Well, it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit and my air conditioning is broken, but the Wheel of Time Re-read marches on, because that’s how much I love you, my peeps. For reals.
Today’s entry covers Chapters 8 and 9 of Towers of Midnight, in which things improve mightily on an aesthetic level but kind of suck in every other way. Thems the breaks when one insists on the meta level as well as the literal one, eh?
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 8: The Seven-Striped Lass
Mat sits in an inn in Caemlyn called The Seven-Striped Lass, toying with the sealed letter from Verin and cursing her for the oath he’d made to her. He thinks the innkeeper, Melli, is very pretty, but resolves not to smile at her, as it wouldn’t be right to break her heart now that he is a married man. He asks her opinion about what he should do about the letter, and Melli snatches it from him and threatens playfully to open it herself, teasing him about it being from a lover. Mat pleads with her to give it back, insisting that he’ll have to do what it says even if she is the one to open it. Melli finally relents and gives it back when he tells her it’s from an Aes Sedai.
Bloody woman. The only way for him to stay free of Aes Sedai plots was to never open this letter. Well, not exactly free. Mat had plenty of Aes Sedai plotting around him; he had them coming out of his ears. But only a man with sawdust for brains would ask for another.
[…]The letter would probably instruct him to do something dangerous. And embarrassing. Aes Sedai had a fondness for making men look like fools. Light, he hoped that she had not left instructions for him to help someone in trouble. If that were the case, surely she would have seen to it herself.
Mat is irritated that he’s having to disguise himself to avoid being recognized, thanks to the pictures of him being circulated everywhere. He leaves Melli’s inn and heads to another, less reputable inn to find a good dice game. While dicing, one of the other players tells a story about a man he knew found dead that morning, with his throat torn out and his body drained of blood. Shocked, Mat demands the man repeat himself, but one of the other players interrupts for them to look at the dice Mat had just thrown, which had all landed balanced on their corners. Mat feels the dice in his head start rolling, and jumps up and leaves.
The Forsaken hunting him, a picture of his face in the pocket of every footpad in the city and a corpse killed and drained of its blood. That could only mean one thing. The gholam was in Caemlyn. It seemed impossible that it could have gotten here this quickly. Of course, Mat had seen it squeeze through a hole not two handspans wide. The thing did not seem to have a right sense of what was possible and what was not possible.
He had already sent word to Elayne and gotten no reply, but the gholam makes a second attempt more urgent. Mat thinks to himself that he has a score to settle with the thing, and hurries to the inn near the city gate where Thom is performing. Mat pauses a moment to marvel at Thom’s skill with the flute, and wonders why he’s playing such a mournful melody. He tries to scoop up Thom’s coins and gets a knife through his coat sleeve for it. He complains to Thom about it, and Thom makes fun of him for caring about his clothes so much. Thom sobers, though, when Mat tells him about the gholam, and suggests that Mat open Verin’s letter so they’re not stuck in Caemlyn anymore, but Mat refuses, saying that whatever is in the letter could make a worse delay.
They go back to the Band’s camp a league outside Caemlyn. Thom tells Mat that he is not surprised that Elayne has ignored Mat’s letter, as she has her hands full at the moment. He also reports that three other sailors have corroborated Domon’s word on the location of the Tower of Ghenjei, several hundred miles northwest of Whitebridge. They discuss the problem of how to get there, now that they have no one capable of making a gateway; Mat hopes that Verin will come back and release him from his oath, but Thom opines that there is something “off” about Verin, and hopes she doesn’t.
“She’s Aes Sedai,” Mat said. “There’s something off about them all—like dice where the pips don’t add up—but for an Aes Sedai, I kind of like Verin. And I’m a good judge of character, you know that.”
Thom raised an eyebrow. Mat scowled back.
Thom thinks that Mat should start bringing guards with him from now on, and Mat reluctantly agrees. They arrive at camp to hear Teslyn, Edesina and Joline have returned, which sours Mat’s mood. He almost makes it into his tent before being intercepted by Teslyn, who asks if he’s heard the news about the White Tower. He recites the myriad of conflicting rumors flying around about what’s going on in Tar Valon in answer, and she replies that nevertheless she and the others must return there, so she wanted to come to him tonight to give him her thanks. Mat is astonished, and Teslyn dryly acknowledges that she did not agree with everything Mat did, but that she would still be in Seanchan hands without him.
Remarkably, she held out her hand to him. “Remember, should you ever come to the White Tower, you do have women there who are in your debt, Matrim Cauthon. I do not forget.”
He took the hand. It felt as bony as it looked, but it was warmer than he had expected. Some Aes Sedai had ice running in their veins, that was for certain. But others were not so bad.
She nodded to him. A respectful nod. Almost a bow. Mat released her hand, feeling as unsettled as if someone had kicked his legs out from underneath him.
He impulsively offers her horses for the journey. She tells him she did not thank him just to manipulate him into giving her horses, and Mat tells her that’s why he’s offering. He steps into his tent, and freezes as he smells blood.
So, my main thought, I’m pretty sure, when first encountering this chapter was, oh, thank God, that is much better.
There is a fair amount of controversy in the fandom, I think, over Mat’s portrayal in TGS. Many fans seem to agree with me that his characterization in that novel was… off, to put it charitably, but there are just as many, I think, who liked Mat just fine in TGS, and thought the rest of us were being overly critical on that score. In the end, as most of these things do, it comes down to personal preference, but since this is my blog, well, we’re going with what I think, which is that Mat in TGS was, well, off. It seemed to me that in TGS, Sanderson was trying just a little too hard to make Mat the funny rake we all know and love, and that he was, unfortunately, just kind of missing the mark on how to do that.
And the thing is, as I think I’ve also said, that that is pretty understandable, because Mat is a very difficult character to write; “loveable scoundrel” characters almost always are. It’s a dicey thing, that balance between jerkishness and awesomeness, and it’s very easy to think you’re doing the one when you’re actually doing the other.
But here in TOM, I think, Sanderson seems to have caught on to the essential thing about Mat, which is that he thinks he is both much more of an asshole and, simultaneously, much more of a wonderful guy than he actually is, which is a pretty neat trick when you think about it. And, more importantly, that he is in his own head massively (and quite purposefully) blind to his own motivations, whether they be of the jerkish philanderer variety or of the noble heroic variety.
Mat has always, throughout the series, constantly lied to himself about why he does the things he does, and the fun of him has always been in seeing how he always managed to do the right (or awesome) thing despite how often he told himself he was doing the exact opposite. I mostly left out in the summary all of Mat’s hilariously self-contradictory reflections in this chapter on how he was totally not looking at women that way anymore, no no, he is a married man now, but here is a great example, talking about a woman in the party he is dicing with:
Anyway, dicing with women was not fair, since one of his smiles could set their hearts fluttering and they would get all weak in the knees. But Mat did not smile at girls that way anymore. Besides, she had not responded to any of his smiles anyway.
Heh. Yeah, that is vintage Mat right there. So, total kudos to Brandon here, for (as I perhaps arrogantly see it) learning from his previous mistakes and adjusting his portrayal of Mat to be more in line with the adorably oblivious rogue he became after he stopped being the obnoxiously oblivious jackass he was in the first couple of books. Well done.
As for the whole Verin’s letter thing, I’m rather torn over whether to berate Mat, with my twenty-twenty hindsight, for not opening the damn thing, or to berate Verin (and, by extension, Aes Sedai in general) for cultivating such a reputation for devious manipulation as to convince Mat that opening it will just fuck him over hard. Probably both impulses are correct, and also probably that is the entire point of the exercise. Doesn’t make it any less frustrating, though.
Also, perhaps it’s an obvious thing, but I love the détente between Mat and Teslyn here. Teslyn has always been much more pro-Mat than her Red Ajah background would normally allow for, for obvious reasons, but it’s just very cool that she continues to acknowledge her debt to him and not let herself slip back into her (no doubt) formerly disdainful stance regarding men in general. Prejudice is such an endemic thing in the human condition, and it never fails to be awesome when you get to see it (believably) be overcome and overwritten by a person or character’s personal experience. It gives one hope, it really does.
Chapter 9: Blood in the Air
Mat ducks as the gholam swings at him, and manages to find his ashanderei and cut his way out of the tent, yelling to raise the camp. He pulls off his medallion and ties it to the ashanderei. The gholam whispers that Mat should be proud, that it has been ordered to ignore all others until it has killed him. Mat attacks, and the gholam avoids the medallion, but Mat manages to clip it on the hand, burning it with the medallion.
“I’ve been told to kill them all,” the gholam said softly. “To bring you out. The man with the mustache, the aged one who interfered last time, the little dark-skinned woman who holds your affection. All of them, unless I take you now.”
The gholam attacks again, and Mat feels something haul him out of harm’s way, and realizes that Teslyn had done it with flows of Air. He screams to warn her that she won’t be able to touch it directly with the Power, and Teslyn begins hurling objects at the gholam instead. The camp is roused now, and the gholam breaks off and runs straight toward two Redarms, Gorderan and Fergin. Mat yells at them to let it pass, but it too late, and the gholam kills them both. Mat begins to pursue, but then remembers the smell of blood from the tent, and runs back to find two more dead Redarms dead, plus Lopin, which fills Mat with grief. He searches for Olver, who was supposed to be in the tent, but a soldier tells him Olver was with Noal, and Mat runs to confirm it. Noal begins to apologize for keeping Olver with him, but Mat embraces him fiercely for saving Olver’s life.
An hour later, Mat has explained to Thom and Noal how the gholam had threatened them specifically, as well as Tuon, and how Mat had decided the only way to stop it was to hunt it down and kill it. Thom asks if it actually can be killed, and Mat replies that anything can be killed. He tells them to continue their preparations for going to the Tower of Ghenjei, and in the meantime Mat will begin sleeping in the city, in a different inn every night, in order to protect the Band. He says that Noal and Thom will have to come with him, and Olver too, just in case. They are interrupted by Joline calling for Mat, who tells him that it appeared he had been right after all about this creature, and that she needs horses to go to the Tower. Mat agrees mockingly, and she warns him to watch his language. He mentions he needs to write a letter to “Her Royal bloody Majesty Queen Elayne the prim,” and Joline asks if he’s going to swear at her too.
“Of course I am,” Mat muttered, turning to go back to Thom’s tent. “How else is she going to trust that it’s really from me?”
But, aw, poor Lopin. I always very much enjoyed the byplay of Mat’s unwillingly inherited manservants, and it’s just a damn shame that one of them bit it. But it felt like a real death, not a cheap one, if that makes any sense. Sometimes you get the feeling that a narrative kills off characters for very manipulative and, frankly, artificial reasons, but I didn’t get that feeling here.
So, Teslyn’s kind of awesome. She is definitely very firmly on the tragically short list of Reds Who Do Not Suck, and she just reinforces it here.
As for the gholam, first of all on a purely selfish level I am totally annoyed that this is one of the Old Tongueish words that Jordan decided to randomly italicize in the text, because wow that is getting old, but also I am a tad confused, because what the gholam says here seems to imply (to me, anyway) that it has gotten further instructions since the last time we saw it in Ebou Dar, re: Noal and Thom and Tuon.
Which is interesting, because Moridin seemed to have totally missed the gholam when they were both mutually but separately in Ebou Dar in ACOS, so when and from whom would the gholam have gotten updated orders? As these must be, considering that Tuon had hardly had anything to do with Mat (from an outsiders’ point of view) prior to the point where he “kidnapped” her from the city, so how would the gholam have gotten orders about Tuon specifically unless someone had given them to it at a later date than where we saw?
Not that that’s not possible, of course, but I dunno, it previously seemed like the gholam was almost going rogue, post Ebou Dar, and this seems to contradict that. Perhaps this is explained later and I just forgot, though.
Which is eminiently possible, because the further I’ve been going with the reread of TOM the more I’m realizing how much I’ve forgotten about this book. Which makes it more fun for me personally, of course, on a pure rediscovery scale, but tends to turn my predictive powers re: What It All Means in the commentary rather to shit, which is a tad annoying.
Perhaps all of y’all can provide an answer, yes? I hope so! Have a lovely week of commentage, O my peeps, and I’ll see you next Tuesday!