Holy crap! It’s a Wheel of Time Re-read
From Outer Space!
Today’s entry covers Chapter 48-49 of Towers of Midnight, in which we are all interested in the future, for that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. Except GOD I HOPE NOT.
Previous re-read entries are here. The Wheel of Time Master Index is here, which has links to news, reviews, interviews, and all manner of information about the Wheel of Time in general, including the upcoming final volume, A Memory of Light.
This re-read post contains spoilers for all currently published Wheel of Time novels. If you haven’t read, read at your own risk.
And now, the post!
Chapter 48: Near Avendesora
Aviendha emerges from the glass pillars, feeling disappointed. Everything she had seen there was as she had expected. She walks over to Avendesora, noting that it had repaired its damage faster than should be, and sits at its roots. She reflects at her surprise at how mundane the decision had been of her people to abandon the Way of the Leaf, and is deeply bothered that the history she’d been shown had offered her no further insights than what she had already known, that the passage no longer offers any test of strength. She remembers what she and Elayne had discovered about Aviendha’s Talent for discerning the purpose of ter’angreal, and wonders if she can apply that to the glass columns. She tries touching one, and is unnerved that it seems almost alive.
She tried to read the ter’angreal as she had done before, but this one was vast. Incomprehensible, like the One Power itself. She inhaled sharply, disoriented by the weight of what she felt. It was as if she had suddenly fallen into a deep, dark pit.
She steps away, and suddenly she is Melidra, eighteen and scrawny, hunger driving her to get close to the Lightmakers despite the danger of their magics. She hisses at one of the other Folk with her, warning her off. She remembers the merchant she’d killed in his sleep two years ago, which is the last time she’d not been hungry. She creeps close enough to the Lightmakers’ massive horseless wagon to dig through their trash, gobbling up the leavings of meat and fat. She is caught, something popping in her back and knocking her down. Two figures approach; one entreats the other (Flern) to relent, as she is just a child, but Flern snorts and calls them “bloody pests”, willing to slit a man’s throat for his trash.
Death did not surprise her. In a way, she’d been expecting it for most of her eighteen years.
“Bloody Aiel,” Flern said as her sight faded.
Aviendha is shocked and confused, unable to place the vision in the history she’d already seen. She is horrified by the utter lack of honor Melidra had shown, killing for scraps and refuse, little better than an animal. She steps away from the pillars, and wonders if she had changed them somehow with her Talent.
In the centuries since Rhuidean’s founding, those columns had shown the Aiel what they needed to know about themselves. The Aes Sedai had set that up, hadn’t they? Or had they simply placed the ter’angreal and allowed it to do what it pleased, knowing it would grant wisdom?
She knows it is forbidden to enter the columns a second time, but she has come seeking knowledge, and so she enters again.
She is Norlesh, holding a baby to her bosom and her only other surviving child at her side. Her husband, Metalan, has approached the outlanders (who are not like the Illuminated Ones) to beg for food, bringing them rocks with the ore they seem to prize so highly. One of the outlanders refuses regretfully, saying that the Raven Empress forbids trading with Aiel. Metalan tries to plead, but leaves when they bring out weapons. They walk away, and Norlesh asks what they are to do.
“We haven’t been able to keep a home for our people since my greatmother Tava’s day. If we gather, they attack us. If we wander the Waste, we die off. They won’t trade with us. They won’t let us cross the mountains. What are we going to do?”
Metalan has no answer, and Norlesh realizes that the baby at her breast has died sometime during the interim. She cannot summon up any grief for the death.
Aviendha wants to run from the shame of what she had seen, people who begged for food, who did not know how to live off the land. She does not understand how these can be her ancestors, but she grits her teeth and steps forward.
She is Tava, fourteen and running screaming from the wreckage of her house, of the entire valley, where every building in the fledgling hold had been destroyed overnight by nightmarish creatures that flew overhead with riders bearing strange hissing weapons. She doesn’t understand how their enemies had found them. One of the creatures lands before her, but her father jumps in and kills its rider before it kills her. The invaders withdraw, leaving death and ruin behind.
Her father had inherited his clothing from his grandfather, along with a charge. Follow the old ways. Remember ji’e’toh. Fight and maintain honor.
Some hours later, her father declares to the others that they must rebuild, but one of the men exclaims that they have no food, and another adds that the Raven Empire has sent word to “the Far Ones” who hunt them at the eastern border. Tava’s father pleads with them to stay, but one of the men tells him they are not a clan anymore. The survivors break up into small groups and drift away, and her father drops his sword on the ground.
Aviendha cries as she realizes that the invaders she had seen were Seanchan on raken, and what she was seeing was not the past of her people, but their future.
Her first time through the pillars, each step had taken her backward, moving her through time toward the Age of Legends. It appeared that this time, the visions had started at a distant point in the future, and were working back toward her day, each vision jumping back a generation or two.
Tears streaking her face, she took the next step.
I think it says something about the extent to which this series has developed and ingrained the culture and history of an entirely fictional people into our brains (well, my brain anyway, and if you’re reading this I bet your brain too) that reading this chapter and realizing what it portended – i.e. not just the ruin of the Aiel people, but their obliteration achieved in the most ignominious, wretched, abject manner possible – was actually almost physically upsetting. Again, for me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that.
It’s horrific both subjectively and objectively. It’s objectively horrible because to see any formerly proud people brought so low is just sad and awful by definition. And it’s subjectively horrible because we (and Aviendha) are not just told or shown this fate, but forced to experience it as if it is happening to us (or at least to the POV character, which amounts to the same thing in reader experience).
That, I maintain, is the genius behind the entire plot device of the glass columns, that it is one of the most viscerally powerful methods of delivering a massive dose of worldbuilding/backstory (or frontstory, as the case may be) I’ve ever come across.
The original sequence in TSR, when Rand (and we) first discover the secret history of the Aiel, still stands in my opinion as the most elegantly crafted section of prose in the entire series. Jordan himself is on record as saying it was probably the piece of WOT he was most proud of writing, and he was right to feel that way (sez me, arrogantly) because it was bloody frickin’ brilliant and we should all hope we ever write anything that cool.
In my spoiler review of TOM, alongside being utterly horrified and bummed by this sequence, I also said that I thought that this second trip through the columns just may come within a fair margin of equaling the first. And in terms of emotional impact, at least, I stand by that opinion. In fact I would say that this sequence actually beats out the TSR sequence on that score, as long as we understand “emotional impact” to be the metaphorical equivalent of “sucker punch”.
Because ow, you guys. OW. And I sure as hell never saw it coming, either.
But we ain’t done with this beating just yet!
She is Ladalin, Wise One of the Taardad Aiel, sitting with the remaining three clan chiefs and one other Wise One (Mora) in the tent. Neither she nor Mora can channel; the Seanchan have been ruthlessly killing or capturing any of the Aiel who can channel, male or female. She thinks of how the war with the Seanchan is all she’s ever known, and how she has become sure that it is the Aiel who will eventually lose. Tamaav tells them that the White Tower has fallen. Takai says there is no hope, then; they are beaten. Mora says they must retreat into the Three-Fold Land, and seek penance for their sins.
“What sins?” Takai snapped.
“The Dragon wanted peace,” she replied.
“The Dragon left us!” Takai said. “I refuse to follow the memory of a man my greatfathers barely knew. We made no oaths to follow his foolish pact.”
Jorshem tells him the Three-Fold Land is their only hope, but Takai reminds him that the Seanchan said they would hunt them down and destroy “any place where three Aiel gathered” if they did not surrender. Takai asks for Ladalin’s advice; her word holds weight, as one of the last living descendants of the Dragon.
“If we become slaves to the Seanchan, the Aiel as a people will be no more,” she said. “We cannot win, so we must retreat. We will return to the Three-fold Land and build up our strength. Perhaps our children can fight where we cannot.”
She reflects that the real turning point of the war had been the entry of the other nations, allowing the Seanchan to cull their people for channelers and swell their ranks. Only the Black Tower still fought, and that only in exile. She remembers the burning of Cairhien, the scouring of Illian, and thinks that it was only the Aiel’s tenaciousness that had allowed them to last as long as they had. Takai declares sullenly that it is the Car’a’carn’s fault, but Ladalin says it is theirs, for forgetting who they are and losing their honor. Takai counters that their honor was taken from them; the Dragon used them and then threw them away. Ladalin thinks that the Dragon had demanded peace, but does not see how there could be such with the Seanchan in the land. She wonders if that hatred has destroyed the Aiel.
Aviendha steps forward, crying openly at the corruption of Aiel ways she had seen in Ladalin, the ways in which she had completely misunderstood what honor was and the pointlessness of her fight, and wonders how this could have happened.
She is Oncala, Maiden of the Spear, and she and her sister march to the Caemlyn Palace, carrying the banner that announces their Dragon lineage. Rhuidean is besieged by the Seanchan, and Oncala sneers to herself that they are “lizards” without honor. Hehyal, the clan chief, enters the Palace with her, and Oncala is further angered by the wealth around them, showing that Andor is untouched after forty years of war.
Well, Andor would see. The Aiel had grown stronger through their fighting. Once, their prowess had been legendary. Now it was greater! When the Aiel had destroyed the Seanchan, the world would see what the Aiel had learned. The wetland rulers would wish they had been more generous.
Queen Talana flies the banner of the Dragon as well, as she is also of the blood of the Dragon, and Oncala hates her for thus considering herself Oncala’s equal. Talana makes them wait upon arrival, which infuriates Oncala, and when she calls them forward, comments that she assumes they are there to beg for help again. Oncala hates the wetlanders even more for how they need them. Hehyal hands her papers stolen from the Seanchan palace. Talana examines them, troubled, and Hehyal reminds her that they have explained what will happen if the Seanchan defeat the Aiel.
“The Dragon’s Peace—”
“What care do they have for the Dragon?” Hehyal asked. “They are invaders who forced him to bow to their Empress. She is considered above him. They will not keep promises they made to an inferior.”
Queen Talana looked down again. The documents were Seanchan plans for attacking Andor, along with a detailed plot for the assassination of the Queen. Underneath that were similar plans for dealing with the rulers of Tear, the Two Rivers, and Illian.
Talana says she must consult with her advisors, but Oncala knows they have her. She and Hehyal withdraw, and Oncala is elated, knowing that if Andor enters the war, so will many of the other wetlander nations; the blood of Rand al’Thor holds much weight. Hehyal wonders if they did the right thing. Oncala thinks that their honor is not unsullied, even though they had left out the fact that the plans on the papers were contingency plans, only to be used if Andor actually entered the war. Oncala tells herself it is better for Andor to enter the war now anyway, rather than waiting until the Aiel are forced to retreat to the Three-Fold Land and leave them unprotected. Hehyal says it is too late to change it now.
Oncala nodded. The Seanchan would fall, and the Aiel would take their rightful place. The blood of the Dragon Reborn was in her veins. She deserved to rule.
It would not be the Raven Empire that rose at the end of this all, but the Dragon Empire.
Aviendha says aloud that she does not want to go on, that Oncala was an honorless “creature” that ruined the Aiel. But the worst part to Aviendha is that she knows that Oncala is her own granddaughter. She cringes and steps forward to the center of the columns.
She is Padra, daughter of the Dragon Reborn and Maiden. She kills a Seanchan and watches the rest flee via gateway, and curses whoever taught them the weave.
She was convinced that no living person understood the One Power as she and her siblings did. She’d been able to weave since she’d been a child, and her brothers and sister were the same. To them, it was natural, and all others who channeled seemed awkward by comparison.
[…] She held the One Power perpetually, even while she slept. She’d never known what it was like not to have that comforting, surging Power in the back of her mind.
She Travels with her spear-sisters back to the Aiel camp in Arad Doman, where the other algai’d’siswai show her deference, and goes to the clan chief’s tent (Ronam, son of Rhuarc). The other eleven clan chiefs and her siblings (Marinna, Alarch and Janduin) are there too. She reports on the skirmish with the Seanchan. Tavalad, Goshien clan chief, points out that it is not against the Dragon’s Peace for the Seanchan to enter Arad Doman, and Padra answers that nor it is wrong for the Aiel to kill them for doing so, as “the Aiel are not bound by the Dragon’s Peace.” The clan chiefs are there to discuss the future of the Aiel: what are they to do now that their toh to the past has been fulfilled? Alalved, chief of the Tomanelle Aiel, also wants to know how much longer they are to tolerate the Seanchan’s refusal to return the Aiel channelers they hold captive.
The old empress, the one who had ruled during the days of the Last Battle, had been considered a woman of honor by Ronam’s father. An understanding had nearly been reached with her, so it was said. But many years had passed since her rule.
Alalved opines that the Dragon’s Peace will not hold long with the other nations in any case, and worries that the Seanchan will devour them while they squabble among themselves. Padra thinks that a war with the Seanchan would be an opportunity to earn much ji, perhaps as much as her mother, but it would also much much death. Ronam asks the opinion of the Dragon’s children. Marinna says they must reclaim their own; Alarch defers to his brother Janduin.
“The Aiel must have a purpose,” Janduin said, nodding. “We are useless as we are, and we made no promise not to attack. It is a testament to our patience and respect for my father that we have waited this long.”
Eyes turned to Padra. “They are our enemies,” she said.
The clan chiefs nod, and the decision is made. The chiefs disperse to prepare their clans, and soon Ronam and Padra are alone. She says she is thinking about her father, and Ronam says he remembers when he came to Cold Rocks Hold, when Ronam was young. He says he was “an impressive man.”
“My father called Rand al’Thor a clever man and great leader, but one who did not know what to do with the Aiel. I remember him saying that when the Car’a’carn was among us, he did not feel like one of us. As if we made him uncomfortable.” Ronam shook his head. “Everyone else was planned for, but the Aiel were left adrift.”
Ronam does not agree that they should have returned to the Three–Fold Land, and Padra asks if war is any better. Ronam answers that he does not know, but it is what they know how to do. Padra nods.
The Aiel would go to war again. And there would be much honor in it.
Exhausted, Aviendha sits down in the center of the columns. She asks aloud “Is it destined? Can we change it?” but there is no answer. She does not know how to react to seeing the utter decay of her people, each step in their destruction seeming logical at the time. She wonders if she is to blame; it is her bloodline that would doom her people. She feels instinctively that this is different from the visions of the rings, which were merely possibilities.
This day’s visions seemed more real. She felt almost certain that what she had experienced was not simply one of many possibilities. What she had seen would occur. Step by step, honor drained from her people. Step by step, the Aiel turned from proud to wretched.
Angrily, she demands to see more, to see her part in it, but the pillars are inert. She realizes that even if she cannot change it, that will not stop her from trying. She resolves that as the only one with this foreknowledge, her honor demands that she do whatever she had to to save her people. She runs out, into the desert. She needs time to think.
Okay, so this commentary is going to be fairly incoherent, because there is a metric fuckton of commentable-on stuff in this chapter, but whatever, it’s not like I’m doing an academic dissertation here, so I’ll just comment on things as I come to them, mmkay?
First the big question: is this a real future? Or more accurately, is this an unavoidable future?
Well, only time (and, presumably, AMoL) will tell, of course, but I’m going to go with a big fat NO for my vote. And that’s only maybe 75% borne of my visceral aversion to such a deeply sucky “ending” to a story in which I have invested so much of my… er, well, everything. (Jeez.)
So yes, three quarters of my assertion is basically me putting my fingers in my ears and going LA LA LA NOPE NEVER HAPPEN NOT LISTENING SHUT UP NO, but the other quarter is my expert (ahem) knowledge of how These Things Work, which is that simply by having a key player in this drama (i.e. Aviendha) be made aware of the possibility of this future already fundamentally changes it. And because our Aviendha is nothing if not a fantastically determined individual (to say the least) we can be damn sure it’s not going to stop at simple awareness, either.
So maybe the entire disaster cannot be avoided, but there is no way, sez me, that events will proceed precisely as depicted in the WayForward Ter’angreal, because the origins of this entire storyline (again, Aviendha) have already been altered, and from there standard chaos theory/butterfly flaps its wings theory applies.
That aside, the key divergent points here (the Might Have Been points, if you will) are two, in my opinion, and hopefully these are the ones upon which Aviendha will focus in her efforts to change this future.
One is the fatal flaw in “the Dragon’s Peace” everyone keeps referring to, which is that the Aiel were, for some insane reason, not included in it. I don’t really understand how on earth Rand would have thought a peace that didn’t include all parties would actually work (because really, even peaces that do include all parties don’t generally work in the long term), but hopefully one of the first things Aviendha will do is figure out how to metaphorically smack Rand upside the head and tell him to get over himself re: the Aiel, and help him
give them a hobby determine a better purpose for their existence than “fight everybody,” post Last Battle.
The second major divergence, again in my opinion, is this:
“What care do they have for the Dragon?” Hehyal asked. “[The Seanchan] are invaders who forced him to bow to their Empress. She is considered above him. They will not keep promises they made to an inferior.”
Okay, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I KEEP SAYING, YOU GUYS.
I have always been more-or-less vaguely pissed about the whole “Dragon kneeling to the Crystal Throne” prophecy, a pissedness that has only increased the more I’ve come to divine all the ways in which the Seanchan deeply suck.
(Ways to which, by the way, assuming this future happens, we can now effectively add “genocide.” You know, just in case there was any goddamn doubt of their total suckage. Seriously, are we really supposed to be maintaining any semblance of goodwill toward the Seanchan by this point? Because I think I can safely say that I have officially jumped off that wagontrain, ladies and germs. Because slavery + genocide = aitch to the “ell” to the NO, y’all. My math on this will not be denied!)
In a way, I am almost glad to have read this sequence, as upsetting as it was, because as far as I am concerned it totally validates my long-held conviction that Rand kneeling to Tuon is a TERRIBLE idea that should absolutely not happen under any circumstances, thank you, goodbye. I have no idea if the story will actually bear me out on this, of course, but it seems to me that Aviendha’s flash-forward strongly indicates that Rand’s seeming submission to the Seanchan Empress, no matter how symbolic, will only give them carte blanche to basically be like “fuck you” to anything he tries to tell them thenceforth, and disaster, clearly, follows.
(Which just raises so many questions, mostly importantly of which is why Mat evidently had so little impact on Tuon’s decisions in this future that everything apparently fell apart during her rule re: the Seanchan not being slavery-having douchebags to the rest of the world. That is really just disappointing.)
Also, what I said before about any “peace” that doesn’t include all relevant parties being stupid applies just as much to the Seanchan as to the Aiel. Basically, I can’t see any scenario in which the Seanchan are allowed to (a) maintain their invasion-gotten sovereignty on Randland soil and (b) maintain the practice of enslaving channelers having a happy ending for anyone. Unless both the Aiel and Seanchan are, sorry to phrase it this way, brought to heel, the subsequent events will not be pretty – even if they are not exactly the way they are depicted in these two chapters.
Of course, aside from all this, there is one really obvious (and sort of positive) thing that these two chapters imply, which is of course that evidently the Good Guys win Tarmon Gai’don. Because, duh, if the Shadow had won there wouldn’t have been any future for the Lightside folks to fuck up.
So, er… yay?
You’ll note, naturally, that these chapters very carefully avoid being specific about the fate of any of the major players in the main WOT timeline, but unavoidably the very distinct implication is that Rand does in fact survive going to Shayol Ghul. I mean, that’s how I interpreted it, anyway, unless we are to assume that he put together this massive peace treaty (however flawed) before the Last Battle, which seems problematic at best.
Not to mention, unless I seriously missed something, Rand has not yet had a chance to impregnate Aviendha with the (apparently totally non-metaphorical) quadruplets she’s destined to have, which is another circumstantial argument in favor of his survival. (Though that particular feat would not really be all that time-consuming for him to accomplish beforehand, admittedly.)
Speaking of which, so I guess the “something odd” Min saw about Aviendha’s babies was just referring to the fact that they could channel from birth? …Okay, I guess. Somehow that seems a tad anticlimactic, or weird, or something, but whatever. Also I’m a tad eyebrow-raisy at the notion that Rand’s kids are Just So Special that they break all the laws of channeling development, but sure, why not. (Does that mean Elayne’s twins will be the same, I wonder?)
Which reminds me that this entire sequence also puts paid to another popular theory re: the Last Battle, one which I have entertained myself, which is the idea that channeling/magic will be eliminated from the world post-Last Battle.
Because as you know, Bob, if WOT is a past/future version of our own Earth, then channeling has to disappear at some point, and a lot of people thought the Last Battle might be why – as the price for sealing up the Dark One’s prison like new, perhaps. But in this hypothetical (hypothetical, dammit) future, apparently that is not the case. Which is… interesting.
Other random observations:
Oncala sucks, man. Deliberately tricking a whole continent into getting involved in a forty-year war (seriously, guys, think of how unbelievably long that is to be at war) is pretty much the epitome of a dick move. Although I suppose feeling like you’ve been left to be a continent’s only defense against an invading force with no help from anyone else is also pretty shitty, that is still just… cold. Even without knowing how disastrous the eventual results will be.
“the rulers of Tear, the Two Rivers, and Illian”: Hmm. “Ruler” of the Two Rivers? Guess that whole “High Lord” thing didn’t work out in the long run in this future, eh?
Padra, Marinna, Alarch and Janduin: Well, “Janduin” is a gimme, but the other names are… surprising. I’m not sure it’s kosher for me to have expected less randomness to Avi and Rand’s kids’ names, but nevertheless I raised an eyebrow at it, so there you go.
…And there is probably a lot more that can be said about these two chapters, but I am pretty well tapped out, so I leave it to my intrepid commenters to unerringly point out anything I have missed. Have a mahvelous November week, O my peeps, and I will see you next Tuesday!