Monday, June 29, 2009

The Shadow Rising Read-through #1- Seeds of Shadow... and of so many other things

Seeds of Shadow... and of so many other things

by Dominic

Those who've known me for some time know I not only love but admire The Shadow Rising.

I was told about The Wheel of Time on an unrelated message board, during a discussion of various themes I liked in fiction and how I had a weakness for the really long series with a lot of details and complexities that make a secondary world feel like real history, and a huge cast and many, many storylines - and how alas no Fantasy writer seemed to write a kind of Fantasy version of War and Peace, or better yet, like Alexandre Dumas' fun historical novels, his more intricate stuff like the third volume of the Musketeers (the 1300 pages one that got split into several volumes in English) or Joseph Balsamo. Alas, the person who urged me to read The Eye of the World, while being dead on with this recommendation, failed to mention there was a kind of massive three books prologue before really getting there. I've struggled to finish TEOTW, multiple attempts over a year or so. I didn't quite like it enough to go on, but the prologue of TGH stacked at the end of my edition - a prologue extremely reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas' opening to Joseph Balsamo (where mysterious members of a secret society are summoned to meet their Grand Master in the isolated ruins of a gothic castle) made me curious. As I hate not to wait the next volume because it's not in store, I picked TDR too at the same time. That was a good thing, because if I have a lukewarm opinion of The Great Hunt now, I was really annoyed by it the first time around, and would not have bought TDR... but since I had it already.... The Dragon Reborn got my hopes again that maybe the person who recommended the series to me was right after all.

And then there was The Shadow Rising. That was at last the series I was looking for. Over a decade later, I still hold book four as one of Jordan's masterpieces. There are many parts of the series I like better further down the line, but as a whole The Shadow Rising is outstanding in many ways. This read-through will let me elaborate on why I love this book so much and why I especially admire Jordan's writing in this one.

For this post, I'll look into the prologue that isn't a prologue, Seeds of Shadow.

Jordan may have decided to call it 'chapter one', but Seeds of Shadow has some of the characteristics of what the WoT prologues would become by the late series, and left behind the style of the first three. TSR is so far the only book that doesn't have a 'real' prologue.

One of the things I love most in Jordan's work is his use of multiple POVs and how he gives voice to very secondary characters at need. I love how he used this device to really expand the scope of the story from the more traditionally 'epic' adventures of the main characters to create this vast tapestry in the image of his Pattern, the chronicle of the end of an era and civilization, accomplished not only by deconstructing the hero persona, bringing it down the pedestal the hero is placed on in classic epics, to enrich it with all sort of more mundane and personal matters that are typical of serials and chronicles, but also through vignettes from all around the world via minor and less minor POV, more or less biased and sometimes conflicting, always very partial (a literary style that is a direct heir to the tradition of the large scope 19th century serials, especially the historical ones, that really made it popular. Over time, it has become very common in many genre literatures, from the international thrillers to Fantasy, and it's a storytelling style still looked down by a lot of the mainstream lit. people). The first three books didn't have this feel so much - multiple POVs were mostly used to drive fragments of a single main storyline forward, even TDR remains a kind of interstitial book for this: it still leads to a reunion of all the storylines in Tear.

Seeds of Shadow makes us dive right back into the surroundings of Tar Valon, and as often in these intros, Jordan takes the opportunity to slip in metaphors and symbolism in his descriptions. In this one, he brings back the metaphor he had used in EOTW, of bridges over water as Spokes and the River has the True Source making the Wheel turn around its axis (the Island itself, the spoke currently in the water is the seventh, the ongoing Age) - and this time he gives us the 'key' to this image right off the bat: people say the Wheel of Time turns around Tar Valon and the Tower is the axis on which Tar Valon itself turns.

The "dark fang" of Dragonmount reaches to the sky and barely casts a shadow on the Island around sunset. Dragonmount is already smoking, a hint of danger and of the Taint on saidin. Dragonmount is fire and earth, Tar Valon is described as aerial and in the middle of water, both are tied through the haunting spirit of the Dragon, both swept by the winds of time on which the smokes of Dragonmount ride. Dragonmount and Tar Valon form together the old Aes Sedai symbol, inseparable, yet apart. These images will return, with complements and variations, as the Last Battle approaches - RJ will evoke them again in the intro paragraph of Knife of Dreams.

Jordan also brings back the image of a fireplace in a hall, which he used in EOTW to create an association between the white-washed Winespring Inn, built on a first-storey of river stones (like an island) and the center of Emond's Field, and the White Tower(completed with ruins nearby and a massive oak tree offering shade, the Dragonmount allusion), where Egwene was born as surely as Rand was born on the slopes of Dragonmount. In Emond's Field, Jordan had the village council of seven (ie: the Sitters) sit and debate of the affairs of their small world in front of the fireplace (the Flame, ie: the Amyrlin). RJ even partially assigned ajahs to these men (it's typical for him to stop one or two elements short, otherwise it would become too obvious and intrusive to the storytelling): grumpy Cenn who makes all sorts of dire predictions (which turn out right, though he's off in his interpretation!) disapproving of everything and most of all the women's leader Nynaeve - and who Bran didn't trust for the top of his Inn, preferring tiles to thatch is the Red, and also a mirror of Elaida the foreteller herself; Bran and his books are the Brown; the old soldier still ready to take up arms at need - Tam the Green); the man who lives out of the village and is concerned with matters of the Wheel...patiently grinding white flour for everyone (Jon Thane the miller, the White), the blacksmith afraid of blood (the Yellow - especially that blacksmiths are associated to magical powers and healing in myth and legends) etc. In TSR Jordan gives us the key to the image of the fireplace in the hall, through a metaphor. He begins by mentioning the Amyrlin as the leader of the Tower and then compares this Aes Sedai power to a grand fireplace in a Hall that one can be proud of but that it isn't the same as desiring to go right through the flames.

One last important image RJ offers us also repeats an allusion from TEOTW, where he has the tiled roof of the Inn reflect the sun. Here the Tower reflects the Sun like a beacon. Combined with the silver and white colours of Tar Valon (used notoriously for Lanfear), Jordan gives us the fundamental association of the White Tower and the city to the Moon, and the Dragon is associated to the Rising Sun, who comes with the dawn, the Prince of Dawn, Lord of the Morning whose light the Moon reflects and perpetuates through the night. Together, Sun and Moon are the essence of the light. It isn't a gratuitous imagery Jordan put in the 'prologue': the Sun and Moon - their complementarity and antagonism, the fact the Moon can eclipse the Sun 'in her anger', the fact the Sun outshines the moon at dawn etc. becomes a central theme of The Shadow Rising, the book in which the 'newly rising Moon' character (Egwene) begins her training as a daughter of the Night to shine in the long night as it's about to set on The White Tower and the World, the book in which solar imagery multiplies even more markedly around Rand (he who comes with the Dawn) while his 'solar god' powers increases accordingly, and he outwits the 'Old Moon' (Lanfear) who would like to reverse the cycle and go back to their youth - when the Sun loved her, but of course she can't reverse the flow of Time (and the Old Moon will soon die, in the city of the Rising Sun). There will come a time when there's only Egwene to bring the Sun's light into the long night as he "sleeps", but for now the Rising Sun is just born - outshining her, Siuan and Elaida. Siuan who wanted to guide the Sun falls down in this book. Elaida, the Red Bloody Moon who pretends to be the Sun is setting herself up for a harsh lesson down the line. Egwene goes on to learn the World of Dreams, somewhat envious yet disapproving of the Sun's Light. A major difference between the two Daughters of the Night is that, as the Sun begins its rise, Egwene has realised the Sun is her brother, not her lover. They free each other, with no resent or hard feelings - no hatred either of the 'solar' goddesses at his side (Elayne and Aviendah), who are her friends. Her path begins in this book in complete opposition to her Shadow's counterpart Lanfear.

In these few intro paragraphs, RJ's prose is elegant and fluid, the allusions have become more meaningful and better flowing with the storytelling, less intrusive. Jordan finally came fully into his style in this book, and unlike many writers enamoured with symbolic elements, he doesn't push them or make deciphering them a sine qua non condition to understand his story, he just repeats them often, uses variations, knowing some of it will sink in with the readers. From hereon, this will become characteristic of the way he uses symbolism, imagery and metaphors in WOT, as a support for some of his themes, another layer of 'the big pattern' the story forms rather than the key to his novels (à la James Joyce or Alfred Jarry, to cite extreme examples).

RJ even managed to make us go back an instant to the Dragonmount prologue, reminding us of how and where LTT died in that chapter. He then echoes the prologue of The Great Hunt with the excellent Min scenes. She is cloaked and hooded among strangers in a great hall, disguised and using a new name and trying to hide her real identity, observing and commenting on the others around while attendants in white roam around (the novices and Accepted, replacing the Zomoran), even comparing the Tower to the Pit of Doom while waiting her turn for an audience with the Leader, seeing all sorts of dire images on the way (and from Siuan she will get all sort of unpleasant and secret orders, like Bors got from Ishamael). Ba'alzamon appeared masked and up in the air, Min will rather see Siuan naked on the ground.

The only irritant for me with the early chapters, even by book four, came from RJ's anxiety over the possibility Tor would be forced to let the early books go out of print that compelled him to clutter the beginnings of his books with 'infodumps' in the POVs bringing the readers up to speed with all that happened before. Thankfully, he hated having to do that and the popularity of the series made him abandon the device as soon as he could. More interestingly, by book four he has become a real master at foreshadowing. He was good enough before, though some of it was too transparent, like all the Arthurian references.

The Min scenes are full of good foreshadowing. There's this reference to men who think losing an hand is a fair bargain to avoid something they deem worse. There are these early references to the fact Egwene, Nynaeve or Elayne could have to face the headsman (later this foreshadowing will focus more and more on Egwene). We have Gawyn rushing into things (like a boar), frightening Min. Jordan will keep building these boar-like (his sigil) characteristics in the book. We get a clue of the Seanchan's return through a viewing that doubles up as a red herring to hide the real nature of the threat Min sees around (while being foreshadowing of the Seanchan attack on the Tower, far away in the future at that point). We have Gawyn mention that he's defeated Hammar, a warder he would kill in the Coup. The scene is also very amusing while foreboding (Min is a good narrator for that sort of things). It may also offer a funny explanation for the origin of Min and her name. Quite the tomboy, Min is forced to train herself to be 'a proper lady'. This calls to mind elements of the plot of the G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion, better known under the theatrical version's title of 'My Fair Lady". Where this becomes interesting is how this play came about. Shaw modelled his tomboy protagonist Elisa on his muse and mistress Florence Farr who also created the part of Elisa on stage (and who also matches Min's physical description, with her short and curly dark hair). Not only was Farr 'quite a number' and a kind of feminist before the time, but she was a member of the notorious Golden Dawn secret society where she was a reputed Seeress, summoning prophetic and symbolic visions. To complete the picture, Farr was also notorious for having shared openly her lover Shaw with other women. Elisa, Farr and Shaw... Elmindreda Farshaw, who learns with amusing difficulties to act the 'Fair Lady'. A very amusing set of coincidences, if they are coincidences (it's also notable Jim Rigney was a theater critic early on).

The POV goes on with the audience with Siuan, who first shows her powers of deduction by puzzling out the threat of a possible Black Ajah takeover yet will remain completely blind to her conclusions later on, fooled by her personal rival Elaida's involvement - and who despite her correct intuitions fails to accept that she won't be able to change the outcome and can only prepare herself for it. It's an amusing mirror of Elaida, who can foretell but interprets everything wrong, yet has the reputation of getting what she wants all too often nonetheless.

Indeed from Siuan we go next to Elaida, in a very neat little scene that paints her as the possible threat to Siuan, re introduces us to Alviarin with veiled clues she may be the most dangerous of the two. Alviarin remains one of my favourite Black Sisters so far. With her, the Black Ajah really got more interesting at last. With the two sections, RJ also finally made AS politics more important to the series, in a version already more polished than the somewhat simplistic notions he could put in TGH - and another point that makes Seeds of Shadows so good is that all those seeds do grow later in the books. Very good use by Jordan of the minor character of the novice Sahra in those scenes as well, preparing the stage for that chill scene of her death where the looming threat to Min and the Tower will suddenly become all the more real and imminent. Jordan carried out this storyline brilliantly through the book, with an amazingly small number of scenes.

From all sorts of new prophecies, Jordan jumps to the fulfillment of a Dream by Ewgene introduced in TDR and that she had rejected as a nightmare sparked by missing home: the threat to the Two Rivers, with the arrival there of Padan Fain and Bornhald. Very nice balance in the Bornhald POV - Jordan managed to contrast him well with Fain's madness and to make him appear almost reasonable in comparison, making his extremism later in the book all the more effective. One more time Jordan introduces a red herring that hides real foreshadowing. He has Fain here mention his interest in Tar Valon, which won't have anything to do with the Tower Coup, but will play itself out in the next book. Nice brief re introduction of the Tinkers in that scene as well.

The chapter concludes with what for me is one of Suroth's best scenes. A device to introduce elements that will play out in the girls' storyline with Egeanin, it is a final red herring about the threat to TV that is actually foreshadowing for something else ('dealing with the Aes Sedai', the Tower attack)that will very likely play itself out in The Gathering Storm. Nice little bit of symbolism, by having the Seanchan hold an island. One element that pleased me a lot with this scene is that Jordan managed to 'turn the Seanchan around' with it, so to speak. While changing nothing to the fundamentals introduced earlier, Suroth is already here a far more polished and sophisticated character, less 'over the top' than Turak in The Great Hunt. Beside introducing the 'mystery' of some dire knowledge Suroth has gained (that sul'dam are all potential channellers) that will be resolved in part here and in more details later in the book, Jordan managed to pile up a great deal of little hints about Suroth and the Return that will play themselves out only later, much later for some of them. He pits them against the Sea Folk already, and has Suroth dismiss them as a non-threat facing damane - a belief that will cost her in Ebou Dar, but also interesting foreshadowing about the possible fate of the Sea Folk raker that would carry the girls. After it left the girls in Tanchico, Wavedancer was heading for Cantorin, straight into Suroth's hand. We all know how much Jordan liked to bring back minor characters - did he intended to bring the Windfinder Jorin back as a damane in AMOL?

The chapter also introduces the Death Watch Guard, and new details about the Imperial system that add much depth and interest to the Seanchan culture already. A sly mention of the Court of the Nine Moons plants the seed for the reader about the Aelfinn's answer to Mat, completing the previous passing mention (probably forgotten by most readers, however - I sure did myself on first read) of the favoured imperial daughter and heir Tuon, by Turak. Jordan also introduced here the notion of something the Aes Sedai must have to control Rand, foreshadowing what Amico tells the girls later. This will even resurface, like so many things planted in The Shadow Rising, as the so-called 'male a'dam' in Knife of Dreams. This scene of course complements Rand's own visit to Seanchan and his keeping of the spearhead as a reminder of a possible Seanchan return (and this 'scepter' will incidentally be destroyed, in Knife of Dreams again, also when the loss of an hand, to spare something Rand sees as a much greater price: losing Min). The Suroth POV also introduces 'the second captured AS' whom Suroth - who has much problem handling Westlands damane - would have liked to keep, but who will end up as an excellently trained damane - Tuon's Mylen - yet another COT/KOD element seeded in TSR. The chapter also plants the notion that the Seanchan believe the Dragon closely associated with Tar Valon. That conclusion will be much strengthened, most likely, by events in KOD, with Perrin (who was with a woman who claims to be the Westlands' Paendrag heir!) seen leading Aes Sedai and Asha'man, and Rand surrounded by both and sending back sul'dam and damane to Tuon. How these seeds will play out in Tuon's mind should be interesting...

This prologue-like chapter 1 was fairly short, but it made an excellent and promising opening, and The Shadow Rising would go on to deliver on all these promises.

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