As heads is tails, just call me Wheel of Time Reread!
Today’s entry is a special edition of the Reread, in which we pause in our regularly-scheduled coverage of A Memory of Light to peruse a DVD extra, so to speak. OOOOHHHH. That’s right, we’re covering “River of Souls.”
Previous reread 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. The index for all things specifically related to the final novel in the series, A Memory of Light, is here.
Also, for maximum coolness, the Wheel of Time reread is also now available as an ebook series, from your preferred ebook retailer!
And now, the post!
Before we begin, a refresher: “River of Souls” is a short story by Brandon Sanderson which originally appeared in the anthology Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman. You can read all about the story behind the anthology as well as my non-spoiler review of the story itself here.
As you may note, in that review I promised to do a spoilery review of the story as well, a promise which I, uh, kind of completely forgot about until now. Oops? But in the spirit of “better late than never,” and in light of how the previous chapter in the Reread just ended, it seemed apropos to put it in here. AND SO IT WAS DONE.
(Also, under the category of “duh”: I spoil the entire story in this post. If you have not read the story yet and don’t want to be spoiled for it, stop here and come back later. I promise it ain’t going nowhere!)
Unfettered: “River of Souls”
Bao reflects on his good fortune that his early studies had insisted on his ability to achieve the Oneness under the most adverse of conditions, for it served him well now. Mintel enters the tent; Bao has not seen him in six months, and he is supposed to be far away, but Mintel tells him he would not have missed this day.
“I would not have had you lose your soul to come see me.”
“Not just to see you,” Mintel said, smiling. “To see the fulfillment of prophecy, after all of these years. To see the coming of aganor’lot, the True Destiny. No, I would not risk the City of Dreams for my son alone, but to attend the crowning of the Wyld… I would risk anything.”
Bao points out that he has to survive first. Then he reminds his adoptive father that he came here only for this day, and “attachments are irrelevant”. Mintel only smiles and tells him he may have come here for one purpose, but it is not the one the Grand Tapestry has in store for him. Bao contemplates the brand on his hand, and says he will do things with this power that some would call evil, but Mintel is unconcerned, and says the fate of his people led them to this, to give their lives to him, and he will decide their fate from then on. Bao leaves the tent to begin.
Mintel and Bao are at the edge of the vast canyon called Abyrward; Angarai’la, the River of Souls, runs along the bottom, and is where Bao hopes to find the object of his long search. Bao’s feral guards, who call themselves the Freed, surround them. When the sun reaches zenith, Shendla joins them with her entourage and tells Bao “the way is prepared”. She calls him “Wyld”, but he replies he is not Wyld yet. One of Shendla’s companions, Torn, laughs that he is “the most humble conquering despot this world has known.”
“To take the title I do not yet have,” Bao said, “is to dishonor it, Torn. I will walk Angarai’la and enter the Hearttomb, where I will face — and kill — its guardian. Until I return, I am not the Wyld.”
“Then what are you?” Torn asked.
Torn gives him a nickname that means “slayer of boredom”; everyone laughs but Bao, and Shendla tells Torn that Bao’s “duty is too heavy” for him to laugh. Bao tells them to wait for his return, but Shendla holds his arm, and he is disturbed that he wishes for her touch. He takes her aside and warns her again that she cannot accompany him even partway to retrieve the angor’lot. She is unhappy about it, but agrees. She asks what was bothering him before. He replies that Torn called him “friend”, but he has no friends; he wants only power and is incapable of affection. Shendla quietly disagrees, and Bao pulls away angrily.
“You are fools, all of you. I don’t care for your prophecies! I speak the words so I can control you. How can you not see this?”
“You have come to save us,” she said. “You break us free of fate’s chains. You did not know the prophecies when you first came — you have said so yourself — but you fulfilled them anyway. […] The Dragon has come, Bao. Every man and woman in this land can feel it. He will try to destroy the world, and only you can stop him. There is a reason you have done what you did. The Tapestry… shall I call it by your word? The Pattern? It has brought you, and once you step into that cavern above, we will be freed from fate and be made our own people again.”
Darkness within, Bao thought. She is so earnest. She believes it.
Troubled, Bao asks her why she followed him at first when all the rest of her people spat on him. Shendla replies that he doesn’t want to know. Bao finds himself promising to protect her people if he can, and realizes he believes it a little too.
By the end of the second day, Bao wonders if he was a fool to travel by foot instead of via gateway, but thinks that that would have been cheating. Then he asks himself why he cares, and realizes that he does actually want to be the Wyld. He thinks that the Sharans are tools, a means to an end, but that good tools deserve to be cared for. He fills his canteen with water from the River of Souls, but does not drink it yet, as only the Wyld has that privilege. He reaches the Hearttomb, and sees what he thinks might be a chora tree carved by the entrance. He enters, and is surprised to see the lush vegetation inside, blooming where there is no sunlight. He surmises that the guardian is a Nym. Then a vine moves; Bao blasts it with fire, but that only causes more vines to spring up, and the room starts to shake.
Ahead of him, the darkness trembled, and his light shone on the interior of a horrible maw that stretched from floor to ceiling. Needle-sharp teeth stood in array all the way down its greenish throat. What looked like insectile arms broke up through the twisting plants, long and slender, reaching for him.
Bao knows now it is a jumara’nai, or full-grown jumara. Jumara grow stronger when the One Power is used against them, so Bao fights with his sword and channels only for indirect effects. He curses Aginor for ever inventing the things.
Bao is covered in blood and wounds, but the jumara’nai is finally dead. He passes the corpse further into the cavern, observing the many bones of the would-be heroes who’d tried this before him and failed. Bao thinks that he himself only won because he knew exactly where to strike. He finds a stone dais at the end of the cavern with the plants all grown together into a face.
“So I was right,” he said, kneeling beside the face. “I thought the Nym had all died.”
“I… am not of the Nym…” the face said softly, eyes closed. “Not any longer. Have you come to give me rest, traveler?”
“Sleep,” Bao said, channeling Fire and burning away the creature. “Your service is at an end.”
What looks like a golden cup is revealed, the thing Bao had spent two years seeking. He picks it up reverently and leaves the cavern. He washes in the river, then takes out the golden rod from his pack, the other half of the sa’angreal, and joins it to the cup. He channels through it and laughs aloud at the torrent of Power.
What he held was no cup, but the second most powerful sa’angreal ever created for a man to use. D’jedt, known simply as the Scepter during his time, had been so powerful that it had been kept locked away during the War of the Power.
Feeling invincible, Bao runs all the way back, emerging from the canyon at sunset. He notes that the female Ayyad are gathered now along with various nobles. He holds the scepter aloft and Shendla immediately kneels to him. He announces to Mintel that he names himself the Wyld, and “your dragonslayer has come!” Shendla, amazed, observes that he is smiling. He tells her that he accepts his role for her people, and she cries with happiness.
Mintel cried out, standing, eyes opening. “Hail the Wyld! Hail him and bow! He who shall save us from the Dragon, who shall prevent the death of the land and bring us to glory! Hail Bao! Hail our king!”
As the others cheer, Bao reflects on the path that led him to first impersonate a slave among the Sharans, then lead a revolution almost by accident, then earn the allegiance of the Ayyad and the Freed, all while seeking only one thing.
Through it all, he had sought this one object for a single purpose. Finally, Lews Therin, thought Bao — once named Berid Bel, and later called Demandred, now reborn as the savior of the Sharan people. Finally, I have the power to destroy you.
Oh, Demandred. Shine on, you crazy hatred-encrusted diamond. Well, until Lan kills your obsessed ass with extreme killedness, anyway. Yay!
I’ll get back to talking about the actual story of the story in a minute, but first I want to talk about the meta/backstory of “River of Souls”, and how it kind of makes me either want to laugh or go a little cross-eyed, because—well. Read on and see.
So, I originally read this story in May of 2013 (because that’s when They gave it to me to review), and everyone else who read this story probably read it in June of 2013 or later, because that’s when the anthology was released. A Memory of Light, aka the WOT book these scenes were cut from, was released in January of 2013—which, as those of you who can math good can tell, is six months earlier than the anthology release date. This will become relevant in a moment.
The story, as Brandon points out in its introduction, is clearly structured to build to its big reveal at the end—namely, that “Bao” is actually Demandred. The purpose being—well, here, read Brandon’s take on it:
I wanted to present him sympathetically, at least as sympathetically as a man like him could be presented. […] It was also important to me that we see Demandred for what he is — an incredibly capable man with a single overriding flaw. Everything about him, including his ability to feel affection, is tainted by his supreme hatred of Lews Therin. The narrative was to hint that it never had to be that way. He could have made different choices. Of all the Forsaken, I find Demandred the most tragic.
And the thing is, the story absolutely does convey that sense of tragedy and sympathy with Bao/Demandred, and does it well—a topic I’m going to come back to—but it absolutely does not pull off the plot twist/reveal story it was built as.
Because it can’t.
There was, in fact, literally no way a fan of the Wheel of Time series could have read this story without already knowing who Bao really was from the beginning, because of the timing. Because, of course, any even halfway invested reader of the Wheel of Time would have already read AMOL months before reading this story, and thus already known perfectly well who “Bao the Wyld” was, and where he was and why. So the “reveal” never even got a chance to be a reveal, because we’d all been inadvertently spoiled for it months before.
This is, I must stress, not actually a criticism. Because obviously if these scenes had not been cut from AMOL, and had occurred in the narrative when they were originally intended to, then I think the reveal would have worked more or less exactly as it was supposed to. It’s just amusing/frustrating to me in a writerly, overanalyzing-the-narrative-structure meta sense that the vagaries of publishing deadlines made experiencing this story the way it was meant to be experienced literally impossible.
(And yes, I suppose that the reveal would have worked on someone who just hadn’t read AMOL first, but I am ignoring this on the grounds that that means that the reader is either (a) not a WOT reader in the first place, meaning the revelation would be meaningless to them anyway, or (b) a very odd “fan” of WOT indeed, because why the hell wouldn’t you have read AMOL already? FOR SHAME!)
All that said, I’m fairly certain that most fans (including me) would have caught on that Bao = Demandred way earlier than the end. Probably even earlier than Bao’s comment about Aginor halfway through, though that’s what would have clinched it. I’ll never know for sure, obviously, but I bet I would have had my suspicions right from the beginning, and been sure once I got to Torn and Shendla’s conversation about why Bao never smiles or laughs, since Demandred being an eternal sourpuss has always been one of his most noted character traits.
Though he does smile and laugh here, doesn’t he?
Which brings us back to Brandon’s thoughts about making Demandred a sympathetic character. Which is an interesting goal for him, really, since other than Lanfear (and, to a much lesser extent, Moridin) this has not been a thing WOT has really been interested in doing for the Forsaken as a general rule. In fact now that I think about it, this has been a marked aspect of Brandon’s influence on the latter three books in the series, this “sympathy for the devil” tendency to humanize the villains. God knows I never had the slightest compassion for Slayer before we get his backstory in ToM, just for instance.
This is a good thing, by the way, even if it deviates a bit from WOT’s traditional tendency to have its villains actually really think of themselves as villains. But then, Lanfear was always the most interesting of the Forsaken for precisely the fact that she was the outlier in this way. Lanfear may have embraced her Moniker of Evil, but I don’t think she ever thought she actually was evil; she always believed her actions were justified, and that she was, in fact, doing the right thing—even if it was only “the right thing” for herself alone. It doesn’t make her any less fucked up (it makes her more fucked up, actually), but it makes her much more believable a character than some of her colleagues ever were.
So I very much enjoyed that Demandred was getting the same kind of treatment here. There may be an inherent discomfort in being compelled to sympathize with characters who we know have been and/or are going to do terrible things, but I have always believed in the precept that everyone believes themselves to be the protagonist of their own story. To convincingly portray that belief in even your most evil and reprehensible characters is to give them definition and authenticity that elevates them beyond your standard cardboard cutout Bad Guys to something much closer to real. It’s uncomfortable, but it is also awesome, from an artistic point of view.
For that reason, I do think it is kind of a shame that this sequence was not included in AMOL, but at the same time I think that Harriet’s reasons for cutting it was absolutely right. I’ll quote Brandon’s intro again:
In threading this sequence into the rest of A Memory of Light, we found that the Demandred scenes were distracting. The worldbuilding required to make Shara distinctive felt out of place in the last book, where the narrative needed to be focused on tying up loose threads rather than introducing a multitude of new questions.
[Harriet] felt that the scenes’ evocation of an entire untold series of books was too overwhelming. It didn’t feel enough like the Wheel of Time. If this had been book eight, that would be wonderful — the scenes would add variety to the series. In book fourteen, however, they offered a taste of something that would never be sated, and served only to make promises we could not fulfill.
This is, I feel, pretty much right on the money. AMOL being so vastly overstuffed with happenings as it is, introducing a new setting and worldbuilding—however interesting—into what is supposed to be the endgame would just be annoying.
Plus (and this is my own feeling, separate from what Team Jordan has said about this sequence) this so distinctly set up Demandred as Rand’s opposite—“Bao the Wyld” is Rand’s dark mirror, in fact, the prophesied savior who did turn out to be the destruction of his people—that having this sequence in the book and then never having Demandred and Rand actually confront each other would have felt like a gaping plot hole. An unfinished chord in the symphony, at the very least. As AMOL stands, though, even though the lack of a confrontation between the two still feels a little odd, it works much better, I think, to have Rand’s main conflict (other than with the Dark One himself, of course) be with Moridin instead. Including this sequence would have made Demandred too “big” a character, I think, and demanded more attention and resolution than the novel could afford to give him.
So all in all I feel that cutting these scenes was a good choice. I still like that we got to see them anyway, though. And I like the hints of a vast backstory and saga in the dialogues between Bao and Mintel and Bao and Shendla. I don’t even need to have those hints explicated; just having them there is enough to lend the scene depth and intrigue.
Speaking of Shendla, I rather like the subverted tropeness of her role (she loves the bad guy, but her love isn’t going to “save” him or change him, as this and later events in AMOL ably demonstrate), even while boggling at how she could possibly love someone like Demandred, because GIRL. Seriously? But that’s probably just me projecting, because I simply can’t picture having any kind of relationship, platonic or otherwise, with (among other things) a person who never laughs.
That—just—no. Sorry, can’t do it. You must have at least this much sense of humor to ride this ride, kiddo, better luck next time, move along.
But hey, that’s just me. Apparently “humorless despot who straight-up tells you he is (a) power-mad and (b) incapable of love” really does it for some people. And I would say “I don’t judge” except for how I’m… yeah, really kind of judging that. Seriously, Shendla, you could have done better.
(Actually, I’m still pretty much judging all the Sharans for that. But then I recall the contention of the early books, that being ruled over by a Forsaken actually has a mass depressive/warping/en-evilling affect on the people so ruled, and I forgive them. A little.)
(Look, “en-evilling” is a word if I say it is, okay? SHUT UP YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME)
Aside from that, there’s something here about Shendla’s speech to Bao, about how their prophecies said someone would come to save them from the Dragon, suggesting their prophecies had been anti-Dragon from the start, leading to incoherent thoughts about how much of the near-hopeless odds the Lightside forces faced at the Last Battle as a result of the Sharan involvement were pre-ordained and how messed up that is, if so.
There’s probably also something here about how the Sharans (if I recall correctly) have always been described physically as equivalent to sub-Saharan Africans (i.e. black), and while I’m sure it was entirely unintentional, their casting as the only fully human allies of the Shadow has potentially… disturbing implications that I wonder if anyone has thought to address before now. I know WOT has a certain amount of homage to Tolkien, but I’m not sure that aspect in particular is one it needed to follow, you know?
I mean, it doesn’t have as much impact in text, perhaps, but imagine if AMOL ever gets made into a movie or TV series. Because I picture that, and the effect is extremely… um. Not good, y’all.
Man, we finally get to see a jumara… and the fight scene is cut. RUDE.
I was totally flummoxed over whether to be angry that Demandred killed the last Nym or not. Because, the Nym asked to be put down, but… still, that was cold.
Also, I suppose this Nym was deployed to guard the scepter sa’angreal by the same group of Aes Sedai we saw in Rand’s Wayback Ter’angreal flashback in TSR who were asking Nomeshta to guard the Eye (and trying to figure out what to do about Callandor). One wonders, therefore, how they got the jumara involved…
But, anyway. Potentially unsettling implications aside, in all I feel like “River of Souls” was a cool and intriguing “DVD extra” to add onto the completion of the Wheel of Time, and even if the method and timing of its deployment made it a little wonky, it was still a nice bonus for the fans to get some development (even if only semi-official) of a character who has long been one of the most mysterious and speculated-about characters in the entire series.
Because as the Rolling Stones knew, sympathy for the devil is a tricky business, but in the world of fiction, at least, it makes the battle between good and evil all the more poignant.
And that’s the story, mornin’ glories! Have a lovely week, and we’ll be back to AMOL proper next Tuesday!