The Gathering Storm
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
There have been a number of well-written reviews for The Gathering Storm. So rather then belaboring many of the points covered elsewhere or echoing the slightly off-putting voice Sanderson employed for a one Matrim Cauthon (though the elderly aunt conversation did have me literally laugh out loud but there was something vaguely Erikson in that exchange) or even summarizing the plot up until this point I will recommend that you check one of the many fine reviews already out there. Instead I’d like to take the time to look at, and praise, the theme that runs through the entirety of novel: identity.
WARNRING: There are likely spoilers below! If you haven’t read the book yet reading beyond this point might ruin some things for you.
The Wheel of Time, excellent (and occasionally trying) as it is, doesn’t to the best of my recollection typically unify its individual volumes under a single thematic purpose. It has always been a series driven equally by character, plot, and world-building. While Jordan has always had certain thematic goals in mind (duty, honor and sacrifice being the big three as I see them) he never (again, as far as I can remember) employed a single theme to thread each of the narratives of a book together. This is perhaps the biggest change I noticed in The Gathering Storm and the threads of identity and purpose run more or less through every point of view in the novel; from the ancillary narratives of Mat, Perrin, and Siuan to the big two of Rand and Egwene. While many of the aforementioned reviews have discussed the rather unnecessary nature, plot wise at least, of the Mat and Perrin sections of The Gathering Storm I would argue that they entirely appropriate given the thematic underpinnings of the novel as a whole. So rather then going for the more obvious low-hanging fruit that are Egwene and Rand I’m going to start by discussing Mat and Perrin.
Perrin has never been the most assured of character; particularly when it comes to who precisely he wants to be. His ties to the violent life of a Wolfbrother and the more peaceful life of a Blacksmith (not to mention his attraction to the Way of the Leaf) tear him in two diametrically opposed directions. In truth Perrin has been rather practiced at avoiding that conflict finding causes to distract him from the question: save the Two Rivers, save Rand, save Faile that served. For a character who has always protested that he likes to think things through he has been constantly throwing himself into action and thus avoiding his own internal conflict. In The Gathering Storm, with Faile rescued and bunch of refugees tagging along we see a Perrin bereft of the purpose that had so recently defined his existence and haunted by his inability to control his battle rage during the rescue attempt. He has given up the banner of Manetheran, desires to tear down his own Wolf’s head banner, and shirk the Lord Goldeneyes name. Unfortunately for Perrin the burden of so many lives means he can’t run away; not that he could ever really run away from himself anyway. While he doesn’t make any huge leaps we do see Perrin take the first tentative steps towards confronting his own inner demons (or wolves) and deciding what path he must walk.
Mat is perhaps the most troubling here. Aside from the shift in tone Sanderson’s handling of Mat and surrounding characters has entailed I think that of our three heroes Mat has always been the one character who, despite his grumbling, has been the most stolid and accepting of who he is. However, we still have a changed Mat here; enough so that I’m almost willing to right off the tonal shift and somewhat wacky humor as a product of his worry for Tuon; almost. Still the Mat in The Gathering Storm is a scoundrel and ladies man who has both suddenly fallen in love and gotten married and, to make matters “worse”, has become a Prince as a result. Mat’s own protestations that he “won’t stop drinking or gambling” are clue enough; even Mat is worried that the married life (even if his wife is all the way back in Ebu Dar) and new noble title is enough to fundamentally change who he is. I think it also important to note that other then Min’s somewhat obtuse viewings and Perrin’s frequently metaphorical Wolf Dreams the specific role that both Mat and Perrin are going to play in the coming conflict has not been revealed in full. While I’m willing to admit my arguments for Mat’s identity crisis are weak I’m not willing to give up the belief that both characters continue to question, or remain unaware, of their roles in the coming battle.
Other “minor” characters find themselves contemplating their identity. The most obvious being Gawyn: torn between his loyalty to his Younglings, his oaths to his sister, and his love for Egwene he is adrift, unsure which path he should follow. There is also Siuan who muses on her sudden plunge to the bottom of the Aes Sedai pecking order which, rather then depress her, actually reaffirms her own identity as a (good-natured) schemer and manipulator; retuning to her a zest for her role as Aes Sedai that the stress and tension of being Amrylin had previously stolen from her. Tuon who casts off the freedoms one title grants her to take on the responsibilities of another. Min, who struggles to find a use for herself amongst Rand’s advisers. Aviendha who is torn between her love for Rand and her duty to her people or even the Aiel as a whole who wonder and fear who or what they will become after ca’a’carn is through with them.
Of course our biggest questions of identity and purpose fall to the two main points of view: Rand and Egwene. The narratives play counterpoint to each other. Rand has become who he thinks he should be, who he needs to be, a thought, as the reader quickly comes realize is absolutely dangerous and potentially catastrophic. Rands wrongheaded belief that he is on the right is contrasted by Egwene’s firm sense of herself and her belief in the importance of Aes Sedai and united White Tower. She is frequently surrounded by other Aes Sedai who seem to have forgotten that importance as the division of the White Tower in two has splintered even further into more competing factions whether it be by Ajah or other more goal-oriented groups. Both characters are sort of axes upon which everything around them turns.
For Rand his assumption that his sole purpose is only to die means that death and destruction follow him not only by his own hand but in an upsetting in the balance of ta’veren powers which are no longer balanced (i.e. more bad stuff happens around him). Rand’s identification with death is further enhanced by a “dream” meeting with Morridin (whose name means death) in which the latter confirms a bond between the two (hinted at earlier by Morridin’s pained look at his hand, the same hand that Rand lost). As we have constantly been reminded in the series the world The Wheel of Time is one based on duality and opposing forces from the one power itself (saidin/saidar), the Dark One/the Creator, and, perhaps most importantly here the chosen champions of Light and Dark: Rand al’Thor and Morridin/Ishamael. When our champion of Light, and thus life, embraces death bad things happen.
Of course Rand’s literal identity crisis has been something of an ongoing theme for the whole series from competing prophecies (Coramoor/Ca’a’carn/Dragon Reborn; and that last one comes with variations from the Seanchan and even Darkfriends) to parentage (raised by Tam, birthed by an Aiel maiden who also happened to have once been Andoran nobility) to memories and a “voice” from a time before the breaking of the world; he has always been a character torn in a thousand directions at once. Things grew worse after being imprisoned in a box by the Tower Aes Sedai (creating a neurosis similar to Egwene’s reaction to the thought of being collared by the Seanchan) and Rand’s sense of self was shattered. In several instances in The Gathering Storm Rand refers to himself as “we” and not in the royal sense; and grows even worse after the second attack by Semhirage. The perennial gray skies, as far as I can tell, are tied to Rand’s sense of self as per the following line from Karaethon Cycle: “There can be no health in us, nor any good thing grow, for the land is one with the Dragon Reborn, and he is one with the land.” and somewhat supported by Rand’s shift in outlook, and thus the brief shift in weather, at the climax of his arc.
Throughout The Gathering Storm Egwene is almost the exact antithesis of Rand. Her surety of self and her love for the White Tower ripples outward in every chapter from her point of view. In fact her ability to influence events almost had me wondering if she was ta’veren. Thus far in the book (and perhaps the series at large) Egwene is the most self-assured character we see. At some point in the series, perhaps with the breaking of the White Tower, Aes Sedai stopped really being Aes Sedai. Elaida’s Tower stopped being servants of all and in truth became servants of one. Even the Salidar camp, despite the righteousness of their cause, stopped serving the greater good of the world in their attempt to overthrow Elaida. While she occasionally expresses doubts internally her outward appearance of calm and composure (or occasionally righteous anger) galvanizes the people around her similar to how Rand’s desire to die hurts those surrounding him. More then anything else Egwene reminds the Aes Sedai of who they were; of their role in the world at large. All of this really does show the other characters, and especially Rand, in stark contrast.
I admit this may have been somewhat of a rambling mess and anyone that has been able to get through the last 1600+ words probably deserves some kind of reward. Alas, I don’t have one to give but thanks for bearing with me. As I said with my opening I am hard pressed to think of any other book in this series that has been so thematically streamlined. The Gathering Storm is a bit of a character study and, I think, works fantastically well as one. It is the culmination of a character’s slow slide into insanity and paranoia and is, for all its darkness, a moving story of a hero’s struggle to find himself and not just the role that destiny has laid out for him. Of course The Gathering Storm would not work nearly as well (or really at all) without the years of groundwork set forth as the series progressed and, as a result, would be a terrible jumping on point for uninitiated readers. I also think that while its prose certainly differs from previous versions it is a work that Robert Jordan would have been proud of; so congratulations to Mr. Sanderson and the rest of Team Jordan it is, unfortunately, going to be a long year.