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Book Review: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Epic/High Fantasy
Hardcover: 784 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; Signed edition
Publication Date: October 27, 2009
ISBN-10: 0765302306
ISBN-13: 978-0765302304
Author Blog: Robert Jordan
Author Website: Brandon Sanderson

In reviewing a novel in a series as popular as the Wheel of Time, a reviewer faces a dilemma: Does the reviewer toe the party line and sing its praises as a fait accompli? After all, a worldwide bestselling series is unlikely to be poorly written, and even its flaws can be glossed over in view of its successes. Or does the reviewer take a different tack and go for the heart, pointing out its flaws in relation to other books in the series and the genre in general, a factor complicated by the fact that the original author is dead and a new author is bearing the torch? Or does one simply seek a balance between the two, neither highly praising nor highly vilifying the novel?

Such is the dilemma I faced when I came to the end of reading The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. How was I to write a review of a work that is likely to gather high praise from most as well as some few detractors? But the truth is my dilemma is a false one. You see, the Wheel of Time series is too deeply personal to me for me to be the objective reviewer I usually try to be. The Eye of the World came off the library shelf at a time when I was feeling a void in my life, a powerful feeling of hopelessness and despair that pervaded my workaday existence. The Eye of the World and its sequels brought me characters who struggled against impossible odds, yet triumphed at each and every turn, even as their own souls were damaged by the choices they were forced to make. This series of fiction brought to me a sense of hope, a joy in wonder. So I cannot be the objective reviewer I usually seek to be. The Wheel of Time is part and parcel of my self, as much a part of my psyche as my family and social upbringing.

The Gathering Storm is a wondrous book. Sanderson has worked hard to be faithful to the work of Jordan, using his notes, his scenes and his outlines. But neither does Sanderson claim that the words within are anything other than his own. “I have not tried to imitate Mr. Jordan’s style. I’ve adapted my style to be appropriate to the Wheel of Time.” So while much of the story remains Jordan’s, there is no avoiding the fact that another author is imprinting his stamp on “the ending of the greatest fantasy epic of our time” as Sanderson’s claims in the introduction.

And what a story it is. Originally intended to be the last novel, in which all the loose and complex plot threads would be tied together, in The Gathering Storm those plot lines that are tied up prove that it would be too much for any one book to do all of that. Reading through the novel makes me glad that Sanderson and Tor, though they may be accused of trying to make more money, are allowing Sanderson room in which to work by adding two more books to the conclusion. Jordan had created a complicated weave of plot, something that made The Wheel of Time extraordinary, but something that also makes it difficult to finish easily.

The Gathering Storm continues the saga where Knife of Dreams left off. Rand al’Thor is attempting to bring the fractured nations together in preparation for The Last Battle, but is having a difficult time as the machinations of Forsaken and human folly make that difficult. And the madness of Lews Therin encroaches on him as his past identity becomes more and more irrational. Even the women in his life seek to control him, just as they have always done only successfully driving even deeper into anger and pain. Egwene al’Vere, the rebel Amyrlin Seat is still in captivity in the White Tower, but seeks to do all she can to heal the rift that has divided the Aes Sedai. Matrim Cauthon continues to hide from the Seanchan and move his forces towards Elayne and Andor. And Perrin Aybara and his wife Faile are trying to get to Rand so that their forces can be with him at The Last Battle.

This novel in the Wheel of Time series is particularly focused on Rand and Egwene’s stories. Perrin and Mat’s plot lines are progressed, but they are small, even anecdotal. The primary focus is on Rand’s internal struggle and Egwene’s external. The balancing act that Sanderson’ performs between the two keeps the plot fast-paced and exciting, following the structure that Jordan laid down in the first eleven novels of cliffhanger chapters that are not immediately followed up by another about the same character.

There are some flaws in the work, as there must be with any sequel written by another author. But these are largely due to issues that I have with the plotting choices, not with Sanderson’s writing skill. The plot line involving the Forsaken Graendal is unsatisfactory. It lacked the excitement and sense of the epic that a reader would expect from a battle between The Dragon Reborn and one of the Forsaken. Though in Sanderson’s defense, he has a lot of loose ends to tie up, and he did use the plot line involving Graendal to further Rand’s story. The story involving Mat and the town of Hinderstap seemed like a short story that was overlong for the one advancing plot device it provided. Though certainly exciting and adding a bit of sword and sorcery to a book given over mostly to dialogue and scheming, it was better left as something to publish in a short story collection. Sadly too, there are no chapters in which Elayne appears directly. While she gets several mentions, at no point do we encounter Elayne in the flesh nor do we know much about how her pregnancy is doing. For such a seemingly pivotal character – the mother of The Dragon Reborn’s children – this is a loss, but an understandable one, as other plot lines needed to be furthered and/or completed first.

Sanderson has proven to be a good choice to finish Jordan’s series. He has approached the work with the right amount of humility, is a fan himself, and has the epic fantasy chops needed to pull such a colossal task off. He has been careful to stay true to Jordan, even including such writing idiosyncrasies as Jordan’s tendency to describe women by bust size, or Siuan Sanche’s use of fish metaphors. He has captured the arrogance of the Aes Sedai very well, and depicts Rand’s internal struggle so that I was easily able to pick up the thread of his character even after not having read a Wheel of Time novel since Knife of Dreams was released.

From page one, I found myself devouring each and every page of The Gathering Storm, desperate for more. Every time I turned the page I had a sense of elation as I felt that same intimacy with the story I had felt so long ago on first picking up The Eye of the World. Finding myself once again in a place where it seems fate is against me, this novel gives me feelings of hope, of pleasure, and of satisfaction. It has been a long time since I took so much pleasure in reading a book, and honestly I want to go back and read it a second and third time, savoring each word, sentence and paragraph for its beauty and its craft. Sanderson and Jordan’s names are now inextricably linked for me, not because they must be, but because I want them to be.