Monday, June 19, 2023

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Fires of Heaven

Welcome back, dear readers, to The Wheel of Time Reread. Today we’re going to talk about The Fires of Heaven, a novel of which I remembered far less than I expected, especially in comparison to how much I clearly remembered the events of the first four books. Midway through, I had several moments of asking myself “is this the book where X happens?” and then continuing on as if I can see the threads of the story leading to where I think they are going to go.

It’s worth noting, I think, that I’ve been in a fairly significant (for me) reading funk the last few months and I really don’t know why or quite how to kick myself out of it. I’m still reading, that’s a core part of my identity, but I’m only finishing between 4 and 7 books a month. I know that’s a lot for some, but it’s fairly small by my standards. Maybe I’m picking the wrong books at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, but even books I expect to love are a struggle right now.

What hasn’t been a struggle, though, is reading The Fires of Heaven. This book has been a compulsive joy.

It also occurs to me that this could be the final time I read The Wheel of Time. At most, I have one more re-read in me in a couple of decades when I’m retired, imprinting myself into a reading chair, and feeling nostalgic. I had a birthday earlier this year and I’m feeling a little nostalgic as it is, which probably explains why I have this urge to re-read Dragon Prince, Deryni, Recluse, Pern, Crystal Singer, Riftwar, and pretty much everything else I read as a teenager. I’m having a moment, which is as good of a bad segue as I am likely to get to roll us into a discussion of the book.

There will be spoilers for everything. You have been warned.

The core storyline of The Wheel of Time is Rand Al’Thor marching ever closer to his Final Battle against The Dark One. It is almost never the most interesting storyline in any of the novels. Everything revolves around Rand, but he is the cipher being pushed and pulled while digging in his heels until he is ready to make whatever move he thinks will get him closer to uniting the world behind his banner and against the Dark One.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Rand is all of twenty years old - though he, perhaps moreso than Perrin and Mat, argue like the very young adult that he is. Rand’s maturity is hard won, and - as we will see deeper in series - becomes coldly dictatorial.

I’m also not sure what it says that a lot of what I appreciate in The Wheel of Time is when the story steps away from Rand - though there is also a distinct lack of Perrin in this novel. So really what I appreciate is Mat, once he starts on the path The Fires of Heaven sets him on and the story of the Super Girls.

For example, I note the increasing maturity of Egwene after having trained under the Aiel Wise Ones, which sets up my favorite storyline in the series a bit earlier than I had anticipated. She’s now acting and speaking with a sense of authority, even to her friends and in particular not when speaking to the Wise Ones (nothing will give her that authority as a student). It’s a character beat that is so strong in Knife of Dreams, but it begins here.

Nynaeve had her Crowing Moment of Awesomeness in the previous book, The Shadow Rising, when she straight up beat and captured Moghedien, one of the Forsaken. In The Fires of Heaven, Nynaeve is caught by Moghedien and this time isn’t able to take down a Forsaken - because apparently they are really freaking strong and skilled at using their powers. The end result is that Moghedien almost dies of an arrow to the chest and Birgitte is ripped from the World of Dreams and, rather than being born out into the world as a baby, is dropped into the world with all of her knowledge and bonded as Elayne’s Warder so that Birgitte can survive.

Speaking of Birgitte, we haven’t talked much about her at all beyond a quick mention after the last book - but in Randland (for lack of a better term) - there have been heroes throughout the ages who are born again and again and are heroic again and again to the point that - if you remember the Horn of Valere from The Great Hunt - can be called back to fight in the Last Battle (or anytime the horn is blown). Birgitte is one of those heroes who….live, again for lack of a better term, in “The World of Dreams” until she is next born out into the world to grow up into another hero - but now she’s live an in color and with full knowledge of who she was and is. It’s a fascinating idea and in this book and beyond, it really really works.

Late in the novel Nynaeve and Elayne make it to Salidar where the rebel Aes Sedai are (remember the coup in the White Tower?) and after meeting up with Siuan Sanche and Leane (former Amyrlin and her Keeper, both deposed and stilled / cut off from the magic) Nynaeve immediately starts thinking “i can heal stilling” - which is a perfectly normal thing for Nynaeve to think and a completely bug nuts insane thing for anyone else in the world to truly comprehend because it is Just Not Done.

There’s probably a phrase for this in fiction and there is certainly something to be said for learning the the traditions of a place and rising up through the ranks and gain power and enacting change that way (it’s the entire basis for Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade / Traitor Baru Cormorant series) - but it is also a lot of fun when these less trained but incredibly talented and determined young people just come up with answers and paths and solutions because they don’t know they can’t. Of course, they’re also not exactly making friends and influencing people at the same time - but hey, the Last Battle is coming and we use capital letters when we talk about it so sometimes change is necessary.

The Fires of Heaven is the book where a lot of things happen, and by that I mean this is the book where I am continually surprised that a particular thing occurred here.

*This is the book where Masema (remember him from The Great Hunt?) becomes The Prophet, thus beginning one of my least favorite storylines in the entire series. Seriously. Fuck that guy.

*This is the book where **** kills Asmodean, which sparked YEARS of theories and arguments on various message boards and cheerful avoidance of the answer by Robert Jordan himself until it was finally and officially revealed in The Towers of Midnight and was ultimately a bit anticlimactic but what else can years of speculation result in.

*This is the book where Mat gets his moment when the memories of past generals pushes him to get his Band of the Red Hand, taking over a partial battalion mixed with soldiers from Tear and Cairein. There is a moment where he glances at a map and instantly comes up with pretty much the same battle plan that Lan and another general had already worked out and which all leads into what is generally a fun storyline of Mat becoming one of the Great Generals of the era.

*This is the book where we get a much stronger bleed through of Lews Therin into Rand’s head and we get Rand talking to / arguing with his past life. I believe this began in the previous novel but now Rand is noticeably nervous about it.

*Finally, This is the book in which Moiraine has her own crowning moment of awesomeness in a fight against Lanfear. I spent most of the novel wondering if this was that book, because that’s something I remember happening, and Moiraine spends the entire novel with a frantic sense of urgency that she needs to teach Rand everything she can to prepare him - almost as if she knows (and she may, having gone through the ter’angeal rings assuming it’s not the other doorway) that her time is short. But she doesn’t know how to say it or may be something she can’t say.

But then when it actually happens it is not actually a real crowning moment of awesomeness, rather more of a resigned charge of desperation in how it plays out when Moiraine and Lan are each tossed to the side and Lanfear is working on crushing Rand when she (Lanfear) realizes that she will never have him and that was the only thing holding her back from truly going after Rand - the thought that she could turn him to love her and serve by her side - but somewhen Lanfear had been told that Rand / Lews Therin had been with another woman - and Lanfear is incandescent with fury about Aviendha.

The result of that is the Resigned Charge of Desperation has Moiraine taking out Lanfear and pushing both of them through one of the special ter’angreal doorways which severs Moiraine and Lan’s warder bond and the assumption that Moiraine is dead - though I’m pretty sure I wondered for the rest of the series if she was really dead. When future books start reincarnating some of the bad guys and we never see Moraine’s body, maybe she is only Mostly Dead as Miracle Max once said.

Well, that’s it. Thank you for continuing on this journey back through The Wheel of Time with me.

Next up, The Lord of Chaos, in which things happen (probably). Plus: Rand in a box, magical healing, dueling Amyrlins (but not really), an epic battle, bonus Forsaken, a queen in hiding, black towers, and the return of Perrin.

Previous Re-reads
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt
The Dragon Reborn
The Shadow Rising

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him