Look lively there, Tor.com, for I have brought you: an argument.
Specifically, an argument about the Wheel of Time, one of our favorite tried-and-true sources of argumentation round these parts. And even more specifically, as a complement to my recently-posted Top Five Moments of WoT, this is an argument about which are (gasp) the Top Five Worst Moments of the Wheel of Time. Oooooooooooooh…
And don’t forget, once you’re done arguing, to go and check out Tor.com’s newest font of WOT Argumentating: Kelsey Jefferson Barrett’s Read (not Reread!) of the Wheel of Time. Good times!
But first, with great vengeance and furrrrious anger (but, you know, polite vengeance and anger, be nice, y’all), click on!
Once again the obligatory disclaimer: here be reborn Dragons, and also hella massive SPOILERS for the entire Wheel of Time series. If you haven’t read, best toddle off out of the tent now, tatty byes.
Are they gone? Good! Let’s begin.
This post, O My Peeps, was a fair bit more complicated to produce than my “Best Of WoT” post. Because deciding what constitutes a “best” moment is pretty straightforward, after all: I weighed all the available awesome in a range of bits, arranged those bits that I felt had the highest percentage of awesome in descending order, et voila. I’m not saying that was easy, because it wasn’t, but it wasn’t complicated, if you see what I mean.
Not so deciding on a “Worst Of WoT” list, because to start with I had to decide what, exactly, that even meant. Does that mean “the moments that made me feel the worst”? Because there were plenty of moments in WoT that upset or angered me, some of them greatly so. But if that’s how those moments were supposed to make me feel, can I really say they were the “worst”? Or does “worst” mean the moments I feel were the worst executed—i.e., moments that upset/angered/annoyed me that weren’t supposed to?
It’s probably the second one, let’s be honest. But that left me feeling a bit, uh, mean, confining myself thusly. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid to call out when the Wheel of Time fell down on the job—and in a series this sprawling and complicated and fraught with external complexities, it was inevitably going to do so on at least a few occasions—but I’ve also always preferred to leaven these criticisms with acknowledgments of how much it didn’t fall down while I’m at it. So you see my dilemma, I hope.
But! It all ends well for you, my dears, seeing as the ultimate result turned out to be that you now get two—two, ah ha ha!—new lists for the price of one! You’re so lucky.
Yes, that means now I’ll have three lists: A Best List, a Worst List, and a… well, a Best Worst List. Or maybe a Worst Best List? Look, it makes sense in my head, okay, work with me here.
That last list, though, whatever it is, is for the future; first, let’s get the actual worst Worst stuff out the way, shall we?
We shall! Thus I present you: The Top Five Worst Moments in The Wheel of Time.
Worst Moment No. 5: Perrin spanks Faile (The Shadow Rising)
Well, it was her own fault. It was. [Perrin] had asked [Faile] not to hit him, told her. Her own fault. He was surprised she had not tried to pull one of her knives, though; she seemed to carry as many as Mat.
She had been furious, of course. Furious with Loial for trying to intervene; she could take care of herself, thank you very much. Furious with Bain and Chiad for not intervening; she had been taken aback when they said they did not think she would want them to interfere in a fight she had picked. When you choose the fight, Bain had said, you must take the consequences, win or lose. But she did not seem even the tiniest bit angry with him any longer. That made him nervous. She had only stared at him, her dark eyes glistening with unshed tears, which made him feel guilty, which in turn made him angry. Why should he be guilty? Was he supposed to stand there and let her hit him to her heart’s content? She had mounted Swallow and sat there, very stiff-backed, refusing to sit gingerly, staring at him with an unreadable expression. It made him very nervous. He almost wished she had pulled a knife. Almost.
This incident probably barely registered as a blip among the greater happenings of the Wheel of Time to casual readers (and in fact it is so obliquely written that many readers probably didn’t catch what had happened at all), but anyone who followed my Reread most likely vividly remembers the storm of controversy generated by my outraged reaction to the revelation that Perrin had spanked Faile. The uproar was pretty mild compared to your average modern-day Internet flame war (although what isn’t?), but at the time I was startled by it, to say the least.
My reasoning for including this on a list of Worst WoT moments is really quite well summed up by my commentary on it during the Redux Reread, which you can read here in its entirety, but I’ll quote the relevant bit:
Some of the sentiments expressed [in the comments], even when presented calmly, I found anywhere from lightly upsetting to deeply disturbing—mostly, in the latter case, because the commenters themselves seemed to have no idea of what it was they were implying.
The biggest one of these was the ‘you act like a child, you get spanked like a child’ comments. […] I found this disturbing because, among other things, it inherently implies the belief that (a) Perrin has every right to decide whether Faile deserves ‘punishment’ for ‘acting out’ and (b) he has the right to both decide what that punishment is and to mete it out himself.
And you know what, if he was her father, he would have that right (up to a point). But Perrin is most decidedly NOT her father. And to blithely assign Faile’s love interest—or any male in her life other than her actual father, in fact—the punitive power of a parental authority figure is, to put it baldly, some deeply messed up hyper-patriarchal bullshit, y’all.
That is in fact the textbook definition of patriarchy, equating women to children—reducing them to permanently immature weaker beings who must be protected and disciplined by the stronger more rational wiser male authority figure(s) in their lives. That so many of the comments advocating the ‘good punishment’ argument seemed to fail to even notice this connotation of their words was, in a word, unsettling.
This connotation of Perrin’s actions is just as implied in the story itself, and that is not cool, you guys. Not cool at all.
Worst Moment No. 4: Mat’s characterization in The Gathering Storm
“Women,” Mat declared as he rode Pips down the dusty, little-used road, “are like mules.” He frowned. “Wait. No. Goats. Women are like goats. Except every flaming one thinks she’s a horse instead, and a prize racing mare to boot. Do you understand me, Talmanes?”
“Pure poetry, Mat,” Talmanes said, tamping the tabac down into his pipe.
The Gathering Storm, as the transition novel between Robert Jordan’s sole ownership of his series and the point where Brandon Sanderson and Team Jordan by necessity took it over for him, perhaps inevitably had a few, hm, roadbumps that needed smoothing, stylistically. And Mat’s character is by far the most egregious pothole among them, in my opinion. His reintroduction to the narrative in TGS is, well, kind of painful, and what was supposed to be a humorously oblivious expression of his worry over Tuon instead came across as a bizarre, unfunny, and frankly offensive misogynistic rant.
And I know that some readers think that Mat has always been sexist in his views on women, but even if I agreed with that view (which I don’t), this would still have been out of character for him. It was just Not On, you guys.
Granted, I most definitely did not envy Brandon the thankless task of trying to balance Mat’s, as I put it, “delicate ratio of jerkishness to awesomeness” or reproduce Jordan’s unique brand of humor in general. And there is no denying Brandon got better at it—and at Mat—later on. But right at this particular point? Eesh.
Worst Moment No. 3: Faile is imprisoned by the Shaido Aiel (The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams)
Startled, Faile tripped over her own feet and caught herself on his arm. […] “I do have a husband, Rolan, and I love him very much. Very much. I can’t wait to return to him.”
“What happens while you are gai’shain cannot be held against you when you put off white,” he said calmly, “but perhaps you wetlanders do not see it that way. Still, it can be lonely when you are gai’shain. Perhaps we can talk sometimes.”
The man wanted to see her laugh, and she did not know whether to laugh or cry. He was announcing that he did not intend to give up trying to attract her interest. Aiel women admired perseverance in a man. Still, if Chiad and Bain would not, could not, help beyond giving her aid in reaching the trees, Rolan was her best hope. She thought she could convince him, given time. Of course she could; faint hearts never succeeded! He was a scorned outcast, accepted only because the Shaido needed his spear. But she was going to have to give him a reason to persist.
Ugh. That, plus the number of books I had to list in the caption above, should immediately tell you why this made the list. The Plotline of Doom (or PLOD), as it was unaffectionately known among fans, was not only gross and rapey (on Faile’s side) and sodden with mopetastic eyeroll-worthy emo (on Perrin’s side), it never ended. It just went on and on and on and on and
…And unlike the Energizer bunny, there was nothing either endearing or energizing about it. Brandon actually managed to redeem the whole mess to some extent with his coda to it in The Gathering Storm, much to my surprise, but man was I thrilled when this storyline was finally done with.
Worst Moment No. 2: Anything Gawyn did in the entire series (The Entire Series)
Okay, fine, this is more of a worst character than a worst moment, but whatever, this is my list and if I want to make a character a moment you can’t stop me, mwahahaha.
…Er, anyway, yeah, Gawyn. He sucked and I hated him.
No, seriously. At one point one of my lovely commenters toted up the number of *headdesks* I had granted any given topic over the course of the Reread, and if I recall correctly, Gawyn’s *headdesks* outnumbered the next highest headdesk-y subject by something like an order of magnitude.
Gawyn drove me batty, you guys. His ability to consistently make the most asinine decision possible in every last situation he was faced with, even unto the very end, would have been impressive had it not been so utterly exasperating. I suppose there are people—and characters—out there who are just like that, but wow did I wish we could have done without him in this story.
So there’s those. And Now, a couple of Honorable Mentions!
Worst Honorable Mention #1: Morgase’s torture and rape (A Crown of Swords)
I am specifically referring to what happens to her at Asunawa and Valda’s hands in Amador, but actually “torture and rape” describes about 95% of Morgase’s entire character arc through the entire series, and it’s not cool. Really, it’s only because it was mostly offscreen (and, honestly, that she was a fairly minor character) that it only rates an HM instead of a full slot on the Worst Of list. Ugh.
Worst Honorable Mention #2: The lack of a Superboys reunion in A Memory of Light
Yep, I am still going to be a grump about this. I just wanted the three of them in the same room, at the same time! For like five minutes! One scene! Come on! Is that so much to ask?
And yet, apparently it was. (She grumbled, sulkily.)
(As also was, apparently, a reunion between Moiraine and Siuan. Or Rand and his three bonded loves. Or even our entire Hero Starter Set™—i.e., the gang that started it all setting out from the Two Rivers in TEOTW, plus Elayne and Min. I just wanted them to, like, get a chance to hug or something! I JUST HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS OKAY)
Worst Honorable Mention #3: Alanna bonds Rand against his will (Lord of Chaos)
FLAMES. FLAMES, ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE. I was so mad about this, y’all. Still am, really. And though I guess I am a bit mollified that this thoroughly infuriating set-up got at least something of a plot-relevant payoff in AMOL, this remains one of my least favorite plot twists in the series.
Worst Honorable Mention #4 (sort of): The Taimandred ret-con
I wasn’t really sure whether to include this, since it’s more of a meta thing that one would almost certainly never be aware of if one wasn’t involved in the fandom, and additionally it is a theory the truth of which I believe has been denied by Jordan himself.
That said, there are a non-trivial number of fans who nevertheless still believe (and some who claim to have evidence proving) that when Robert Jordan originally introduced the character of Mazrim Taim in Lord of Chaos, he intended to eventually reveal that Taim was Demandred in disguise, but changed his mind at some later point for highly-speculated-about but ultimately unconfirmed reasons.
I am… on the fence about this, personally. On the one hand, there really are some unbelievably pointed clues in LOC and the following books that indicate Taim could not be the modern-day former false Dragon that he claimed; on the other, it’s really rude to basically accuse an author of lying about their own work.
But, if it is true, it does represent something of a fail, and it was a pretty big deal in the fandom for many years, so I include it for form’s sake. Up to you whether you buy it or not.
ETA: So, thanks to my intrepid commenters below, I have been reminded post-publication that I am a dummy, because I COMPLETELY FORGOT about one of my most-hated moments in all of WOT, and I cannot believe I left it out. I’m claiming repressed memory; yeah, that’s the ticket.
But now I must include it, and thus:
Worst Moment No. 1.5: Tylin rapes Mat (Crown of Swords)
“Now, lambkin.” She smiled.
It was too much. The woman hounded him, tried to starve him; now she locked them in together like… like he did not know what. Lambkin! Those bloody dice were bouncing around in his skull. Besides, he had important business to see to. The dice had never had anything to do with finding something, but… He reached her in two long strides, seized her arm, and began fumbling in her belt for the keys. “I don’t have bloody time for—” His breath froze as the sharp point of her dagger beneath his chin shut his mouth and drove him right up onto his toes.
“Remove your hand,” she said coldly. He managed to look down his nose at her face. She was not smiling now. He let go of her arm carefully. She did not lessen the pressure of her blade, though. She shook her head. “Tsk, tsk. I do try to make allowances for you being an outlander, gosling, but since you wish to play roughly… Hands at your sides. Move.” The knifepoint gave a direction. He shuffled backward on tiptoe rather than have his neck sliced.
[…] Why would she bring him…? His face was suddenly as crimson as the bedpost. No. She could not mean to… It was not decent! It was not possible!
“You can’t do this to me,” he mumbled at her, and if his voice was a touch breathy and shrill, he surely had cause.
“Watch and learn, my kitten,” Tylin said, and drew her marriage knife.
To say that this scene was a huge point of contention among the fandom would be to drastically understate the situation. It was also personally my least favorite WOT-related argument at the time, as it forced me to confront more than one unexamined assumption I had been holding about the nature of sexual assault, and the profoundly disturbing (and still extant) tendency in Western culture to regard male rape as a source of humor.
A tendency, it transpires, that Robert Jordan was just as subject to as the rest of us. Hence the terrible discomfort of rereading this scene, which I originally found just as funny as the author intended it to be, and which now makes me cringe just as much for the memory of my own initial reaction as for the fail it represents on the author’s part.
So that’s… ugly. But I’ll reiterate what I said in the Reread about it: “[But] you know, even the bad has its value – sometimes more than the good, even. Having this particular wall knocked down in my brain was not exactly fun, but I cannot regret the lessons I learned from having it happen, and I think it made me a better person in the long run – or at least a more thoughtful person. Certainly a much more aware person. As someone once said, all knowledge is worth having.”
Take that as you will. And now, having corrected my egregious oversight, the moment we’ve all been waiting for!
Worst Moment No. 1: Elayne and Aviendha Take A Bath (Crossroads of Twilight)
Two copper bathtubs sat on thick layers of toweling laid atop the rose-colored floor tiles where one of the carpets had been rolled up, evidence that word of Elayne’s arrival had flown ahead of her. Servants had a knack for learning what was happening that the Tower’s eyes-and-ears might envy. A good blaze in the fireplace and tight casements in the windows made the room warm after the corridors, and Essande waited only to see Elayne enter the room before sending Sephanie off at a run to fetch the men with the hot water. That would be brought up in double-walled pails with lids to keep it from getting cold on the way from the kitchens, though it might be delayed a little by Guardswomen checking to make sure there were no knives hidden in the water.
Aviendha eyed the second bathtub almost as doubtfully as Essande eyed Birgitte, the one still uneasy about actually stepping into water and the other still not accepting that anyone more than necessary should be present during a bath, but the white-haired woman wasted no time before quietly bustling Elayne and Aviendha both into the dressing room, where another fire on a wide marble hearth had taken the chill from the air. It was a great relief to have Essande help her out of her riding clothes, knowing that she had more ahead of her than a hasty wash and a show of ease while worrying about how quickly she could move on to her next destination. Other pretenses awaited, the Light help her, and other worries, but she was home, and that counted for much. She could almost forget about that beacon shining in the west. Almost. Well, not at all, really, but she could manage to stop fretting over it as long as she did not dwell on the thing.
Yeah, we would have liked to not dwell on the thing either, Elayne, but unfortunately we did not have much of a choice there.
The infamous five-page-long bath in Crossroads of Twilight, of course, despite being quite bad enough on its own, is really just emblematic of the much larger problem that the entire novel (arguably, the entire middle section of the series) suffered from: an inability to stop grinding in second gear and actually move the story forward. I love the series as a whole, but there is no doubt that the middle books (by which I mean The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, and Crossroads of Twilight; some people include A Crown of Swords but I loved that book so nyah) turned into something of a slog at times, especially in regards to certain plotlines. The Faile/Perrin/Shaido PLOD mentioned above is definitely one of them, and the other was Elayne’s seemingly interminable war of succession for the Andoran crown, which, like the Shaido plotline, stretched over four books before finally being resolved.
The structure of COT in particular was almost unquestionably the single biggest mistake that Jordan made in writing the Wheel of Time. In retrospect you can see what he was trying to do, making all the disparate and by-then wildly out-of-sync storylines catch up to each other, by bringing them up level to the day of the Cleansing of the taint on saidin that happened at the end of Winter’s Heart, but the (likely unintended) result was 300+ pages of description of one day, and the ultimate effect was, in a word, stultifying.
This is not to say that the middle bits had no redeeming value whatsoever, of course. The Cleansing itself was amazing, and Winter’s Heart also had Rand’s triple bonding with Min, Elayne, and Aviendha, which despite not making the cut for my “Best Of” post is definitely one of my favorite scenes in the series. Plus, Jordan also thoroughly redeemed any sluggishness he may have succumbed to with Knife of Dreams, his followup to Crossroads of Twilight (as well as the last published WOT novel before his death), in which he most decidedly got the story back on track and moving (awesomely) forward.
That said, the bath in COT and what it represented was, structurally speaking at least, definitely a low point, and therefore my nominee for the No. 1 Worst Moment of the Wheel of Time.
Aaand that is… kind of a depressing place to stop, but it must be done—and never fear, redemption shall soon follow! Meanwhile, tell me your thoughts, and Watch This Space for the final installment of the (uninspiringly named) Leigh’s Lists About the Wheel of Time trilogy! Cheers!
Leigh Butler is a writer, blogger and critic, who feels humor and weirding of language is the best way to examine the impact of sociocultural issues on popular SF works (and vice versa). She has been a regular columnist for Tor.com since 2009, where she has conducted or is conducting three series: the now-retired Wheel of Time Reread and A Read of Ice and Fire, and the very much active Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia. She lives in New Orleans, and therefore advises you to let your good times roll, y’all.