Wheel of Time Reread Part 2: The Great Hunt
Before I get started with The Great Hunt, I’d like to remind everyone that there is now a firm-ish release date for A Memory of Light, the last book in the Wheel of Time series. January 8, 2013. That is a little later than I was expecting, but I am much in favor of taking the time to get it right rather than getting it out as fast as possible. No matter how long it takes, I’ll still think it was too long a wait anyway, because I want to be reading it now.
On with the hunt. We start with Rand practicing his sword fighting with Lan. Even an oblique a compliment as Lan telling Rand he is good enough not to stab himself in the foot is, from Lan at least, an indication that Rand is pretty damn good with a blade already. Despite the mistakes she makes leading the boys, Moiraine plays Rand perfectly here. Rand would likely do the opposite of what Moiraine wanted him to do, but at the very least he wants to know where she intends to lead him before he follows. By ignoring him, she gets him to delay his decision. If he doesn’t know what she wants him to do, how can he avoid doing that? In addition, he is so far from home and has just had him world ripped from him completely. Where would he go?
There are two things notable about the Great Hunt. One is the expansion of the scope of the story. The first book was a walking tour of part of the world, and that continues, but there are so many more people, concepts, and societies in this book. It really takes a big step up in complexity from Eye’s “Trollocs are coming, run!” narrative. The second thing is that more so even than the first book, The Great Hunt stands alone as a piece a fiction and not just a small piece of a larger story. Through book 6 they were all complete stories that were part of a larger story, but Hunt takes a theme and explores it throughout the novel.
That theme is choice and the illusion of it. All throughout the book characters have to make choices, important life changing choices or they reflect on choices they have already made. Rand had the choice of leaving Fal Dara between books, but he didn’t. But for Rand, we’ll see, there really is no choice. Central to the Wheel of Time is the concept of The Pattern, the Lace of Ages, that determines and records everything that happens. And since he is the Dragon, he is very important to the Pattern and must fulfill his part.
Here at the beginning we get bits of choices made or being made. We learn of Moiraine’s connection to Siuan, the Amyrlin Seat. That they knew the Dragon was coming and have been trying to find and aid him years. And they are forced to induct Verin into their plotting. Lan, though he puts off Nynaeve for what appear to be noble reasons, still chooses to aid Rand in his meetings with the Aes Sedai. Nynaeve finally chooses the White Tower over returning to Emond’s Field and her role as Wisdom.
There are other undercurrents too. Like the immediate presence of Black Ajah among the Aes Sedai. Liandrin could not have made it clearer that she was evil if she tried, but since it is ingrained into people to trust Aes Sedai then she can still operate in the castle.
Finally, after nearly two hundred pages of plotting, meetings and setting up book and series long concerns we get our inciting incident. Padan Fain escapes and he takes Mat’s dagger and the Horn of Valere with him. So the actual hunt begins.
A brief aside, The Horn of Valere is possible the coolest fantasy maguffin ever. A magical horn that calls all the heroes of history back from the grave to fight one your side? That is exactly the sort of thing fantasies should be filled with. I just wonder which of the heroes of the Horn was Teddy Roosevelt.
Moiraine, despite taking off in for the bulk of the book, manages to play Rand perfectly. She gets him dressed in lord’s clothes and planted as the second behind Ingtar in the search party for the Horn. Meanwhile, he has gotten himself separated from his friends by trying to push them away to avoid hurting them. Ingtar is one of the best secondary characters this series has seen, with a complete, if tragic character arc. His desperation to find the Horn is palpable.
The group, consisting of Rand, Mat, Perrin, Loial and a dozen or so Shienarans hunt Fain southward, being guided by the sniffer Hurin, a character who can smell crime but all but disappears after this book. They are soon joined by Verin. Rand finally tells Mat and Perrin what is up with him, that he can channel and that Moiraine and Siuan are setting him up to a Dragon. This is one of the few times in the series that sharing information between good guys is not immediately helpful.
Back with the girls, Nynaeve goes through the test to become and Accepted of the White Tower, the second of three steps toward being an Aes Sedai. The test involves making her faces her part, present and future in the form of alternate realities and in each of these alternate realities, she must choose the White Tower. She sees her old life gone horribly wrong, must face a recent adversary again and must give up the thing she wants most to advance. It is harrowing, but she does it and definitively chooses to become an Aes Sedai. Also, the girls meet Elayne and Min again and form a fast friendship.
Rand then accidentally activates a Portal Stone, a magical tool that disappears from the series after the protagonists can travel, which is essentially teleporting. He, Loial and Hurin end up in a reflection of the real world, a world where Trollocs defeated Artur Hawkwing and eradicated humanity. It is another possible fate presented to Rand. That in the end evil could win. There they find the immediately suspicious Selene. Protip: if a beautiful woman mysteriously shows up and promises glory, don’t trust her. They eventually get back to the real world, but end up much further along than they should be. Luckily, they are able to double back and steal the Horn and dagger away. Then they make for Cairhien, though Selene mysteriously disappears. Back with the group, Perrin reveals his wolf brother status to Ingtar and poses as a new sniffer to lead them on. Instead of being shunned for his differences, Perrin becomes invaluable. Sharing is nearly always helpful in WoT.
In Cairhien, Rand gets twisted into Daes da’mar, the Game of Houses. He thinks by doing nothing he will discourage it, but even nothing is something in the Game. He also meets Thom again. Thom is now presented with his choice. He can abandon the life he is building for himself in Cairhien and help Rand out again, or he can stay with his new flame. He chooses the girl over Rand.
By the time everyone else shows up, Rand has lost the horn again and his bungling in the Game of Houses has netted him invitations to parties for the two most powerful men in the city, King Galldrian and Lord Barthanes. Which come in handy when Hurin discovers that the Horn was taken to Barthanes’ manor. So the group hastily plans a heist.
At the ball, they find the Horn and Fain already gone through the ways and more dangerous atmosphere than it seemed. Thom ends up helping Rand navigate the intricacies of the court, though he was doing fine on accident. (I really like the exchange between Rand and a married Lady. She tells him that her husband is always gone on business, obviously trolling for some lovin’ and Rand simply relies “You must miss him.” Which she find hilarious, with neither of them really understanding the other.) Their attempts to follow Fain into the Ways is stopped by the Black Wind, which seems to be waiting for them at the entrance.
After another failed attempt to enter a Waygate in a Stedding, Verin and Rand decide to try to use the Portal Stone to follow Fain to Toman’s Head. This works, though not as expected. Instead of transporting them instantaneously to where they want to go, it takes them longer than it would have just to ride, making them live through numerous alternate lives all the time. It shakes many of the group members. Rand lives every life only to see it end with Ba’alzamon declaring victory every time. Mat tries to convince Rand that he would never betray him.
The girls, meanwhile are lured from the White Tower by Liandrin and turned over to the Seanchan, an empire from across the sea that has come to conquer. Egwene and Min are captured, but Elayne and Nynaeve escape.
All the rescue plans come together at once. With Elayne and Nynaeve saving Egwene while Rand and the others retrieve the Horn and dagger, with Mat blowing to Horn to help them defeat the Seanchan. Also, Rand fights Ishamael again, and both are badly hurt. Finally, Rand declares himself the Dragon Reborn, locking himself into the role he must play.
In the end, all the appearances of choice are illusions. Thom chooses not to help Rand, but even the little interaction he has with him ends the life he had hoped to preserve. Dena, his lover, is killed and he must kill in revenge, setting himself up for his eventual reunion with Rand. There is an aside with Lan and Moiraine talking about how he chose to be her Warder, and how there is no going back on that choice. Rand, through the portal stone, realizes that no matter what he must become the Dragon or the world faces annihilation. He still must make that choice himself, but it is clear there is no other
Before this reread The Great Hunt had always been among my least favorite volumes of the series, easily the weakest of the first half. Most of the other times I’ve read it I’ve skipped around, reading the big important parts while avoiding all the interstitial parts. That sort of reading does not do The Great Hunt any favors. It is not a series of scenes, but novel with few if any unnecessary words. A close reading helped me realize how everything ties into the books theme, how everything is about choice, about the illusion of choice and of the consequences of one’s choices.
The first three books of the Wheel of Time are really just the first chapter. Randdoes not really become the Dragon until he draws Callandor at the end of The Dragon Reborn. While not all of the characters fit their development into each books timeline, Rand, the true protagonist, does. Eye of the World is about discovery, where all the characters find out about their destinies, where their lives are all turned upside down. The Dragon Reborn is about them realizing, or at least beginning to realize, those destinies. The Great Hunt, the middle volume, is about them choosing to accept the roles the pattern has forced upon them.
It is also a widening of scope. Nearly all of Eye takes place in Andor, with just the bit at the end in the Blight an exception. There are two Aes Sedai. There are only three POV characters. In The Great Hunt there is much about at least 4 nation states. Instead of 2 Aes Sedai there are at least a dozen. And whileRandis still the primary POV, there are many more small ones. The expansion of scope doesn’t end with this book; this is merely the first step, like with all developments in WoT.
It must be said, the ending of the volume is among the best in the series, right up there with The Dragon Reborn, Lord of Chaos and Winter’s Heart. There is the “five ride forth and four return” infiltration of Seanchan held Falme, withRand’s duel with High Lord Turak. Ingtar finishes one of the most satisfying character arcs in the series, having gone over to the shadow out of despair, thinking that the light had no chance but seeing the Horn as his chance at redemption, only to be inspired byRandto find his own redemption without the Horn. There is Mat actually blowing the Horn of Valere. “The Grave is no bar to my call” the Horn reads, and the legend is proven true. And it ends withRandfighting Ishamael superimposed on the sky, with the fate of humanity seemingly hanging in the balance.
I’m still not sure that the Great Hunt is one of my favorites. It certainly has its strengths, but the first half of the book seems slow past the first read, once all the information is not learning about the world but a primer on the basics. There is still charm to seeing the characters at this early phase, so different than they will become. And thematically it is vital to the story. This is a step that must be taken. Rand and company can’t be forced on their paths; they must choose them themselves, even if the Pattern won’t let the do differently.