Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Eye of the World, chapter 49 to the end, in which the best and the worst of this book are on display

Here we are at last.  I could have split this across two posts, but I decided to power on ahead to the end.  Book One of the Wheel of Time comes at last to its end and we find out what passes for a climax in this unnecessary marathon of a pagecount.  Goggles on, dear readers.

The Eye of the World: p. 732--782
Chapter Forty-Nine: The Dark One Stirs

Rand wakes up and, top priority now that they are way deep in the noxious hellscape of Satan County, takes stock of how Nynaeve is feeling about getting rejected by a man.  If I thought this had anything to do with Rand thinking their group might be weakened by inner strife, I'd be less judgey.  Because Egwene is a better person in every way (and praise depersonified Light Jesus that she doesn't end up with Rand, by the way) she doesn't just stare, and instead goes to chat with Nynaeve until she manages to provoke a laugh and a hug from her wounded friend.  Rand just thinks about how "all women are Aes Sedai" because he thinks they have secret methods to read male minds, and I just can't even with this guy.  I mean, I absolutely think it's narratively stupid that Nynaeve is suddenly in love with Lan, but accepting that as our premise, we can presumably agree that Rand is contemptible for just staring at her, hurt, and thinking how freaky women are with their witch-feelings and seeeecrets.

Best possible plot twist at this point: Rand tries to stop the Dark One, instead falls to temptation, and Egwene leaps in to save the day because she is the Dragon Reborn.  Yes, after eight hundred pages it might be questionable to be all 'Hah, that protagonist was a decoy!', but there are literally ten thousand more pages still to go in this series and it's not like it stopped GRR Martin.

But let's move on or we'll never find out how disappointed I'll be.  They are once again riding towards--honest to Hotei--the Mountains of Dhoom.  Dhoom, people.  No editor stopped Jordan from doing this, and we all bear the weight of that sin.  Moiraine is taking them to the last place she found the Eye of the World, and if it moves, they'll count on the Green Man to help, because he "senses need", though why he hasn't come to them already in that case I don't know.

There's more description of the Blight, which is honestly the best part of this story right now, and when I'm this enthusiastic about description near the climax of a book you know it's dire.  The trees shed wet, decaying leaves constantly, ooze from cracks in their bark, and tremble from their footfalls as if they're turning to liquid entirely.  One of them flails around and grabs a furry creature off the ground.  Love it; A-plus evil landscape.  Lan wanders into the undergrowth to slaughter something evil, and upon his return gets jumped by some kind of murderous spider-bear, but Mat of all people takes it down with a single arrow.  That's a prelude to a mass monsters-and-monster-trees ambush, but the farm kids once again go into that ancestral battle-fugue where they shout about Manetheren and Ellisande a lot, and Moiraine elects to spam fireballs, because she definitely hasn't been saying this whole time that subtlety is paramount and we definitely don't have in-text evidence that wielding Fire weakens her more than anything else.  For reasons deeply unclear to me, Lan keeps leaving the group, diving into the trees, slaughtering things, coming back for Moiraine to cast Lay On Hands, and leaving again.  What's he getting done out there that is more valuable than directly protecting the party?  Does the forest have Strategy Bushes that direct and coordinate its malevolent intent?  Give me something, Jordan, don't just have him 'disappear' because it's supposed to be mysterious and cool.

The assault stops at the sound of some other creature's cry chasing them, which Lan identifies as Worms.  I mention this only because, to my endless delight, Jordan asserts that you can hear dramatic capitalisation:
"They were scared off by worms?" Mat said incredulously [...] 
"A Worm"--there was a sharp difference in the way the Warder said it from the way Mat had--"can kill a Fade, if the Fade hasn't the Dark One's own luck with it."
I mean, yes, Terry Pratchett also had audible capitalisation, but Discworld is an intentionally absurd place.  And well-written.  Lan volunteers to make a heroic sacrifice, but Moiraine forbids it, and Rand braces himself and thinks about how scared he is (less than relatable prose, way too tell-don't-show) when they clear a foothill and burst into a mass of healthy greenery that she declares safe.

The Green Man appears, made of nuts and leaves and butterflies, greets Loial and names Perrin a Wolfbrother, then straight up calls Rand 'Child of the Dragon', but no one thinks that might be a big deal.  He agrees instantly to take them to the Eye, and I wonder again if we've ever actually been told what it is, apart from 'plot relevant'.

Chapter Fifty: Meetings at the Eye

They wander deeper into the greenery, the Green Man weaving flower crowns for the women as they go.  Not sure why even he thinks that flowers are only for girls.  Dude is, by chance or choice, a dude, and he's partly made of flowers.  Maybe Lan is just sensitive about crowns.

(At this point, I decided to search the web for some good art of a manly man wearing a flower crown, but after the third photoshopped Benedict Cumberbatch I gave up.  On everything.  Forever.  I am a pointless meat husk screaming towards the void.)

The Eye is inside a hill, entrance marked by a stone arch, and I had thought the Green Man was hella old because he talked as if he had seen entire past turns of the Wheel, but then he says that he was made to guard it when it was first made, during the Breaking, by a hundred male and female Aes Sedai who sacrificed their lives in the effort.  Well.  That's... questionable.  Is it just me or if the villains made something out of the lives of a hundred people would we not assume it was an artifact of terrible evil?

Inside the cavern, the Eye turns out to be a big oval pool of not-water with no apparent bottom.  Mat kicks in a rock (classy) and they watch said rock dissolve into nothing.  Moiraine describes it as the essence of saidin, dude magic, which can either seal the devil's prison or bust it fully open.  Loial asks why anyone would make a thing like that:
"No one living knows [....] Neither the how, nor more of the why than that it would be needed one day, and that that need would be the greatest and most desperate the world had faced to that time. Perhaps would ever face. Many in Tar Valon have attempted to find a way to use that Power, but [...] only a man could channel it [...]"
Well.  That is also questionable.  A contingency device that can either save or end the world and can only be used by male wizards who are actively hunted because magic corrupts them.  Nothing about this plan sounds like a good idea unless you have narrative information that asserts that it will all turn out okay.  That is not a kind of prophecy I favour.

They leave again and outside run into a pair of the Forsaken, the devil's favourite servants, who are apparently loose now.  One is hella old but telekinetically smites Lan; the other is bound up in a fetish-worthy amount of leather and sets about thrashing the others before the Green Man shows up to save them.  Treebeard is not to be taken lightly--they wrassle for a moment and the Green Man looks like he'll burst into flames, but not before Captain Safeword finds himself consumed by an outburst of fungus, nettles, and weeds, plants that love the dark.  Then Big Green does topple, and his collapsing body produces a single acorn that immediately erupts into an ancient towering oak.

You know, I'm actually enjoying this book right now.  It's not exactly mindblowingly original, but at least it's operatically fantastical.  If the book only consisted of events like the last few chapters, and not five hundred pages of trudging through Generic Fantasy Farmlands, I might even recommend it to others.

Moiraine tries to trap old dude--Aginor--in a fiery chasm and tells the others to run, but Egwene tries to help as well, and Rand has to pull her away.  In literally any book where Egwene was the protagonist, it would be a sign of incredible bravery that Egwene dared throw whatever magic she could wield against the villain, and it would make some minor difference that was ultimately key to their victory, but here she's being foolish and has to be rescued by a boy.

Chapter Fifty-One: Against the Shadow

So this chapter gets trippy.  Rand runs from Aginor until he reaches a sheer cliff, inescapable, and Aginor talks about killing him (the devil being okay with undead servants), but Rand is suddenly aware of... I'm not sure.  Lifelines?  He sees a glowing cord running off Aginor, which pulses ever more intensely as they mind-battle until Aginor bursts into flames.  Rand then teleports into the middle of the battle at the borderland pass, where things are going badly for humanity, but in a fit of rage he blasts the draghkars out of the sky with lightning and summons a firestorm to scythe through most of the trollocs and Fades.  There's some unclear dialogue inside his head between himself ("It has to end!") and an unknown voice ("ONLY THE CHOSEN ONE CAN DO WHAT MUST BE DONE, IF HE WILL"), and some reasonably adept prose describing the "terrible heat of the Light" in such a way that makes it sound less cuddly and more like an overwhelming implacable force.  This I also like: if your hero is going to wield supreme power of goodness and use that power to incinerate living creatures, at least make him fucking terrified of it.  (I mean, the whole 'our hero firestorms the bad guys' is an unnecessary scene on principle, but if it's going to be here, this is an okay handling.)

As the human forces rally behind him, Rand climbs a literal stairway to heaven, steps made of light in the void, until he arrives back in the stony balcony from his dreams where he faces off against Ba'alzamon.  Rand can see Ba'alzamon also has a lifeline, and you should all be proud of me for not making any of the jokes that all but tell themselves when Rand marvels at how thick and black it is.

Ba'alzamon explains (indistinctly, but intelligibly if you know Rand's Secret Backstory) that he has orchestrated the events of Rand's ancestors to bring him here, and has only sent small armies or individual Darkfriends after Rand because he'd rather have a living servant than a dead one.  At least that tries to explain why the endless armies of evil haven't made much of an appearance, but I'm still not clear why sending a hundred Darkfriends to abduct Rand would have guaranteed his death rather than his capture.

The devil conjures up Rand's dead mother next, and she pleads with Rand to save her soul.  Fades appear and start torturing her, but Rand conjures a sword of light out of nowhere, blasts them to bits, and hacks Ba'alzamon's lifeline in half, declaring "It is ended!" in what I can only assume is a Revelation reference.  Everything bursts into flames.

Chapter Fifty-Two: There Is Neither Beginning Nor End

You say that, Jordan, but I remember the naive, callow youth I was when I started this book, and I know how eagerly I await my freedom in another twenty pages.  Also, really, that chapter was our grand climax?  Rand is separated from the others and doomed but then instinctively saves himself, saves the army, saves his mother, and sets the devil on fire?  That was literally and without exaggeration the most gratuitous, least foreshadowed, least earned, and most convenient victory I have ever read.

Wait, I'm wrong.  I once read a primary school kid's short story in which a boy gets magically transported to a realm of talking animals and told by the king lion that he is the chosen one who needs to use the magic gems to destroy the villain.  At that exact moment, the villain leaps into the king's court, and the kid raises the gems and vaporises him on the spot.  Like, the lion hadn't even finished the tutorial on these things and boom, quest over, promotions all around.

That is the only other contender for the title.

Rand awakens where he started, near the pile of gross ashes that used to be Aginor.  Memories float back and he sprints back to the others, who are all unharmed, including Moiraine.  He tells them that he killed the devil, and everything else that happened, but everyone else is too plot-savvy to believe that the devil gets dropped in book one.  Moiraine explains that she's seen evidence of Rand channelling all through the book, as far back as when she was casting Refresh Horse on everyone's mounts and Bela didn't need it--because Bela was carrying Egwene and Rand instinctively wanted her safe.  (The possibility that Egwene had refreshed Bela apparently wasn't on the table.)  Moiraine promises not to drag Rand off to be "gentled" like they normally do with man-wizards, and not to tell anyone who doesn't need to know.

The Eye pool is apparent gone, consumed by Rand's victory lap of plot contrivance.  Instead there's a column of stone in the centre, with convenient steps to reach it.  The dudes of the pottery carry three relics retrieved from inside the prison.  First are ancient pottery fragments, which Moiraine fits together into a taijitu (last seen in the prologue) and identifies as heartstone, indestructible relic of a past age, one of seven seals on the devil's prison, shattered by unknown means.  Second is the Horn of Valere, namedropped much earlier in the book, to be used to call spirits of heroes back to fight the devil, and last is the banner of the Dragon, specifically a serpentine gold-maned red dragon.

Just so we're clear on this, Our Heroes are a sea of whitebread and ginger carrying a katana, the prime symbol of Taoism, and now a clearly Asian-style dragon banner.  I know Jordan said he was going for a sort of 'fantasy melange', but I have yet to see a single thing that makes me say 'ah, a reference to African mythology!' or really anything other than 'ah, another white author with a fetish for Asian myths minus all the Asian people!'  People who have read later books: does this ever get better?

Chapter Fifty-Three: The Wheel Turns

The Blight has eaten most of the greenery the next morning, but Loial refuses to let it have the Green Man's oak, and takes an hour (that feels like minutes) to sing a Tree Song that rejuvenates it, assuring the party that he couldn't have invoked so much power if Jolly Green's spirit wasn't still in there.  The Blight is still gross, but doesn't try to murder them as they leave--Moiraine explains that they "struck a mighty blow against the Dark One" and for some reason Rand still hasn't asked for an explanation of how she reconciles that with his memory of killing the devil.

At least the soldiers at Fal Dara aren't so hypermasculine as to reject a good flower crown, and everyone is wearing them to celebrate the incredible victory at the pass.  Moiraine waves off all healers and meets with Agelmar to show him the recovered horn and ask for a small army to escort it to Illian, for reasons not explained.  Montages happen for a week.  Lan starts teaching Rand how to actually use his sword, and everyone gets hyped about finally going to Tar Valon, but Rand refuses to join them, convinced that he'll get gentled if he goes, and go mad-corrupt if he ever accidentally uses magic again.  He's just going to wander off on his own, away from people he might hurt, cursing the luck that his crush has to be a wizard and thus dangerous.  In another garden, far away, Moiraine magically eavesdrops on them:
"The Prophecies will be fulfilled," the Aes Sedai whispered. "The Dragon is Reborn."
And that's it.  That's the book.

I am... thoroughly unimpressed, I have to admit.  I love a good ending.  I love the part of a story where we see how everything that has led to the climax fits together in order to create something with meaning.  I love Frodo and Gollum facing the will of the Ring at the Cracks of Doom, the way the hero's past mercy ultimately saves him from his own final weakness.  I love Katniss, broken and angry, still playing her character so well that she gets a shot at salvation instead of vengeance.  I love the Doctor and Rose up against an army of genocidal zealotry, saved because the Bad Wolf is damnfool implacable hope and she will do anything to protect those she loves.  I love Harry Potter and Narcissa Malfoy in the woods, speaking two words ("Yes."  "Dead.") that declare that love overwhelms hatred in the end.

And I get that those endings are the real endings and this is book one of eleventy, so it's not a fair comparison, but I just waded through seven hundred and ninety-two pages of this stuff and the ending was abrupt, unjustified, and most heinously of all, revealed nothing meaningful about who the characters are or what they believe.  This is an ending that falls like a soggy towel on the page: and there, there's a huge battle and the good guys win but for how long isn't this awesome?  Wasn't this totally worth reading about the four hundred identical innkeepers that populate this world like an unsettling mashup of Barliman Butterbur and Nurse Joy?  Isn't it great how a solid 60% of this book was just setting the stage for later books while somehow failing to have any real impact on the events of its own plot?

I am struggling to think of any way in which the plot might have been hampered if the party hadn't transitioned directly from, say, Baerlon to Fal Dara.  By my estimate, if they had done so, the book would have been about three hundred fifty pages long, maybe three hundred with better editing, a solid book but not a brick.  We lose the City of Mat Don't Touch That Dagger Oh My God, and Perrin being a Man-Wolf, and Rand flirting with a princess, but do we lose anything that actually impacts the plot?  Is there any reason not to consider the intervening thirty-some chapters glorified filler?  I'm really and truly asking.  Because I don't think it should be a controversial opinion to say 'if half your book isn't relevant to your book, cut it', and yet here we are.  And I actually liked the Travellers and the wolfpack, those are good story elements, but they could be in their own book where they were actually plot-relevant and not just a sideshow with no purpose.

Because I don't make good life choices, I am actually considering getting into the second book on this here blog, but I'm definitely not doing that right away.  I need a cleanser.  So, apart from your usual delightful insights and anecdotes, make your nominations, resilient readers, and come back in a week or two to see what I inflict on myself next.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Eye of the World, chapters 46, 47, and 48, in which Lan is voted Sexiest Man of the Age

Fewer than one hundred pages left to go, dear and loyal readers.  Three posts to the end, depending on how much nonsense I just dismiss and whether anything is actually going to happen.  Rally your courage; gird the bits that need girding.  (I didn't know this for ages, but apparently there is a specific girding protocol, shown here.)

The Eye of the World: p. 689--731
Chapter Forty-Six: Fal Dara

We left off last time with Our Plodding Heroes escaping the Black Wind in the Ways, a creation from the Time of Madness or possibly the War of the Shadow which was also called the War of Power.  (I kid you not, that's the explanation we get, with all of those namedrops.)  They have arrived in Shienar, in a frigid spring, and Lan cheerfully tells them it'll be warm when the get to the Blight, mythic land of monsters and eternal war.  They pass by a lot of abandoned farms--Egwene and Nynaeve note that they were recently abandoned, since the windows have light spring curtains hung instead of heavier ones for winter.  Perrin laughs at this because he's the worst, but when glared at he whirls on Mat to say that the abandoned scythe they saw only had a week's rust on it, which should have made it obvious even to him.

There's something spectacularly patronising about the constant implications that the scariest thing a woman can do to a man is glare at him like a miffed governess.

Rand tries again to convince The Girls to run off somewhere safer, and Nynaeve gets a full page of shutting him down, which is nice, apart from a few really stupid lines, such as:
"I have little liking for any Aes Sedai,and this one least of all, I think."
NYNAEVE SHE HAS LITERALLY SAVED YOUR LIFE MULTIPLE TIMES AND IS DRAGGING YOU TO SAVE THE WORLD.  Other Aes Sedai impacts on your life have included 'nothing' and 'actively trying to cause harm to your friends'.  This is nonsensical.

She also throws in calling them "you boys... you men", which thrills or baffles Mat no end.  Egwene decides to take the opportunity to ask Rand if he's upset that she danced with Aram, because Girl Priorities.  Rand flashes back to Min (SPOILER: one of his three future wives) who told him that he and Egwene were not destined to go at it like a sack of weasels, and then that bit is over with no impact on the rest of the scene or other plot relevance except to mind us of a prophecy that we might have forgotten in the intervening five hundred pages.  This book is so long that it includes 'Last time on our show...' within the same book.

They arrive at the fortress town of Fal Dara, where it's forbidden to hide your face for fear of Fades moving in unnoticed.  In the hands of a better author, I'd be interested to see a resolution of a conflict if heroes showed up (like Rand) from a culture that had strict rules about coverage with veils/hoods/scarves.  A resolution that wasn't just 'well, I guess I'll just ignore my religion while I'm here', but found a way to accommodate honoured guests and the needs of security as well.  The guards are hella psyched to see Lan arriving, shouting "Glory to the Builders!" and addressing him as Dai Shan.  (This might just be generic syllables, as it apparently means 'battle lord' in this world, but I think it also could mean 'tall mountain' in Chinese, written 大山?  I am in no way an expert in Chinese, but I suspect neither was Robert Jordan, and he does seem to want Lan to be vaguely Asian-flavoured.  ...Oh my god, but in Japanese it might be translated as 'big beautiful' this is the best thing people.)

Anyway.  The description of the fortress town is pretty vivid, if only descriptions of mundane pretty things were the reason I showed up to this story.  Lan is also called the Golden Crane, because having only one title is a hanging offence in WOTland.  We meet a bunch of the local soldiers, who assure Lan that things are never as bad as they look in spite of heavy raiding, and there's a lot of use of 'formal language', which appears to be vaguely Japanese--it's polysyllabic, unlike Chinese, but heavy on particle usage (ga, no, ni) and the phrase "kiserai ti wansho hei" appears to be a greeting.  (Or not; it's used later like a lament.  What?)  Agelmar, their leader, states instead that the trollocs are massing for a full invasion, cities are falling, they desperately need hope, and they need Lan and Moiraine to help--Moiraine for badass wizardry, Lan because he is "a Diademed Battle Lord of Malkier" and they need him for "the last Ingathering of the Lances".

So, in case we weren't sure, Lan appears to be the Aragorn of the story, heir to ancient titles and leadership but convinced he can and must only follow the humble path of the outlander.  After dinner, he recites a rhymeless verse about beauty and death.
Poetry out of Lan? The man was like an onion; every time Rand thought he knew something about the Warder, he discovered another layer underneath.
(In contrast, ogiers really are more like parfaits, minus the part where everyone likes them.)

The guards arrive to announce that they found a "madman" trying to get in to see Agelmar, who turns out to be the peddler Padan Fain who's been following Our Heroes since the start of the book.  He's really obviously half-possessed (interestingly, the locals believe that the Light protects people who are insane, and might even be the cause of insanity--is this ever expanded upon in later books?) and tries a sort of good-intentions-tempting spiel on Agelmar before Moiraine does the Vulcan nerve pinch and drags him away for questioning.

Chapter Forty-Seven: More Tales of the Wheel

Even the chapter title sounds done.  Book three, chapter twenty-seven: Yet Another Fricking Tale of the Wheel Are You People Satisfied Yet.  We don't get to see the interrogation, just people milling around impatiently.  Filler filler filler... oh, how delightful, Lan's backstory.  He's the son of the last king of Malkier, which makes him "al'Lan Mandragoran, Lord of the Seven Towers, Lord of the Lakes, crownless King of the Malkieri".  Political treacheries and jealousies explain how the last generation of Malkier's rulers obliterated themselves with the help of Cowin Fairheart, secret Darkfriend.  Lan's parents apparently saw nothing fucked up about swearing an oath to fight evil and defend the Malkieri on behalf of their infant son, whom they literally had holding the oath-making sword while he was in his cradle.  They charged off to fight a doomed last stand and Lan was sent off with a mess of loyal bodyguards to be raised as the ultimate warrior.  He is the best of the best of the best, SIR, and the only reason he hasn't rallied an army (as would instantly happen if he flew his Golden Crane banner) is that he doesn't want to lead anyone but himself to their deaths.

TL;DR: Aragorn.  He's literally Aragorn, with the exception that a lot of people just thought Aragorn was a weird loner instead of literally everyone flinging themselves at him in desperate war-puppy adoration.

So Padan Fain has been a Darkfriend for forty years and a special hound of the devil for the last three, homing in ever more closely on Rand al'Thor And His Amazing Friends, with regular vacations to perform unspeakably vile deeds and rituals that bound him more closely to Satan.  Which... I really hope after all that time he had a better plan for this part than 'walk in and get caught', but it doesn't seem like it.  Also, he was the guy following them back in the Ways that Lan declared they had no time to stop and investigate, and the Black Wind inexplicably spared him, probably because he's full of devil juice.  Nothing else actually happens in this chapter except recapping their plans: Moiraine is going to drag the most plot-relevant people she can to the Eye of the World in hopes of defeating the devil through narrative superiority, time is running out because he's starting to be able to project his thoughts into physical form, and no one else can go with them.  Et fucking cetera.

Chapter Forty-Eight: The Blight

More nice scenery as they march to Tarwin's Gap, the pass into the Blight.  So much scenery.  Occasionally I see something really cool and purely visual, like a photo list of abandoned places, and I think "Hey, 33 places, 33 chapters, I wonder if I could write a book on the premise that each major scene occurs in one of these locations?"  I feel sometimes like Robert Jordan did that, except he had six places and eleven thousand chapters so he filled the rest with dream sequences, bland banter, and unexpected capitalisation.

More description of where regiments of soldiers marched and when--these, at least, are of a different descriptive flavour than the parades of interchangeable inns and Inexplicably Identical Innkeepers we've been living with for all these pages.  Of course, references to the last guards left in the fortress, "soldiers and a sprinkling of old men, their wives dead and their grown children making the slow way south" remind us that while individual women are powerful plot-relevant in this series, women as a whole would never be accepted as regular soldiers for an army that desperately needs every fighter it can to hold back the literal legions of Satan.  What are you, some kind of feminist?

The Blight is all wrong, warm for no reason, and the sun is red despite being high in a cloudless sky, which I feel raises a variety of meteorological questions.  Our Heroes are warned not to touch anything--Lan describes, for example, a stick insect with an unspeakable dissolving venom that can only be stopped by severing your bitten limb.  This is a fantasy environment I can get behind--for whatever reason, I have always loved a vile and malicious wilderness.  Bring on your best horrors, Jordan.

We get a quality lake monster (tentacles with hands on the end, giant stingers, good stuff) before they camp for the night, and Moiraine throws a cloaking field around the camp.  Straight up invisible, I tell you no lie.  WHY HAS SHE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE?!  I can think of a few times when invisibility might have been useful, such as their many, many failed stealthy escape attempts.  If said field is stationary, okay, but they've been interrupted in the night way too many times already for this to have not been relevant.  What in the hell.  What have I said about just randomly giving heroes problem-solving magic, Robert Jordan?  Come back from the dead and answer to my blog for these books you wrote twenty-five years ago!

And one more WTF moment to close the chapter: after Egwene talks about everyone going to Tar Valon after this and Rand becoming her Warder (he thinks about how he's deeply in boners with her but Min said they're not fated), they get to sleep, but Rand awakens to find Nynaeve and Lan sitting up together.  Nynaeve wants him bad, apparently, and Lan doesn't think he's good enough or safe enough.  Plus, you know, misogyny:
"Aes Sedai marry as seldom as Wisdoms. Few men can live with so much power in a wife, dimming them by her radiance whether she wishes to or not."
Even the metaphor doesn't work--standing next to something radiant doesn't make you dim, it makes you shine.  The moon is bright because of the sun, not in spite of it.  Fucking patriarchs.
"Some men are strong enough. I know one such. [....] Will you shame me to the point of asking you?"
Wait, it's shameful for a woman to ask a man to marry him?  Since when?  Why?  Aes Sedai and Wisdoms and queens regnant and Daughter-Heirs--shouldn't this culture be brimful with the idea that women take leadership, take initiative, make decisions?  Why should it be a mark of shame for a woman to decide she wants this guy instead of having to sit there waiting for him to approach her?

And, quite apart from the philosophical questions: what the fuck Nynaeve why are you asking Lan to marry you since when do you care about him at all you have nothing in common and he's oath-bound to a woman you claim to hate--ohhhhhh.  She figures Lan and Moiraine are a thing and she wants in on some threesomes.  It all becomes clear.

The chapter ends there, because the charge towards the climactic semi-conclusion is obviously the right time to slow down for regular romantic subplot speed bumps.

NEXT TIME: In a desperate rush to cram a few more Tolkien ripoffs into this book, Robert Jordan just straight-up copies Treebeard.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Eye of the World, chapters 43, 44, and 45, in which Our Heroes meander through the infinite void

We're close enough to the end of this book that I, ever eager, have begun to look to what we'll be investigating next.  Suffice to say it will not be Wheel of Time Book Two unless something absolutely gobsmackingly unexpected happens in the next 150 pages.  I'm currently leaning towards The Way of Kings, book one in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive mega-series.  My reasons are manifold: I actually like Sanderson's work, but I have yet to read anything of his that didn't still have some substantial issues with women at the least, with some options on implied racism as well.  (He has identified a handful of characters as lesbian/gay, but no one's confirmed in text yet.  Apparently Ranette will be explicit about it in the next Mistborn novel.)  I've also been plagued by friends to read Way of Kings since it came out, but I haven't been able to summon the energy because the first thing that drew me to Sanderson's books was his ability to write fantasy that wasn't a ten-part doorstopper, and Stormlight Archive is his ten-part doorstopper.  So with any luck, a series on Way of Kings will be less painful than Eye of the World, will still give us some issues worth talking about, and might go a bit faster, like Ender's Shadow versus Ender's Game.

However!  I'm always open to other suggestions for reading materials that you, my dear and clever readers, think would be worth a dissection (keeping in mind that I will have to somehow acquire a copy of anything terrible that we carve up, and I have moral objections to giving money to terrible people).  The first alternative that comes to mind is H.P. Lovecraft, whose works are public domain and famously brimming with every possible kind of bigotry.  I loves me some sothothic horror, and it's best to do so with an understanding of how fucked up its great propagator was.  (I prefer instead to reference Robert Chambers' prior masterwork, The King in Yellow, which is hardly progressive but at least isn't gross.)

But before we can move on to such business, we have to finish up this rollicking epic timeless exceptional memorable adequate published book second draft.

The Eye of the World: p. 646--687
Chapter Forty-Three: Decisions and Apparitions

We left off last time with fearful discussion of the safety of the Ways, and open now with Loial and Moiraine taking a couple of pages to spit out that the Ways were a gift from not-yet-fully-broken male Aes Sedai to the ogiers that gave them sanctuary, and they let a person tunnel through time and space to hop across the world.  There's a lot of talk about aspects of ogier culture and magic--the Exile, the Long Wandering, the Longing--all of which are capitalised and none of which are explained.  You might at this point be thinking "Make up your mind, Will, do you want things to be brief or do you want them to explain what every term means?", and the answer is that if you don't have time to explain what a term means, there had better be a good excuse for dropping it into the conversation six times.  If you can use a term that much without having to explain what it means, maybe it's not actually relevant to the topic at hand and you're just bragging about how many things you've capitalised today.

Although the Ways survived the Breaking, they were still apparently tainted by Dude Magic and so began to rot a millennium ago, thus Loial's conviction that they're all going to die.  Moiraine counters, with shocking savviness, that they've heard far too many warnings about the Eye of the World and thus their best move now is to drag the ta'veren there and just let a big ol' destiny pile-up happen.

I'm trying to move at a pace now, but Rand and Egwene haven't seen each other in chapters and they've about to plunge into peril, so their brief scene together is worth a closer look, because oh my gods and monsters.  Rand tells Egwene that she's not predestined and she should take the safe route, not with them, and she tells him he's very sweet but she is plot-relevant thankyouverymuch and she's going anyway.  With her strength and importance thus duly noted, she asks again who this hot Elayne girl is.
For a minute he stared at her, then told the simple truth. "She's the Daughter-Heir to the throne of Andor." 
Her eyes seemed to catch fire. "If you can't be serious for more than a minute, Rand al'Thor, I do not want to talk to you."
Rand mentioned Elayne during his explanation about meeting the queen, but obviously meeting the princess is a heartless fiction meant only to toy with Egwene's emotions and cover up... actually, I can't even imagine what Egwene thinks he's lying about.  Some random girl Rand hooked up with at an inn along the way and decided to spontaneously namedrop in the middle of rambling about meeting their monarch?  This exchange is 100% pure not-from-concentrate Oh Those Hysterical Ladyfolk.  Faith and begorrah.

We get another (final? please?) dream sequence, which Rand recognises as a dream.  He focuses all his energy on thinking about how much he denies the devil, who takes the opportunity to exposit at us: time repeats itself, this is the jillionth time they've faced off and Rand's choices are always to die or to become the Vader to the devil's Emperor, and by the way the Black Ajah (secret devil-worshipping Aes Sedai) are totes real.  Is it just me, or do secret societies get a lot of their effectiveness from their secrecy?  Why confirm one?  If anything, this ought to be a ruse wherein the devil is trying to set the Aes Sedai on an internal witch hunt in order to weaken and distract them.

Apart from that, it's a pretty good creepy atmosphere, but it's still just a dream sequence, so wevs.  Rand awakens to find Mat is still asleep in the other bed and muttering constant devil-denials.  There's still a giant splinter in Rand's palm from the dream, which vanishes when he pulls it out, but the wound remains.  Like I said, decently creepy if we weren't supposed to be in the third act rush to the climax.  Fortunately, Moiraine arrives to insta-mend his palm and tell them to get moving already.

Chapter Forty-Four: The Dark Along The Ways

I've skimmed ahead far enough to know that it's going to take us two solid chapters to complete the 'dimensional tunnelling' adventure.  Let's keep things brisk.  Several pages detail Our Heroes acquiring their horses from the infinitely helpful innkeeper and creeping through the shadowy streets to find the Waygate, which is (all these centuries later) now part of someone's basement.  Conveniently enough, there's an external cellar door big enough to fit their horses, and Moiraine prepared knock this morning.  An intricately leaf-carved wall opens up to reveal a stargate shiny portal surface.  On the other side, everything turns out to be total darkness apart from the lantern glow and an old, broken stone path to follow.

Left to right: Rand, Lan, Egwene, and Loial bond* fraternise on their interdimensional journey.

(*I only just discovered what 'bonding' means in this series, thanks to some wiki'ing, and I'm slightly creeped out.  No, in order to consider someone an honorary sibling I don't actually need to experience a mental pseudo-womb with them, thanks.)

This chapter does not feature plot developments, and is thoroughly devoted to convincing us of how creepy the atmosphere of the darkened Ways is: they move along the road to Islands connected by bridges, where engraved stones called Guidings give directions in Ogier.  (Although according to Loial, it's not enough just to speak Ogier to understand them?)  Rand resolutely refuses to believe that they could have left one Island by a long curving upward slope and arrived on a second Island that is directly above the first one.  I truly and honestly cannot comprehend why he's convinced that's impossible, but he's quite definitive about it.

Everyone is always on horseback in here as well, apart from maybe whomever is leading their giant packhorse, which I'd like to point out is also a mistake.  Humans are vastly better endurance runners than basically any other animal.  Don't get me wrong, horses are pretty good, but the real advantage of horse-based travel is their carrying capacity and the fact that a person in a hurry can switch horses periodically to maintain top speed.  If you're just going to plod slowly along the Ways for a couple of days, there's literally no reason to ride instead of walking.  Walking is the only thing humans excel at.  Our Heroes are just lazily throwing the burden onto the horses who have done nothing wrong and frankly Bela deserves a medal for not kicking anyone to death yet.  Trollocs?  Bela didn't sign up for trollocs.

I know that the slowness of their plodding is supposed to help with the creepy atmosphere, but honestly at this point in the story we desperately need some urgency, and I especially think that racing around through interdimensional voids at top speed could tap into some readers' lingering nightmares:

For film producers' consideration, I submit "Mad Max: Rainbow Road".

The chapter ends when they come to a broken bridge.  Le gasp.

Chapter Forty-Five: What Follows in Shadow

Loial is pretty sure he can still get them to Fal Dara, but they'll have to take the scenic route.  Our Heroes take the opportunity when they stop for the evening to tease Rand and Egwene about all of the reasons they might be jealous of each other: Mat brings up psychic waif Min's crush on Rand, Perrin counters with Egwene's vigorous dancing with Aram, Mat references Else the farmers' daughter, and Rand and Egwene both pointedly and embarrassedly go to bed at each other.  This is definitely the gripping interlude we need right now to remind us that these characters are deeply in love and deserve our attention.

This chapter is also mostly boring, so I'd like to detail again: Rand and Egwene are not in love.  The book tells us they are, but they don't actually like each other.  They have a good neighbourly protective attitude at times and they both kind of want in the other's pants, and that's it.  The only conversations we've seen them have in the last, what, 400 pages have been 1) I'm glad you're not dead, 2) are girls real people, yes/no, and 3) stop being attracted to anyone but me.  That's a truly godawful foundation for a relationship.  (Out of morbid curiosity, I just wiki'd who Rand's actual love interest is.  He basically marries three different women, and by the end of the series at least one bears his children.  Twins.  What.)

Also, Moiraine informs the party that's she's pretty sure Thom Merrilin isn't dead, because he's too plot-relevant.  I am in no way exaggerating.
"And Thom is a part of the Pattern that weaves itself around you three. Too important a part, I believe, to be cut off yet."
If it's possible to survive by being plot-relevant how is anyone in danger?  The hell.  I mean, her corroborating evidence is that no one in Whitebridge had mentioned a dead gleeman--I don't remember when Moiraine passed through Whitebridge, but I question the circumstances in which she heard about a gleeman but didn't specifically get to ask 'oh, when was that and where did he go?'  Is there a good reason I'm forgetting?  I'm not even sure which chapter to check.

They realise the next day that they're being followed, but brush it off as less relevant than pressing on ahead.  Literally three minutes later they find one of the guidestones has been carved up with trolloc runes, proving that the Fades have found their way into the Ways and have been using them to transport trollocs across the country, which is how they were able to build up such a huge army around Caemlyn so stealthily.

Y'all know what?  This is the best plot development yet.  It involves characters actually taking advantage of a feature of their fantastical world and making intelligent use of it instead of just treating it like a curious museum piece.  The devil's power apparently suffuses the Ways at this point, so why wouldn't he use it as a troop transport?  Praise be to Eru Iluvatar, we now have two cases in a single post wherein people make intelligent decisions based on their knowledge of the structure of the world.

Lan investigates and finds that the closest bridge to Tar Valon is a total mess of melted stone and mutilated trollocs--Moiraine concludes that the wizard men who built the Ways also incorporated anti-monster traps, thus quickly removing the tension that the scene had accidentally started to develop.  Some hours later, a different random threat gets thrown at them instead, as Rand notices a slight breeze in the supposedly wind-free void, which Loial identifies as the Black Wind.  You can tell it's evil because it's black, as is traditional.

(One of the many story notions bouncing around in my head has to do with a universe that has largely been overrun by sothothic horrors, and the remnants of civilisation live their lives in space stations that are basically submarines permanently running silent.  For such people, 'black' means not giving off any signals, light or otherwise, that might draw the attention of monsters, and is thus also a colloquial term for 'safe and secure', and consequently for good things in general.  "Everything all black in here?"  "Yeah, we're doing fine."  Creating good slang is one of the hardest things to do in speculative fiction, but every once in a while I find something I really enjoy.)

Our Heroes make a breakneck sprint for the door, which is missing its keystone, but Moiraine turns her staff into a cutting torch, burns through a large arc, and Lan's horse shoulder-checks it out, breaking open an escape route, and Moiraine wards off the approaching wind with her flamethrower while everyone slips through.  In the last moments, Rand can hear the wind muttering, and ten points to Robert Jordan: it's creepy as hell, talking about carving flesh and braiding it back together.  Mind you, it's still just yet another random threat tossed at the protagonists to force them to end a chapter in a sprint.  Maybe in some future book it'll become relevant again?  I would prefer to read a book without feeling like I had to read a further dozen in order to get any kind of narrative payoff.  It has become eminently clear to me that this is the wrong series for that.

Next week: Lan's mysterious backstory becomes slightly less mysterious and possibly slightly Asian?  (I guess that would help explain why he's got a kabuto on the cover.  Maybe not justify it, but explain.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Erika vs Good Morning Vietnam in: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Plot

(Content: misogyny, racism, and their fusion dance super form, racialised misogyny.)

You know those movies that are classics and you always hear about in such hushed tones, but when you sit down and finally watch them think "That's it?" If I had known anything about Good Morning Vietnam besides "It's a movie that is fairly well liked and also has Robin Williams in it", that is how I would have felt. However, I had heard next to nothing about it in any specific way and still managed to be completely underwhelmed. Which was impressive, but not enough to overcome how boring this movie got at times.

So, for those of you who, like me, managed to not actually know anything about this movie, a quick run down: Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) is an air force somethingorother transferred from Greece to Vietnam in 1965 (before people were calling it a war) to work as the base's radio DJ.

A solid hook, but that's kind of where any semblance of a coherent plot ends. He goes there and then things happen and Adrian doesn't really grow or change. He gets out of a slump at one point? So strap in while I tell you about the series of events that are trying to be a plot. Or at least the parts of it that are relevant to what I want to write about.

We are introduced to Adrian's two immediate bosses, and we know they are Bad People who should be shunned and mocked. Why? Because they don't think Adrian is a perfect little hilarious person whose best friend you want to be. That is consistently a metric for how we should view characters. Do they like Adrian: Yes/No?  If no, they are The Worst. Because as we all know those guys who are smart and funny and think they're too good in their cleverness for authority or rules of any semblance are charming, and not arrogant and tedious when dealing with them in real life.

Like many of those other "I'm so funny and smart I don't need rules" types of characters/people, Adrian Cronauer is also impressively sexist and racist. This is also a fact made very clear to us very early. 'One of the first scenes of the movie' early.
Adrian: Mayday! Mayday! Dragon lady with incredible figure at eleven o'clock! Stop the car.
Garlick: I can't do that, sir.
Adrian: Oh, Edward, Edward, you don't understand. I've been on a small Greek island with a lot of women who look like Zorba. I never thought I'd find women attractive ever again. And now that I do, you won't even turn the car around? Thanks a lot.
Garlick: You have a very important meeting with the top brass.
Adrian: Oh! There she is again! How'd she get ahead of us?
Garlick: That's another person, sir.
Adrian: Ah, she's beautiful and quick. Speed up. Check her stamina. This is incredible! Oh, my God! They're quick, they're fast and small.
To further drive the "all Vietnamese women look alike" gag home, when he sees another pretty Vietnamese woman wearing white he insists it's the same woman, and approaches her. She turns him down in incoherent English (HA FOREIGNERS CAN'T SPEAK ENGLISH--except, you know, Adrian hasn't tried to learn a word of Vietnamese).  His completely reasonable and charming response is to stalk her to her English class, pay the teacher to let him take over said English class to try to get her number, and when her brother Tuan (who speaks English fairly well) tells him to back off, Adrian decides "Nah, gonna befriend this kid so I can try to bone his sister".

Tuan makes it very clear he knows exactly what he's doing, but says sure, you can buy me lunch. Kid knows free food is good food and strangers have the best candy. He calls out Adrian for how a lot of foreigners treat Vietnamese women as objects to be bought and boned, and how sex is much less free flowing here and has meaning here, and he's as skeevy as the rest of them for it. He doesn't even know Adrian has been trying to requisition a gingerbread house to try to lure children to base to make stew with them at this point. Adrian doesn't get what Tuan is saying. Why would there ever under any circumstance be something wrong with trying to sleep with a woman? I mean, we're talking about buying her dinner first here, that's like, as classy as you can get! He was even going to wear pants, okay? Adrian's no pig, he wasn't planning to open with showing her his collection of vintage pictures of fresh produce with small birds! That's like, third date the earliest. After lunch he takes Tuan (who is I think about 16) to the local army bar (see? totally classy and responsible), where Adrian's army buddies are trying to figure out how to approach a pack of women. Adrian's answer? Hold up a wad of cash and call them over as if they were dogs.

No, I'm not exaggerating. I wish I were.

It works.

For the second time I nearly stopped watching the movie at this point.

The men who were talking to these women come over and take issue with Adrian having brought a local in (or, as they so charmingly put it, g**k). This isn't actually because of Tuan, but because they perceive Adrian as having stolen their women (because they were talking to them, therefore they were their property and owning people is legal and not at all morally questionable at all) for his own group. Adrian is shown to be a "good guy" because he calls these skin sacks out on being ignorant racists and starts a fight with them (HEADBUTT OF JUSTICE! Only works the first time).  The owner in the background says "it's ok" about how much the slur is being used. The military naturally is UNHAPPY with Adrian for getting in a fight in a civilian owned bar and he faces SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES despite how beloved he is. Hah, just kidding, that's not how the world works for guys like Adrian. He gets yelled at a bit and told not to do it again or else they're taking away his collection of pictures of fresh produce.

Jumping ahead, we have Adrian being shown as being a Good Guy because as he takes over the English class he is warm, friendly, and affectionate to his students, and respectful of the culture. You know, while the source of humor in these scenes is people who are still learning English speaking it poorly and being taught how to swear. Because that's not fucked up at all. Not like these people are paying for a class to try to learn the language of the people occupying their country, instead being told to flip people off. That couldn't possibly endanger them when dealing with hot headed army men.

This is kind of where the movie loses what semblance of the plot it did have. Adrian still goes after Tuan's sister (who was such a non-entity I can't even recall her name) and Tuan, after seeing Adrian treat a group of local women like literal dogs and flashing a wad of cash at them, doubles down and says "Stay the ever living fuck away from my sister or so help me God I might only be like 16 but I will develop laser eyes and set you ablaze with them". HAH JUST KIDDING THAT WAS JUST GUYS BEING DUDES! Besides, he defended him against slur-using skin sacks! So he's cool, plus, he's funny! Tuan: confirmed for likeable. So likeable he and Adrian become besties. We never get shown their friendship bracelets, but you can't convince me they don't have them. Tuan even helps Adrian get close to his sister! Although, to be fair to Tuan, his goal is to show Adrian how hopeless this is. Which he does by setting up a date between the two. With about a dozen odd relatives going as escorts. Adrian, to his credit, rolls with it and takes the whole lot of them to go see a movie, which will later lead to one of the few moments I have zero problems with.

Tuan convinces him to come back home with him (where his sister is) to come hang out later on. It is at this time she tells him "No, we can't date. We're too different" and Adrian very simply says "Listen, I know this can't work, but can't we just enjoy it for awhile? Have a few laughs? I like being around you, I'll take what ever you're willing to give. If that's just being friends that's fine." And when she insists no, this isn't something that will happen? He gives her space and keeps being friends with her brother. Adrien Cronauer: 1, Christian Grey: negative lots. This is one of very few scenes in the movie that makes me think Adrian might be a decent dude. I mean, he's not, but they tricked me for a second there.

Now that we've covered how the movie handles women, let's consider how it handles POC! I will take a moment to give a little credit here, there are two or three minor characters that are meant to be likeable besides Adrian who are white. None of the antagonists are POC. Every other sympathetic character is either Vietnamese or black (not that it's tons, but it's something) but the other two characters who we're supposed to both like and get to know at all are Garlick and Tuan.

I really like both of these characters, but let's start with Edward Garlick because I have less to say about him.

Look at that smile. He looks like a 6'02 teddy bear. This was the only decent image I could find of him not flanked by other characters, so enjoy the time gap image of Forrest Whitaker. So, Garlick is a massive black man. He is also gentle, soft spoken, kind, and well humored. He is nowhere near the "angry black man" or "zany comedic sidekick" tropes which I greatly appreciate. When he gets to be funny, he's clever, not sassy. He occasionally gets to affect the plot, but only in relation to Adrian (dragging him out of a slump, taking over as DJ at the end of the movie, playing Adrian's goodbye tape even though he could get in huge trouble for it). I would not be surprised if he had a small garden of fresh herbs he tried to grow, but wasn't great at it, but kept at it because he likes seeing them grow from seeds so much.

Then there's Tuan. Tuan becomes Adrian's best friend and guide into the world of locals. He's snarky, clever, assertive, and often far nicer to Adrian than I would be. He saves Adrian's life twice, both times from the VC, which we find out in the climax is because he is one. Upon discovering this Adrian looses his shit, and freaks out and screams at Tuan for betraying him. I'll post the excerpt of the script.
Adrian: You used me to kill two people. Two people died in that fuckin' bar.
Tuan: Big fucking deal! My mother is dead. And my older brother, who be 29 years old, he dead. Shot by Americans. My neighbour, dead. His wife, dead. Why? Because we're not human to them. We're only little Vietnamese. And I'm stupid enough to save your bullshit life at An Lac. [Tuan runs away.]
Adrian: Wait. (Yelling after him) We're here to help this country. Where the fuck you goin'? It's unbelievable. Five months in Saigon... and my best friend turns out to be a VC. This will not look good on a résumé!
Not pictured: Adrian sadly taking their BEST FRIENDS FOREVER bracelet off and dropping it in the street as he walks away sadly.

Tuan is trying to fight back against people who have come into his country and been slaughtering his people. Adrian still thinks that he is on the side of the good guys, that they're helping, that they're right, and circles it all back around to himself. He is betrayed. This is going to make him look bad. And this moment is a big part of the reason why I struggle to think Adrian is a good guy, despite the movie constantly telling me so. He doesn't even consider what Tuan just said. The hurt that has been caused to the locals. The dehumanization. He thinks "Well, I'm nice to them" and therefore doesn't think he is complicit in the damage or harm being done. That's basically the movie.  Adrian, since he is friends with a VC, is sent back to the US with an honorable discharge. Before this happens the movie tries very hard to make sure we know that Adrian is in fact a good guy. Don't let his brushing off of Tuan fool you! He goes, plays baseball with his English class (something that had been alluded to earlier in the movie) and Tuan's sister literally comes over to apologize for not being able to touch her genitals to his genitals, because he's such a good person.

One of the last scenes of the movie, on the tail of the first time someone criticize the US for being in Vietnam, is a Vietnamese woman (the sister of the character to do the calling out) reassuring Adrian and the audience that he is still a good man. The movie wanted to say something. That was obvious. But it doesn't. It refuses to. Adrian staunchly keeps supporting the army (his farewell being one last attempt to try and keep morale up) while trying to befriend the local populace.  The movie asks me to see someone being benevolent, but all I see is someone who refuses to have any actual convictions or be critical of their own actions.

Adrien is, after all, Not Like Other Soldiers, (I mean he's air force!) and since he is different and special, he is above judgement for the actions of the group he is a member of and supports. Which invites the viewers, all of which presumably found Adrian charming and are therefore Good People to think they, too, are absolved of judgement for their actions, direct or indirect. After all, they get it! And for people who disagree? Well, that makes us like his evil and unlikeable bosses, and you don't want to be one of those wet blankets, do you? This movie while trying to say something about Vietnam (war sucks, but hey, we were trying to help) is really saying that people being too critical don't get it. It's an approach and mindset that is dangerous and prevalent to this day. The whole message of the movie feels a lot like all of those guys like Adrian, charming and funny and thinking they're smarter than anyone with authority over them, sitting me down and with a warm smile patting me on the knee (with no regard for how unwelcome that contact is) and saying "Sweetheart, it's not that bad. Relax. Learn to take a joke!"  I'm sick of being told to lighten up when protesting a point on the grounds that it literally gets people killed, and I especially don't want to hear that from someone who has a collection of vintage photos of produce with small birds.