Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Storm is Coming! #1: Looking into TGS' Tears from Steel

Today, we begin a new series of posts under the banner The Storm is Coming!, building up to the release of The Gathering Storm on October 27th. In the vein of the Read-throughs, these posts will bring you a bit of everything, from review, analyse or commentary on the TGS material being released before the book (chapter one and the prologue that goes on sale on September 17h) to whatever we can come up with from the earlier books we think should be brought to attention before reading the new one.

The first of these posts deals with our comments on chapter one.

Looking into TGS' Tears from Steel, Part One

Instead of coming up with a classic/formal review of Tears from Steel, chapter one of The Gathering Storm, Linda and I have decided to offer you our detailed comments about the chapter in the form of a dialogue, a cleaned up and edited sum of our exchanges about the chapter over the last days.

It's very hard to make a formal review of anything from a single chapter, and it seemed a bit unfair to Brandon to attempt it, all the more since this chapter is presumably, at least from what I remember him saying on his Blog long ago about the 'Wind opening", some of his earliest writing on the "A Memory of Light" project.

With this post you get a sneak peek at the sort of long discussions (over 500 pages in 2006 alone!) Linda and I have been holding with each other for years (don't worry, though - we'll spare you all the news about kids, bonsaï and Japanese food, squirrels, embroidery and quilting and Canadian and Australian politics, or weather, and stick to the Wheel of Time topic!).

This post discusses everything from chapter one of The Gathering Storm, available for free upon registration (also free) at

It contains all sort of spoilers for the chapter, so if you haven't read it yet, this is one post you may want to skip altogether.

Click here to expand the rest of this post

Dominic: New Wheel of Time material to chew on. It's been long. It's very exciting to get this first peek at the new book.

Brandon seemingly continuing with RJ's use of symbolic/allegoric elements in the descriptions is quite interesting. We've been wondering a lot over the last two years if he would retain this or not!! It's gonna take the full book, or at least many more chapters, to judge how really successful he was and how much it's really intentional on his part (and be sure these first elements are not coincidences!) but it seems off to a good start.

Linda: Yes, it’s reassuring so far.

Dominic: The narrative voice has changed. It's much less neutral, for one thing, also more "incarnate" in a way (expressing emotions in a place or two) - RJ's omniscient narrator was more disembodied, remote - less "human". The part done with the omni POV has put me off a bit at first for this reason, but it's just that it will take some time to adjust to this different "voice" (this omniscient POV shouldn't return much, in any case), and to Brandon's more modern prose - not that I don't like it. The tone is different, the vocabulary is slightly different, but the spirit of Jordan's descriptions is definitely there.

Linda: I never expected Sanderson to sound like RJ - as though he had channelled RJ or something! He'll be better at some things than RJ was, and less good at other things. His vocab is different, which considering their ages and backgrounds, is hardly surprising. But what he's written is sharp and literary and picks up on the themes and people where they were all left in KOD.

Dominic: Indeed, no necromancy! This would have been a terrible idea, in any case, to adopt a pseudo-Robert-Jordan style. This is an art closer to forgery than literature, and this book needed a solid novelist, not a forger or "ghost writer". Trying to reproduce the prose style of Jordan, and even though he's been a fan of his writing for years, Brandon would have killed all that is natural in his storytelling, and even with Harriet looking over his shoulder all the time, this would never have been more than mimicry. There was a huge trap there, which Harriet and Brandon avoided: an attempt at "channelling" RJ's style was walking very close to a precarious cliff and risking heavily to fall into parody. They made the right decision, to let Brandon approach this in a style that was natural to him, adapting it so it is more fitting to a Wheel of Time novel. And with this short sample at least, it works.

This does not sound quite like Brandon Sanderson's style. (I should explain here that I decided to read Brandon's published novels before the release of The Gathering Storm, while Linda prefers to wait until his Wheel of Time work is finished, not to be distracted by recognizing too much what is Brandon's work and RJ's work through the books). It's his prose, but it's not a scene you'd find in one of his books. He spoke of adapting his style, and he's done just that. Even the way the scene is structured, the way he uses the environment etc. is really 'an adaptation'. He gives a lot more attention to body language, and the environment. The place he gives dialogue, and inner thoughts, is different from the way he uses them in his own stories. What I see is Brandon's prose style fitted into the Robert Jordan mould of storytelling. It's pretty successful in this chapter. I would not be surprised this gets better and better as the book progresses - at least if my memory is accurate that this chapter is one of the first, if not the first, he worked on (I vaguely remember him mentioning on his Blog he started working on the book by adding the classic opening paragraph).

Let's look at the new description of Tar Valon :

Near the beginning, this bit in particular brought a smile:
"The structure was somehow both graceful and powerful at the same time; a metaphor, perhaps, for those who had inhabited it for over three thousand years."
That was first sign this was not Robert Jordan writing - he loved to use metaphors like this but rarely ever pointed them out to the readers. He would most likely have stopped at describing the Tower as both powerful and graceful and let readers make their own association to the sisters, as he did for instance with describing the Winespring as pure and sweet yet strong enough to topple a man (an allusion to saidar). However, it's really cool to see right away Brandon's sensibility for the nuts and bolts of the series is great. He's included this in a far more obvious way Jordan might have, but the imagery itself is pure Robert Jordan.

Linda: The wind from the White Tower is blocked and re-directed to Rand by something from the Blight. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good... as the saying goes.

Dominic: I also like how the wind carried us from what's considered "by some" to be the heart of civilization, through one of the most empty areas and finally in the middle of woods and nature, nature very seriously in danger now - it's a very nice passage, continuing the motif of the Land being one with the Dragon. Most interesting to see even nature 'goes mad', the wind shifting in two directions at once, for instance. I also like how Brandon has emphasized that Tar Valon is ancient, and remote from the rest of humanity. We get the past there, the present and possible future with Rand and nature. This is very well done. Either Jordan left copious notes on these themes (or included many of these details himself in his telling or outline or draft for this chapter), or Brandon shows an excellent grasp and intuitive understanding of them - probably a mix of both, I'd say.

Linda: The Tower was broken by Elaida and Siuan, and corrupted by Mesaana and the Black Ajah. Note Brandon pointedly says that different people corrupted it to who broke it.

Dominic: We see the return of the descriptions of its poor state of maintenance that underlines this indeed. The fact there are now street toughs too - Elaida is too busy; the Tower appears to no longer police the city well. The Tower is no longer just isolated from the world; it's isolating itself from the rest of its own city. For a moment, I expected plagues might have begun to spread, but I guess Jordan is waiting for the summer for that.

Linda: The City's buildings mentioned have interesting symbolism. The dome like the rising sun refers to Rand.

Dominic: Indeed. I think this is also intended to be a reference to the Light, and to the lunar dominance in Tar Valon (seen from a bird view, the main lunar symbol in the city would of course be the flat-topped, circular white streaked with silver roof of the Tower itself). Dragonmount is its true solar counterpart - this rising sun dome is dwarfed by the Tower in the city, like everything else. This reflects the Aes Sedai perspective on Rand. Brandon may be starting to position Tar Valon as the pivot for the Light in the Last Battle. Well, RJ has already done much of that in earlier books, and now it continues.

On a side note, it's great to see more Tar Valon buildings, and in more details. We see again that behind Tar Valon was an attempt to bring back some of the previous Age's style and architecture, which we have very little information about, but the connection between the Ogier masterpieces in Tar Valon and the spirit behind buildings like the Sharom at the Collam Daan is obvious. It's rarely if ever emphasized, but Ogier masonry obviously reflects their higher scholarship in physics, engineering - it's not simply a matter of artistic flair and being bigger and stronger - there are also superior techniques and knowledge behind their skills.

Let's return to the buildings:

Linda: Flowing water usually refers to saidar, so the fountain of two waves crashing together could refer to the Tower/rebel conflict or at least the upcoming Elaida/Egwene confrontation and also foreshadows the Seanchan attack on TV, which will include large numbers of damane. Elaida's rooms are near the top of the Tower, and at least part of the Seanchan attack will land on the roof, just as the fountain is on top of a building.

The two buildings of women reaching hands to each other reminded me of Egwene's dream of a Seanchan woman who will reach a hand to pull Egwene to safety.

Dominic: Hmmm... I'm not sure this is meant to foreshadow the Seanchan or the prophecy. What rather came to mind immediately when I read this paragraph is a mirror of the original symbolism of this building intended by the builders of the city: Tar Valon brings female channellers and unite them, and they work together to produce wonders. This is also a reference to linking. The mention of this building now is fairly ironic/reversed, given the Ajah have split and even inside the Tower sisters can barely work together.

Linda: But even at the beginning of the White Tower’s foundation they forcibly made dissenting groups of Aes Sedai join up, and there have been mutinies at irregular intervals…and schisms too. The Tower unity has been a façade at times.

Dominic: Definitely. There is a component of propaganda in the city of Tar Valon. It is a city of wonders, festive, no a sober administrative capital. Its grandeur is a celebration of life, of triumph over the Breaking - a promise the Aes Sedai will bring wonders into the world again. Much of that hid the hard truths: the loss of the male channelers, the architectural OP-built wonders of the AOL now were left to Ogier to imitate, the divisions among the sisters who've gathered, the fear and ressent the Aes Sedai inspired after the Breaking, and of course the ominous promises in the Karaethon Cycle. But the public face of Tar Valon is one of unity, celebration and hope. It was a façade, but one important to keep, one that had a role to play after the hundreds of years of woes and cataclysm humanity had just known.

To return to the crashing two waves, I'm more inclined to see a reference to saidar and saidin there. Many elements in the first chapter, from the mention of Latra Posae to Rand's virulent paranoia about Egwene suggest the relationships between female and male channellers is going to be a central theme of The Gathering Storm, that the finish line for this theme is in sight and the critical point is coming, from where it will go one way, or another - will they continue to unite, or will it all fall apart. Things are coming full circle, as many in WOT, with the return to the motif of the first "schism" between men and women with the Fateful Concord, during the War of Shadow and LTT's plan deemed "reckless", the historical development that started it all.

Linda: Then there's the irony of Reds working with men, and it's to weaken the city defenses further to remove the half-cuendillar harbour chain. This also reminded me of the six Reds gone to bond Asha'man Warders.

Dominic: It's such an unforgiving allegory, already there in KOD! The Red Ajah's original raison d'être is now gone, with the Cleansing. Jordan has them undo the wards on the walls/chain towers at both harbours, semicircular (images of saidin and saidar - the two halves of the disc of the Aes Sedai symbol, isolated and at the opposite ends instead of the centre of the city, where the circle is all white. This element of the geography of Tar Valon is meant to recall the estrangement of male and female channellers that defined the Third Age. It's not surprising it's there some of the past is now being "undone"). The Reds are forced to renounce to their mission of protection against male channellers (undoing the wards), and let men pull down the barriers (removing stones from the city's walls/harbour towers) - and it all started with Egwene. She too is becoming an "undoer" of the past and present, like Rand. To paraphrase Herid Fel, you always have to clear out the rumble first before you can start rebuilding.

This imagery of beginning to destroy Tar Valon stone by stone, starting by the walls near the harbour is "ominous" in a way, it may presage a lot of changes /losses coming in Tar Valon - how far did Jordan intended that to go? With the Ogier possibly leaving the world, whatever damage Tar Valon suffers from now on may have to be repaired by totally different means - combined saidin-saidar comes to mind as the most obvious, or even male work as they are much stronger in Earth and Fire. How much Jordan intended to introduce masculine elements in Tar Valon before the end of the series is something to keep an eye on.

Linda: He intended it to go a long way, I think. I found it very ominous.

I also noticed the Tower Guard are also clean, unstained and white. The men are portrayed positively, more so than the Aes Sedai, who let the city decline.

Washerwoman novices among the rebels. When Moghedien was with the rebels she objected to being a washerwoman, yet the Morrigan/Marigan, her parallel, is just that. However, I think we are just meant to see people doing mundane things shortly before everything goes pear-shaped.

Dominic: Probably. With Jordan himself I'd feel on surer ground to look for an intention behind this, but with Brandon it's too early to tell with just one chapter what has an allegoric meaning and what hasn't. It's all hypothesis for now (even more so than when we analyse Jordan, I mean). With Moghedien the image was also the same behind the punishments given Novices and Accepted: clean away their mistakes and "crimes" by washing the Tower's dirtiest stuff. Novices and Accepted are expected to be 'spotless', unstained, like the Tower itself pretends to be.

Linda: It’s also symbolic: the Tower ‘washing its dirty linen in public’ and not hiding the shame of its disunity from the world.

Dominic: Like we've discussed these last two years, a lot of elements that can be given a allegoric sense will forcibly find their way in the novel even if Brandon doesn't intend them to have any allegoric value, because he will describe what Jordan has already put in himself - it's the case with the Rebel camp encircled by men, while Tar Valon itself is encircled by white, and now beginning to pull down some of these walls.

Dominic: What are you making of this passage Linda:

There was a tight perimeter between the inner camp and the outer one, a perimeter that had most recently been intended to exclude men, particularly those who could wield saidin.

A lot of readers see in this evidence Asha'man have begun to arrive, but I wonder for myself if Brandon wasn't simply referring to the security measures put in place recently to keep non-warders male away from the Aes Sedai, following the murders of Kairen/Anaiya by Aran'gar and the fears there was a male channeller on the loose, preying on the sisters.

Linda: I agree with you, but it’s hard to tell if the security measures are even stronger now than before, and against women as well as men because Aran’gar has been exposed. Looking on men as ‘the danger’ was shown to be a fallacy in KOD anyway, since the danger came from a woman channelling saidin, and from one of their own Sitters. Mind you, there’s no hint from the wording that the security has been decreased.

Dominic: Brandon is handling the seasonal changes extremely well already. He sticks very closely to the imagery Jordan used:

When winter had finally arrived, it had come in a tempest of ice and snow, a lingering, killing frost. Now that the cold had finally retreated, the scattered farmers looked in vain for hope.

This continues Jordan's motifs I've discussed during the read-throughs. White and winter are associated to death, but like snow covering the land, it's a death associated to rest and a promise of a "new spring" to come, a rebirth. It is the opposite of the black of final death.

Beneath the snow is the brown earth, sleeping. Brown is the colour of earth and its buried treasures, and knowledge of the past, of what remains under the snowy mantle. The ground holds hidden the seeds of new life, like the Brown Ajah collects knowledge and sees them as seeds on which to build the future.

Now we see that the last winter was unnatural and harsh, and as spring comes what it has left behind is barren, and leaves little hope, with little green sprouting. The worst is of course yet to come.

Linda: Famine, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Pestilence is active already; it’s famine’s turn soon.

Dominic: I completely agree. The summer coming is not one that will bring much food to the table. The world has known difficult years already, the resources are very stretched. Tarmon Gai'don will bring a summer (assuming the seasons don't go completely out of order) in which peasants and farmers, those still on their land, will likely be far more concerned with turning their agricultural instruments into weapons to defend their lives than to work the soil - and then the world has another winter to face. If food was scarce by the mid-series, now indeed it's starvation and death the world might face - if there's not some miracle ahead, for instance a return of Seed Singing. Shai'tan is attacking humanity on all fronts, his meddling with the seasonal pattern might become as deadly as any army of shadowspawn, more even - it reaches everywhere.

Again in these passages, Brandon demonstrated a great sensibility to the series' motifs. It's extremely encouraging for the rest of the book and the next two. Very reassuring about the quality of the last three books. In those first passages, I can see Brandon and Harriet are more ambitious than just intending to bring the story and characters to life - conclude all the plot points - which of course is a huge part of the challenge and very important. But it's also clear they mean to do so while bringing into the books as much of the little and not so little details in style, themes and motifs which were trademarks of Robert Jordan's work as a storyteller, give all those too a logical conclusion. Brandon has a certain flair for them so far. It's not Robert Jordan - nor did we expected it would be- but there's a lot of him in this. For two years Brandon has spoken of his respect for the work and in his approach of the work, and now we see this refleced on the page. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. It makes me all the more eager for What the Storm Means next week, and of course the book itself (coming out on my birthday, lucky me!).

Linda: I think I will enjoy Brandon’s 'take’ on WOT themes and symbolism – he’s very much entered into the spirit of RJ’s intentions. Let’s see in Part 2 of our chapter discussion how he does with the characters.

Dominic: I wonder what Brandon had to work from for this one. From memory, he mentioned he had to add the opening paragraph because Jordan did not include it in what he left for the chapter. This suggests Brandon had an outline or a narrated retelling of this first chapter, perhaps some dialogue. The idea to begin in Tar Valon and end with Rand in Arad Doman, when Egwene's story line and Rand's are coming together (and to be the central part of the book) is very Jordan-like. He has done something much like this with the opening chapter of The Path of Daggers, notably, where he brought us from the Sea Folk Islands, passed over the sea and reintroduced the Sea Folk trade network and finally ended in the palace in Ebou Dar, where matters of the Bargain between Elayne/Nynaeve and the Mistress of Ships was the matter of the scene. The first part of Tear From Steel follows this pattern, and is done almost as nicely as Jordan would have done, with Brandon's own style. It's a good concrete example of what I mean by Brandon writing in the Robert Jordan/Wheel of Time mould.

To be continued...

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this dialogue, in which we'll look into the Rand scenes, characterization and delve in the new plot points (and mysteries?) introduced by this chapter.

All quotes from The Gathering Storm, chapter 1 -Tears from Steel, Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson. Published by Tor Books, 2009.


Anonymous said...

Very nice analysis, thank you for this. Looking forward to the next instalment!

Anonymous said...

I've also enjoyed reading your analyses of the prologue. Just wondering if anyone else suspects that the rise of "street tough's" in addition to the "workmen" hired in the city may actually be a forward ground element of the Seanchan forces who've infiltrated the city to prepare for the coming invasion. One would imagine the Seanchan scouts have reported the neglect of city, and are using it to their advantage. I envision the Seanchan attack as more of a raid on the White Tower. With Egwene's army camped outside, the Seanchan can't just march an army up to the walls for a full frontal assault, and I don't think they can carry off a raid strictly using Rakken(?), so they must have a means of including a ground element in the raid. Just my thought.