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DARWIN: "Yeah, we were supposed to meet, but he got his book proofs back from the publisher and was apparently horrified by the index. He sent me an e-mail apologizing for the delay: 'We can meet later this week. As an added bonus, if you're interested, I now have many strong opinions on the Principles of Indexing.'"



Robert Jordan, The Shadow Rising (1993) -- While Rand, Mat, and Egwene set off on a Vision Quest through the Aiel Waste, Nynaeve and Elayne hunt the Black Ajah in Tanchico. Meanwhile, Perrin returns home to the Two Rivers, which has been bloodied and battered in the intervening two years since Our Young Heroes set off.

Back when I was reading this series as an adolescent -- at some point between the publication of A Crown of Swords and The Path of Daggers -- the general fan consensus held that The Shadow Rising marked the high point of the series, while later books stumbled under the weight of too many characters sustained by too little plot.

The Shadow Rising divides the plot and the viewpoint characters between two central arenas -- Rand, Egwene, and Mat in the Aiel Waste [the A-Plot], and Perrin in the Two Rivers [the B-Plot]. I am a fan of keeping epic novels tightly corralled: the danger of the genre is always sprawl, bloat, and indulgence. The A-Plot of Rand in the Aiel Waste is well-designed: the stakes are high, the characters have conflicting agendas, and the settings are dramatic. Rand is an active (if anxious) protagonist, rather than a reactive victim of circumstances beyond his control, as in the earlier books. Mat is, admittedly, something of a one-trick pony -- he wants to run away but he just can't, rinse, repeat -- but he is a one-trick pony of the "chaotic good trickster" variety, and my inner twelve-year-old still thinks he is awesome. The desert-dwelling Aiel are coded as a kind of Apache Ninja Bedouin -- the lethal inscrutable Other -- and are therefore totally awesome.

For all of that, the real reason that The Shadow Rising works so well -- and the reason that I suspect it is cherished as the fan-favorite of the series -- lies with Perrin, the Two Rivers, and the B-Plot. At the beginning of The Shadow Rising, Perrin decides to return home to the pastoral Two Rivers, which is threatened by Padan Fain and the inquisitorial Whitecloaks. As a narrative decision, it is roughly as if wingman-hobbit Merry returned to the Shire in the middle of The Lord of the Rings to defend his hometown against Saruman. The Two Rivers appears in the first third of The Eye of the World as a cozy little cliche of thatched roofs and apple cider, but its return in The Shadow Rising is a surprisingly swift and effective way to demonstrate how the big sweeping events of the series -- upheaval and battles and a burgeoning apocalypse -- are experienced at the ground level by the humble commonfolk. (A battle in the Shire feels a lot more meaningful than the clash of faceless armies in Gondor.) Perrin's experiences in the Two Rivers add emotional weight to the novel's other half: Rand's destiny will transform and injure even his bucolic childhood home. The Shadow Rising, in short, distributes its plot priorities well -- for the most part.

Unfortunately, the third plot-thread -- the C-Plot -- concerning Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom, Julin, Egeanin, and Bayle Domon in Tanchico is much more boring and much more forgettable. I'm not sure what this section accomplishes, aside from setting up some future perils (the male a'dam, Moghedien) and giving the second- and third-tier characters something to do. (Reading The Shadow Rising, I had completely forgotten who the hell Egeanin was -- I had to look her up on the Internet before I remembered, oh yeah, the Seanchan captain from The Great Hunt. Right.) There's also an interlude with Min, Siuan Sanche, and Gawyn in the Tower -- but Jordan avoids the plotting problems of the Tanchico section by making the Tower sections short, tight, and intense. (And it helps that Gawyn gets to be a genuinely complicated character here: the revelation that he is bloodily responsible for tipping the balance of power in the Tower against Siuan is surprisingly affecting, given his earlier incarnation as Mister Affable.)

One aspect of this book has not aged well: when I was twelve, I was oblivious to the fact that the romance sub-plots in this novel are awful. The Rand-Elayne stuff is particularly egregious, but Faile's development isn't much better. And, with the benefit of hindsight, there are portents here of coming plot peril: namely, the emergence of the other Forsaken, signaling a coming bloat in the Dramatis Personae. (Thirteen Forsaken? Did we really need thirteen Forsaken? Couldn't we have had, like, five and called it a day?) However, on the whole, The Shadow Rising accomplishes what all epic-fantasy novels set out to do: bind together myriad characters and plot threads to successfully produce a total that is more than the sum of its parts.

(Elizabeth Haydon, Rhapsody: Child of Blood (1999) -- The first fifty pages of this epic-fantasy novel comprise a remarkably awful prologue, which I skimmed, because mediocre-to-awful prologues are a staple of epic-fantasy novels.

Unfortunately, the next fifty pages did not mark an improvement. The characters -- an assassin, a hulking warrior, a feisty prostitute-turned-magic-bard -- seem reasonably interesting as character classes, but they're developed terribly (Rhapsody is kidnapped by the other two characters and keeps wistfully wondering if she should be concerned about being kidnapped), and the writing is consistently off-key: repetitive, overly descriptive, and frequently boring. In short, it feels like juvenilia, and I stopped reading it.)

Peter S. Beagle, The Line Between (2006) -- This collection of short stories had me crying on the Amtrak Northeast Regional. It is my own fault for reading "Two Hearts" in public -- I probably should have guessed that the long-delayed follow-up to The Last Unicorn would not be a bucket of chuckles.

However, while it's terribly sentimental, I'm not sure I love "Two Hearts;" its prepubescent narrator flattens some of the emotional consequences of the story. Instead, the stand-out story here is "El Regalo," in which an eight-year-old Korean-American boy becomes a witch -- to the exasperation of his older sister. Beagle is always good with voice, but he's particularly, eerily good with the narration of teenage girls, as exemplified by both Tamsin and Angie in "El Regalo." (The last story here, "A Dance for Emilia," is also great on voice with an irascible aging actor and his childhood friend-turned-cat, though I think it reaches for unearned epiphanies in its second half.)

(R. D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone (1869) -- I have a fifty-page rule about books: if I'm not loving it (or at least learning something instructive from it) after fifty pages, I abandon ship. Most of the time, books fail the fifty-page rule if they're inept or inadequate. In general, I consider it a virtue to continue struggling through an unenjoyable-but-worthy book. Suffering builds character (and taste).

Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of a PhD program, I'm attempting to whittle down the number of non-research books I own, and I'm absolutely not in the right headspace for second-tier Victorian novels. Under normal circumstances, having failed the ascent up Lorna Doone -- which reads like Sir Walter Scott with a sense of humor -- I would put it back on the shelf and try it again next year. But. Middle of the PhD program. Trying to whittle down books. Likely moving to another country next year. Not all that interested in second-tier Victorian novels that will be taking up space in future storage units. Not all that interested in building character at the moment.

Lorna Doone, I may attempt to assail you again in five years, or ten. But for now, you've failed the fifty-page rule.

...[O]nce for all let me declare, that I am a thorough-going Church-and-State man, and Royalist, without any mistake about it. And this I lay down, because some people judging a sausage by the skin, may take in evil part my little glosses of style and glibness, and the mottled nature of my remarks and cracks now and then on the frying-pan. I assure them I am good inside, and not a bit of rue in me; only queer knots, as of marjoram, and a stupid manner of bursting. [24])

Date: 2012-08-07 07:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] skalja.livejournal.com
It's been a long, long time since I've reread The Shadow Rising, but I always found the B-plot considerably less interesting than the A-plot, at least in execution, even though I agree that conceptually returning to the Two Rivers at that point works really well. Part of that is that all my favorites were in the A-plot and the B-plot was led by my least favorite major character, the other that the Aiel are the coolest culture in Randland, no question. (And probably one of the very few non-Euro-based cultures in Eurocentric fantasy which are anywhere close to being as well fleshed out as the Eurocentric cultures, which is why it kinda bugs me that they are invariably drawn as white people in art both official and fannish. Red hair pops up in other ethnic groups, too!)

Date: 2012-09-09 11:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mutantkoala.livejournal.com
Fair points -- I'm a sucker for Perrin, so I may read his sections with more patience than they warrant. And word on the Aiel.

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