A friend said, after skimming this blog, that I appeared to be shredding the author’s work, and wondered if I disliked the books. I can see how anyone looking at the fan sites might take our intense discussion of the minute details as harsh criticism, but we’re only willing to dedicate that much effort in discussing them because we enjoyed the books so thoroughly, and want to extract every last nuance we can. Particularly with a work that is layered like The Wheel of Time, where every passage has meaning, and every plot is inspired by several myths and legends, these discussions can take on many facets, combing over the same ground and finding new jewels to admire.
Knife of Dreams was the last book Robert Jordan wrote in its entirety before his untimely death. His writing had a flavour and depth unlike anything else I’ve found. Which is why I’m spending so much time analyzing it.
After the slow pace of Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams promises very early on to deliver resolution and action. The author accomplished this by establishing several countdowns early on, intending to dispel any doubts that this book would repeat the letdown of the previous book, which was at least partially due to the wait for its publication.
Beginning here, several plotlines directly mention the Last Battle is imminent, creating tension as readers recognize the heroes are not ready, forcing them to make unexpected concessions. Conflicts involving tens of thousands of Trollocs are handled easily, providing a reference that can be used in future books. A hundred thousand men in a battle is no longer a big deal, not when a dozen channelers can face it down without taking a scratch. Echoes of this are seen in Perrin’s rescue, where tens of thousands are involved once again, yet the victory is so overwhelming that the specific individuals he sought to rescue are unharmed by his assault of the city. Hundreds of Elayne’s best soldiers are disintegrated by just one Aes Sedai with a rod that shoots balefire, proving that warfare has escalated to a level where only the number of channelers matter, armies are inconsequential when facing them. The unsurprising surprise revelation that the Black Tower is recruiting men to fight for the Dark One instead of the heroes is enough to put true worry in the reader’s heart. Hundreds of evil channelers could unleash even more destruction and death than in any of the conflicts presented in this book. One thing Robert Jordan has succeeded admirably at is to slowly build up towards the final conflict, edging the scale of battles slightly upward with each battle, and each book. The slow build is a distinctive feature of his writing, the reason why some fans think it’s too descriptive, and others keep finding layers of meaning.
The theme of Knife of Dreams leads into the Last Battle very nicely. The Knife of Dreams refers to the razor-thin margin between victory and defeat. In all of the conflicts in the book, small events turned the course of battle, or could have derailed the heroes’ plans. Just as the scale of the conflicts sets the low end of the standard for upcoming conflicts, the margin of victory established will always be close, and will be narrowest in the Last Battle.
Another theme running through the book is a question about how well the characters know each other. Mat and Tuon’s courtship shows them starting off uncertain about each other but growing confident in their understanding of each other. Rand is hopeful he can reach alliance with the strangers from Seanchan, whom he hardly knows at all. Traitors are exposed in Caemlyn without much ado, just a cynical acknowledgement that people lie. And cheat. The sections dealing with Faile and her romance with Rolan clearly state that she has remained faithful to Perrin, yet the descriptive text is a metaphor for her guilt over her situation, and her attempts to conceal secrets that are to widely known. I was sufficiently shocked at this contradiction, I had to go back to Winter’s Heart to reread when Perrin wakes in Berelain’s tent, and found the text could be interpreted as Perrin asking Berelain what alibi she has crafted. Whether either Perrin or Berelain cheated is not the point so much as them questioning whether the other did. In both cases, the text reads as though Perrin and Faile are unreliable narrators, refusing to acknowledge what happened even to themselves. In a preview of what Rand will later go through, the young couple instantly forgive each other anything that happened while they were apart, accepting that despite their love for each other, neither of them is without flaws. Concealing events that are the opposite of what the characters lived through while showing their point of view is an incredible accomplishment.
If you think you know Perrin and Faile well enough to say they never cheated on each other, ask yourself if you knew Robert Jordan’s writing well enough to say he wouldn’t have written such a thing, or conceal it if they did cheat.
Make use of unreliable narrators to defy expectations and conceal key information.