Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Wheel of Time Reread: A Crown of Swords

Welcome back, dear readers, to The Wheel of Time Reread. Today we’re going to talk about A Crown of Swords, the seventh book in the series.

We’ve been on a *journey* thus far, but we’re here at the midpoint of the series (not counting New Spring as part of the main series, though we may well include it in the Re-read, either at the end or in publication order after Crossroads of Twilight) and it’s been a wonderful journey. My memory of A Crown of Swords is that this novel is square up in the midst of the “not much happens” part of the series (beginning with the previous novel, Lord of Chaos) - though this re-read will tell me if that’s actually the case.

In order to figure that out, though, I need to actually start the conversation and work my way through the book. Along the way there will be spoilers. It’s all spoilers at this point. For everything. .

One thing I’ve noticed reading A Crown of Swords is that Robert Jordan’s prologues are basically the “Cold Opens” from television shows. Some of the earliest prologues would give a significant scene from a part of that story that we would not typically get as part of the narrative, but now it’s “let’s just spend more time in Elaida’s head” - which is effective and obviously comparing anything to the “Dragonmount” or even the one with Bors in The Great Hunt is a loser’s game, but it does lessen the “specialness” of the prologue, for lack of a better term.

A Crown of Swords offers the fallout from Dumai’s Wells, which is happily not nearly as long as the upcoming novel length fallout of the climactic event of Winter’s Heart - which needed to happen, but there is certainly a bit of lessened impact because we’ve already seen Dumai’s Wells and now we’re recapping it from the perspectives of other characters. The end result, though, is Aes Sedai are prisoners and others have sworn loyalty to Rand and are furious and confused about it because they certainly didn’t plan to do so but were ta’verened into the whole thing (not to mention Mazrim Taim’s iconic “Kneel and swear to the Lord Dragon, or you will be knelt” - which is from the end of Lord of Chaos but plays out here).

The real fallout from Lord of Chaos and Dumai’s Wells is that Rand is so intensely focused on the need to be “harder” and unbending to face what’s coming and to never trust again. It’s about as pleasant to read as it sounds, which is why I also really appreciate every time the novel steps away from Rand. It’s kind of fascinating how a series can be so successful for me when everything I like about it is NOT the protagonist. That owes a lot to the story structure because there really isn’t a single main character. This is all ultimately about Rand and being the Dragon and facing the Dark One and the Last Battle and Using Capital Letters but the only way any of that occurs is because of everyone else. It really takes a village to save the world. Thank you, Emond’s Field.

But, to return to Rand’s quest to become an unbending stone, let’s talk about Cadsuane.

Cadsuane! I’m fairly certain that I really didn’t like this character when she was first introduced, but now all I can do is fantasy-cast Shohreh Aghdashloo as Cadsuane because she would be absolutely fantastic if the show gets deep enough to introduce Cadsuane. That’s how I read the character now and my brain rejects any interpretation to the contrary. To the book character, though, we have one of the most powerful Aes Sedai who will not settle down into strictly political power because she believes in the work she’s doing out in the world. She’s a bit of an analogue to Moiraine without the interpersonal baggage that Moiraine has with Rand, and that might have been another issue I had with the character back in 1996 when this was first published.

Now - I dig how she swoops in with very little build and bullies herself into such a prominent role. To compare to the show one last time, the show has at least introduced her name multiple times so that if she appears they’ve been seeding her for a future appearance. This obviously has nothing to do with the book, where we’re blindsided by Cadsuane’s appearance / introduction.

She’s brash (but not brassy) and is absolutely in control of any moment she places herself in. I almost said “any moment she finds herself in”, but Cadsuane doesn’t find herself in particular moments, she commands and controls those moments. She is a legend of an Aes Sedai, long rumored to be retired, if not dead, longer lived than most Aes Sedai, and up until the time of the series the most powerful channeler in perhaps a thousand years.

Cadsuane straight up forces herself into Rand’s orbit with a stated goal to teach him to remember laughter and tears. She knows what’s up and what is needed and even though she’s a terrible bully she doesn’t have time for anyone’s shit.

To further that, there is Min’s vision:
It's Cadsuane. She is going to teach you something, you and the Asha'man. All the Asha'man, I mean. It's something you have to learn, but I don't know what it is, except that none of you will like learning it from her. You aren't going to like it at all.
The funny thing is that Cadsuane is not as large of a part of A Crown of Swords as the time I have spent on the character would suggest. She looms large.

In things that have nothing to do with Cadsuane, the Mat and Tylin “relationship” begins, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s played for humor (and I think I enjoyed it when I was younger) but that’s fully gender based. If this was flipped and Mat (or some king) was pushing his attention on a younger woman it would correctly be viewed as assault. Especially since we mostly see these scenes from Mat’s perspective and he’s uncomfortable with what’s happening.

I really enjoy Elayne coming more into her own as an Aes Sedai - this is different from Egwene’s journey because Elayne was trained into leadership and raised with an expectation of authority, but learning authority is different than using it and being accepted into it. So when Elayne finally uses her command voice and talks down the Aes Sedai in Ebou Dar and controls the expedition - it plays really well - which while leading directly towards The Bowl of Winds, it’s the gathering of the Kin, cast out and never made it wilders and those not permitted to train as Aes Sedai - with dwindled numbers, there are as many Kin as there are full Aes Sedai out in the world.

Reading The Wheel of Time is an experience of encountering fantastic moments, and it’s always a question of how much you enjoy the journey. Elayne being accepted as an Aes Sedai and bringing the Kin into the fold of the White Tower (albeit the rebel White Tower with the assumption that Egwene and Salidar will prevail) is a journey that I absolutely enjoy. Also, the way that Elayne and Nynaeve discover the Kin when it’s been an otherwise open secret for The White Tower is significant - and it’s probably as significant of a future change for the Aes Sedai as anything that happens in this series (I mean, besides actually winning The Last Battle).

A Crown of Swords is also the book where Nynaeve finally breaks her block that prevented her from channeling unless she was angry and it’s given sufficient time to breathe. Nynaeve is almost killed, and how she was about to drown is what settled her to enough peace that she could just focus and get to work on channeling and then Lan is there - finally - and she can freely channel now and has no chill and pretty much married him on the spot and it’s all a whirlwind but the sequence is what the character needed.

I do also appreciate the moments of Forsaken plotting amongst themselves, though it’s always frustrating when a character leans in to tell someone else their grand plot, and Robert Jordan cuts away from that revelation. The most we get is something like “let the Lord of Chaos rule”. Thanks, Mr. Jordan. Thanks.

It’s all incredibly vague, but those glimpses are still appreciated. Plus, we have the path and punishment of Moghedien after her escape from Salidar (with help of Halima / Aran’gar). Additional chances are given by the Dark, but there is a significant cost and consequence for those failures.

I’ve also ignored, to this point, the arc of Egwene working to solidify her authority as Amyrlin. I have thoughts about how this might be introduced as a concept in the show, but really what’s happening is a mirroring of Rand’s plotline with individual Aes Sedai swearing an oath of loyalty to her as Amyrlin.

On this re-read, some ten years after I last read any Wheel of Time, I’m enjoying the experience - especially on the stretches when it corresponds with watching the tv show. The combination of reading the books while watching the show really has me fired up about Wheel of Time.

Next up, The Path of Daggers, in which things happen (probably). Plus: Tedious kidnappings, reclaiming a throne, weather magic, armies clash, betrayals, oaths are given.

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