Winter's Heart: The Wheel of Time Book 9
by Robert Jordan
Published by Tor Books
625 pages, 2000
Buy it online
The End is Not in Sight
Reviewed by David Dalgleish
Robert Jordan's Winter's Heart is being marketed as the ninth book in a series called "The Wheel of Time," but this is misleading. "The Wheel of Time" is not a sequence of discrete tales. Like The Lord of the Rings, which was chopped up by its publishers, it tells one story over the course of multiple volumes. Each volume builds to a climax, a temporary resolution of conflict, but these moments are pauses, not endings. Winter's Heart is best understood as the ninth installment of a single, massive, ongoing novel.
As such, "The Wheel of Time," though not yet complete, is the longest novel in the English language. It is the modern equivalent of the huge 19th century novels that Dickens, Wilkie Collins and others serialized in Household Words -- except that it is bigger, much bigger. Each serialized chapter a huge novel in its own right. There are nine fat books already. There will be several more. Like the pyramids, it is too vast to be ignored. It dominates the landscape and, most recently, the bestseller lists.
The casual reader, picking up Winter's Heart, will not know what to think because "The Wheel of Time" does not accommodate casual readers. Some background is thus in order. In the Third Age of the World, thousands of years after the Dark One was imprisoned in Shayol Ghul by the forces of light, the seals which bind him are weakening. His dread influence is once more felt and his infamous minions, the Forsaken, are at large. Opposing them are the heroes of the piece, primarily a group of villagers from Emond's Field destined to occupy pivotal roles in the unfolding epic. One of them, Rand al'Thor, is the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of the Dark One's ancient foe.
The surface of the tale is cluttered and complex, but the heart of the matter is simple. The prime mover of the story is the conflict between the Dragon Reborn and the Dark One. They are destined to meet in the Last Battle, a confrontation adumbrated in the prologue of Book One, The Eye of the World, back in 1990. The slow turning of the series' plot is always in the direction of this final confrontation, which, according to prophecy, will break the world.
The scope and diversity of "The Wheel of Time" cannot be conveyed in a few paragraphs. It is a compendium of the imagination. It encompasses dozens of venues, literally hundreds of characters, numerous elaborate political and cultural groups, and a cat's cradle of entangled subplots. Picking up Book Nine two years after finishing Book Eight, I had to consult some of the many online reference sources devoted to the series in order to recall who is who and what happened when. Jordan is not much of a stylist, but he is a fastidious and cunning storyteller; the plotting is intricate, requiring patience and concentration on the part of the reader. It is a testament to his craftsmanship that so many readers remain devoted to the series despite the lengthy breaks between books -- a noteworthy accomplishment in this era of dwindling attention spans.
The glacial pace of the past few books has been frustrating, however. While Books One to Four were good enough to ensure that I, and millions of others, would keep reading, Books Five to Eight suggested that Jordan's seemingly limitless faculty for juggling multiple storylines had reached its limit. He substituted dithering for plotting, devoting lengthy passages to fetishistic descriptions of characters' clothing, the weather, the minutiae of the physical surroundings. The inertia of detail braked the momentum of story.
Winter's Heart, however, is encouraging, even though trivial romantic dilemmas and periods of pensive inaction still tend to overshadow the momentousness of what is going on. It is not a swift book, but at least it moves. The long final chapter in particular is a showcase for Jordan's strengths as a writer. It depicts a battle involving 30 or 40 people, and Jordan switches amongst a dozen viewpoints, but there is no confusion or excess; the scene is handled with precision and economy of effect, providing a memorable final flourish and expertly setting the stage for the next book. The rest of Winter's Heart isn't nearly as good, but it is good enough. And it seems, for the first time, that Jordan is tying together old loose ends instead of dangling new ones. The end is not in sight, but it is now possible to believe that an end exists.
Jordan's habitual failings are also evident in Winter's Heart. Like too many of Tolkien's heirs, "The Wheel of Time" suffers at times from banal characterizations, unsubtle prose, a deep-rooted conservatism and sexual prudishness. It is distinguished from its cousins, however, by its scope and ambition. In 6,000-and-counting pages, Jordan employs every traditional high fantasy motif and plot device, shamelessly plundering the riches of his literary forebears and daring to put all of the stolen loot on display at once. His ambition is greater than his talent, but his talent is sufficient. There may not be a genuinely original idea in "The Wheel of Time," but there are still a lot of ideas, and Jordan's handling of them is at worst competent and at best inspired. It is by no means the greatest fantasy novel, but it is, in a sense, the ultimate fantasy novel: it exhausts the genre. | December 2000