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Crossroads of Twilight
Robert Jordan
Tor Books, 701 pages

Crossroads of Twilight
Robert Jordan
Robert Jordan is the pseudonym of American writer James Oliver Rigney, Jr., who has also written as Regan O'Neal, Jackson O'Reilly, and Chang Lung. A lifelong resident of Charleston, SC, Robert Jordan was born in 1948. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam (from 1968-70), earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze star. Following that, he entered the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, where he received a degree in physics and went on to be employed by the Navy as a nuclear engineer. While hospitalized with an injury, he thought he could probably write as well as the authors he had been reading during his recovery. He has been writing ever since.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Path of Daggers
SF Site Review: A Crown of Swords
SF Site Review: The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time
The Complete Wheel of Time Index
Wheel of Time Links
Book Summaries
Wheel of Time Fan Art

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

The Wheel turns... barely.

In Crossroads of Twilight, Robert Jordan revisits all his main characters, bringing the reader current with events following Winter's Heart. In terms of plot progress, this expands the narrative little more than a couple days. Perrin Aybara continues his pursuit of the Shaido, seeking a way to rescue Faile, a challenge that has occupied him since the start of Winter's Heart, and that he seems no closer to resolving. After traveling for two books, Eqwene's army is finally poised before Tar Valon, but only in view from across the river. Within the White Tower, intrigues entangle Black Ajah, rebels and Elaida's supporters alike without further conclusion. Mat Cauthon finally departs Ebou Dar, but saddled with Aes Sedai, a renegade Seanchan and sul'dam, various followers and the Daughter of the Nine Moons, and disguised as members of the ubiquitous Valan Luca's Grand Traveling Show, between stopping to put on performances at every village and town along the way, and making only two and a half leagues a day, the farthest they reach is northern Altara. Elayne is still besieged in Caemyln, seeking support for her succession, and following the momentous conclusion to Winter's Heart, Rand has sequestered himself in eastern Tear, along with Cadsuane, Nynaeve, Min and others of his coterie. In other words, little of significance happens, though plenty of hints are dropped along the way promising future developments, perhaps the most intriguing being science fictional in nature. But expect no grand finale from this novel as took place in Winter's Heart, though Jordan does find a way to insinuate a couple more cliffhangers. And indeed it almost could be said that by skimming the end of each section to the novel, one will know only a little less than when one started. Tarman Gai'don remains a seemingly unattainable mirage on the horizon, each textual step seeming to bring it no closer, whether as central theme or the many side plots that have developed and dominated the last four books. Regrettably, the author once again displays his facile ability at stringing the series along, and this latest installment should be viewed as no more than a several hundred page posting, or at best a chance for loyal fans to reacquaint themselves with old friends.

Oddly enough, considering, in terms of plot development, that this is the author's most static novel to date, I found this latest outing perhaps the most satisfying novel Jordan has produced since Lord of Chaos, four books back. Admittedly, nine years have passed since the latter's publication, and memory grows gelid in the glacial progress that has typified Jordan's work of late. Unlike previous books beginning with Crown of Swords, the author keeps his spinning of new and ancillary plots to a minimum, instead concentrating upon his characters. And perhaps this is what allows the novel to succeed, despite its ponderous progress, as the series' characters have remained one of its greatest strengths. Granted, Elayne's noblesse oblige and romantic musings, parried against Aviendha's comic attempts to cope with her new courtly role remain problematic, and an obvious pandering to the sentimental among his readers. And as much as Jordan has given women an equal footing in his epic, stereotypes of gender continue to intrude. But the appeal of such idealized characterization remains evident in the popularity of other romanticizers, such as Elizabeth Haydon and Juliet Marillier, and I suspect has as many adherents as detractors. But in this novel, Jordan devotes most of his text to his stronger and more individual feminine leads -- Egwene, Faile and Min, and the developing Cadsuane and Tuon -- while including secondary characters similarly strong and diverse in portrayal. Nynaeve is effectively absent, foot-stamping, braid-tugging and fists on the hips minimized, and even Berelain appears to be undergoing a change of heart. And, along with Perrin, one of Jordan's most popular figures, Mat Cauthon, comes to the fore. As usual, irreverent and dogged with good and bad luck alike, his attempts to control his own fate is only partly successful, and it appears that his strategy for abducting and seducing Tuon is not destined to go entirely as he planned. Repeatedly dismissed as Tylin's "Toy," if anyone appears to have the upper hand in their emerging relationship, it is not Mat but his foretold intended, who despite her youth, is revealed as a ruthless master of the Seanchan version of Daes Dae'mar. And if not careful, Mat may find himself but a feint in her own stratagems. But of course, as is usual for Mat Cauthon, this is but one of many inherited problems, none of which he asked for.

As expected, Jordan's ability to descriptively bring his world alive through detailed nuance remains unparalleled, as does his skill at manipulating a plethora of plots that long ago would have overwhelmed most other writers, his closest peers in this regard being George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson. And, of course, he stands alone for the longest running epic so far -- 6,636 pages, more in mass market -- in fantasy's history, if not literature's. From its rather conventional if well-written beginning in Eye of the World, he has taken what began as an obvious Tolkien clone -- Emond's Field read as the Shire, Trollacs as Orcs, Myrddraal as Black Riders, the Dark One as Sauron -- and expanded and differentiated it into a realm largely his own, despite his many borrowings and synthesizing from other mythic and genre traditions, including Herbert's Dune, Buddhist, Taoist and Tibetan religion, samurai fencing, Arthurian romance, Celtic influences and Norse mythology, at times rearranging them in radically different contexts. Though he has received a great amount of criticism for his various depictions of women, he was one of the first male writers in an epic format to provide female characters equal if not stronger roles than many of his male actors, with most of his societies matriarchal, and magical power divided between the genders, the male half tainted by its contact with Darkness. A magical order predicated upon a feminine principle, with the male side associated with chaos and madness, becomes a conceit hardly envisioned by Tolkien or his immediate imitators. And unlike Tolkien and his successors, the strict duality between good and evil becomes increasingly blurred by ambiguity in Jordan's books, and the nature of Power is repeatedly questioned, as well as revealed as destructive in potential. The central character of Rand al'Thor is both messiah and destroyer, constantly treading the thin divide between salvation and madness, the rescue of the world and its ultimate destruction, and inextricably bound and tormented by prophecy versus choice. Though echoes of Tolkien remain, Jordan's world is quite different than the black and white realm of Middle Earth, irregardless of any broadly conventional setting.

The problem, however, lies in its continuance. The last four novels of the series have increasingly slowed in pace, or spun off in new directions that as yet have not significantly enhanced the development of the central themes, if anything at times seeming to exist for their own sake and a playing out of the narrative. With Crossroads of Twilight the story has reached idle, a situation not improved by reports that Jordan intends to interrupt the series in order to write a prequel. Originally begun in 1990 and intended as six books, since Lord of Chaos output has gradually grown prolonged, acceptable if the rewards of reading had proven worth the wait. But instead the story's progress has lagged with its writing, until now it seems effectively stalled. Online discussion boards abound with speculation and readers' displeasure -- "he doesn't know how to end it;" "he's milking it for the money;" "it was always intended to be thirteen books: that's the number necessary to form a magic circle" -- any of which may singly or together offer an explanation. My concern is not so much with possible motivation, as with the quality of the overall story, which frankly seems to be going nowhere fast, regardless of the craft displayed in its writing or any fleeting pleasure derived from revisiting a narrative world that by now any follower of the series has far too much invested in to readily abandon.

Jordan and The Wheel of Time have recently been included in the second edition of Bleiler's Supernatural Fiction Writers. Inclusion in this standard reference is based upon the author's perceived significance to the genre, and within this context I believe Jordan's entry is appropriate, as he has undoubtedly had a major impact upon the writing of epic fantasy over the past several years. However, whether this influence is to be lauded remains to be seen. Plenty of people from every aspect of the genre -- writers, readers, critics and publishers alike -- appear to have an opinion, whether from the fan who is delighted simply to return to a familiar world, to Locus who in their recent year-in-review issue eschewed the coverage of most continuing series for identical reasons: familiarity at the perceived expense of originality. By implication an author such as Jordan appears the most obvious target. And this accusation becomes well-founded by books such as Crown of Swords, Path of Daggers, Winter's Heart and Crossroads of Twilight which, intentionally or not, become little more than dalliance in what was once a successful series evolving with a cohesive vision. Admittedly, this loitering appears not to have damaged the author's sales, each new volume proving more successful than the last. But I believe there is an implicit relationship that exists between an author and his or her readers, certain expectations that are entered into between the writer and the audience that both sides agree to, and that it is usually best for all to follow. After several thousand pages of buildup, Robert Jordan has arguably abrogated his side of the bargain, leaving his audience stalled in details and descriptive sidles that have done little to move his primary plotlines forward, despite promises that the series is nearing a conclusion. And, despite the feat of world-building and story-telling achieved during the first six novels, the series now appears to be devolving and redefining itself through narrative asides and accretions of character. If a legacy, not one to be envied, and based upon the obvious ambition of the original books, one must assume that the author had desired something more than being remembered only as having written the longest story in genre history.

Whether the epic's concluding novels will redeem the series waits to be seen. I would suggest, however, that the author shouldn't tarry much longer. Even now, after ten books, it is difficult to imagine how he can successfully conclude this series under another three, without sacrificing the realism and verity of the narrative world he's created. A prequel hardly seems the direction he should be considering. In his bio at the back of each book he likes to state that "he has been writing since 1977 and intends to continue until they nail shut his coffin." For his fans' sake, let us hope this takes place after he finishes the series. But at his age and current rate of progress, I wouldn't bet my life on it. Then again, considering this review, perhaps I already have.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His reviews have also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses an MLS degree in Special Collections, and serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently working with scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall, at the Cushing Collection at Texas A&M on the Moorcock manuscripts, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl.

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