In which the Seanchan make their appearance, Bayle Doman resurfaces and finds himself in Falme, Rand receives two final party invites, the chest is once again lost, Ingtar finally arrives in Carhien, and the newly reunited party accepts Barthanes’ invitation.
The Carhien chapters are mostly concerned with setting up the transition from the party being separated in Carhien to reunited and winding up in Falme. It is the introduction of the Seanchan that really grabs my attention here.
I love the introduction of a well-done culture with Eastern influences into otherwise largely Western-dominated fantasy. It is the Tsurani that, for me, elevated the Magician novels above the mass market fantasy masses. I liked the Empire trilogy a lot more than the last two books in the original Riftwar Saga. Similarly, the Seanchan were a big part of what drew me to The Wheel of Time as a youngster, and a big, big reason The Great Hunt was my favorite WoT book for many years.
Of course I have to be careful with my language here. The Tsurani had a heavy Mesoamerican influence as well (elevating them above cookie cutter Eastern-inspired fantasy cultures). Robert Jordan drew freely from a variety of cultures in constructing the Seachan, going as far west as the Ottoman Empire (there is also a conscious parallel with the Soviet Union, I think, but that is a matter for a much later reread post). And Jordan wasn’t shy about sprinkling Eastern influences on his generally more Western cultures, either. Shienar and Cairhien are the major settings for the first half of the book, and both have strong Japanese influences.
Some people take umbrage at this mixing of influences. And not just the neo-segregationists; Tolkien was a purist on these matters. Now, I have no quarrel with quarter-turn fantasy. I love the works of Guy Gavriel Kay and Miles Cameron. But it simply isn’t the case that fantasy cultures must or even should be direct analogs of particular historical cultures. For one, cultures have always mixed. Every culture is in a constant state of creative destruction and reinvention. Ranchero kolaches and Tejano music have no less cultural integrity than anything else.
But mixing cultures in writing fantasy is mostly okay because it is good. It is good because it is (or at least can be) entertaining. Fantasy writers are not slaves to the historical record. They are free to invent in service of the story—invent monsters, invent magic, invent culture. Strict analogs, fusions, and truly original cultures are all valid options. But the first can be a little staid and the third seriously tax the powers of even the most inventive mind. It is a little fusion that offers the most bang for the buck.
Not that Jordan leaves his powers of invention untaxed. The Seanchan worldbuilding cup doth overfloweth. They are successors to armies sent west across the horizon by the King Arthur analog. Armies not heard from again. At least not for a thousand years. They sail “square-looking ship[s] with . . . odd ribbed sails” (fantasy invention works as much from the micro as from the macro). They abduct women and install Vichy governments. “[A]ny who protested the disappearances of the women or having no voice in the choosing might be hung, or burse suddenly into flame, or be brushed aside like yapping dogs. There was no way of telling which it would be until it was too late.” They go to war with a menagerie of exotic monsters at their side. They have elaborate hierarchies. They wear helmets reminiscent of insect heads.
And, of course, the thing that really drives the Seanchan role in the narrative—they enslave female channelers and use their power to their own ends.
The first Seanchan chapter also includes one of my favorite lines in the entire series: “Domon took a deep breath and set about trying to lie his way out of Falme.”
In other happenings in these chapters, Rand’s invitation to just the major where the chest was taken is contrived, but it also absolutely works, within the narrative and thematically. Jordan excels at this—hanging a lampshade on the role of destiny in his story, making it a major thematic element, but still making us suspend our disbelief at all the grand coincidences that coalesce in a work fiction.
Foreshadowing! “I’m not Aiel, Lord Barthanes, and I’m not of the royal line either.”
Mat’s bitterness at being made to play the servant, and the rift between him and Rand, is easy to forget since it is dropped soon enough. Rand’s short conversation with Thom, on the other hand, helps set Thom’s course for the rest of the series. And that conversation just an excuse to escape the clutches of a trio of Cairhienin noblewomen. One of whom, by the way, is the same Breane who pops back up with Lamgwin to join the Morgase escape party (I only just caught that).
You can find all of my reread posts at The Wheel of Time Reread Index.