Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

Full disclosure: I started following Warner’s blog a few years ago and corresponded a few times via e-mail regarding some questions I had. We’ve since become Facebook friends and I quite like her as a person. 

Read: 16 April, 2015

Warner’s excitement about Edward II is infectious. I found her blog through my general interest in medieval Europe, and soon found my new favourite monarch. So I was understandably excited for this book to come out. (Then, of course, had to wait eons because Amazon apparently didn’t get enough books to cover the pre-orders.)

The writing style is, unfortunately, a little info-dumpy. I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the narrative when it felt more like reading someone’s notes than the final product. This is a very common problem in non-fiction, though, and is overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

Notably, how well Warner is able to make Edward II (and Isabella, for that matter) seem like a real person – complex and sometimes idiosyncratic, a whole person. In particular, it was wonderful to see such a nuanced look at Edward’s relationship with his wife, Isabella.

It was a shame that so much time was devoted to debunking the common myths surrounding Edward’s reign, but it had to be done. I was glad, also, that Warner didn’t take the easy route of simply dismissing them out of hand, instead taking the time to explain the arguments and present the evidence.

I really enjoyed the numerous lists in the book – how much Edward’s household spent on cloth for a wedding, how much fish was consumed during a stay in a particular place, etc. I know it’s not for everyone, but it helped me visualize what these events might have looked like, it made them tangible and relatable; especially since Warner took pains to translate the lists into modern terms (how much would that amount of money have really meant at the time?).

I definitely found it a worthwhile read, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the politics of medieval England, and particularly in the life of the first English monarch to be deposed.

EDIT: I’ve heard rumours that Warner may be working on a biography of Isabella next, so I’m really excited for that!

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    Wheel of Time #11: Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

    Read: 6 April, 2015

    This book has been a huge improvement over Crossroads of Twilight. Thank goodness, things have actually started happening again!

    There have been a few improvement in other ways, too. Mat isn’t nearly as annoying now, perhaps because Tuon shuts him down quite quickly when he starts on something. Their “romance” is an interesting one – both are only attracted to each other because they have been told that it’s their fate. It’s good addition to all the destiny/cyclical time stuff we’ve been getting in this series, wherever it goes.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the Faile/Perrin side quest. I think that having Faile’s insider view of the Shaido Aiel could have been much more interesting, and certainly the fracturing between Sevanna and the other Shaido wise women (perhaps wedged a little by Faile) could have been a really interesting direction. Instead, Faile is rendered utterly hopeless, despite her ability to amass a small army of followers, and her only real challenge seems to have been to balance keeping Rolan interested in her without getting raped until she could be saved by Perrin. On the whole, I found that a lot of pages were used up by their side quest without anything particularly interesting happening – despite the potential the situation created. All we got was yet another strong woman forced to learn humility, which is an irksome theme in this series.

    Another plot line that’s getting rather short changed is Galad among the White Cloaks. I’m finding the power struggles and dark friend infiltrations among the White Cloaks intriguing, but we just get the odd scene here and there, and no real change to get to know the characters. The same goes for the fracturing of the Black Tower.

    Elayne is pregnant and finally manages to take Andor. I think that her plotline in his book has bothered me more than any of the others. For one thing, there’s her pregnancy-induced mood swings. The effects of her pregnancy on the power (and visa versa) were interesting, but there was just such a big deal made of how unstable her emotions are now that she’s pregnant. It really just kept going on and on about how the servants are walking around on egg shells around her, and she’s forced to embrace the power to keep from randomly yelling at people. At least Jordan never blamed “being on the rag” for his female characters acting douchy, but this is honestly just as bad.

    Then there’s how irresponsible she is. Going after dark friends with only a handful of followers on a moment’s notice when the city is under siege and counting on her leadership? I mean, really? Predictably, it all goes to hell and a whole lot of people die in her rescue – for which she says she feels no guilt whatsoever because that’s what they’re there for. Really. You’d think with all the angst thrown about in this series, a little could have been spared for Elayne.

    Egwene’s plotline for this book seems to be all about learning to enjoy getting spanked, and boy does she get spanked. In fact, a lot of women get spanked in this book. I don’t know if I’m just noticing it more because someone mentioned the spanking recently, or if this book really does have a lot more spanking, but the female characters spend an awful lot of page-time getting their bottoms hit. Other than getting spanked, Egwene’s sole role for this book seems to be to discover just how broken the White Tower is.

    As I was reading, it occurred to me that Portal Stones have been completely dropped from the series. I don’t think we’ve seen heard anything about them since Shadow Rising, even though they were being frequently noticed around the landscape prior to that. In fact, much seemed to be made of Rand’s ability to use them and then they just disappeared from the series, like Jordan was going somewhere with them and then changed his mind. Instead, the focus shifted over to Travelling (perhaps because it made it easier for characters to get around with Rand) and Tel’aran’rhiod.

    This was Robert Jordan’s last book before he died, so it’ll be interesting to see how Brandon Sanderson’s work compares.

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      Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

      Read: 4 April, 2015

      This was the first real chapter book I’ve read to my son, and it was quite neat to hear him ask to read more so we could find out what happens next. The only trouble we had was that – unrelated to the book – my son had something of an existential crisis as he suddenly understood the permanency of death. Since the book brings up Wilbur’s fate as a side of bacon quite a bit, we had to stop reading for a few weeks until the crisis was over.

      For reading out loud, I really enjoyed how distinctive each character felt. All of Templeton’s lines felt like Templeton, and all of Charlotte’s lines felt like Charlotte. It made it very easy for me both to know instantly who was talking, and to come up with unique voices to fit each character. It made the book very performable.

      When we were done, I asked my son what his favourite part was. He said that it was at the beginning of the book where Fern is caring for Wilbur like a baby (feeding him from a bottle and pushing him around in a pram). He didn’t like that Charlotte died, but thought it was good that Wilbur had her daughters and granddaughters as friends.

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        The Dresden Files #12: Changes by Jim Butcher

        Read: 23 March, 2015

        The story is meant to start with a punch as the opening scene has Dresden receive a call from Susan in which he learns that a) they have a daughter, and b) she’s been taken. Unfortunately, the “secret child out of left field!” plot has been done so often that what should have been shocking was more eye-rolling.

        I feel like if a major reveal like this is going to happen, there needs to have been some clues (even if they weren’t seen as such at the time) leading up to it. The girl is something like eight years old, that’s eight years of Susan keeping a perfect secret and never acting strange. At the very least, some of this could have been retconned, with Harry suddenly making sense of some odd comment or behaviour that took place between novels. The way it’s done here, however, just feels like a cheat.

        Thankfully, though the cheat is rather central to the plot, it’s the only real criticism I can offer. This book ramps up the danger and brings about several showdowns that have been building up for the better part of the series.

        One reviewer complained that we never really fear for Dresden’s safety any more because he’s just become so incredibly powerful. And that is true to a certain extent. I mean, he still struggles, and his tasks are difficult, but he spent the better part of the final showdown wearing what amounted to invincibility armour.

        However, I think that there are two factors that balance this out. The first is that we are continuously introduced to even more powerful enemies as Dresden works his way up the supernatural food chain (not to give away too many spoilers, but everyone’s favourite one-eyed deity makes an appearance in this book). The second is that the danger to Dresden has shifted (and did so in a very clear way back in Death Masks). It’s not the safety of Dresden’s physical body that is keeping me at the edge of my seat, but rather the safety of his self as he makes impossible choices in order to get all that extra power.

        Besides which, I’m not sure this series could have held my attention if he was still just fighting local werewolves and the odd rogue wizard. The early books were very formulaic, and seeing Dresden meet and beat the same kinds of dangers over and over again would have quickly lost its luster. A good series knows to ramp up the stakes, shake things up, and force the main characters to either change or break. And I think that Changes does this beautifully.

        Speaking of changes, I mentioned to a friend after I finished Turn Coat how funny it was that the series had entirely dropped the whole “Wizard P.I. with an office” bit it had ridden so hard in the early books. In fact, I couldn’t remember Dresden’s office having been brought up at all in several books, and wondered why he was bothering to keep up the rent now that he’s a Warden and that all his clients have his private number, so to speak. So, of course, Butcher heard me and responded, and I got a little chuckle out of that (largely due to his perfect timing).

        (SPOILER COMMENTS: I had a few problems with the book that require spoilers. The easiest to deal with is the ending, which was a really good cliff-hanger that I hope pays off properly in the next book, but just kept dragging on as Butcher couldn’t seem to just stop writing. It was a shame, and I felt it reduced the impact of what would otherwise have been a very satisfying close (satisfying if the payoff in the next book works, of course).

        There was a colonialist undertone to the book that didn’t quite sit well with me. I mean, Dresden literally dresses up like a Conquistador to go kill Mayan gods, and there’s a bit in there about how this will free the Mayans from the evil of their gods, and that all hit a little too close to the rhetoric that justified the wholesale genocide of aboriginal peoples. Sure, everything had a neat explanation in the context of the book, but oof! It came off really tone-deaf.

        Which leads me to my last bit. The series started off with an undersmell of sexism that has, off-and-on, gotten better. Here, however, women and little girls are tortured and killed for the purposes of giving Dresden his manly manpain. Again, it’s a narrative cliché that has been done to death, and that has reinforced structures that cause real-world harm. While I certainly found the story very compelling, and it’s satisfying to watch Dresden evolve through the choices he makes, it would have been nice to try something a little different for once.)

        I also wanted to make a little note on James Marsters’s reading. For a while after I had a baby, I had to do the bulk of my reading through audiobooks because free hands are so hard to come by with little ones around. And while I’ve mostly transitioned books like the Dresden Files back over to paper copies now, I’ve stuck with audiobooks for this series through the sheer pleasure in listening to Marsters’s performance. While it’s still absolutely wonderful, I noticed that he was doing more unique character voices for this book. It was largely fine, though a bit odd since the narrative structure of the series has Dresden relaying the story to us (in other words, it’s not Murphy speaking, but Dresden telling us what she said), so the individual voices don’t really fit in such a context. But that’s easily overlooked and not very important. The problem I had in this book is that a few of the voices, Mrs. Spunkelcrief (Dresden’s landlady) in particular, were very jarring. In her case, the voice sounded sufficiently like Mickey Mouse to put the audiobook production team in danger of a trademark lawsuit. It was only for a small handful of characters, and they were characters who got very little narrative time anyway, but I found it off-putting.

        To wrap up, I thought the book was great, and it really shook things up and I look forward to seeing how the changes play out in the next book.

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          Wheel of Time #10: Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

          Read: 17 March, 2015

          People have been telling me since book six that Jordan’s pace screeches to a near-halt after that point. It’s true, the series does move slowly, but I didn’t mind. Listening on audiobook, I’m free to let my mind wander when things drag on, and I was enjoying all the world building and the subtleties of the character arcs.

          This book, however, is everything I’d been warned about. Much of the events overlap with what we read in Winter’s Heart, just from the perspective of different characters, and nothing is resolved. Perrin is still chasing after Faile, Mat is still escaping from the Seanchan, Elayne is still gathering support for her succession to the throne of Andor, and Egwene is still preparing to assault the tower. In all cases except the last, almost nothing in the character’s position changes between the first and final page (and in Egwene’s case, the change comes in the last few sentences of the last chapter).

          This feels like a place holder book. We don’t even get a climax, which seems rather odd for Jordan.

          This is by far the worst book in the series so far, even though it avoided many of details that have been grating me. It’s just poorly written, as though Jordan just forgot to plan it out before sitting down to write, and simply put his pen down after he reached a certain number of pages. It’s small comfort, but it seems that this book has the worst rating – meaning that things should hopefully pick up a bit in the next.

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            The Martian by Andy Weir

            Read: 10 March, 2015

            During a terrible storm that forced the rest of his team to evacuate from the planet, Mark Watney – botanist and mechanical engineer – is left completely alone and under-supplied on Mars.

            This book is Robinson Crusoe in space, complete with the lists, the problems, and the lengthy descriptions of the solutions. And it was fascinating. I wasn’t following a lot of the math and science, but I never felt like that was a problem as the narrator lead me through it, and I’ve learned quite a few new terms/concepts.

            At the beginning, I felt like the characterization was suffering. Much of the narration is written in a “comm chatter” style, where characters relate facts rather than feelings or personality. So early on in the book, I felt like the characters who were being introduced were unmemorable and interchangeable. Even Mark himself was just a guy doing things on Mars – the things happening to him and the things he was doing were all interesting, but he was not. However, as the book progressed, I felt like I got to know him better. I came to see how he would respond to stressful situations, I got to see how he was coping with the loneliness and the stress. Even the side characters started to seem familiar, and I was surprised by how recognizable they became even though they received so little narrative time.

            The pacing of the narrative is incredible. This was the first time in a very long time – at least since I became a parent – that I just put everything else aside and read a book for eight hours straight. I was on the edge of my seat. I even started to get a stomach ache at one point because I was so tense. It was riveting.

            There were a few minor issues. The biggest, and the only one really worth mentioning, is that the narrative style was a little inconsistent. There were two main styles: The first were Mark’s first person logs, chronicling his activities on Mars. The second were the third person narratives of all the other characters, both on earth and the other team members still on the Hermes ship. That was fine, and a good decision, I thought. However, toward the end, I counted two third person narrative sections following Mark. In both situations, I could understand why the choice was made (the descriptions were of things that Mark wouldn’t have described in his own logs). However, I did find it jarring, since it was a break in the established patterned. I think those two sections could/should have been integrated somehow into Mark’s log.

            When I finish a book, I like to go online and see what other people have said about it before I write my own review. By far the most confusing/amusing review I found gave the book 2/5 stars based on the complaint that “the main character just comes across like a complete nerd.” Okay, yes. He’s a nerd. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and an astronaut. He’s going to talk about math and science a lot, and he’s going to crack nerdy jokes. If you hate nerds, this probably isn’t the right book for you.

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              Hild by Nicola Griffith

              Read: 7 March, 2015

              We know precious little about the real Hild, a woman who lived in 7th century England. Within the frame of sparse information, Griffith weaves a tale of a young woman who navigates from being the homeless daughter of a murdered king, to king’s seer, a commander of armies, and weaver of political intrigue.

              Years ago, when I read Dune, I was completely blown away. Previously, most of what I had read was assigned reading – classics with literary and historical merit. But Dune captured me. What I loved about it was the many moving parts – the members of the household and the surrounding nobles, each with their own goals and motivations, and the lone protagonist stuck in the middle trying to find the pattern, take hold of the weave, and re-stitch it to his own will. It’s a magnificent theme, and one that I’ve always loved seeing done well. And Griffith does it well. Very well.

              Hild begins in a very precarious social position, and we see her (via her mother, at first) rise and find safety for herself and her loved ones through cunning and information. The details of her rise, and of her struggle to maintain safety in an environment where kings can rise and fall in the blink of an eye, was extremely well handled. I felt like I could really see her learning, working things out, and tailoring her advice to the personalities of the recipients.

              Often, when a character is shown to be especially cunning, this is either done by making everyone else in the story too oblivious to see the obvious, or it’s done by having the character make impossible logical leaps. Here, however, we see Hild paying attention, we see her building a spy network, we see how she comes to make those logical leaps that she does make (and, perhaps just as importantly, we see her be wrong sometimes).

              Another aspect of this book that I loved is how much time was spent on both the Big Political Stuff and on domestic business. We see Hild organizing alliances between kings, and we see her checking sheep to estimate the price of the resulting wool. This really spoke to me, because history tends to be taught as The Important Things Great Men (and these few token women) Do, and neglects to show us all the things women and people of lower social standing were doing in the background to make those Great Things work.

              Not only that, but the women who organized alliances and gave advice behind the scenes rarely get any credit. Hild, as a seer, speaks more openly, but we see how her mother and the queen are able to nudge others as well. In other words, the history here felt complete, and it was lovely.

              All this is mostly to say that this book was right up my alley. All of my alleys. Griffith did an excellent job controlling the narrative so that the rather lengthy character list never felt overwhelming, and the pacing was perfect.

              If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the ending felt a little rushed. (SPOILERS: And while I understood Breguswith and Aethelburh’s motivation in orchestrating it, I didn’t grasp was Edwin was thinking. I feel like we should have seen Hild spend a little more time working that out, though I do see how that would have interfered with the pacing of the climax.)

              I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in intrigue and the domestic world of 7th century England. If you have trouble keeping track of lots of characters (particularly since they have unfamiliar names, several of the characters having quite similar spellings), it may be useful to keep notes.

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                Wheel of Time #9: Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

                Read: 3 March, 2015

                Winter’s Heart is fairly standard fare for the series. Perrin and Faile’s relationship is still disturbing, though at least there’s a twist there. Unfortunately, it’s a twist that opens up far too many possibilities for mishandling – will Faile’s character grow by learning to properly submit? Will she be a damsel for Perrin to rescue? The twist has a lot of potential, but I’m a little afraid to hope.

                Elayne’s return to Caemlyn and her struggle to secure the throne, by all rights, should be interesting. That sort of story is right up my alley. I also really like that Elayne is adamant that she must take the throne for herself, not be placed there by Rand, if she’s to be taken seriously (and she gets justifiably frustrated by all the Rand-initiated talk of him giving her the throne). Unfortunately, I felt like this whole sub-plot was taken over by Rand’s polygamy plot. We’ll see if it picks up in the next book.

                Regarding Rand’s polygamy, I have to say that it’s refreshing to see a love triangle resolve itself in this way rather than the alternative. The agony of fiction love triangles is so done. It’s just unfortunate that Jordan chose to make it between one man and three women, rather than mixing it up a little. At least there are the green Ais Sedai… The polygamy becomes quite important in this book, as all four parties finally get to hash things out explicitly.

                Mat is back, but not quite as bad as he’s been. He’s still pretty terrible, and his rape sub-plot is rather horrifying, but he’s kept too busy to spend much time being a complete douchecanoe. Don’t get me wrong, he still manages to fit a lot of his douchiness in, but it’s not as bad as it has been. Having clearly learned from his experience as a rape victim that rape is wrong, he learns the identity of his fated wife and the first thing he does is tie her up and kidnap her. Because he’s just that kind of character, apparently.

                I’m liking the plot line about the Asha’man, and the fracturing, and the Forsaken infiltration. The problem is that I don’t really understand why Rand has paid so little attention to the Black Tower. He seemed to realize that the Black Tower was slipping out of his control, but rather than do anything about it, he basically just kept supporting Mazrim Taim until Taim became a full enemy – one with an army that Rand provided for him. I understand that Rand’s attempt to cleanse saidin has at least something to do with reducing the damage that the Black Tower can do, but this seems like too little too late.

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                  Reverse Racism

                  It may be a little hard to tell as I’m trying to plough through the Wheel of Time and Dresden Files series, but I have been trying to make a conscious effort lately to select more books by women, POCs, and where the two overlap. Since I’m a horribly slow reader and, I reiterate, trying to get through two series authored by white men, the evidence for this shift is still mostly only found in my To Be Read and To Buy lists, where I’ve culled many of the white male authors present, and have started dismissing out of hand recommendations for books with white male authors.

                  And I’m not the only one. I started doing this after reading an article (lost to the annals of my browser history) in which the author wrote about her realization that the vast majority of the books she had read in her high school English classes had been authored by white men. More recently, heinous Heina has decided to exclusidely read non-male authors in 2015 and non-white authors in 2016 (you can read her explanation of this choice here).

                  My high school experience was very much as described. The few books that didn’t fit this trend were very tokenistic, the same collection of classics trotted out by every educator who doesn’t want to seem too archaic (To Kill A Mockingbird, Autobiography of Malcolm X, and… that’s it?).

                  Thankfully, my university reading lists were a bit more diverse. There were still plenty of classes with an entirely male reading list (now that I think about it, those classes were all taught by men), but I had a whole whack of professors who took special care in putting together a broad roster of authors. Best yet, this was also in many of the courses required for my degree, so they were unavoidable.

                  But what really highlighted the issue for me was when I started to dip my toe into the idea of doing a project like Heina’s. I’ve been wanting to get into SF/F more, because I always enjoyed the genres but never really had access to them. So I started with the “bests” lists, hoping to get through the classics and to move on from there. Unfortunately, those lists tend to be blanched sausage parties, and there’s only so much of that I can get through before I start to feel a little jaded – even when those authors make an effort to have diverse character lists.

                  When I tried to reach out and ask for recommendations of books not written by white men, only two names were really forthcoming – Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler. Both fantastic authors and entirely deserving of their fame, but oh my ghawd, they do not bring balance to the genres!

                  I’m very glad to see this acknowledged as an issue, and I’ve been especially pleased in just the last year or two to see reading recommendations for non-white/non-male authors become so much more common and accessible. When I first started trying to get into SF/F, it took a lot of googling to find anything beyond Le Guin and Butler. Now there are entire blogs devoted to the discussion.

                  This has been really meandering and mostly just a word-vomit of my thoughts on the subject. Since there are far better discussions elsewhere, in an effort to provide at least a little value, I thought I might mention some of SF/F books currently on my To Be Read list. Obviously, I can’t recommend any of these because I haven’t read them, but they have been recommended to me and maybe this list will be helpful to someone:

                  • Ahmed, Saladin: Throne of the Crescent Moon
                  • Brown, Rachel & Sherwood Smith: Stranger
                  • Cashore, Kristin: Graceling
                  • Cherryh, C.J.: Foreigner
                  • Chima, Cinda Williams: The Wizard Heir trilogy
                  • Cooper, Susan: The Dark Is Rising sequence
                  • Croggon, Alison: The Naming
                  • De Bodard, Aliette: Obsidian and Blood Trilogy
                  • Delany, Samuel R.: Dhalgren
                  • Elgin, Suzette Haden: Native Tongue
                  • Elliott, Kate: Crown of Stars Series
                  • Fox, Rose & Daniel José Older (ed.): Long Hidden (Anthology)
                  • Friedman, C.S.: Black Sun Rising
                  • Gentle, Mary: Grunts
                  • Griffith, Nicola: Hild
                  • Hanley, Victoria: The Seer and the Sword
                  • Hendry, Frances M.: Quest for a Maid
                  • Hobb, Robin: Liveship Traders Trilogy
                  • Huff, Tanya: The Fire’s Stone
                  • Hughes, Monica: The Golden Aquarians
                  • Hurley, Kameron: The Mirror Empire
                  • Jemison, N.K.: The Killing Moon
                  • Kirstein, Rosemary: The Steerswoman
                  • Liu, Cixin: The Three-Body Problem
                  • Lo, Malinda: Huntress
                  • Locke, M.J.: Up Against It
                  • Lowachee, Karin: Warchild
                  • Mandel, Emily St. John: Station Eleven
                  • McKinley, Robin: The Blue Sword
                  • Melling, O.R.: The Summer King
                  • Norton, Andre: The Zero Stone
                  • Pierce, Tamora: Alanna: The First Adventure
                  • Priest, Cherie: Boneshaker
                  • Samatar, Sofia: A Stranger in Olondria
                  • Sargent, Pamela: Earthseed
                  • Snyder, Maria V.: Poison Study
                  • Stanton, Mary: Unicorns of Balinor
                  • Tepper, Sheri S.: The Gate to Women’s Country
                  • Valente, Catherynne: Deathless
                  • Wecker, Helene: The Golem and the Jinni

                    Wheel of Time #8: The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

                    Read: 20 February, 2015

                    I enjoyed this book quite a bit better than I have the preceding few. In large part, I credit Mat’s complete absence (may he fall in a hole and never return). I also felt that the story was quite a bit tighter, mostly sticking with one group until their story was totally updated before moving on to the next, only hopping around at the very end, when it worked because the plot lines mostly came together. Finally, the book was also quite a bit shorter than the last few have been, without sacrificing much, if anything.

                    I’m finding the contrast between Egwene and Elaida as both character face very similar struggles as the Amyrlin of their respective towers to be very interesting, and a neat idea.

                    Perrin and Faile, on the other hand, are still horrible. At least now that Perrin has largely “tamed” Faile (*cringe*), they aren’t quite as explicitly abusive as they have been – with the exception of Elyas teaching Perrin to shout at Faile and Faile feeling so wonderfully giddy that Perrin has finally learned to be a douche.

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