A Crown of Swords, the seventh installment of the Wheel of Time series, marks a turning point – and not one that led to better things. This was the book I picked up all those years ago with the reaction “???” Closely followed by “!!!” This was the book about which I made notes, still kicking around somewhere I’m sure, about how wide the margins got and how big the text got, and, subsequently, how much the word count lessened. This was where the series really began to look a bit threadbare.
It’s still a shock to close the previous installment and open this one to see text a good point or two larger, along with margins squishing the text area down considerably. Also, there’s the simple problem that, for a very long time … nothing happens. That was the complaint I heard from a lot of readers in a lot of reviews about several of the books, and I always refrained from jumping onto that bandwagon – but good grief. It’s one of the only status updates I made on Goodreads in the first half of 2014, when I was conducting the Big WOT Read: “Three hundred pages in – the length of a good many books – and so far? Rand has gone from Point A to Point B, Egwene has had a headache and done some thinking, Nynaeve and the others have gone from Point C to Point D, and Mat has watched a horse race. The print is larger, the margins larger, the book is shorter, and NOTHING is happening. Now I remember why I stopped reading WOT.” That’s it. No exaggeration, no sarcasm – that’s literally what happens. It’s a bit mad.
In the second half of the book, a few things happen – still not much – but in a way it’s worse. Because the second half of the book largely consists of Mat being sexually harassed, and … um… a couple of other things. Oh, and then near the end Mat has a building dropped on him, and that was it for him for a while. Was he dead? I didn’t think so, because of all the prophecies that had been made for him that hadn’t seen fulfillment … but I didn’t know, because as far as I remembered his wondering where his flaming luck went was the last time his name was even mentioned for several books. My memory is not great, but I very clearly recall being outraged as I finished the next book – and the next – and the next – without any kind of resolution to the situation. Or even, iirc, any of the other characters even wondering about the situation. “Where’s Mat, I wonder?”: never happened.
The writing even at this point was still entertaining. The worldbuilding was still impressive. As I may or may not have said before, I have to hand it to RJ: he credibly came up with a number of devices which allow his characters to move great distances in short amounts of time, which kept the sprawl of the story from holding up the telling of the story. (THAT’s not what holds it up.) Enough – just enough – happened to retain interest, to keep a reader (me, at least) from denting a wall with the book and giving up on the series entirely … in fact, new mysteries still popped up (along with lots of new characters) which … at this stage in the game it was a study in endurance.
The problem is … no, not The problem. There are a few. *A* problem is the well-worn rut the writing has fallen into by this point. Fallen, and in the classic bad commercial parlance, can’t get up. Nynaeve, who should be a strong character, is a walking collection of tics – but then, most of the women are. I’d love to get hold of this book in an editable form, and remove all the braid-pulling, skirt-smoothing, stalking, glowering, and catfights. It would be a novella. If I was then able to remove all the instances in which men pondered how little they understood women, and women pondered how little sense men had … and if all mention of clothing, men’s or women’s, with the silks and feathers and scrolls on sleeves, and my lord why should I have to know what color every single person is wearing unless it’s relevant (which, once in a great while, it is) … I think this review might contain more words than the abridged book. It’s a shame; the braid-tugging didn’t really start in earnest till book 3, to my surprise, and it was so nice without it. Once begun, though, it was an immediate flood of tugging and gripping and yanking and otherwise abused scalp. I counted, until I got bored with it; it was absurd. If I had the ambition – and enough fingers – I would keep track of skirt-smoothings in this book. The total count would be high.
Oh, and then there’s the sniffing. Seriously, sir, have you ever actually met anyone who sniffed this much without being chronically allergic to everything? It becomes a sort of synonym for “Nynaeve was annoyed” or “angry” or whatever – and, sadly, Nynaeve is nearly always annoyed or angry. That just is not enjoyable to read.
If I didn’t know for certain that Robert Jordan had a long and very happy marriage, I would honestly guess that he didn’t know any women very well. Had, perhaps, only read about women in the more satiric types of fiction. Because my God are the women in these books ridiculous. The constant smoothing of – or gripping of – skirts, and of course the constant fussing with hair by characters who don’t just go ahead and yank on it like Nynaeve.
It’s all such a shame. It’s a darn good story, even still. But it should not take chapter after chapter just to get a bunch of characters into place to work a spell, which is what happens in this book. Every female character should not be more of an idiotic termagant than the last one. A decent chunk of this one is spent with Nynaeve in a temper, Elayne pretending she’s not, then Nynaeve apologizing and Elayne reacting with shock – Nynaeve! Apologize! Light!