Wheel of Time Reread Part 12: The Gathering Storm
It is impossible to discuss The Gathering Storm without noting that it is the first book that Robert Jordan was not able to finish. While he intended to finish the series in just one book after Knife of Dreams, Jordan tragically did not live long enough to do so. His passing was tragic from any point of view; the fate of the series was insignificant in the face of his loss. Still, as a reader I wanted to see the series come to its conclusion. Luckily for readers, Brandon Sanderson was tapped to finish the series in Jordan’s stead. Sanderson is one of the best writers of the fantasy genre working today. I have read and enjoyed nearly every book he’s had published. That being said, he is not Robert Jordan. Whether one finds his writing better or worse than Jordan’s, there is no getting around that it is different.
One of the changes when Sanderson took over was that the last book became the last three books. With all that happens in these last three books, doing it in one looks like it was always a pipe dream. It would, however, fit better structurally. The first six books of the series fit nicely into a pair of trilogies; if the series had been finished in one book after Knife of Dreams, the last six would as well. Books seven through nine do not follow as thematically coherent a trajectory as Rand’s rise and fall from books four through six. Rand is faltering, after his troubles at the end of Lord of Chaos, but he has created a new weapon: the Asha’man. They appear at the end of that book, start out appearing trustworthy and useful before betraying him and showing the effects of the taint. So Rand cleanses the taint. That covers Rand’s journey through those books, seeing first-hand the effects of the taint and dealing with it once and for all. Rand’s journey though the last trilogy, albeit a trilogy that ends up consisting of five books, is his nadir before truly understanding and accepting what it will take from him to be The Dragon. Fixing what made the last part five books instead of three would be difficult. Counting all of Sanderson’s books as one it works, at least for Rand’s story. It is everyone else whose stories don’t quite fit. More than half of Crossroads of Twilight takes place before Winter’s Heart ends. Moving that stuff back, folding the rest of Crossroads back into Knife of Dreams and condensing the last three books into just two would largely fix things.
The change from Jordan to Sanderson was hard to swallow. Especially in light of how many people I heard gushing about how much improved Sanderson’s take was to Jordan’s. I can’t fault someone for liking Sanderson; I like his books an awful lot. His work is creative and inventive and the man is crazy prolific. The Mistborn books are excellent, the Stormlight Archive is a worthy successor to the sort of absurdly large scale fantasy of which The Wheel of Time is the most exceptional example and even his one off and young adult books are good reads. But he is not the same writer as Robert Jordan and I would say for this series a lesser one. At least, coming from the perspective of a Wheel of Time fan he is. Sanderson tends to be more direct and blunt than Jordan; characters were suddenly more open with each other instead of speaking in half-truths and assumptions. Character also go through a slight metamorphoses, some worse than others. Elaida, for instance, goes from being wrongheaded and stubborn to being a complete clown. It is the end of her arc as a character, but in this book she is reduced to just arrogance and megalomania. She is not the worst, though.
It is never clearer that Sanderson is not Jordan than in the few chapters in this book from Mat’s point of view. Jordan’s Mat is funny, but not from any conscience effort on his part. Jordan’s Mat doesn’t see himself as a funny guy, what makes him so fun is his complete lack of self-awareness. Mat has no clue that other people find him hilarious. Under Sanderson’s pen, Mat is doing some kind of tired shtick with Talmanes. You can almost feel all of his companions rolling their eyes at every word he says. It is painful. It isn’t just Mat trying to be funny, but Mat failing to be funny. The biggest flaw is that Mat’s stuff just isn’t amusing. It falls completely flat.
Luckily, one adjustment Sanderson made when splitting this last book was to sideline most of Mat’s and Perrin’s stuff to Towers of Midnight and have The Gathering Storm focus on Rand. Rand had been essentially sidelined for the two books previous to this. He had a few impactful chapters in KoD and a few forgettable ones in CoT; in The Gathering Storm he is again the protagonist. He had been teetering since Lord of Chaos, after the kidnapping. The madness that is the inevitable end for male channelers is starting to affect him. No longer feeling safe even in his palaces, he jumps from front to front in his attempts to combat the Forsaken and the Seanchan. And he continually build up this idea that he can’t harm women or allow them to be harmed, even trained fighters like the Aiel Maidens; turning it into a kind of especially destructive chivalry. It becomes less of a principle and more of complex. The Gathering Storm has Rand finally reaching the nadir of his fall in what is easily one of the darkest moments in the entire series. The male a’dam, the collar that lets one channeler control another, is placed on his neck by no one less than the most sadistic of the Forsaken. It was not strictly a surprise when it happened; all the pieces for this tragedy were in place. Things like secreting away the a’dam instead of getting rid of it or keeping Semirhage captive instead of just doing away with her. That is stuff that the characters should have known, there is more that the readers knew, like the fact that Elza was Black Ajah. Everything just goes wrong in the worst way possible.
Knowing that the end is coming soon makes the outcome all the more uncertain. Yes, it was easy to guess that Rand would get out of his predicament, there are two more books to go, but how much damage would done before then? The complete hopelessness when Rand is forced to strangle Min is crushing, because there could be nothing more tragic than the very real possibility at that time that he would kill her. Fortunately, thanks to some divine, or infernal, intervention Rand manages to free himself from his bonds and do away with Semirhage. Even more than the supposed victory at Dumai’s Wells, this battle left its mark on Rand. After this, all the light has gone out of Rand. It is laid on rather heavily, but Rand is now completely broken. It is disturbing seeing just how wrong things go. Everything is visibly coming unraveled and Rand is now fully a source of the problems instead of a solution. Rand gets darker and darker, even his closest allies Min and Nynaeve must turn to outside help to try to save him. But Rand’s salvation does not come from anyone’s help, but from within. He sits on Dragonmount, toying with the idea of finally giving in to Ishamael/Moridin and destroying all of creation. What calls him back is part of the very thing that nearly drove him to do it, the voice of Lew Therin he hears thanks to the Dark Ones taint. Together they find what they need to see the value in creation.
While Rand hits his lowest ebb in this book, the other major storyline is Egwene at her most triumphant. Captured in the White Tower, her rebel Aes Sedai still besieging the city from the outside, she starts her own siege from the inside. By simple strength of character she shows the completely divided sisters inside what they need to be. It helps that Elaida has been reduced to a complete fool, worried only about her increasingly tenuous grip on power and reality. For a character that had become almost as unenjoyable as Rand over the back half of the series and for much less reason, Egwene really shines here. It helps to see others react to her strength, showing why she deserves the power she now wields. And for a character who is in captivity, she manages to accomplish an awful lot. The crowning moment might be in the Seanchan raid, when she almost single handedly saves the White Tower from complete disaster.
Her second accomplishment, nearly ridding the Aes Sedai of the Black Ajah, came to her with the great help from one of the best minor characters in the series. Since The Great Hunt, when Verin stepped in for Moiraine for most of the book, she has been an intriguing figure. She was up to things that usually seem to be for the good of the Light, but using tactics that were decidedly underhanded. Here we get an explanation that was surprisingly simple but also somewhat unexpected. Verin joined the Black Ajah by mistake, wanting to study them but not herself being a darkfriend. So she played her role, all while keeping tabs on the others in the sect. Egwene is able to use her information, after one of the bravest and most touching moments in the series, to clean out a large portion of the Black Sisters. Including Sheriam, who had been given a fake-out Min viewing to fool people off of her trail, one of the only times that Jordan seems to have inserted information with the deliberate goal of misleading readers.
The Gathering Storm is easily one of the weaker books in the series; Sanderson doesn’t quite have a feel for many of the characters, though he does get better in the subsequent books. It is also one of the most focused books in the series. There are a few chapters of Mat and Perrin, but the book hinges almost entirely on Egwene and Rand, as well as the supporting characters in their orbits. The whole book feels like a weird shadow of the rest of the series, the darkest book thematically and also one where everything else seems not quite right.