About a year ago, you and I and the rest of the Wheel of Time fan base were eagerly awaiting the release of The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the series, and the first one written in large part by Brandon Sanderson, the relatively unheard-at-the-time fantasy writer who was chosen to complete Robert Jordan's epic. The burning question back then was, "Can Brandon deliver?". The answer was nearly unanimous amongst fans: not only did he deliver a good Wheel of Time book, but he delivered one of the most exciting Wheel of Time books yet. The book was a smash success, and by and large fans everywhere took a deep sigh of relief. In my original review of The Gathering Storm (TGS), I called the book one of the finest in the series, and I stand by that statement.
So now the question has become: can Brandon do it again? Is Towers of Midnight (TofM), the penultimate novel in The Wheel of Time series, as good as--or better-- than its predecessor? Brandon gained fan confidence by writing TGS. The bar has been raised. Does this next novel live up to the hype?
Of course it does. It's an amazing novel.
I've had the privilege of reading it, and I'd like to share some thoughts regarding it with you.
But first, I'm once again obliged to give a few disclaimers. My involvement with the WoT franchise is deeper than most fans. More and more, rather than being a passive observer, I'm finding myself actually helping to create content for the Wheel of Time (via my involvement in other parts of the franchise such as games, movies, etc). In this case, I was one of Brandon Sanderson's beta readers. This means that the version of the book I'm reviewing was a version that was still incomplete, and was towards the end of its editing process. More importantly, I provided feedback, both technical and creative, which may have had an impact on the writing. (I say 'may' because I honestly don't know yet whether some or any of my suggestions and feedback were taken.) In addition, I happen to run a large WoT fan site and therefore find myself promoting these books on a daily basis. I've had business dealings with Tor (although I have never been paid to do any of this and I do not accept money for promoting WoT). I'm not here to sell books. I am here to represent you, and share my honest feelings regarding this new book. I realize I can never be truly impartial, but I'll sure do my best. Like you, I'm a fan first, and always will be.
So with all that said, let's cut to it. Towers of Midnight is an outstanding novel, but I wouldn't say it was the finest in the series, nor can I say I personally enjoyed it more than its predecessor. But don't let that fool you. As http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/09/the-wheel-of-time-towers-of-midnight-advance-review" target="news">Leigh Butler wrote in her recent review, these books are all like family, and so of course I loved it overall. And so will you. It's just that for me, as an individual reader, I personally enjoyed the tighter focus of the previous novel over this one. Viewed in terms of the whole series, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that TofM fits into the series and successfully sets the stage for the final, explosive novel.
Let's take a closer look.
"To understand something", Perrin notes early in the book, "you have to know its parts." Well, Towers of Midnight is made up of a lot of complicated parts. It makes The Gathering Storm seem simplistic by comparison. The two of them are as different as The Great Hunt is from Lord of Chaos. This surprised me. I expected Brandon to deliver a novel that was just like the last one; to just continue with the same pacing and style as before. But he didn't. Instead, he did what I feel was the right thing and followed the needs of the story. TofM is darker, grittier, and filled with a lot more external conflict than TGS. The prose is consistent with its predecessor, but overall the book has the feel of the later WoT novels. More viewpoints. A wider scope. I loved reading about the increasing threat to the world; the mounting tide of darkness sweeping across the land.
[begin minor spoilers. Some of you will think these aren't true spoilers, and some of you will complain if I don't label them. So I'm playing it safe.]
In TGS, the primary focus of the book was on Rand and Egwene. It was that intense focus on their dramatic character arcs that made me love that novel so much. Although Rand and Egwene have some important roles to play in ToM, the primary focus shifts over to Mat and Perrin. Perrin has a wonderful arc in this book, even if it is just a tad slow to initially get going. (But hey, nobody ever said anything in WoT was fast, eh? Just chew your food and savor the taste). This is balanced by the fact that Perrin probably has the most action in the book. Well, except for poor Ituralde. The man just can't catch a break can he?
Chief among the aspects of this book that I loved is our favorite gambler. I'm happy to report that Mat is back. In a big way. I give Brandon a lot of credit for listening to feedback from fans who thought Mat's character voice was somewhat "off" in TGS. We'll never know how much of the book was personally written by Robert Jordan before he died, and how much was written by Brandon, but the point is that Mat not only sounds right in most of his chapters, but he is in his finest form. Quite simply, Mat redefines the very meaning of Awesome in this book. He's funny, but in a less slapstick way like he was in TGS. His internalized sarcastic humor is contrasted by the fact that he just bloody cares too much about people around him, and that makes him the old Mat we all know and love.
(If you haven't already heard, you can read the first Mat viewpoint chapter from ToM right here on Dragonmount)
I won't tell you what the best parts of the book were, of course, but I'll tell you that two of them were so good, they'll just shred you to pieces emotionally. Both of them are completely unexpected, and they happen to occur in a series of three back-to-back-to-back chapters. (Well, in the version I read. They may have been re-ordered since I read it in manuscript form) One of the chapters involved Perrin. And no… She's not involved. It's not what you think. So stop guessing.
The other scene that rocked me to read is one that completely embraces the spirit of the whole series. It's the epitome of what makes The Wheel of Time stand apart from all other fantasy series. To say that I was moved by it is an understatement. After reading it, I honestly began to question whether this story will actually have a happy ending or not. I mean, let's face it. Most of us assume the series will conclude with a victory at the Last Battle, with maybe a few heroic deaths along the way, right? Well this sequence I'm talking about proves that even victory can be disaster. It shows that even the most noble of intentions can have a butterfly-effect ripple across the Pattern. The sequence was beautiful to behold, and that alone makes ToM worthy of being on the shelf with your other WoT books.
Ah yes. If you'll excuse some shameless self-promotion, you need to go watch the Towers of Midnight book trailer. Once you've done that, then we can talk about Her.
Yes that plotline is addressed in ToM. But not in any way that resembles the video linked above. (The video was produced before I read the actual book) Some aspects play out as you might expect, but there are a lot of key surprises along the way. I devoured every word, and loved everything to do with it. And of course, it left me wanting more!
One last plot-related item…. Olver. There's a chapter involving him that just breaks my heart. Now maybe it's just me. I'm not talking about a big dramatic scene. (Although it does have another big reveal). Most people might find humor in it. But not me. Maybe I'm just sensitive. Remember what I said earlier about the price of victory? What happens here is both endearing and tragic. On one hand it was logical and inevitable that things would play out this way. On the other hand, I just never saw it coming, and neither will you (not that it will stop you from trying, huh?). I tip my hat to you, Mr. Jordan and Mr. Sanderson. Once again, you've given us a moment that people can debate. For me personally, it'll stick in my gut for a long time.
It occurred to me as I finished this book that this is almost it. After ToM, there's only one more book to go. One last round in the great fight. These characters, this world, they're a part of me. And clearly, they're a part of you and a great many others as well. Some of you are new to the series, and many of you have been reading it for a very long time. Regardless of when we started though, we all see the same looming horizon before us. The inevitable arrival of the Last Battle, and the fabled "Last Chapter" that Robert Jordan spoke of for years. We've reached the sunset of this Age, and after reading ToM, I just don't know how it will end anymore.
This book will always have a special place in my heart. In part for my involvement as a beta reader, in part for the book trailer project, and even for the book's dedication which is a profound and humbling gesture. But mostly, this book will be special to me because it marks the true beginning of the end. Story-wise, the "good guys" are gathered and ready to go. But in fact they're in shambles, just barely held together. But in terms of us, as a community of fans, we are gathered like never before. I'm proud to see our fandom linked in this last year like I've never seen. We all know there's something special about this series, and Towers of Midnight is without a doubt a fine and worthy addition to its ranks. I look forward to riding the storm with you guys one last time to Tarmon Gaidon. One last charge. One last book.
We will meet it with swords raised.
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