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
Writing words about writing words.