At the start of this year I made a potentially terrible decision; after meaning to for years, I finally committed to reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. For those who don’t know, it’s a huge, sprawling fantasy saga, with emphasis on the word ‘huge’. There are fourteen books and each is a hefty tome. It took two decades and two authors to complete the saga (Jordan died before writing the final three books) but unlike that other famous sprawling modern fantasy epic, this one is actually finished. It just takes a very long time to get to the end.
In some ways I think this was my main reason for starting the series. It’s a daunting undertaking, but I liked the idea of being able to get totally lost in a huge story. I’m also conscious of the fact that my reading habits have flagged a lot in recent years; while I go through months where I read book after book, the moment I get stuck on something that doesn’t grab me I won’t read for weeks, until I resolve to give up and move on. In this case, presuming I liked the series enough to keep going, I would always have another book to read, for a while anyway. And that part, at least, was certainly true; it’s the end of August, I’ve just finished book seven and I started in January. I’ve taken a couple of breaks to read other books, but it has meant that I’ve never not been reading something this year, which was kind of the aim.
So how does the series shape up? For all the people who love it, I was surprised that I never seemed to hear any ringing endorsements; fans always recommended it with caveats or else just didn’t seem that into it, which is probably why it took me so long to get to it. Maybe the people I spoke to figured it wouldn’t be my thing, and I can kind of see why.
I’m a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire because of the endlessly clever ways it subverts fantasy norms. A Wheel of Time doesn’t really do that. If we assume that The Lord of the Rings established the template of what high fantasy is, then George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan probably represent the two logical next steps; Ice and Fire subverted the genre while Wheel of Time deepened it. Robert Jordan takes the most well-worn fantasy tropes and explores them exhaustively. The series starts with the son of a shepherd whisked away from his simple life by a mysterious stranger, learning as he goes that he is destined to be the saviour of the world, ‘The Dragon Reborn’. But this standard fantasy staple comes with a huge catch. In this world people can draw on ‘the true source’ to channel magical powers, and there is a male and a female half. Knowing that the person destined to defeat him would be a male channeler, the dark lord bloke put a taint on the male half of the true source, meaning that any man who channels will eventually go mad and die horribly. So our protagonist Rand Al Thor may well save the world, but at the cost of his life, sanity and, should things go badly, the lives of everyone he loves. I love this because unlike your Harry Potters who make noises about not wanting their ‘chosen one’ status, Rand Al Thor has a very real reason to be terrified of his destiny, and it makes for a fascinating central character to pin the story on, especially as the series progresses and you can never really be sure whether the choices Rand makes are driven by necessity or the beginnings of insanity.
Perhaps inevitably in a series of this length there are a lot of subplots and while some are easily as compelling as the central story of Rand’s struggles, others drag badly. The first book keeps all the central characters together on the same quest and is limited to about three different perspectives, but as the series goes on our heroes spread out and the cast balloons into the hundreds. It can be difficult to keep track of some of the supporting characters at times and generally speaking I don’t bother trying to remember every new name that turns up. Jordan deserves credit for giving just about every minor character a defined personality, but when there are literally hundreds of them the effort feels somewhat wasted, especially as you wonder whether any of these people could have been merged to simplify the whole thing.
But scope and this sense of a vast world is part of what makes the series so good. I wouldn’t say it’s an especially propulsive read, and often Jordan seems more interested in just hanging out with his characters than advancing the plot in any tangible ways, but when the characters and world are this interesting that’s not the worst thing in the world. And if you tire of one location and set of characters, it won’t be long before you’re following another group, so it’s not as much of a slog as you’d think. The later books in the series have a reputation for being someone bloated and slow and while I can definitely see the signs of that impending where I am now, the pace hasn’t bothered me that much.
Jordan also has a talent for deploying huge twists at the exact right moments. He’ll lull you into a false sense of security in the middle of a seemingly meandering plotline before slamming you hard with a moment to make you gasp, cheer, or cry. The benefit of spending seven huge books with these people means that we know them so intimately that their victories feel spectacular and their losses hurt. My favourite thing about this series is how much heart there is beneath it all, and while a lot of the bickering between certain characters can be really tiresome, the tender moments are all the more moving for it.
A lot of the criticisms people have of Wheel of Time I can deal with, but some things are more troubling than others. The series does get repetitive at times, and while this isn’t always a bad thing as the sheer scope means that handy reminders of what is happening and why aren’t always unwelcome, structurally the first three books in particular follow a very clear quest-for-magical-artefact template that tends to result in a few almost identical climaxes that start becoming tiresome after a while. Even when the books become more serialised later on, the climaxes still tend to lean towards the same sort of fight between two people throwing magic at each other.
The stakes can feel awfully low sometimes too. Not in terms of what is at risk, but in the fact that the main villains, for all that they’re talked up as hugely dangerous, never feel that threatening. We never really see evidence of why we should be scared of them and the people they hurt and kill are almost always faceless extras or bad guys. Seven books in exactly one major character has died, and while I don’t need a series like this to have George R.R. Martin levels of carnage, when nobody dies in all those big violent battles and magical clashes it’s hard to feel like anyone’s ever really in danger. I’ve been told that this changes in a big way come the end of the series, but when it’s fourteen books long that’s a big wait for any distinct feeling of peril.
And I’m far from the first person to talk about Robert Jordan’s weird treatment of his female characters. Don’t get me wrong; Wheel of Time features some of the most dynamic, interesting and engaging women I’ve seen in fiction of this sort, but this is kind of weakened by Jordan’s tendency to introduce female characters by discussing their ‘ample bosom’ and how much is showing at any given time. There are a lot of magical rituals that go on in this series yet funnily enough only the female ones seem to call for them to get naked a lot. And while the balance between men and women is a huge theme in this series, Jordan loves making a big deal out of how ‘strong’ his women are in a way that feels kind of condescending and self-congratulatory. If you’re regularly drawing attention to strong women as if they’re remarkable you’re essentially implying that the default setting for women is weak. At first it was easy enough to excuse this as a sign of the times the books were written, but as the series has continued these habits only seem to worsen to being sort of groan-worthy. That said, you can forgive a lot when you have characters are fascinating and awesome as Egwene Al’Vere, Moiraine Damodred, Lanfear and Nynaeve Al’Meara.
The fact is that it’s up to you whether those issues are enough to avoid the series. While it’s not my favourite thing I’ve ever read, I’ve only found myself enjoying it more the deeper in I get, and for all the subplots that drag I’m never less than satisfied at the end of each book and excited to start the next one. When I took a break between books five and six to read a book I had to review for Den of Geek I found myself thinking about Wheel of Time a lot and starting book six felt like coming home. Likewise when I took a break between six and seven for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, although I think that was less to do with missing Wheel of Time and more to do with wanting to read anything that wasn’t Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.
As of right now I have book eight sitting next to me and am about to take a big plunge into the second half of this series. At this point, maybe the best thing I can say for it is that the prospect of another seven huge books doesn’t seem daunting at all. It seems exciting.
And as an end note, this is my ranking from best to worst of the series so far:
1. Lord of Chaos
2. The Great Hunt
3. The Shadow Rising
4. A Crown of Swords
5. The Fires of Heaven
6. The Eye of the World
7. The Dragon Reborn
For a while now I’ve thought it was time to shake things up for Bitten By Productions. While we burst out of the gate with a very ambitious and expensive show in Below Babylon, since then the bulk of what we’ve done has been in the realm of one room, one scene dramas where a cast of between two and five drink, yell at each other and occasionally someone dies. And while this model has allowed for a few different genres and, in We Can Work It Out, probably my favourite of all the plays we’ve done, to me it was starting to feel a bit samey. And kind of easy.
Regression could have been very much in that same vein. On the page, it’s a low key dramedy with a cast of four. It has scene changes and takes place over several weeks, but it doesn’t cry out for an especially left-of-centre interpretation. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t need one.
Regression tells the story of a directionless failed actor named Will, who agrees to an experimental therapy that essentially puts him in a room with his fifteen-year-old self. Both Wills are in for very rude awakenings when they realise that their respective past and future don’t quite live up to what they’d imagined; the fiercely ambitious teenager learns that he never fulfils any of his dreams while the nostalgic adult has to deal with the realisation that his past is not quite how he remembers it. At its heart, it’s the story of a man coming to terms with himself.
When Joachim Matschoss, former head of theatre at Caulfield Grammar and an internationally renowned director, expressed an interest in directing Regression it seemed immediately like a great fit. Had I done it myself it would have been a very straightforward depiction of what was on the page, while Joachim is known for more bold, experimental theatre. And with a somewhat out-there premise, I felt that Regression would benefit from an out-there creative vision.
But shaking things up comes with challenges. In this case, lots of challenges. The venue we found, while very cool, is not a traditional theatre space and so we have more or less had to build a theatre, sourcing lights and chairs and all kinds of other bits and pieces to make it work. Plus various issues along the way have meant that some aspects of the production that had been planned for weren’t quite able to come to fruition. There’s been a lot of stress and more than a little worry surrounding this show.
But, today I saw the final tech rehearsal, and things are looking pretty good. It’s still very much my story, but enriched by Joachim’s unmistakable style and brought to life by a really talented cast. The venue is actually pretty much perfect and the aspects of the space that might have caused challenges are being used in really interesting and cool ways. In short, Regression will be nothing like any of my plays you’ve seen before.
I don’t know how people will respond to it. I find it hard to watch at times because of how very personal it is; there are moments where I wonder if I was too honest and if that will put people off. Or if it will make the play stronger. What I can say above all is that I have never written a play like this, I’ve never seen my work performed like this and the fact is, that’s pretty bloody thrilling. I said I wanted to shake things up and that has happened in a big way.
But hey, the reality is you never know until the audience sits down on opening night; until then it’s impossible to gauge whether anyone will get anything at all out of it. I’ve always been worried before every one of my shows, so I guess in that regard Regression is really no different to any other play. It’s scary to me because it’s a stark change of pace, but in a lot of ways that’s probably the best thing about it. Now it’s just a matter of whether the audience agrees.
For what’s it’s worth? I’m excited.
Earlier today I was offered the opportunity to see Suicide Squad for free. It’s a film that has had tons of hype and one that I myself have been tentatively keen for, not least because in Jared Leto’s Joker it promises an exciting new version of one of my favourite ever fictional characters. Plus my ongoing fascination with the trainwreck that is Warner Brothers’ attempt at a DC Cinematic Universe pretty much dictates that I’d have to see it out of morbid curiosity if nothing else.
But you know what? I don’t want to.
I don’t even want to watch it so that I can try to tackle fixing it on Movie Maintenance. I don’t want to give that film my time, energy or money. Because despite good wishes everywhere, the first reviews have come in and they are savage; Suicide Squad is by all accounts another ugly, dreary mess of a film ending with a cacophony of soulless CGI that expects people to turn up because it is at least tangentially a superhero film.
Now obviously opinions are subjective and there is every chance that I could watch the film and love it. But I don’t think I will, because the general consensus of critics seems to confirm what I suspected about the movie based on the trailers and while they might not reflect how I would feel watching it I think in this case they probably will. And I have finally reached a point where I no longer am compelled to watch something just because it’s another ‘must-see’ geek tentpole.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no film snob. I see almost every superhero film as it comes out, I thoroughly enjoy most of Marvel’s output, I get giddy for Star Wars and the much derided Jurassic World was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a cinema. I am a proud geek and I don’t really give a shit about the scoffing attitude many people I know have toward blockbuster cinema; the fact is if I enjoy something personally I don’t really care what anyone else thinks, and I happen to enjoy fun popcorn movies. As long as at least some care went into making them.
See, I hate films like Transformers because everything about them reeks of ugly corporate cynicism. The producers of these movies know that they’ll make millions of dollars, so when all is said and done who cares about trying to make it good? The same principle applied to Batman Vs Superman, an exercise in unbridled cinematic arrogance where a studio legitimately thought that they could just drop two famous heroes into a dreary, poorly developed slog and rake in the cash.
Look, we all know that filmmaking is a business and that moneymaking potential is the biggest motivator in cinema, but when it’s the only motivator we have a problem. The reason Marvel films are good is because there is legitimate care taken in each case to make sure their output is consistently entertaining and enjoyable, even if the films themselves are often a little interchangeable and lack much individuality. And while Marvel and DC are different franchises with ostensibly different sensibilities, the key point of divergence seems to be that one always tries to make sure the people paying money for their product are having a good time while the other couldn’t seem to care less. Simply put, fuck that. It’s not that superhero movies can’t be dark, it’s that if they are you damn well better put the effort into justifying it. Because superheroes are inherently silly and you have to work extra hard to make a gritty take work.
So no, I won’t watch Suicide Squad. I won’t watch Wonder Woman which looks dull and manipulative or Justice League which looks like somebody put a gun to Zack Snyder’s head and told him to make a Marvel movie. DC might get better, but frankly they’ve had ample chances and thus far they seem to be more interested in playing catch up with their rivals than putting any care whatsoever into what they produce. And I love movies too much to continue to support that kind of cynicism in any way, shape or form, even if it excludes me from the cultural conversation.
Even writing that makes me feel weirdly liberated.
Writing words about writing words.