Last April, I started reading the entire series of Robert Jordan’s fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time. Many of these books were actually re-reads for me from several years ago, but the last few were new to me. I remembered, from my first read, that it was often difficult to remember things and keep track of them when there was a gap of two or three years between releases — at an average of 800 pages each, these are not light books, and can be rather heavy on the details (as well as just plain heavy.) So with A Memory of Light, the final book, being released in January 2013, I wanted to re-read the whole series to be able to keep everything in its proper context. I’ve been writing reviews of the books as I go along; you can check them out under the “Wheel of Time” tag. But when one is looking at a series of 15 books, it also seems appropriate to say a few hundred words about the series as a whole. It is, after all, meant to be one cohesive story.
So here, approximately 10 months and 12,000 pages later, are my final words on Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
The first of those words have to be spent talking about the number of words in the books. The sheer length of these things is staggering, particularly when one considers there are 15 of them in all. Jordan himself was not unaware of the unusual nature of this, joking that when the series was finished it would be released in a boxed set… on wheels. The length of the novels is a fairly common criticism of them even among fans, and on some level it may seem unfair to keep harping on it; to draw a parallel to another medium, Roger Ebert once wrote that “no good movie is too long, no bad movie is short enough.” To a certain extent that’s true, but it’s also true that a work of entertainment — movie, book, or other — must justify its length. Even the best-crafted work gets wearisome if it is dragged out for too long. The audience has to invest time on any work of entertainment; that time must be proportionately rewarded. The Wheel of Time doesn’t quite meet that standard. Some books are quite rewarding, but all but the best have chapters that could easily be excised without losing anything significant. There are pages devoted to describing characters’ clothes, or what they had for breakfast, entire chapters devoted to the day-to-day life of people in towns that the characters were visiting. The prologues often ran for a hundred pages, 75 of which would be about characters that had never been shown before and would never be shown again and did not interact with any of the events except to show a reaction. And then, of course, there was Crossroads of Twilight, which was essentially one long “What was that?” with regards to the previous book. I gave it two stars, and I’m still not convinced I wasn’t being overly generous. I bumped it up a bit at the time because there’s just enough new material in it that I don’t think it can be skipped over, but in retrospect that might be more of a negative than a positive in this case.
The first chapter of every book begins with the same opening, “The Wheel of Time turns, ages fade into memory…”, etc. It always leads into a talk about a wind rising, which “wasn’t the beginning, for there are no beginnings and endings to the Wheel of Time, but it was a beginning”, and it always follows that wind as it blows on for several pages, setting the scene. It was clever the first time, but grew tiresome by the fourth, let alone the fourteenth. Just get on with it already. The tendency to keep adding protagonists and tertiary plot lines also contributed to the feeling of fatigue as the series went on. Even when things were being wrapped up, there was by that point so much to wrap up that it became unwieldy; as I noted in the final book review, there’s a 200-page chapter in the last book, longer than some novels by other fantasy authors. The simple truth is I suspect that at least 200 pages could have been trimmed from each novel without sacrificing anything, and that makes it hard to give the series a pass on the reader’s return on investment. This is particularly true since only a few of the novels received my top ranking; in fact, overall the series averages out to 3.73 stars. In a 5-star scale, that’s the equivalent of a B-, which isn’t really bad… but at 12,000 pages, it raises the question of whether “fairly good” is “good enough”. If something takes me an entire year to read, I kind of want “great”.
Robert Jordan’s style of writing — and Brandon Sanderson, once he took over, kept to a fairly similar style — does have one other issue arising from the sheer magnitude of the books. There are a lot of details, and it’s not always apparent early on what will be important and what won’t be. Some things are throwaway lines, some pay off in the same chapter, some in the same book, and some pay off several books down the line. On the one hand, the achievement of setting something up six books in advance is pretty laudable. On the other hand, my desire to keep track of things for the sake of my reviews led to me taking notes as I read along… and that text file is just under 9000 lines. Jordan is not merely long-winded, he is the cause of long-windedness in other people. Now, most people won’t be taking notes… but that, coupled with my fuzzy and confused memories of my first read through several of the books years ago, makes me wonder just how well people are going to be able to keep track of the secondary and tertiary plot lines if they don’t. I think it would be very easy to get lost and forget what certain characters are supposed to be doing, especially when even the main characters sometimes vanish for entire novels.
This confusion is occasionally exacerbated by the standard “fantasy naming” conventions. Robert Jordan uses a lot of variations of names from Arthurian legend — for example, one protagonist is Egwene Al’Vere (Guenevere), sisters Morgaine and Morgause become cousins Moiraine and Morgase, and the knights Galahad and Gawain become Galad and Gawyn. The roles, however, are usually changed completely; while this is overall a good thing, it does sometimes cause a few red herrings, such as wondering if there’s any significance to court bard Thom Merrilin’s surname (there isn’t, but there’s an amusing discussion of this when Thom speculates that hundreds of years later people could have garbled the story so much that he’s the hero). There are occasional name references to other folklore; one particularly convoluted name (which I’m not typing here) for a magic-forged hammer boils down to “Mjolnir” once one figures out to pronounce it. Other names are often the usual made up names, or sometimes “ye olde spellyng” of modern names; this sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t; “Alys” is all right, but “Charlz” is kind of funny looking, and there’s no excuse for “Eadyth”. And then there are those names that are simply woven out of whole cloth. This, in and of itself, is neither unusual nor a bad thing… but Jordan was often careless with how those names were assigned and with making them distinct. A pair of sorceresses working in a larger group are named Saerin and Seaine, close enough to cause confusion. Two noblemen, with different agendas but frequently discussed together, are named Pelivar and Perival — which I submit would require even the best reader to stop and double-check regularly to make sure which one is being discussed. Even the sources of magic — a critical plot point, as the male source is tainted and drives its users mad — are named saidin and saidar, making it difficult to keep track which is which. It generally could be discerned from context, but changing just a few more letters could have made things easier.
As to the story itself, like a lot of fantasy epics it is in the middle of the road when it comes to originality. There’s a definite sense of familiarity to the overall plot, which Jordan essentially acknowledges with all the talk about ages fading into legend and myth. As such it is probably safe to say it’s a deliberate take on the familiar path of the hero’s development from youth to savior of the world. This is not a bad thing if it’s done well, and Jordan throws in a reasonable amount of novelty. It has a strong feel of that common fantasy subcategory, the adolescent power fantasy — the main hero wields magic, is destined to save the world, conquers nations, and marries three women (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead) who are all more OK with that than he is — but it also subverts it to a certain extent. Rand goes through a lot of brutal experiences, including mutilation, and he has to cope with his own growing insanity, both from the tainted magic and — in an unusual degree of realism — the crushing weight of responsibility of having to drag several nations together for their own good and being the one guy who can prevent the apocalypse, and the knowledge that this victory will come at the price of his own death.
There are some oddities about the world it’s set in, though. Magic is actually really well-defined in how it works (it’s never actually called “magic” in the series, but that’s what it is). While it doesn’t usually go into such detail that it would bore the reader, there’s a solid sense that everything has a particular way that it works and that doing things the wrong way will result in disaster — though several of the protagonists create new tricks on pure instinct. The rest of the world can be rather fuzzy, though. There are many different nations, and only a couple have any significant defined structure; they usually get a few broad-strokes characterizations, often not even enough to distinguish them; the Aiel and the Seanchan are clearly defined, but I doubt I’d be able to give a solid distinction between the Ebou Dari and the Domani. It’s strange that a series that spends so much time describing things spends so little defining cultures in all its globe-trotting. There’s also a curious love-hate relationship with religion going on. Rand’s destiny is to seal away the Dark One once again, and there’s a lot of talk about the Creator, “walking in the Light”, hope of salvation and rebirth. There’s also a lot of Christ imagery with Rand (and, interestingly, a lot of Odin imagery with Mat). And yet, for all that everybody in the world is a believer, there’s an astonishing lack of churches, religious rites, preachers, or prayers — they all believe in the Creator and the Light and salvation, but this isn’t shown in any way other than how they swear oaths. The few people who are shown to be religiously devout are universally shown to be either fanatics or outright insane. It’s a very strange situation when the enemy is explicitly the Devil.
Another strange aspect of the series is its peculiar approach to gender relations. Women are empowered in most of the nations, often the more the dominant sex, having more rights in some countries and a few are ruled only by women and never men. Further, because the male source of magic is tainted by the Dark One’s touch (from a previous attempt at breaking free) and the female source isn’t, women are the dominant magic users, which gives them a large amount of political power. And all of this largely translates to women browbeating men an awful lot; sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. One of Robert Jordan’s apparent themes is that women and men are fundamentally incapable of communicating clearly with one another; besides being verifiably false, it can get pretty old after a while to see one near-disaster after another happen because one person or another simply refused to listen to somebody. When Brandon Sanderson took over upon Jordan’s death, this element was thankfully reduced considerably. The positive side of male-female relationships is also handled oddly, though. Characters fall in love frequently throughout the novels, but I’d be hard pressed to find even one relationship that felt as though it developed naturally. I’ll admit I don’t read fantasy novels for the romance, but it was hard not to notice that all the relationships in the series fall somewhere between “love at first sight” and “Stockholm syndrome”. But then, many of the platonic friendships come across that way as well.
The question people keep asking me, both as I’ve been reviewing these, and before during my initial read, is whether I would recommend the series. It’s a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. It’s not bad. But it’s also merely “pretty good” and not “great” — with one “pretty lousy” mixed in — and coupled with the excessive length that means that it’s going to require a bit of patience. Reading the whole series resembles an endurance race more than anything else. Scophi, who has been regularly commenting on my reviews, asked me how I would rank the series among my favorites now that I’ve finished it. Without putting together an ordered list — that’s a large task and one fitting of an article on its own — I did some thinking about fantasy series that I’ve read, and just whether I would consider them better or worse than The Wheel of Time. After a few minutes thought, it’s starting to look unlikely that The Wheel of Time would even crack my top 10. The more effort it takes to read a series, and the more novels there are in it, the better those novels have to be. I have a much higher ratio of 5-star novels in The Chronicles of Amber, Discworld, The Dresden Files, the Vlad Taltos novels and several other series. Interestingly, of the door-stopper series I could think of, the only one I would definitely put higher was The Lord of the Rings (the jury is still out on A Song of Ice and Fire). This isn’t a knock on The Wheel of Time — it’s up against a lot of competition, and some very steep competition — but it does put another caveat on the whole recommendation question. How strongly can I recommend a series if it doesn’t crack into my top 10?
In the end, I can only give a guarded recommendation, a set of guidelines to use to decide whether to read it. The story is pretty good, but it meanders a lot. If you get attached to a particular character, even the main character, you have to accept that there will be extensive periods when they are not the focus. It will take a long time to read, and you will have to have a good memory to keep track of all the details. And there will be times when reading it feels more like a chore than pleasure. If you have the patience to put up with the bad parts, the good parts are certainly enjoyable. But if you don’t, this isn’t a must-read by any means.