Wheel of Time Reread Book 11 Knife of Dreams
I haven’t touched a Wheel of Time book since about five days after A Memory of Light was released. After I finished reading that, I put the series down and have barely looked at it since. Honestly, I haven’t read much fantasy since then, or at least not from that branch of the genre. Sure, I’ve read Curse of Chalion and Words of Radiance, among scant others, since then but it wasn’t until very recently that I have truly gotten back into things. Coming back to the series, a series I doubt I’d went a year without reading a least a couple of the books in more than a decade, is a little strange, especially one that is now finished after years spent speculating about what was to come next. It is comfortable, familiar, but also melancholy. Before, all of these characters were full of potential. Anything could happen in the next book. Now, that potential is gone, there is the reality of what happened at the end of the series. It doesn’t really make the books any less enjoyable; it merely makes reading them a somewhat different experience.
Knife of Dreams was the last book that Jordan completed and is a return to form after a trio or so of books that seem to have, in some ways, gotten away from him. Each of Books 7-10 are important chapters in the series, but none of them were as complete of works as the preceding six books were. After splitting the Gordian knot that was Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams hits the ground running. Characters that were mired in interminable storylines start to finally move forward. Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight were largely middles, with few resolutions. Knife of Dreams contains those endings. I’ve titled this post after the title of the prologue, “Embers Falling on Dry Grass”, one of Jordan’s great turns in the chapter titles. It is clearly evocative of what is going on, not just in the title but in this whole volume. The little sparks are finding the fuel to turn into great fires. The idea of Tarmon Gaidon, the last battle, has been paramount to the series all the way through. It has always been coming. But until Knife of Dreams it never felt truly close. In this book there is the constant feeling that events are spiraling increasingly out of control. The anarchy has spread beyond just Rand’s doing. The endgame is upon the world.
What is most exciting is that from the first scene things are happening. Only a fool would argue that nothing happens in the previous books, but little of what does is definitive. Outside of some really big things, like cleansing the taint, it all feels like maneuvering and small potatoes. Here, the book opens with Galad, a longtime character that was all potential and no action, finally getting involved. He challenges and beats the Whitecloak leader Valda to a duel for the rape and murder of his mother, not knowing that he is only half right. Then it jumps to Ituralde, a name that has been around forever but wasn’t seen until book 10 (I think) who springs his trap on the Seanchan, setting up raids in numerous places across hundreds of miles, living up to his reputation as a great general. The prologue also refreshes the situations with the Seanchan leaders, the Aes Sedai Black Ajah hunters and Egwene after being captured by the Tower Aes Sedai. It immediately tosses a lot of balls in the air which are followed up in the first few chapters by adding more. Perrin is moving in on the Shaido as Faile attempts to escape, Mat continues his journey northward, away from the Seanchan. And Rand is trying to make a deal with the Seanchan.
While it doesn’t exclude others entirely, Knife of Dreams in many ways pulls things back to its trio of male heroes, Rand, Mat and Perrin. Rand’s part in this book is smaller than the others, but no less momentous. He is further breaking down from the strain, the effects of the taint and his own hang ups. More and more, the Lews Therin voice in his mind is gaining power. Set in motion in his few appearances in Crossroads of Twilight, Rand meets with the Daughter of the Nine Moons, who readers know is currently with Mat. It turns out this Daughter of the Nine Moons is the Forsaken Semirhage. In the ensuing conflict Rand loses a hand. That loss furthers some of Rand’s mythological allusions, specifically his connection to the Norse God of War Tyr, who sacrificed his own hand to subdue the wolf Fenrir. It is not really a turning point for Rand, just another step in the gradual wearing down he faces in the back half of the series. Since Lord of Chaos, in each battle Rand seems to lose another piece of himself, though usually not quite as literally as here.
Mat, meanwhile, is still in his escape from the Seanchan, as well as in the middle of his courtship of Tuon. Tuon is a fun character, coming from a completely foreign culture that the completely unself-conscious Mat cannot understand. The Seanchan are one of Jordan’s greatest creations in this series, a wrench in the works and a completely vile foreign power coming in to mess things up. Their whole empire is built on almost fetishized slavery and rituals of order. Slavery for the Seanchan can be a hereditary condition or a punishment for failure or the natural state for anyone capable of channeling. The channelers are brainwashed and convinced that they are no better than animals, that they are dangerous if not leashed. It is disgusting. Then there are several other types of slavery, from hereditary servant to the Imperial family’s personal guard. Seanchan society is a nightmare. Yet Tuon, the person responsible for leading these people, comes off as entertaining. Likeable, even. A lot of that, though, falls to Mat, who makes any other character entertaining. Exploring the differences of high and low society with Mat and Elayne was a lot of fun a few books ago, but it is taken to an even greater extreme here. Tuon is interested in Mat thanks to prophesies, the same reason he believes he must wed her, but Mat doesn’t know that. He has accepted that they will be married and is just trying to get to know her. She is doing the same thing with him. This is one of the most fun storylines in the whole series, with Mat getting to play many roles. He is, as always, the fool. Here he is trying to herd cats with his uneasy alliance of soldiers, willing captives and Aes Sedai. Once they leave the traveling show and meet with The Band, Mat must plays the general, leading a short brilliant campaign against the Seanchan to clear the way out of Altara to Andor. Having Tuon realize that she has only seen one small side of him once they meet back up with The Band is another great moment. It is always fun to see the protagonist though other’s eyes and Tuon’s growing realizations about Mat are incredibly well done. The whole arc here is entertaining, ending with Mat and Tuon finally married, but separated.
Then there is Perrin, who as of the last book has finally cast off the axe and chosen the Hammer, forges together an alliance with the Seanchan and the Prophet’s forces to save Faile. Perrin realize how gross the Seanchan are, but he is single minded enough to not care if it helps him get his wife back. For all of Perrin’s lack of faith in himself as a leader, he has a way of binding people to him and building something. That is what Perrin is; he is the builder to Rand’s destroyer. His interactions with General Tylee of the Seanchan is the first large scale piece or cooperation between the Seanchan and the rest of the world. Egeanin working with Elayne and Nynaeve was a blip and Mat and Tuon barely count. It also shows the decadence of the Shaido. Always considered a little lesser than the other Aiel, here they have completely failed. They are shown to be largely drunk and indolent. Even those who seem to keep the Aiel ways, like Therava, are just as interested as the rest in indulging their baser desires, it just that Therava’s appetites are less immediately apparent. This storyline for Perrin, essential to his and Faile’s growth as it is, is never truly a good one. It takes way too long and is too disconnected to everything else.
Lastly, Knife of Dreams also finally finishes the interminable Andor civil war. In her own courageous yet thoughtless way, Elayne bumbles into decisive victory. I know she is a character that many do not enjoy, but I am not among them. Elayne is what she is and, unlike many others, never really learns her lessons. From the start of the series to the end, she does grow. She changes from a spoiled princess to a competent, yet still spoiled, Queen. She does become a better leader and a better politician, but she never loses the recklessness that makes her infuriating and enjoyable. Really, even her growth as a leader is mostly just her putting the lesson’s she’s learned to good use. This volume has Elayne simultaneously at her best and her worst. While she skillfully conducts the war, she also completely bungles searching out the Back Ajah Aes Sedai, getting several of her allies killed. It is the third long running plotline, along with Perrin’s and Mat’s, that Jordan finally brings to close in this book.
The relatively focused nature of Knife of Dreams makes it probably the best book in the second half of this series. The somewhat muddled nature of the previous four volumes has been wiped away. The Wheel of Time, from this book, is a boulder rolling downhill. With the end more clearly in sight, things begin to accelerate. Like the title of the prologue suggests, small sparks have started a fire that will not be put out.