O come, all ye WOT faithful, for one last Wheel of Time Re-read before the new year!
Today’s entry covers Chapter 22 of The Gathering Storm, in which Bad Shit Happens, and we learn the true meaning of “low point.” Ow.
Don’t forget: after this post, the Re-read is on hiatus until January 10th.
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 newest release, Towers of Midnight.
This re-read post contains spoilers for all currently published Wheel of Time novels, up to and including Book 13, Towers of Midnight. If you haven’t read, read at your own risk.
And now, the post!
Chapter 22: The Last That Could Be Done
Semirhage sits in her cell and tries to figure out how that “cursed woman with the paralis-net in her hair” had made her lose control so quickly, and is planning ways to torture her when Shaidar Haran appears before her. She prostrates herself, and Shaidar Haran tells her she has disappointed the Great Lord by almost killing the boy instead of capturing him, and now by allowing herself to be captured, but she is to be given one last chance. He warns her not to fail again, and Semirhage feels the shield on her disappear, as does Shaidar Haran. Semirhage leaves the room to find the three Aes Sedai on guard dead, and a fourth kneeling to her. The woman tells Semirhage there is Compulsion on her mind she is instructed to ask Semirhage to remove, and also gives her a metallic collar and bracelet set which Semirhage recognizes as the Domination Band.
With this ter’angreal, a male channeler could be controlled. A smile finally broke through Semirhage’s fear.
Rand rides the Saldaean Blight border with Bashere, Ituralde, and fifty thousand of Ituralde’s troops. Ituralde and Bashere observe that this could appear to be an invasion of Saldaea even with Bashere’s presence, but Rand doesn’t see what else is to be done with Saldaea’s own troops off Light knows where. Bashere comments that the Blight has come leagues further inland even in just the last few months, but it is bizarre that it is so quiet. Ituralde doesn’t understand the logic of leaving the Domani to guard the Border when Bashere’s Saldaeans have so much more experience dealing with the creatures of the Blight, but Rand thinks to himself that keeping the Saldaeans and the Domani in places foreign and hostile to them is a way of ensuring neither group’s loyalty is tempted to waver. Rand tells Ituralde that he will have a hundred Asha’man by the end of the week, and that Rand is moving to Bandar Eban in four days. This is news to Bashere. They return to the manor via gateway. Rand thinks on Moridin, and wonders why the man saved him in Shadar Logoth, and whether he had lied about Rand being the one to invade his dream instead of the other way around. He thinks again he must be hard to kill the Forsaken, but is troubled that Min does not want that of him.
There were no games with Min; she might call him a fool, but she did not lie, and that made him want to be the man she wished him to be. But did he dare? Could a man who could laugh also be the man who could face what needed to be done at Shayol Ghul?
Lews Therin suddenly speaks up and says Min is right; they need to break the seals. Rand stops short, and asks what they do after that. Lews Therin says they die, like Rand promised, and Rand points out that that’s only if they defeat the Dark One; otherwise they will be far worse than dead.
Lews Therin began to weep.
Lews Therin! Rand snapped in his mind. What do we do? How did you seal the Bore last time?
It didn’t work, Lews Therin whispered. We used saidin, but we touched it to the Dark One. It was the only way! Something has to touch him, something to close the gap, but he was able to taint it. The seal was weak!
Yes, but what do we do differently? Rand thought.
Rand goes into the manor, thinking on duty and how it is crushing him. He wishes he could see Tam again, but knows he can’t risk it, either for Tam’s sake or for his own. He wonders if he is to have no other legacy than making it to the Last Battle and dying there; if he is to leave the world in chaos, or if there is a way to leave it better. He thinks on what Lews Therin said about saidin, and wonders if it is really as simple as making sure he has both women and men with him when he attempts it again, or whether he should stick with his other plan of slaying the Dark One altogether. He goes into his room and finds Min there reading while an old serving woman bustles around. Min complains that he is too tense, and hasn’t laughed in months, and Rand asks what there is these days to laugh about. Min starts to say something about Cadsuane, and Rand is instantly suspicious that Min is being manipulated by the woman, or even working with her, and then is horrified at his own paranoia. He apologizes to her, and then feels something click around his neck. He turns to see the serving woman vanish, to be replaced by Semirhage. Rand tries to move, but cannot.
At that moment, Rand felt terror.
Min then hurls a knife which almost connects, slashing Semirhage’s cheek, and screams for the guards until Semirhage curses and binds and gags her with Air. Elza enters, and Rand is relieved for a moment until she smiles and tells him he is finally come to his destiny: to face the Great Lord. Semirhage tells him the room is warded against sound; no one is coming, and he cannot move or speak unless she allows it. Rand tries to seize saidin, and cannot do that either. Semirhage remarks that he won’t like it if he tries that again, and forces him to stand and begin to choke himself. Rand tries for saidin again, and screams at the agony coursing through him. Lews Therin cries that they are in the box again, and Rand remembers that was when he first started talking to him.
Rand hadn’t been willing to see Lews Therin as part of himself. The mad part of himself, the part that could deal with the torture, if only because it was already so tortured. More pain and suffering was meaningless. You could not fill a cup that had already begun to overflow.
He stopped screaming. The pain was still there, it made his eyes water, but the screams would not come. All fell still.
Semirhage is puzzled, and demands to know what he is doing, and Rand whispers that no more can be done to him. She hits him with more pain, but Rand does not respond. Then she smiles and tells him he is wrong, and she has broken men ten times as strong. She forces him to stand and seize saidin, and then is intrigued at how that makes him throw up.
Use it, Lews Therin whispered. Kill her while we can!
I will not kill a woman, Rand thought stubbornly, a figment of a memory from the back of his mind. That is the line I will not cross…
Semirhage then makes him weave a web which Rand knows causes great pain, and Rand screams for her to stop as she forces him to put it on Min, who writhes in agony. Semirhage tells him to beg, and he does, weeping. Semirhage stops, and tells him he will come with her to Shayol Ghul and the Great Lord to fulfill his destiny to serve him, but first Min must be dealt with. She ignores his pleas and forces him to begin choking Min.
It was as if he gripped his own heart, and the world became black around him, everything darkened except for Min. He could feel her pulse throbbing beneath his fingers.
Those beautiful dark eyes of hers watched him, loving him even as he killed her.
This can’t be happening!
I’ve killed her!
There had to be a way out! Had to be! Rand wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn’t. She wouldn’t let him not Semirhage, but Min. She held his eyes with her own, tears lining her cheeks, dark, curled hair disheveled. So beautiful.
He scrambled for saidin, but could not take it. He tried with every bit of will he had to relax his fingers, but they just continued to squeeze. He felt horror, he felt her pain. Min’s face grew purple, her eyes fluttered.
Rand wailed. THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING! I WILL NOT DO THIS AGAIN!
Something snapped inside of him. He grew cold; then that coldness vanished, and he could feel nothing. No emotion. No anger.
At that moment he grew aware of a strange force. It was like a reservoir of water, boiling and churning just beyond his view. He reached toward it with his mind.
A clouded face flashed before Rand’s own, one whose features he couldn’t quite make out. It was gone in a moment.
And Rand found himself filled with an alien power. Not saidin, not saidar, but something else. Something he’d never felt before.
Oh, Light, Lews Therin suddenly screamed. That’s impossible! We can’t use it! Cast it away! That is death we hold, death and betrayal.
It is HIM.
Rand thinks the power rivals even that he’d had with the Choedan Kal, and screams in “rapture and rage” as he channels with it to explode the collar off of him. He releases Min and turns to Semirhage, who stares in utter shock. She whispers that she felt nothing, and then realizes aloud that it is the True Power. She asks why the Great Lord has betrayed her as Rand raises a hand and balefires her. Elza runs for the door, and Rand balefires her too.
What have you done? Lews Therin asked. Oh, Light. Better to have killed again than to do this… Oh, Light. We are doomed.
Rand lets the power go, reluctantly, and numbly notes that Min looks afraid of him. He thinks that he barely remembers what it was like to kill Ilyena, but now he knew exactly what it feels like to kill a loved one. He whispers that it is done.
“The last that could be done to me,” he said, surprised at his own calmness. “They have taken everything from me now.”
Min asks what he means, and Rand apologizes to her that the laughter and flexibility she wanted from him are things he can no longer give. He decides that to be hard as steel is not enough; from now on, he is cuendillar.
They could not break or bend him.
It was done.
So, I gave myself a raging monster of a headache when I initially acquired TGS, because I read the entire behemoth of a book through in a matter of hours, almost without pause. I say “almost,” because there were a couple of points where I had to stop.
Most of the pauses were for pesky real life reasons, like getting off the subway before I missed my stop, and such, but this chapter was the only place I stopped because of the story itself. I didn’t just stop, either; I put the book down and physically walked away from it for a bit, in fact, because of how upset I became. I was really rather surprised by the strength of my reaction, even though in retrospect I really shouldn’t have been.
Lois McMaster Bujold once said (paraphrased) that one of her mantras in approaching how to tell a story was to ask herself, “what is the worst possible thing I can do to these people?”, and then make it happen. And, well. From that perspective, this chapter earns a goddamn gold star in storytelling, because that is pretty much exactly what it is for Rand - the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. And that meant it was really, really hard to read - however necessary and inevitable that it was that it had to happen.
Another plot technique I’ve talked about before is a term that is commonly used in scriptwriting, but is perfectly applicable across mediums to any protagonist’s journey, particularly heroic ones, which is the concept of the midpoint: the point in the story where the protagonist reaches his personal nadir, or lowest possible point, and seems furthest from reaching his goal.
I remember that before TGS came out I was of the opinion that Rand’s midpoint was in TPOD (specifically, when he went bugshit with Callandor and wiped out half of his own troops), but obviously I was seriously, seriously wrong on that score. TGS very very very unmistakably contains Rand’s real low point as a character, and it begins here. And this is both totally awesome and utterly sucky, if I may be allowed to use the formal academic terms here.
On the one hand, it is totally awesome, because this nadir absolutely had to happen, from a narrative integrity viewpoint. The unspoken qualifier to Bujold’s storytelling rule I mentioned above is that the “worst possible thing” she does to her characters is not the equivalent of “rocks fall, everyone dies” (i.e. insurmountable disaster), but the worst possible thing that the character(s) can still overcome and grow from. A character’s triumphs, after all, are only worth as much as the obstacles she has to overcome to achieve them; the more difficult the trial, the more satisfying it is when the character prevails against it.
Plus, it is basically inconceivable to suppose that Rand should not have some kind of snapping point, considering the pressures he’s been under and the sheer amount of crap he’s been forced to endure over the course of the series. Letting him escape without this nadir would have felt cheap, ultimately.
On the other hand, it is utterly sucky, because yes, all of the above, but however meta-aesthetically necessary the midpoint may be, it doesn’t change the fact that it fucking blows to watch a character you care about go through it.
A while back I had something of a revelation about Rand’s massive hang-ups re: harming women, which was that, while I still find it offensive and (more importantly) incredibly stupid on principle, I realized that what it really was, was a more or less arbitrarily self-defined Moral Event Horizon - a deliberately chosen line that Rand refused to cross in an effort to keep himself from descending into total amorality, or worse. I’m trying to remember now whether I had this revelation before or after TGS, which states it flat out in this chapter, in contrast to the earlier books, where it was not so explicitly said. It would be cooler if I had thought of it myself before TGS, of course, but whatever. (I could go and try to track down where I talked about this in my old posts, but frankly the idea makes me want to cry, so I ain’t gonna.)
And I have to wonder, really, if the reason it was made so much more obscure in the earlier books was actually because Jordan was trying to be subtle about it, or if instead it was because he considered it so obvious that it didn’t need to be spelled out. Even if, going by my example at least, it kind of did.
Whichever the case, the reason this chapter represents Rand’s nadir as a character is because (duh) Semirhage finally forced him to cross that line, and now Rand believes that he has no more limits upon him. That this is total crap reasoning on his part is, of course, completely irrelevant; perception, sadly, far too often trumps reality.
And then there is the other big thing in this chapter, which is Rand’s utterly unexpected use of the True Power to break free and kill Semirhage, which I think made my jaw physically drop when I first read it, because WHOA. Even though now in retrospect it seems perfectly obvious how it happened, which is of course this odd and involuntary brainshare thing Rand and Moridin have had ever since the One Power/True Power crossing the streams incident in Shadar Logoth in ACOS. After all, if they share dreams and phantom missing-limb sensations and unfortunate personality traits, why not powers?
The consequences of this development have yet to fully materialize; ToM only made reference to it once or twice from what I recall (probably because Rand was never a POV character in ToM at all except for right at the end, if I remember correctly), but I have to assume that it is going to be a major factor in the final showdown between Rand and Moridin, or Rand and the Dark One, or some combination of the above. Because, again, duh.
And again, it’s going to suck, however it goes down. But I’ll be completely fascinated to find out how it all works out in the end.
And there is probably more I could say about all of this, but I’m rather tapped out at the moment. And in any case, it’s not like the consequences of this chapter aren’t going to come up again and again over the course of TGS.
So I think I’ll stop here for now, except to say: that really fucking hurt, Sanderson and Jordan. Well done.
And that concludes the WOT Re-read for 2011, people! Have a very merry holiday season of your choice, and I’ll see you again next year!