Review: TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT overcomes Middle Book Syndrome

Towers of Midnight is the thirteenth and penultimate book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve been reading this series off and on for about six years. It took me some time to get through this book, primarily because I wanted to savor it, rather than rush through it to get to the end. That was a wise decision.

I consider this installment a “middle” book for two reasons.

  1. The Gathering Storm (book 12), Towers of Midnight (book 13), and A Memory of Light (book 14) are very clearly the final act in this sprawling series, narratively.
  2. They are also the final act in their production. Sanderson worked with the editor, Jordan’s widow, to split the final act into three books, and produced these three volumes.

This review contains spoilers for this book and those preceding it in The Wheel of Time.

So when I say that Towers of Midnight overcomes Middle Book Syndrome, I really mean that as a transitionary book to build to the climax that is surely waiting in A Memory of Light, this book succeeds.

Towers of Midnight is a compelling read jam-packed with fascinating plot lines centered around our main characters, especially Mat and Perrin, but also Elayne and Egwene. Other staple characters like Faile, Nynaeve, Lan, Galad and Gawyn also build towards a rich narrative.

It is very much a middle book in that these plot lines serve to close out long-running narrative threads, such as Perrin’s rise to leadership, Mat’s shifting focus back towards Rand and the Last Battle, Egwene’s cementing of her power as Amyrlin, and Elayne’s marshaling of power around her throne in Caemlyn.

These characters are shifting, slowly and inexorably, towards the Last Battle. In doing so, Towers of Midnight necessarily takes on the hefty task of transitioning the characters, all of the hundreds of characters, and the reader into Tarmon Gaidon.

That’s not to say that A Memory of Light opens with the Last Battle and is one massive compendium of fighting. (I’m a few pages in and can confirm this is not the case.) But after 13 novels of ever-increasing length and complexity, everyone is facing the same direction: towards The End.

Some sections of the book drag a bit — Perrin’s training in the wolf dream with Hopper and his inevitable face-off with Slayer took me a bit to get through, both because of the tension that had been built and because I wanted to get past it. Still, I understood in the moment that his realization and acceptance of his true self was necessary to Perrin’s facing of the Whitecloaks.

Overall, though, Sanderson churns through these plot lines and still manages to provide some surprises, some poignant moments, and some clean breaks with narrative threads that would no longer serve the end of this series.

After the numerous books I struggled to get through, or even to understand at points because they were so weighed down with characters about whom I could not bring myself to care, I’m honestly still a little awestruck at how neatly Towers of Midnight, and The Gathering Storm before it, have brought us to this point.

Like I said, I’ve already started A Memory of Light. I’m thrilled and simultaneously reluctant to get to the end of this series. That, I think, is testament enough to its storytelling power.

Steve D

THE LAST KINGDOM Finale: Epic TV storytelling

The Last Kingdom TV series recently debuted its fifth and final season, which I caught on Netflix.

The show follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon lordling captured and raised by Danes who rises to become an important warrior and warlord during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward of Wessex. This show is the reason I’ve started reading the book series by Bernard Cornwell that it’s based on.

Having now finished season 5 and gotten confirmation that it is, indeed, the last of the series, I find myself reflecting on what, to me, has been a truly great show.

While much of the story of Uhtred himself is fictionalized, the show is realized with impeccable detail in the settings, the sets, and the costumes. Individual fight scenes are well choreographed and the battle scenes are mostly good if not great.

I’ve watched this show from the beginning, and had eagerly anticipated each of the last three seasons in particular as the show really hit its stride. Alexander Dreymon’s portrayal of Uhtred evolved from that of an arrogant, if skilled, young warrior into a admirable, honorable, and relentless lord who manages to fight both for what is right and for what he is owed.

The rest of the cast is stellar to the point that you might as well read through the cast list on IMDB, because I don’t think there is a poor actor in the entire series. This is the type of show where I recognized basically none of the actors when I first saw them, and now I can only think many of them will go on to do incredible things in television and film.

Alright, that’s enough reflecting. The main element of this show I wanted to call out is the storytelling.

Beware spoilers for season 5, including the season and series finale.

The Last Kingdom’s Epic Storytelling

The main arc of the story centers on Uhtred in his quest to reclaim his ancestral seat as the lord of Bebbanburg. Throughout the first four seasons of the show, Uhtred is desperate to retake his homeland, but is always called by duty, by oath, by extortion, or by his heart to fight different battles. These are so often at the behest of King Alfred of Wessex that by season four, it is almost laughable, except the relationship between Alfred and Uhtred has grown into the dearest of friendships, and you can’t really blame Uhtred for being loyal to one of his biggest patrons.

Season 5 presents a key opportunity for Uhtred to attack Bebbanburg – held by his estranged cousin – at the head of the armies of Wessex and Mercia, now joined under King Edward (Alfred’s son and Uhtred’s liege lord).

In the season and series finale, Uhtred fights to take Bebbanburg, Edward’s armies are nearly thrown over a cliff into the sea, and the enemy they fight tries to burn Bebbanburg to the ground.

This is the moment that any long-time watcher of this show has been waiting for, and recognizes what the show is doing. They literally and figuratively bring Uhtred to his knees, so close to achieving his lifelong destiny, within the walls of his home, and it burns to ashes in front of him.

And then the show takes another predictable turn that is just perfect. They show a montage of previous scenes from the show, focusing on Uhtred’s friends, allies, family, all lost in the turmoil of the previous five seasons (and some 20 years) of Uhtred’s life.

Going into this episode, I was not aware that season five was to be the final chapter of this show. But this montage was so perfectly executed and attuned to the emotional weight of the moment that I immediately knew that this was the end of the series.

After the montage, the sky breaks open into rain, drowning out the flames that would engulf Uhtred’s home, and in a last desperate act, Uhtred and King Edward’s forces emerge victorious. Uhtred claims Bebbanburg and becomes Lord of Northumbria.

This moment would have been meaningless – or perhaps cheap – if the show had not had the patience to lead the viewer through five seasons of loss, failure, and shortcomings with Uhtred. Or if they had tried to drag the show out to extra seasons for no reason. They chose their moment to end the story, and they stuck the landing, something that more than a few shows in recent memory have failed to accomplish.

Finale Thoughts

I did not go into season 5 of this show expecting to write a review on it. I think I’ve only mentioned it in passing before on this site. That finale hit home to me, to the point that I’d like to rewatch the entire show at some point.

I’m also even more stoked to continue my read of the book series.

Please watch this show, if for nothing else, to give me someone to talk about it with!

Steve D

The 4 Most Frustrating Story Hang-Ups for Writers

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

As a writer, it feels great to find your rhythm with a story. You’re flying along the keyboard — or paper, or vellum — and the words seem to shoot from your fingers. You don’t even seem to have the same tiredness in your hands, or the ink stains on your pinky that you so often get with less fruitful writing ventures.

But we all know those high-flying moments are the anomalies when writing a long piece, like a novella.

More often, you find yourself caught up in some absurdly minute detail that you simply cannot leave behind until you find the perfect word, even if it’s just one among tens of thousands.

These hang-ups can be entirely derailing to a decent writing flow, but you’re not the only one it happens to. Here are a handful of the more frustrating writing hang-ups we’ve all likely encountered.

#1 – That. Perfect. Term. Word.

I mentioned it above, and we’ve all been there. How many times have you searched through a thesaurus to find just the right phrasing? Or some alliterative flair? (I know that wasn’t alliteration, but I didn’t feel like spending several minutes looking for a synonym for flair.) Or even the word with the right etymological root to fit the style of your story?

The answer is too many times. But we’ll all do it again.

#2 – An NPC’s Name, or Clothes, or particular shade of brown hair

I know, I know, writers aren’t supposed to refer to their own creations as “non-playable characters”. Every character is the hero of their own journey, et cetera. But every story has them — characters that you know for a fact you will never see again, but because they’ve met your Main Character in some backwater inn and happen to have a bit of knowledge to help your Main continue their quest, they just have to have a name, and maybe a few clothing descriptors. And a cool tattoo. And strangely penetrating eyes that seem to hide deep-seeded pain. Aaaaaand now you’re writing a short story for them.

I suppose that’s what name generators are for.

#3 – The Dreaded Scene Transition

I definitely struggle with this one. You’re writing a scene that you know has to take your characters to the next place, or the next plot point, but you just can’t seem to make the turn. So it feels like you only have two options: let the transition drag on for another several paragraphs, detailing every step each of your characters are taking, throwing in random chit-chat dialogue that, while entertaining, is certainly not getting them anywhere fast, and overall just refusing to end the current train of thought…

Or you could make an awkward narrative jump that feels like you’re leaving something behind, but you’re not quite sure what. And now you just have to move on.

#4 – The Scene that Grows Too Big

This is sort of the opposite of number three, where a scene grows far beyond what you had intended, either in length, or scope, or even in its emotional weightiness. Maybe some of you wouldn’t consider this a hang-up, but it can be disruptive if it no longer lets your narrative flow in the way you had it outlined. That’s when the Dreaded Scene Transition hits, but you can’t just delete all that great work! So maybe you reform it until it flows better. Or you leave it and change your outline!

More Hang-Ups!

Those are just four potential hang-ups that I definitely run into every now and then, and I’d bet a lot of other writers do, too. Leave a comment with your “favorite” storytelling hang-ups!

Steve D

Ending a Story is an Act of Courage

Endings are hard. I think writing endings is the most difficult and also one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process for me.

You spend weeks or months (or years) outlining, drafting, and re-drafting a story, and you finally get to the ending. Not just the end of your first draft, but The End. The ending of the draft that, while not final, is likely to be as close to final as you’ll come while writing new content.

That’s where I’m at with my current draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. I know I have a lot more editing to put into this story before it can be considered Final, but I also know that the ending to this draft will look very similar to the ending of that final published story.

I keep thinking about all of the other ways I could tell this story. What if my protagonist was less capable in her survival? What if the dynamics of her family were less positive? What if, what if, what if?

Writing a story is like entering the Multiverse and trying to decide which of the infinite timelines you and your characters will follow. Ending a story is deciding that you followed the most compelling, the most believable, and the most satisfying timeline.

That’s why I think ending a story is an act of courage, from a writing perspective. You need the determination to say to yourself, “Yes, this is the ending I have intended for this story.” And then you need to prepare to move on from that ending, whether that’s publishing the story or starting a new one.

So I’m overthinking my ending, even as I write it. The moment will come quite soon when I need to decide that it is The Ending. Now if I could just get back to writing it.

Steve D

Balancing Reader Feedback with Story Constraints

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

Today I wanted to bring up an interesting conundrum I’ve been facing as I write the third draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. In a story that is effectively about how one family — and one woman in particular — deals with her entire life being upended, I’m now trying to add more characters.

Uprooted is also a novella. I only intend for it to be 35k-40k words if I can help it, so adding more characters seems counter-intuitive on the surface.

Alpha Reader Feedback

Back in December I asked a couple people to read the second draft of this story and provide some feedback. One of my readers gave me great feedback that I’ve really tried to take to heart in this rewrite.

She said that in settings like mine — a small village in a firmly patriarchal society and culture — the characters would likely have much stronger kinship ties than I had demonstrated in my draft. I focused intensely on the nuclear family of my characters, but that left this reader asking about their immediate relatives, cousins, siblings. aunts and uncles, and the like.

The crux of the story is that tragedy strikes this village, causing my characters to flee. With this now expanded family dynamic, my characters are not as isolated as they had been, but the dynamics of their struggle change. They now have to feed 10 or 15 mouths rather than three or four.

But that’s also 10 or 15 more names to keep track of as the story progresses.

Too Many Characters?

I agreed 100% with this feedback, and I built out a family tree for my protagonist’s family and their clan. This meant that I had to explain what happened to a lot of those family members alongside the more immediate narrative of my characters. What I’ve noticed is that in my third draft, I have to decide when to talk about these extended family members, and when to leave them out.

It should be obvious that the larger clan is still traveling together, and I don’t want to have to list the actions of every single member each day. But I also don’t want to ignore these characters’ existence. After all, they make up the immediate support system for my primary character. She needs them, and thus the reader needs to know something about them.

So I’ve had to figure out how to balance these additional tertiary characters within the more personal plotlines of the three or four characters who really drive the story. If I were writing a full-length novel, I could consider POV sections for a few of these tertiary characters, but Uprooted is not that type of story.

My general rule of thumb has been twofold:

  1. Take a quick tally of the family as they’re moving or something is changing so we (both the reader and I) know where they are.
  2. Try to include these family members in particular scenes, even if they’re just in the background or only offer one line of dialogue.

I think/hope that this makes it clear that these characters are important to the larger family dynamics, but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many names to remember.

Discussion Time!

How do you feel about tertiary characters in a novella? How many is too many?

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading the last month or so, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media.

Spoilers ahoy.

Continue reading “Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1”

3 Tips for Writing Snappy Dialogue

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

The more I write, the more I find I enjoy writing dialogue. The interplay of characters can be really engaging and tends to liven up the story — and the writing process — for me.

However, it can still be a challenge to write dialogue that is both meaningful and compelling. As a reader, dialogue that drones on is somehow worse than long stretches of exposition. So I just wanted to provide a few tips for writing snappy dialogue that moves the story forward and keeps the reader interested. Continue reading “3 Tips for Writing Snappy Dialogue”

10 Stories to Experience with My Kid

My son is eighteen months old now, and he loves listening to stories, turning the pages of books, listening to music, and watching cartoons. I’m not sure how much of any of it he understands, but it’s exciting to watch him experience those things.

A colleague recently told me how he was watching through all of the Star Wars movies with his eight-year-old daughters, hoping to bring them to the theater to see The Rise of Skywalker. He managed to catch it with them just last week, and he said their reactions and excitement in the theater was well worth it.

That got me thinking about the types of stories — movies, books, TV — I’m looking forward to sharing with my son. So here’s my top 10. Continue reading “10 Stories to Experience with My Kid”