Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Review: "Knife of Dreams" by Robert Jordan

[Edited post: I have been following the Wheel of Time fantasy series of books since the 5th or 6th installment back in the 1990s. When I purged most of my old blog posts, I decided that most of my review of Knife of Dreams could stay... mainly because it took another four years for the series to continue after the untimely death of Robert Jordan! I edited this post to remove some coarse verbiage and memetic mutation. This is a spoiler-free review.]

Four Steps to Writing Success:
1. Design a fantasy plot that's mostly cribbed from Lord of the Rings, Caligula, and Danielle Steel smut novels
2. Write it into a series of books that are 1000 pages each but have no plot advancement
3. ???
4. Profit!

I recently finished Knife of Dreams, the 11th installment of Robert Jordan's macroepic The Wheel of Time. After four books slogging through a tangled web of plot arcs, I am quite pleased to see Jordan right the ship and put things back on track for a conclusion.

Back in 2003, Book Ten, Crossroads of Twilight, was easily the worst in the series. And that's saying something; I'm looking at you, Book Eight, Path of Daggers. But there was effectively no plot advancement in book ten. No Forsaken died. No characters made major growth or accomplishments. No battles were decisively won or lost. A great many things were hung in the balance, as it were, but it was frolic without a payoff. Robert Jordan had created so many characters and plot threads it bordered on the pointless. No; it crossed that border soundly. Internet forumers demanded that Jordan kill off two characters before introducing any one newcomer. It took five chapters, five, for Elayne and Nynaeve to take a bath and get dressed. I am not making this up. Read it for yourself. (The sequence served as a narrative structure for Jordan to infodump status updates on several different plot subarcs via what were effectively talking heads.)

After the plotlessness of book eight, the savory morsels doled out all too infrequently in book nine, and the howling vacuum of book ten, I and everyone else I knew had our minds made up to give up on the series and read novels which, for all their flaws, actually feature plots with conclusions. Terry Goodkind and George R.R. Martin had come to our rescue, promising decisive action, conflict resolution, romantic consummation, and most importantly, death, death, death!!! Jordan had consigned the three protagonists, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, the characters about whom readers cared most, off into some forgotten corner of the story. The frustration was just too much.

Yet, for all our haughty claims of having dismissed Jordan's bloated magnum opus, we all came back, drawn like 18-year-old co-eds to the sloppy guitar stylings of Jack Johnson. It was like a train wreck: no matter how horrible, we just couldn't look away. And so I dove with fatalistic indifference into Book Eleven, the Knife of Dreams.

It's about time.

Halfway into the book I was ready to hurl it into a dumpster. Not only had nearly nothing taken place, but the few choice cutlets Jordan had chosen to dole out really weren't the ones which had an impact on the primary plotlines. Right when I was about to lose consciousness entirely, the entire world exploded. Long-forgotten plotlines roared to life. Magnificent battles erupted. Amazing deeds of derring-do were done. Romances flowered, hatred deepened, and revenge was exacted upon those who deserved it. Unknown friends were discovered among the cast; hidden enemies were revealed from the same. Loyalty was redeemed, and betrayal punished. Long-suffering heroes were exalted, while arrogant villains received far overdue comeuppance.

In short, while I wouldn't say Jordan made up for everything since Lord of Chaos, he at least is firmly back on track again, and if the final book [Ed: now being released as a trilogy of books, due to length] makes Tar'mon Gai'don anywhere near as cool as its opening salvoes are in the current book, there just might be hope for Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time after all.

Jordan once quipped that he would be writing "until they nail my coffin shut." We can hope that it will be a long time yet to come before he is tested on that promise, because there is so very much story still left to tell. Will Rand ever halt his descent into madness? Will Aviendha accept her role as a Wise One in time to help Rand in the Last Battle? How will Cadsuane, Alivia, and Verin help Rand... or do the opposite? Will Egwene ever restore the White Tower? What will Mat do about the Seanchan after everything that happened with Tuon? Has Perrin truly thrown away his axe and picked up his hammer for good? Will Lan meet his destiny in battle? And what about the thousand other minor plots remaining?

Time will tell. In the meanwhile, Knife of Dreams is the best installment in the Wheel of Time series in years, and I suggest savoring it.

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