I started this book while I was well into Infinite Jest and I needed something else that I could read with the brain turned off so that I could sleep afterward. Infinite Jest was getting me obsessed and The Dragon Reborn was perfect and made me sleep rather peacefully. With such premise one would think I’m already putting the book under a negative light, but that’s not completely true. I’m not masochist, I read slowly and have no time to read (and comment) books that I think are terrible, so if I finished even this one it means that I have at least enjoyed it to an extent. The kind of extent of enjoyment is a key element that I think is rather important not only from my personal perspective, but also in defining what is that makes this series so widely successful and popular.
It is accessible, I’ve already said this before and it’s an important element, but what is truly meaningful to understand is something that was exposed in a snarky review written by this Adam Roberts guy and that I’m quoting:
The writerly-technical term for this is ‘padding’; but the prolixity is such a fundamental part of what Jordan is doing that I suspect it misses the point to object to it. I was reminded a little of Scott, and his swaddling swathes of garrulous prosifying (except that, unlike Scott, by bulk, about half of Jordan’s padding is dialogue). It has specific textual effects; and the one that struck me, on reading through it, is of upholstery. It’s a comfortable sort of style, like settling into a bath; a mix of stiff little archaic touches and chattily modern waffle.
Putting aside the (deserved or not) snark, what rings true for me is that reading this series is kind of pleasant. The comparison with settling into a warm bath is the most fitting he could imagine and one of the most important elements to which I ascribe the success of the series. Calling it in a different way, I’d define this perk as redundancy. It’s the redundancy that stands out in this series and in this book in particular, and that is a strength because in the same way the prose can soothe and ease into a bath, the redundancy helps to ease into a fantasy world and induce “immersion” (fitting word, thinking of baths). This redundancy, despite its negatives, is used as a quality here. It’s not just redundancy of prose style, but also reflects in the way characters are portrayed (idiosyncrasies that have fallen now into parodies well known among readers, with the infinite tugging of braids, smoothing of skirts or all three male protagonists convinced how the other is better dealing with women) and even the worldbuilding.
About worldbuilding. I’m still waiting. I’ve read how the series goes much deeper into describing the world and its cultures. The second book in the series opened things a bit and made them look more interesting and convincing than just a Tolkien-translated world, but this third book doesn’t really expand anything. Characters move and visit some key cities but the way these are described doesn’t add any meaningful depth beside listing some traits and differences. Which brings me back to the redundancy. Cultures are described in a simplistic way, mostly observed through the eyes of characters who know nothing about them, but this helps to define the perimeter of the setting. Nothing in the book appears out of the grasp of the reader. We get to know things in a way that is never staggering or unmanageable and, soon, we build familiarity. Familiarity leads back to redundancy and both have the effect of easing into the story and tag along. This is why it works. It comfortable and familiar, tension is kept under control and the redundancy helps to never feel like missing something important. The more the familiarity builds up, the more the ease into reading. Then he, Jordan, lets it flow.
It flows well even if I consider this book sensibly worse than the second in the series (that I thought was much better than the first, since it was starting to flesh out the world instead of simply mimicking devotedly Tolkien). In a total of 700 pages, the 650 in the middle are a very boring travelogue that doesn’t really add enough to the story to be considered entertaining. The second book had travel, but somehow Jordan was able to put at least something meaningful in each chapter, forming a deliberate structure that I thought was keeping the book going relatively strong. This one is just more ephemeral in meaningful content, it relies too much on the characters’ personalities which I also thought were particularly weak this time. While I didn’t overly noticed the characters’ idiosyncrasies in the first and second book, I felt as if this one was itself a parody of everything readers complain on forums and reviews. An endless stream of repetitive actions and thoughts that were themselves kind of circular and leading nowhere. This gave me a feeling of stall that made the travelogue even worse.
Bad habits in the writing style flare in this book, much more than the second. The whole first section of the book is one long coed sleepover with not one redeeming feature. The plot is rather stupid and utterly fails to build up a mystery that was already revealed as it formed. Characters and plots gets sensibly worse as they get separated and lack the friction and build up between each other. In this book they move on on separate stories too soon and by the time they converge there are only six pages left. The supporting cast is also thinner so, as a whole, I thought this one book failed to build something relevant. It felt too unwound and going nowhere.
Yet there’s something that I consider positive: characters evolve. Even if the book oozes immobility in plot, worldbuilding and characters, at least something happened between the books. This is important because it’s part of a strong thematic aspect of the book that I consider successful: there’s no turning back. As the series starts you see from the perspective of these farmboys and girls too scared of adventure and that would rather just return to their normal life. The book exposes enough of that familiar life so that it is familiar for the reader as well, so you get the feeling of how the scenery changes, you feel some of that estrangement and then nostalgia for the initial bucolic world. All stories seem built cyclically so that defeating the evil will bring you back right to the start and the happy life. Suspect builds, on a series of 12+ books, about plots being cyclical as well, one book copying the one that precedes it with slight changes. Instead despite the redundancy of certain aspects and structure, I felt that the characters are definitely moving on, that there’s no return and that the plot has at least a direction and that isn’t simply folding on itself and repeating. There’s a process of maturation that, even if it doesn’t fully affects personalities (being characters rather dumb), at least affects their roles.
I got again a certain satisfaction toward the last 60 pages, with the convergence. It feels like things start moving again and have a point. Jordan has still the quality of weaving the tapestry and having a control of the big picture, so when the pieces actually move in context this is satisfying, but the satisfaction didn’t last long because the actual final confrontation was stupid. Here comes the usual abstract battle between Rand and the evil guy, leading to one big revelation that left me completely indifferent since it changes absolutely nothing nor feeds any purpose. It’s just one unnecessary deus ex machina that fails even to build surprise (one also wonders why “evil guy” tries to strike Rand only the one moment when Rand is able to strike back). All characters are particularly retarded in this part, even worse between each other which made me dislike this (brief) reunion I was awaiting. Mat himself transformed for the whole book into a walking deus ex machina who can seemingly do everything simply because he’s “lucky”. So he pulls every kind of stupid stunts, makes plots align “by chance”, and even becomes an undefeatable warrior with a staff confronting veteran soldiers and whatever comes on his path. Boring, and on top of a character whose insubordination comes so much as a stereotype that I found it only annoying and arid. A character used poorly. Along Zarine, another character who could be at the very least fun, but that is destroyed by reflection upon Perrin, whose reaction to Zarine is totally pathetic and, simply, dull & unfun. It fizzles. Like damp fireworks.
This book puts aside much of the lore and infodumps that I at least enjoyed in book 2. They were at least shaping things up. Here instead there’s a dearth of ideas supporting the 700 pages. No new ideas, nor novelty in dealing with old ideas with potential. There’s some repetition. Only a very brief glimpse toward the end at the nature of evil, still done better in book 1 & 2. The bad guys are more willingly to say the truth than the good guys. There’s still a gray area that makes the bad side vaguely more interesting than just a stereotypical foe, something that works because Jordan takes it from a deeper truth coming from the real world, but that isn’t used well or up to the potential in this book.
I’m aware book 4 is considered by many the best in the series and adding some to the worldbuilding. Up to this book the setting has been traced not unlike the characters, with very typical and broad traits “borrowed” from real-world culture and often without original twists. I’m waiting for depth or even breadth. The characters still mostly don’t work for me. The traits that define them not only aren’t convincing but they also get annoying and I find myself enjoying a lot more supporting characters (Zarine here despite the mishandling of potential, Thom a bit less than usual since he’s been downplayed so that Mat could put his super powers on display, Loial, Liandrin, Min). I still enjoy the broad scope that sporadically surfaces and hints at more. If anything I found this third book as the most juvenile of the three while I hoped things would have progressed, even slowly, toward a more convincing (and engaging) maturity. Not all is lost and I still enjoyed the book enough to make to the end (and peeking at the first chapter of Shadow Rising, where’s the prologue?).
There are various aspects I forgot to comment, one I wanted to add: I’m aware that the careful description of clothes has been criticized and considered excessive. I don’t agree, up to this book there’s always a purpose when it is used. The way people are dressed is a way to recognize who they are. Not only it differentiates cultures, but it also defines social structure and roles, and what you can expect from who’s in front of you. I don’t know if Jordan lingers too much in later books but here it’s done deliberately for a reason and provides infos that are useful in context. Another aspect is that, as I said at the beginning, I find Jordan extremely easy to read. I can read it before I go to sleep and when I’m tired. Not so much with other writers. There are fantasy writers that I enjoy much, much more than Jordan, yet Jordan is the one I return to more easily. That’s why when I begin to read just the first chapter of the next book there’s always the risk I won’t stop ;)