First of all, I would like to thank Brandon Sanderson, Team Jordan, and the folks at Tor Books for giving me the opportunity to get an early read of the most eagerly anticipated fantasy title of the year. After speaking out against A Memory of Light being split into three volumes, I didn't expect that. And as a big WoT fan, well I relished the chance to read it before most people out there, even though I couldn't post my review until the release date.
The first thing I wish to address is Brandon Sanderson's writing. Like many others, when it was announced that Sanderson had been selected by Harriet McDougal and Tom Doherty to complete The Wheel of Time, I doubted that he was a great fit for the role. Based on his novels, I felt that his and Jordan's styles were worlds apart. Sanderson said himself that he cannot replace Robert Jordan. Yet he intends to remain true to the author's vision. And reading The Gathering Storm, one can't help but see that it's nothing short of Brandon Sanderson's best effort. Which begs the question: Will that be enough? I'm afraid that you'll have to find out for yourself. There are legions of WoT crackpot fans out there who would love the book even if it had been written by the legless wonder Robert Stanek. Others, may not enjoy it as much. In any event, expectations are so high that there is no way Sanderson can possibly satisfy everyone.
Sanderson explains that he didn't try to imitate Jordan's style. Instead, he attempted to adapt his writing style to be appropriate to The Wheel of Time. In some instances, this works beautifully. In others, sadly, it doesn't quite work, and one gets the distinct impression that the character is being played by a new actor. The narrative voice is irrevocably changed, and there's no helping that. Whether we like it or not, no one could write these books the way Robert Jordan would have. Fortunately, he left extensive notes, scenes, and outlines. Hence, even though Jordan is not writing it, Sanderson's words recount the exact same tale Robert Jordan wanted to tell.
And although Sanderson's style doesn't always work well with certain scenes and characters, you can see that the author is doing everything he can to remain true to Jordan's vision. Though I doubted his ability to complete this gargantuan task, I now have faith in Brandon Sanderson. I bemoan the fact that some scenes will never be as good as Jordan would have written them, but at least we know that Sanderson's artistic integrity won't permit him to produce something akin to the latest Dune novels. Whereas Frank Herbert is undoubtedly turning in his grave when he sees the travesty that Dune has become, I have a feeling that Jordan would give Sanderson the thumbs-up.
Overall, The Gathering Storm reminded me of Winter's Heart the most. There are some cool and very important scenes similar to the cleansing of saidin. Yet in order to get to the good stuff, one is required to sift through a lot of extraneous plotlines that don't always have that much of an impact or influence on the principal story arcs of the series. Which, as was the case with The Path of Daggers, Winter's Heart, and Crossroads of Twilight, was what many readers found offputting.
Geographically speaking, the novel is all over the place. The action occurs in Bandar Eban, Ebou Dar, Tear, the Blight, and several other locations.
The pace of the book is decidedly uneven. Sluggish in certain portions of the novel, yet extremely rushed in other sequences. I was a bit dismayed by the fact that the narrative focus can remain on what I consider secondary plotlines for pages and even chapters, and then rush through scenes that we've been waiting for for well over a decade. More than one showdown with the Forsaken suffers from that sad state of affairs. And such face-offs, though long-awaited, leave you feeling as much satisfaction as Rand's battle with Sammael in Shadar Logoth in A Crown of Swords. Another consequential storyline which suffers from the same treatment would have to be the fate of the male a'dam. Known as a Domination Band, its importance has been hinted at since it was first glimpsed in Tanchico. The build-up surrounding this particular plotline has spanned several WoT volumes. And yet, as was the case with the Bowl of the Winds' resolution, the culmination is reached and over with before you know it.
There is a momentum shift in the final third of the book, when Sanderson finally kicks it into high gear. But the first two-thirds of The Gathering Storm suffer from broken rhythm. I felt that there were a number of missed opportunities and a few scenes were impaired by faulty execution.
The characterization is probably the aspect which leaves the most to be desired. I've always believed that Brandon Sanderson would manage to get many of the characters right, but that he would have a hard time with others. Before I elaborate on this, you should know that The Gathering Storm focuses on two characters in particular: Rand and Egwene. If, like me, you are not that fond of Egwene, this may cause a problem.
I felt that Sanderson had absolutely no problem with Rand al'Thor. Though the narrative voice has changed, Rand doesn't feel much different. The same thing goes for Nynaeve (even though at times she seems a bit more immature than before), Cadsuane (who is even more annoying, if that's possible), the assorted Wise Ones, and Min. Indeed, Sanderson steps in without missing a beat. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Aviendha, Rhuarc, Semirhage, and Moridin. The shift is palpable where those characters are concerned.
At the very beginning, it felt as though Egwene was being played by a new actress, but Sanderson quickly regains control of the character. The same cannot be said about Elaida, Siuan, and most Aes Sedai. For women who have been basically ruling the world from 3000 years, collectively they appear to have become rather dense in this novel. Just as it often appears that the three ta'veren don't even have one set of balls between them, it's does seem that brains are hard to come by in the White Tower and the rebels' camp these days. On the other hand, Sanderson did a great job with Tuon and the Seanchan. I doubt Jordan could have done it any better. Another character he seems to have gotten perfectly is Perrin. And another one whose POV worked rather well was Gawyn, whose storyline has been drifting since the battle of Dumai's Wells.
To my ever-lasting chagrin, however, Sanderson pretty much killed Mat, by far my favorite character in the series. He simply tries too hard to be funny, and it doesn't work at all. It doesn't help that Mat's appearances serve absolutely no purpose, for the most part. He appears only in a few chapters, and these bring close to nothing to the tale, other than demonstrating yet again that the Dark One's touch is unraveling the Pattern. We don't see much of Perrin, either, which is weird given that both are ta'veren. No sign of Lan and Elayne at all, which is odd given their respective importance. But I guess that splitting A Memory of Light into three installments will do that. . .
All in all, Sanderson's characterization is brilliant in some instances and somewhat clumsy in others. In a way, this could be construed as nitpicking. The author is following Jordan's blueprint, so the overall plot is as Jordan intended. It just feels weird when long-time characters talk or act so differently. Some fans will find that offputting, while others will just move forward without regard for these things, the way they did through the uneventful Crossroads of Twilight.
Although The Gathering Storm doesn't move the plot forward as much as I expected, there is plenty of things that should satisfy WoT fans. Rand's confrontations with the Forsaken, his attempt to sue for peace with the Seanchan, the hunt for the Black Ajah, the Aes Sedai schism, revelations concerning Verin's secret plans, and more! And yet, as I mentioned earlier, in order to get to the juicy stuff, one is forced to wade through a lot of extraneous plotlines which break the rhythm of the novel.
Sanderson needs to create a better momentum, for too often the culmination and resolution of storylines fail to live up to the build-up. Essentially, this robs those important scenes of the impact they so deserve. He must also be careful with the more emotional scenes. There is one incredibly important scene in which Rand is reunited with someone he hasn't seen in a long time. But that scene turns out to be a monumental failure to launch, with absolutely no emotional impact. And at times, I felt that Sanderson has a tendency to take the easy route, especially with Egwene and Cadsuane's plotlines. Too often does everything falls right into place too easily, which seems contrived and stretches the limits of realism and credibility.
My biggest complaint would have to be that when one reaches the end of The Gathering Storm, you simply don't get the feeling that you are any closer to Tarmon Gai'don than we were at the end of Knife of Dreams. Splitting A Memory of Light into three installment would affect the plot, that goes without saying, but I was expecting more in terms of moving the story forward toward the Last Battle. The pace picks up late in the book, true, but I felt that the first 500 pages or so contained more filler than killer material. Eleven previous WoT volumes were enough of a build-up, methinks, and I thought that The Gathering Storm would at least allow us to witness the beginning of Tarmon Gai'don. Splitting A Memory of Light into two volumes would likely have allowed Team Jordan to do that. . .
Though it suffers from a few shortcomings, I enjoyed The Gathering Storm. It was more or less what I expected, to be honest. And Sanderson surprised me a number of times. He surpassed himself and exceeded expectations in certain aspects of the novel, yet his writing style proved to be inadequate in other areas. But overall, the positive outweighs the negative. And in the end, The Gathering Storm should satisfy the majority of WoT fans out there. It may not be The Shadow Rising or Lord of Chaos, but it marks the beginning of the end of the biggest fantasy epic of our time. So let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time!
Roll on Towers of Midnight!
The final verdict: 7.75/10