff the reader can fill in for themselves; only include anecdotes if they further the story. Bang: 300 words gone from an already concise story, and a much better story remaining.

I’d love to try this exercise on the Robert Jordan books. I wonder how short you could make the books while still retaining all the events and imagery. I think at least 500 pages could go without a reader missing them: the multiple visits to the dream world; the repetitive discussions of Aiel politics and custom; the endless sewing of dresses.

In the end, though, I’m going to keep reading. I want to know what happens, and I care enough about Nynaeve, Elayne, Egwene and Moiraine to find out what they do next. Rand, though – whatever.


This book was mostly read while camping at Myall Lakes National Park



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