Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Eye of the World, chapters 24 and 25, in which nothing happens

Another two-chapter post this week because these chapters sap my will to live.  They also form a nice duology of toss-off ideas.  My working theory at this point is that Robert Jordan realised that instead of writing a lot of books with specific premises, he could write one book that contained six hundred premises and just tour around them without ever developing any, and that would be just as popular but much easier to write.

The Eye of the World: p. 348--378
Chapter Twenty-Four: Flight Down the Arinelle

This chapter again begins with a dream sequence as Rand is running around a fantastical maze, and the scenery as described is all very pretty but it does basically zero to advance the plot.  He's being hunted by the devil, he runs into the devil, he screams that it's all a dream and wakes up, but his finger is still bleeding from a thorn he touched in the dream.  I just gave you several minutes of your life back.  Then it's boat time again:
The Spray made haste slowly down the Arinelle.

(There's also a note that all the sailors go barefoot because "boots could slip on a wet deck".  I don't--are human feet covered in suckers like octopus tentacles in this world?  I'm pretty sure humans are capable of creating boots with higher coefficients of static and kinetic friction than our feet.)

Most of this chapter appears to be filler--we get rundowns of the cyclical ire of the crew, between working hard to escape trollocs and grumbling that they've left the trollocs far behind; we get descriptions of how Thom keeps up the pretense that he's apprenticing Rand and Mat; we get talk of how Mat is constantly creeping away to 'be alone', which would be more sinister if Mat weren't a fairly typical teenage boy.  Mat does seem to have developed something of a treasure obsession, but since it has no plot relevance yet, I don't care.

Captain Domon rambles for a few pages (I am not exaggerating) about the wondrous things he's seen in the world, cursed metal towers and skeletons of ancient beasts.  Same old same old: instead of any kind of actual depth to the structure of the world, we're 356 pages in and the vastness of this land with its perfectly rectangular borders is being emphasised to us through endless lists of one-off wonders that we'll never hear of again.  There's mention in there of a crater somewhere with a giant silver spike in the centre that kills anyone who comes within a mile of it, and I spent a few minutes struggling to think of any reason that the existence of an instant-kill magic zone wouldn't be extremely important and interesting in a world with a lot of monsters that seem to have trouble properly dying.  These are all cool notions to throw into the world, but it bugs me that everyone's apparently just happy to let these things be completely mysterious untouched curiosities rather than actually incorporating them into their lives.  It doesn't feel more like a great big world to me; it feels like a weird museum for the protagonist to wander.

There's then a detailed explanation of how Rand messes about on top of the mast one day, freaks out the crew, Thom comes to get him, and he inexplicably nimbly clambers down again, in the perfect place to see why Mat keeps sneaking off all the time--he is, as anyone could have guessed, playing with his dagger.  Oh, an actual dagger?  Okay then.  It's very fancy and golden and he took it from Shadar Logoth, but it wasn't a gift so he's sure he didn't accidentally release that incredibly evil ghost-dude Moiraine warned them about.  This, obvs, is the source of his new obsession with treasure, but Rand agrees not to tell anyone, because Rand failed his Genre Savviness check today.  Rand talks about all the cash they'll get by selling it and Mat just says 'if we have to'.  He is also reluctant to admit he's been having more dreams, like Rand, and then they Don't Talk About That for a while.  Rand also retroactively freaks out about the stunts he pulled on the mast, and becomes more convinced that something is messing with his head.

Chapter Twenty-Five: The Traveling People

Oh fuck, are we going to get Fantasy Romani now?  This is gonna suck.  Egwene and the horse, Bela, do not particularly trust the wolf pack now just hanging out with them as they stroll onwards.  I thought for a moment that this was actually from Egwene's perspective, but no, that would be silly because she is a girl and therefore a distraction from serious, slow, thoughtful Perrin the cool dude who can, like, talk to wolves.  Egwene tries to get Elyas to share in riding Bela, like she and Perrin do, and he refuses:
She took a deep breath, and Perrin was wondering if she would succeed in bullying Elyas the way she did him, when he realized she was standing there with her mouth open, not saying a word.  Elyas was looking at her, just looking, with those yellow wolf's eyes. Egwene stepped back from the raw-boned man, and licked her lips, and stepped back again.
We know Elyas is cool because he can make girls shut up just by looking at them, when they try to 'bully' him with their logic and courteous offers.

It's like Tolkien, but feminist!  (Also, raw-boned?  What does that even mean?)

Perrin is slowly adjusting to his new wolfdar, constantly pointing out their presence to him, but he's comforted by his dreams, which no longer feature Ba'alzamon--they're normal dreams like he had back home, except that there's always a wolf in the background, facing away from him like a watchdog.  This is probably one of my favourite mystical things we've seen so far: and it's remarkably succinct and understated rather than getting three pages of explication.  I don't think that's coincidental.

And yet, because Perrin is a useless sack, he also resents and fears the wolves that speak to him, guard him, and bring him food, and thinks he'd be willing to go hungry if they'd just go away.  He also almost takes a shot at some giant mastiffs that leap out of a copse of trees, but Elyas calms them and explains that there are Tuatha'an camping within, and because everything has like fifty names in this world, they're also known as Tinkers or the Traveling People.  Okay, not Fantasy Romani, then, but Fantasy Irish Travellers.  Egwene immediately brings up the stereotype that they're all thieves, and Elyas shuts her down.  Elyas remains the Best Dude, but really, can Egwene just not have nice things anymore?  Perrin has heard about the their legendary tinsmithing skills and wants to check it out.  One point to House Useless Sack.

(We pause now to talk about demonyms.  I note that Jordan here uses most of the common terms for Travellers except for 'gypsy', which is a racial slur, specifically against the Romani and related peoples.  I would give points for that, except that I'm guessing he didn't use it because it sounded too Earthlike, while 'Tuatha'an' is just, like, Dog Gaelic.  WOT hereafter refers to these people mostly as 'tinkers', but the interwebs inform me that this is also sometimes used as a pejorative against actual Irish Travellers, so I'm going to skip that for the sake of simplicity and courtesy.)

Elyas leads them into the trees, and while Perrin has never seen Travellers before, their camp is exactly what he expects from stories, because stories about exotic ethnic minorities are always perfectly accurate and don't overstate anything.  (Except for the stealing, apparently.)  The camp is exactly what a stereotypical Traveller or Romani camp looks like, with giant brightly-painted wagons and clothes with eye-hurtingly contrasting vivid colours.  Well, I say vivid colours, but the other obvious reason to base these people on Irish Travellers instead of Romani is that we were in great danger of accidentally including brown people in this story.  Dodged a bullet there.

They sit down for a meal with the elder and his wife, and a grandson who shows up to hit on Egwene.  (Perrin admits he's cute but figures he's like that player back home who dates all the girls at once.)  We also get some infodumps on Traveller pacifism (they're very pacifist) and Aram takes Egwene away to dance.  The elder relates a story of news from a couple of years ago, some warning that a Traveller band got from a dying Aiel warrior while crossing the Wastes, saying that the Dark One is coming to blind the Eye of the World and kill the World-Serpent.  Perrin spends most of this time baffled at the notion of a society where female warriors are common and accepted.  Egwene dances with Aram until it's late, snaps at Perrin that Aram is a sweet fun boy and not just a player, and then breaks down in tears and begs him to tell her that the others are still alive, before she kisses him on the cheek and heads to bed down among the women.

Why in the world is Perrin our POV character here?  He has, like, two emotions and no direction in life.  Egwene frequently acts like a real person and has a vastly more interesting potential storyline, but she's too busy getting saddled with the role of overemotional token chick who needs a man to support her.  At least if their roles were swapped Perrin wouldn't have any personality to waste on his overwrought outbursts.

I'm also curious about the pacifism the Travellers expound, because the narrative certainly treats them like they're sensible rather than naive fools, but the narrative is also totally onboard with Our Heroes beheading enemies all over the place.  The elder would have Perrin believe that the spiritual self-harm that results from doing violence to other people is much worse than the physical violence that they're doing, but he's saying this in a world with a malevolent ancient god that works tirelessly to destroy all of existence, which makes 'running away' a questionable plan at best.  I mean, I guess it's supposed to be an even presentation of the options, but it feels rather more like 'I beat a bad guy to death with another bad guy this morning, but I appreciate pacifism, so you know I'm a good dude'.  Whereas Egwene, who supports this pacifist notion much more strongly, is an overemotional wreck who needs to deal with her emotions by shoving her tongue down hot nomad boy's throat like it's an ovipositor.

I'm saying that Ender's Game was supposedly about peace and mercy too, and that's full of people who are all about that genocide, 'bout that genocide, 'bout that genocide, no trouble.  Pacifism in fantasy would be more interesting if it were ever brought up with more depth than 'foolish idealism' or 'theoretical notion that we don't actually need to engage with'.

Next week: Rand arrives at Whitebridge, at the end of the White Bridge, which I can only assume is some kind of gated community with a lot of dentists and financiers.


  1. "a dream sequence as Rand is running around a fantastical maze"
    A rule of thumb for authors: when writing, you're allowed onedream sequence per book. Then, during the editing phase, go back and remove it.

  2. Sailors in the Age of Sail typically went barefoot. Bare feet are better on a slippery deck (in addition to allowing you to grip spars and ropes with your feet. I am going on a sailing cruise in the Caribbean this May, and the orientation guide says that they recommend bare feet on deck rather than shoes or sandals to minimize the chance of slipping.

  3. David Gemmell regularly wrote about pacifism in fantasy (often pairing up a pacifist priest with a warrior dude), but I don't remember which of his books emphasize it.

  4. And yet, because Perrin is a useless sack, he also resents and fears the wolves that speak to him, guard him, and bring him food, and thinks he'd be willing to go hungry if they'd just go away.

    God, he’ll be scared of blacksmith tools next… (He will, actually, resent and fear his own political power later on in the series, and this trait is, iirc, the major distinction between him and pretty much every other protagonist. Being around Perrin should really be the major cause of defections to the Shadow.)

    because stories about exotic ethnic minorities are always perfectly accurate and don't overstate anything.

    This is a recurring theme in these books – people are incapable of accurately communicating anything except national stereotypes.

  5. "Why in the world is Perrin our POV character here? He has, like, two emotions and no direction in life. Egwene frequently acts like a real person and has a vastly more interesting potential storyline, but she's too busy getting saddled with the role of overemotional token chick who needs a man to support her. At least if their roles were swapped Perrin wouldn't have any personality to waste on his overwrought outbursts."

    After saying that can we just imagine what Jordan writing the whole book from Egwene's perspective might have been like? I think the thought makes me shudder.

    I think he actually attempted this with "New Spring" which was the prequel to Eye of the World, where he sets out a A LOT of background for Moiraine and the Aes Sedai, which I recall enjoying, but I'm almost afraid to take a peek back at, it was written several books into the series though, which one might think would lead to more developed characters but women as pouty-snippy people never did seem to go out style..

  6. because stories about exotic ethnic minorities are always perfectly accurate and don't overstate anything

    I'm going to tentatively defend this, in that it's at least handled with some kind of consistency: The Travelling People visit the Two Rivers occasionally if far from often, and so the stories about them are reasonably realistic, while the Aiel, who have been almost completely isolated from the rest of the continent for millennia, are introduced as laughing incredulously when they hear the kind of things the Randlanders believe about them.

  7. Holy shit. 350+ pages in and nothing has really happened?! Like, in LotR terms, I don't even think they're at that watchtower where Frodo gets stabbed by the Ringwraiths. Unless Mat getting possessed by the dagger counts.

    Will, thank you for recapping these, and I am sorry for your suffering. I feel like these books are something I might have enjoyed reading when I was younger on my summer vacations, when I had nothing but time, but now... who has time for this? The endless description really kills the tension, too, making it feel like a leisurely stroll and not a life and death chase. Ugh.

    I'm trying to think of similarly long books where so little happens, and coming up with nothing. The closest I can come is Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth books, which are impressively terrible in their number of cliches AND use of offensive tropes... but at least shit *happens* in those books.

  8. Rick Riordan manages to mostly pull off the use of multiple dream sequences in his books, I think. At least they provide useful information for the heroes, even if they are sometimes a little too convenient. I forgive this mostly because they're middle grade and YA books. With a limited POV, you gotta get the exposition in on the villain's actions somehow.

    Otherwise, yeah. Do you *really* need that dream sequence in your book? Probably not! Although personally, I would love to see at least one story where the heroes share their dreams in the morning only for it to be normal, very bizarre but otherwise meaningless dreams.

  9. The Travelling People and the Way of the Leaf actually play a significant recurring role in the story, and the idea of absolute pacifism in a world with actual monsters and dark gods and wars for survival is explored in depth. In the end, they reach the conclusion of Cnpvsvfz vf n ornhgvshy vqrny, naq erdhverf vzzrafr pbhentr gb sbyybj, ohg vf hygvzngryl shgvyr va n jbeyq svtugvat sbe vgf irel fheiviny. Creuncf bar qnl, gur Jnl bs gur Yrns jvyy unir n cynpr, ohg vg vf abg gbqnl (Kinda a spoiler for a long-running story thread, but not that big of a deal)

    Also, several of the random magical things Domon mentions here come back at later points in the series. It's not just a bunch of empty world filling.

  10. I'm never sure what the author wants me to get out of dream sequences, and I don't find it rewarding to look for hidden messages in them. Just now, I'm reading The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett, and was completely surprised to have two characters in a hard-boiled noirish tale trade accounts of their dreams. Neither dream gave me any insight into the characters or the story, but that could be due to brain viscosity on my part. But then, my own dreams never give me insight into my own character or plot, either.

  11. I agree that dream sequences that just try to be ~vague and mysterious~ aren't very interesting or helpful. Like I said, that's why Rick Riordan's use of it is less irritating, as it's pretty much always "hero character falls asleep, gets a glimpse of what the villains are up to / a message from one of the gods." (Given that all the characters are demigods, this isn't that unusual.) Pretty straightforward, just overly convenient.

  12. Those kinds of dreams work just fine for me. In Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion series, the dreams are always pretty much straight-out visions from the gods, and I find that they blend well with the rest of the narrative.

  13. Wow. It sounds like this book thinks the objections to classic Doctor Who (lots of talking and running down the same corridors) are things to be admired rather than avoided.

    Also, shouldn't the resident magic users be able to detect that someone has a magical something they shouldn't?

    Also, White Bridge sounds like the home base of the Whitecloaks, who share half the city with the KKK in their supposed white paradise.

  14. The fact that they are the kind of folks who tell other folks about the weird dream they had last night might be insight into their characters.

  15. Of course, on Doctor Who, that's because of their extremely limited budget. In a book, there's no budget.
    As a side note, it can be useful to think in budgetary terms for a book. Fred Clark pointed this out in one of his Left Behind critiques. It lets the author avoid unnecessary scenes a movie or tv show would cut (we can build a lobby set, cast the desk clerk, and get the extras, or we can just skip this 30 second scene that accomplishes nothing), keep the cast to a manageable size (we can just consolidate these redundant characters into one, and just cast one part), and so forth.

  16. I've always kind of wanted to write a dream sequence where the character is a lucid dreamer, as I'm a lucid dreamer myself and I've done some pretty wacky and amusing introspection while sleeping (I tried to send myself to Hell once, but the Devil turned into a pretty lady and refused to torture me). I think that would be interesting, character development wise. Of course, maybe that's just pandering to the lucid dreamer audience.

    Also, there's nothing quite like having an argument with someone and then having a rather disturbing dream where you kiss them. I think that would end a lot of obnoxious 'Do I like this person or not' romance plots quickly.

  17. And in Doctor Who at least they could get good actors (or entertainingly bad ones). Jordan has a cast of Woman, Man, and an assortment of silly hats and false eyebrows.

  18. Yeah. And for all of classic Doctor Who's faults, at least I generally cared about the people being menaced by bubble wrap or semi-animate carpet. I think at this point, I had more concern about the fate of the wolves than most of the main characters. When you find yourself wishing the side characters would flee because they may end up dying to save the lumps of dough that are the protagonists, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

  19. See, the thing that annoys me is that people treat pacifism like a binary. Either you kill your enemies, or you put up no fight at all. It's possible to aim at pacifism as an ideal without going into straw man pacifist territory where you don't defend yourself when someone punches you in the face. Most real world pacifists (not all, but most) don't go that far, and they do in fact live in a world where people are sometimes out to kill them out of unthinking hatred.

    That said, I get that it's difficult to non-lethally subdue people, and that the best tactic, diplomacy and politics to make people want to kill you less, is really, really hard. And probably not viable in a world where things are born/created evil for... who knows what bullshit reason. Magic.

    What I'm curious about is, do any of the characters ever actually attempt to get the bad guys to sit down and talk things out, or try bribing their enemy with trade and money - okay, admittedly, that requires political power - without automatically assuming all of their enemies just want to destroy the world and there is no reasoning with them. (I never read past the first book.) It's a flaw in many novels, so I'd be really really pleased if this broke the pattern, enough to possibly try reading another book in the series. Since it bothers to bring up pacifism, I'd be disappointed if it makes conclusions about it without actually _trying_ pacifism.

  20. Occasionally the bad guys try to negotiate with our heroes: once again, the Forsaken are much better at collaboration than the good guys.
    Rand does attempt to forge a lasting peace between the non-cosmologically-evil-but-sometimes-mundanely-evil peoples, but that's as close as it gets.

  21. the thousand lakesMarch 1, 2015 at 3:13 AM

    New Spring is noteworthy for being the only time in the entire series that a lesbian relationship is handled with subtlety and grace. By which I mean that it's really obviously hinted at but employs the tasteful cut to black, and seems to exist in the story as a just something the characters do because that's who they are, as opposed to being in there because Jordan thought it was hot. Queer relationships are (SHOCKINGLY) not something he excels at. Unless I guess you want to include polyamory, which some characters find shocking but the text itself seems to treat as just a thing some people do. And by "some people", I mean "some dudes get more than one lady, because that's also the kind of thing Jordan is/was into, according to some author interviews". Women who get multiple boys relatively close together are not good women in the Wheel of Time, which I'm sure is a total coincidence that in no way reflects any sort of bias, conscious or not, on the part of the author.

  22. the thousand lakesMarch 1, 2015 at 3:21 AM

    "People are incapable of accurately communicating anything except national stereotypes" This is true-ish. There are a good number of people who break national/ethnic stereotypes (and in my opinion it's worth noting that pre-modern societies did in fact tend to be more tightly knit and more conformist for a whole bunch of reasons, so the Planet of Hats criticism is an oversimplification with supposedly medieval fantasy). You also have national stereotypes that really obviously aren't true and lead to personal and national conflicts. Much is made over the difficulties involved in forming the fantasy united nations, because a lot of different countries hate each other more than they want to save the world. Plus you get stuff like the Aiel and the Sea Folk meeting each other, where I believe two chapters are entirely given over to two young women from those nations figuring out that A) they each believed a lot of nonsense about each other's country, and B) they can learn a lot from each other.