The Towers of Midnight: Walking in a Dead Man’s Shoes

When I was about 13 I walked into the Barnes and Noble in my hometown, where I would regularly troll the sci-fi/fantasy section of books looking for new delicacies to consume.  As every reader of fantasy knows, one must never judge a book by its cover, and least of all a fantasy book.  On this occasion, standing in the aisle with me was an older gentleman, and since I was desperate for something good to read I asked him his opinion on a good fantasy novel.  He picked up a book and handed it to me, and as I sat on a nearby footstool and read the prologue, my life was subtly and irrevocably changed.  The book was Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World—book one of his Wheel of Time series.  I bought the book, read it quickly; bought the second, then third, and finally bought the fourth—which had just come out, only to realize with horror that this series of books was not yet completed.  This was no Lord of the Rings, completed long ago and finished for my consumption.  This was something different, something living and tantalizing in its incompletion.

And from that point on I summarily refuse to read series that are incomplete.

It’s been almost 20 years since that day in the Barnes and Noble, and last month the thirteenth book in this series came out.  Let me say that again: the thirteenth book in the series.  I almost can’t believe it.  Yet, like that famous Japanese dog that returned to the train station each day to meet its master even after the master had died, I return to Robert Jordan’s books—ironically even now that he himself has died.

That was one of the more irritating revelations of the last few years, that Robert Jordan had died, suddenly, his series incomplete, apparently volumes away from completion.  What was the man thinking, dying on us, his loyal fans of almost 20 years! With indignation I read his obituary, despairing that all this work was for nothing, firming even more my resolve to never read an incomplete series.

I was, as I’m sure were many of Jordan’s fans, pleased to hear that they had selected a replacement author to finish his books, one Brandon Sanderson.  Quickly upon this revelation I searched my local library catalogue for some of his books, finding then checking out the first book in his Mistborn trilogy (and why do fantasy authors always write trilogies? Oh, wait—so that they don’t write fourteen-ologies).  I read it with pleasure. Here, perhaps, was an author who could capably finish Jordan’s masterwork.

Beginning his labour, Sanderson announced that the series would be finished in three volumes.  The first, The Gathering Storm, was released last year, and the second The Towers of Midnight has just come out this November.  I, the obedient dog, bought and read it in the week and a half after its release.  What follows are my thoughts about the conclusion of the series (no spoilers).

The book moves quickly, and for many people this is a welcome change, because nobody who reads Sanderson is complaining about fewer descriptions of women’s clothing (that was overwhelmingly underwhelming), and nobody is concerned about the fact that fewer new characters are being written into the story.  These are welcome changes to the series.  But in missing these very things I came to realize just what a gifted author Jordan was.  His descriptions at times could become cluttered, but on the whole they afforded his characters and action an unparalleled richness in fantasy literature.  And so while Sanderson’s take on Jordan moves swiftly through the story there is also a thin quality.  There is a lacking richness, not unlike the experience of ordering your favourite dish at a restaurant but walking away with the distinct feeling that there was a missing ingredient.

What was missing? Well, for one thing, characters blur.  Sanderson is not as gifted at inhabiting the multiplicity of voices in the series that Jordan was.  One page of discourse sounds much the same as another, and the reader is left to draw distinctions for the characters almost entirely from their history, ignoring their present characterizations.  I, the reader, supplied the distinctions and depth of characters from my memories because in Sanderson’s prose they are almost, and very nearly, lifeless.

Many people are extraordinarily pleased with Sanderson’s offerings, and I can understand why they feel this way, with some reservations.  I, too, am pleased that the series is going to be finished.  Too much has been personally invested in it to give up now.  But I see also that to accomplish his goal (to complete the series in three books) Sanderson has sidelined both Jordan’s characterizations and descriptiveness in order to focus on plot alone.  And, to be fair, lots of things happen in this book.  But this observation is key: we must note that what we are left with in these final novels is pure plot—character, characteristic and the world itself are essentially dead.  We, the readers, are reading only to find out what happens.  And while this is a welcome thing for the longtime reader of Jordan, let us not confuse it with being good.

This distinction is perhaps what I want to highlight the most, and the best way to explain it is to talk about food for a minute.  As far as I can tell, people mean two very different things when they tell me that “such and such a restaurant is great! The food is incredible!” For one portion of the population, what they mean by ‘incredible’ when speaking of food is that the food tasted great, that the individual had a great culinary experience and wished to return so that the experience could be relived.  The other portion of the population (and I suspect the larger portion), when they speak of a restaurant being ‘incredible’, in fact mean merely that it serves an enormous amount of food.  They mean that they enjoyed the restaurant because when they left it they were full.  But anyone can tell that these are not the same criteria.  One group eats because they love food, the other because they love being full.  And this is the difference I see in the people who have loved Sanderson’s book.  Those who claim that it’s a great book are actually just grateful that they are full.  They are pleased that the series is ending, and the fact that it is ending is enough for them.  And while I place no inherent value on an empty stomach (I also value being full), it is not the only criteria with which I evaluate my meals (of both books and food).  And in some cases I would rather go without eating than eat in some restaurants.

So, in the end with Sanderson, I’m left disappointed in the same way that I was disappointed with the cafeteria food at my university—not because I’m not full, but because there’s a certain something about eating for getting full, a certain utilitarianism, a certain mercenary dining, which leaves me feeling that I wished I’d fasted instead.  Will I finish the series? Yes.  But I’ll walk away from it with the same relief I felt on the last day I ate at the school cafeteria.

The cumulative effect, I feel, is that this series has become a ghost—a puppet thinly and inexpertly animated by a lesser spirit than Jordan’s.  Is Sanderson a bad author? Not at all.  But he is unavoidably compared to a genius, and the final effect is as if the architect of a cathedral supervised the building of the lower levels with all their elegant and well crafted arches, but left his building to be completed by a follower who, while respecting the original vision, lacked the care, investment, passion, and know-how to complete the job as it deserves.  Oh, the cathedral will have a roof, the job will be completed, but all who look upon it will behold the lower beauty and wonder at the lesser heights.

3 comments on “The Towers of Midnight: Walking in a Dead Man’s Shoes

  1. Joshua Aderholdt says:

    Excellent points! I even feel that some of the audience would have been happy with a chronology of events of the main characters; so-and-so gets rescued, so-and-so dies, continuing until the ultimate end of the book. I am at the point of tell me what happens to the major characters so I can have closure.

  2. Sam Giroux says:

    Before I begin, I will preface my comments by saying that I am in the majority here. I am excited that the end is near and the pacing is invigorating. I feel that in the past, Jordan may have been TOO slow and TOO descriptive at the detriment of the story. And, yes, we have all thought it and said it at one time or another. To use your food analogy, think of a wonderful creme brulee, or an fine class of scotch. Why are they in presented in such small servings…they are rich, dense, and very rewarding. But, a cereal bowl of brulee or a pint of scotch is too much. This is how I felt about Jordan’s writing sometimes. His prose was so over the top at times, I felt I was knee deep in brulee. The words were beautiful and they were no doubt elegantly put together, but 12,000 pages of it was a bit much and the story slowed to a halt.

    What I cannot deny is that Jordan knew and lived his characters. He knew them better than anyone ever could…knew their secrets…knew their desires…knew their DNA strain. He combined this with an ingenious story line and an artistry of legendary hero development. This is the story that Jordan lived for and eventually died for. That is the distinction between Sanderson and Jordan and I feel that you unfairly persecute Brandon here. It would be impossible for Sanderson to match Jordan’s style and perspective…impossible for ANYONE. I feel that an attempt to delve deeper would have hurt the story more. It would have felt forced and fake. I would be like me telling your personal life story from a set of notes you left behind. I could probably hit the important facts and tell it in an entertaining way, but I would never be able to project the depth of emotion or perspective that you would offer. The colors would be less vivid, the textures would have less depth, and the story would be 2 dimensional. I feel that given the circumstance, Brandon should be congratulated on this attempt. Only an expert writer would have captured as much of the style and perspective as Brandon. So, is it as good as Jordan would have done? No. Is it any less satisfying? No…just about 2000 pages faster.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Well, for the most part I don’t disagree with you, Sam–I think Jordan was unique and comparing him with Sanderson is unfair to Sanderson. And I like the imagery of wading through brulee…

      But I think I stand by pointing out that there is a worthy distinction between the books being good, and scratching an itch. We all want to see the series ended, and I’m still glad that Sanderson is doing it (and don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a capable author), but having him write for Jordan reminds me of how much I liked Jordan.

      But regarding satisfaction with the series, well, there our paths will diverge, friend. I will be full when it’s over, but I doubt I will be satisfied.

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