Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Path of Daggers - Chapters 16-19

In this section, Egwene blindsides the Sitters to take control of the rebels

Egwene’s entire battle with the Hall is resolved through a familiar trick, the last-minute introduction of a rule that the opponents must follow. This turns up frequently in stories, usually with the heroes making a plan just before the final confrontation, but the reader is not told what the plan is until the very moment the trap is revealed, the secret allies name themselves, and they achieve victory. Sometimes the revelation is logical and satisfying, other times it comes out of nowhere and leaves the reader flat. Let’s analyze how well it is pulled off here.

The plan is to get the Hall to vote in favour of declaring war, which will hand a great deal of power to Egwene personally. She will rule by edict, and the Hall will not be able to stymie any of the edicts she puts forward. The Hall must then be sufficiently motivated to declare war, but must not be aware of the implications of that vote. Egwene also has time against her, because the opportunity to declare war can be usurped by one of the Sitters if she does not act quickly enough.

Egwene must:

1 Learn the Law of War

2 Keep the Sitters from learning her plan or the Law of War

3 Call a question of war before time runs out

4 Convince the Sitters to vote in favour of war

Of these, only the second is given to the reader initially, and that only partially, as we see Egwene undertaking actions to accomplish the fourth. An army in the rebels’ path is the catalyst Egwene has been waiting for.

Half of Egwene’s loyal Aes Sedai travel north to meet with the army blocking their way, though we are not told why, while the others spend the morning reminding the rebels of something, and we are again not told what. This creates a sense of anticipation but also frustration, since we have no context for any of the actions taking place.

We also have no context for why Egwene is suddenly reversing her constant insistence they keep moving, except that it relates to her plan. In the camp, Morvrin corners Takima, who is the only Aes Sedai who knows the Law of War, but the relevance is completely lost since there is no context for the confrontation yet. Aran’gar has killed Egwene’s maids, but that has no bearing on the current plot, other than a long-term goal of trying to keep Sheriam and her maid close to Egwene to learn the plan.

Egwene’s anticipation of victory is palpable, yet she feigns meekness for what she hopes is the last time. This is the only part of the plot which depends on her behaviour or character, since with a clear plan laid out she could do the rest in her sleep. This is a weakness of the plot, because it all depends on predetermined rules and events. We get to see events unfold, but it’s not surprising to Egwene, and the potential threat of failure is diminished in our eyes. Romanda and Lelaine’s sparring suggests the time for Egwene’s plan to come to fruition is very soon, before either of them succeeds in undermining the other and taking over the Hall. Added to the list of successful and awful Amyrlins, the one thing the reader does understand are the stakes.

Another sub plot is introduced when Siuan notices too many of the Sitters are too young. The answer only matters in the long-term, but is better introduced now so this sub plot can be delved into immediately in a future book.

The threat of timeliness is introduced when both Lelaine and Romanda learn of the meeting with the army, and deliver ultimatums to Egwene. Egwene clings to her meekness, and the non-specific language used is designed to convince even the reader that she is almost chastened. Then the first surprise is revealed at the last possible moment of the chapter: “Siuan, they couldn’t have handed me the Hall better if I had told them what to do.” This sentence flips the meaning of the entire chapter on its head. All of the negative emotions felt by character and reader are not signs of imminent failure, but of success. At this moment, the reader does not know what is going on specifically, only that it is going the way Egwene wants.

The rebels march towards the Murandians and Andorans, with the showdown looming over them. A possible threat is revealed in the form of Talmanes, leader of a third army who continues to trail the rebels. Once again, we think Egwene is enduring unfair treatment from her hosts on the ice, until we are reminded that her loyal Aes Sedai rushed out here to meet with them before Egwene showed up. When they refuse passage, they are doing Egwene’s bidding, and the whole meeting is a show put on to prod the Hall. The army barring their progress is a secret ally, whose function is to openly doubt the rebels, whether they know it or not.

Once Egwene meets with the nobles and Talmanes, we realize she is unconcerned with their actions, all her attention is on the Hall and keeping them from wresting control from her. As soon as they return to the rebel camp, a meeting of the Hall is called. Siuan and Egwene go over the plan one more time, but we continue to be kept in the dark.

Finally, the moment comes. Egwene hastily calls her question about war before anyone else can speak, and the battle is almost won. Takima has the power to speak up just as Talmanes and the nobles did, but keeps silent. We still don’t know how she can undo Egwene’s power grab, until it is made clear it is her knowledge of the Law of War that matters, a Law we had never heard of up until now. A few short impassioned speeches later, consensus is reached. And with that, Egwene can reveal the power they have just invested her with. The reader is likely pleased that Egwene has pulled a fast one on the Hall, but is less impressed with learning about a Law that must be followed just before it comes into play.

Robert Jordan decided to write this scene as a mystery, keeping the method secret, but revealing the motive, the players, and elements of the plan as it became necessary. Had he discussed the Law of War in any detail earlier, that suspense would have lost, and he would have had to play up some other aspect to keep the reader’s interest. The resolution would have been obvious to the reader and would not sustain their interest. Can you think of another way these chapters could have been handled that maintained the reader’s interest? As a consequence of the mechanism Egwene uses to take power, Jordan was forced to use the least worst of several bad options to try interest the reader, resulting in a narrowly believable resolution with only mild suspense. It is not a strong way to carry the reader through the middle section of the book, but ending with Egwene firmly in charge mitigates the dissatisfaction.

Writing lessons:

Contrived solutions to the character’s problems can lose the reader’s interest. As much as you try to avoid telegraphing the surprises to the reader, also be aware of giving them too little and making them disbelieve the solution you present.

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