Disclaimer: while I can't imagine anyone would bother reading this were they not familiar with the series in question, I decided to forego spoiling anything and talk more generally about what the experience of reading this behemoth was like and how I felt in the end. So if you're unsure about reading the series, feel free to take this as my de-facto, spoiler free review of the whole thing.
About a year and a half ago I decided to read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This in and of itself is not remarkable; people, after all, pick up new books every day, but it certainly felt significant. I’d been aware of The Wheel of Time ever since asking one of my Dad’s staff members when I was thirteen what the absurdly big book with the embarrassingly campy cover was, and then hearing from various friends here and there about their attempts to tackle the behemoth. In the back of my mind Wheel of Time took on an almost legendary status, something that I might one day have a run at but probably never would. Lest this sound hyperbolic, my reason for viewing it as somehow more significant than your average fantasy was simple; it’s just so goddamn big.
There are fourteen books (fifteen if you count the prequel novella New Spring) and each one is roughly the size of a cinderblock. In totality the series encompasses thousands of pages, millions of words and a seemingly exponential cast of characters; every time you think you have a handle on who’s who Robert Jordan will introduce twenty more strangely named supporting players, some of whom might be significant but most of whom probably aren’t.
In many ways scope is what makes Wheel of Time special. My theory is that if Lord of the Rings established high fantasy then The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire represent the two potential paths Tolkien influenced writers can take; George R.R. Martin went for the revisionist angle while Robert Jordan chose to build on the foundations Tolkien established. This has the effect of making the series in many ways generic. It’s pretty much the quintessential ‘heroes journey’ narrative, based around a chosen one fated to save the world from a dark lord. In a nutshell the story isn’t especially different from Harry Potter or Star Wars, but what makes Wheel of Time more than just another Tolkien knock-off is the fact that, which so much material, you can’t help but become more and more absorbed with the world the deeper you get. By the end of the series you know these characters intimately and the pay offs (when they come) are in part so satisfying because you’ve been through so much to get to them.
But the size of the series is also its greatest weakness and the reason so many people either never finish these books or never bother starting. It’s a huge commitment and knowing what I was in for didn’t exactly prepare me for some of the rougher patches in the storytelling.
I started the series because I wanted to get lost in something epic, and while I enjoyed it from the beginning I wasn’t exactly head over heels in love with it. I averaged roughly a book a month; I tend to be a pretty fast reader but I mainly read Wheel of Time on public transport and wasn’t gripped enough by the story to burn through pages in my spare time. Don’t get me wrong; those first six books had plenty of moments where I was as riveted as I’ve ever been by anything, but for the most part they chugged along at a relatively steady pace. There was great stuff happening but there were also tedious subplots that, luckily, didn’t take up that much page space. I figured that was just the trade-off of a series like this; not every character can have mind blowing adventures, and ultimately the interesting stuff was good enough to keep me engaged.
But, very slowly, that balance tipped. Over the course of books seven to ten things seemed to gradually grind to a halt. Sure, there were some significant events in there, but they seemed to be buried in endless turgid and repetitive garbage about unimportant side characters and boring inter-nation politics. By the time I got to book ten, in which Robert Jordan apparently felt that rather than advance the narrative we simply had to experience the game changing climax of book nine from the perspectives of every character not present for it, I was just about done. That book took me five months to wade through and with every page I found myself resenting Jordan more and more. Apart from a valuable lesson in storytelling (don’t make your audience sit through things they don’t need to) I couldn’t think of a single decent reason why this series was still worth my time. I complained to anyone who would listen about the garbage book I was still lugging around everywhere with me and in response I got either a series of glazed eyes or smug ‘I told you sos’.
Maybe in part due to a fallacy of sunk costs, I persisted. But by this point something had happened that it’s hard to come back from; I’d lost faith in Robert Jordan. I was no longer willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when reading any scene that was in the slightest bit slow and I found myself getting angry at his endlessly repeated turns of phrase (“he dry washed his hands”, “she crossed her arms beneath her breasts”, “a slat ribbed dog ran past”) or his, shall we say, writerly foibles (endless magical rituals that require the female characters to get naked in vivid detail). Eleven books deep, Jordan had outstayed his welcome for me, and while the pace did pick up nicely in book eleven, I was still telling anybody who asked that starting this series had been a mistake.
But, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it was more one of curiosity. As I’m assuming anybody reading this knows, Robert Jordan died in 2007, leaving behind a bunch of unfinished material for a planned twelfth and final book. Enter fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who developed Jordan’s notes into three more books which conclude the series. A lot of people had told me the Sanderson books were an improvement; potentially a sacrilegious sentiment but then, you try feeling especially reverent towards Robert Jordan after Crossroads of Twilight.
And ultimately I guess the proof is in the pudding. I burned through the three Sanderson books, all of which are big even by Wheel of Time standards, in a month; the same time it used to take me to get through one Jordan book. I took whole days to just lie on the couch or sit at the pub and read page after page. From the start of The Gathering Storm to the end of A Memory of Light there was barely a moment where the momentum lagged. How Jordan intended to fit all of that plot into a single volume was beyond me.
I can’t really tell how much of this improvement was Sanderson’s doing and how much was down to the fact that Jordan had simply reached the point in his story where all of those meticulously planted seeds had to start bearing fruit. Those three final books are essentially a succession of payoffs and resolutions; there are, shockingly, even times when they feel a little rushed, but then after so much set up it’s almost impossible for these pay offs to not feel momentous.
Naturally it’s hard not to wonder which plot points were dictated by Jordan and which were Sanderson’s ideas, and likewise it’s impossible not to consider how those books would have looked had Jordan lived to write them, but for the most part it’s a pretty smooth transition. Sanderson has gone on record saying he didn’t want to imitate Jordan’s style and I think that was the best approach to an impossible task. An attempt to emulate a voice that wasn’t his own probably would have been more distracting. That said, some of the big moments did ring just the tiniest bit hollow. I can’t be sure if this is due to just knowing that they weren’t written by the man who created this story or if Sanderson couldn’t quite make the resolutions land in a story that wasn’t his own, but I do think it’s a minor issue and most of the occasionally devastating final book hits just as hard as I could have hoped. Sanderson’s prose was, in general, easier to read than Jordan’s, but I think inevitably something was lost in the fact that, for better or worse, the books were so tied to Jordan’s voice and worldview that someone else finishing his magnum opus was never going to feel 100% right. But it’s hard to complain when a series takes you on the kind of roller coaster ride those last three books did and in the end I put down that final novel with a powerful sense of satisfaction and a big smile on my face. You can’t really ask much more than that.
So, in the end, how did I feel about The Wheel of Time? Was it worth it? The answer is yes, with qualifications. I do believe the series probably could have been about half the length, but then there’s a strong argument to be made that the scope was what made the ending feel as significant as it did. Maybe the series wouldn’t have found the same hallowed status if it didn’t require such a huge time commitment from people and maybe in part that commitment is why people (myself included) feel so attached to these books. But my instinct is that if the series was inherently unsatisfying or fell short dramatically then no amount of sunk costs will change how you feel about it. I won’t lie and say that the series was easy to get through; at times it seemed to be actively dissuading me from continuing, but reaching a point where I could watch these characters I now know so well fulfilling their destinies was well and truly worth the wait. There is absolutely a sense of loss side by side with the sense of satisfaction I now feel, and I think it will probably be a little while before I pick up another series. The Wheel of Time is yet to fully sink in for me.
In the end though, I think it’s the characters I’ll take with me. Rand and his struggle to be a symbol, a saviour and a human being all at once. Egwene and her refusal to yield, her determination to do what had to be done to save a world literally coming apart at the seams. Lan and his slow realisation that he needs to let go of his rage and hate in order to be the person the world needs him to be. Perrin and the constant clash between his desire to be a simple blacksmith and the path to greatness that has been laid out in front of him. Mat, accidently stumbling from being a petulant nuisance to legendary general and yet somehow not changing all that much in the process. Siuan, who lost everything that made her who she was and still got up to continue the fight. And all the rest; Nynaeve, Moiraine, Thom, and the whole cast of thousands who after all this time it’s hard not to feel a huge amount of warmth and fondness towards.
It took me a year and a half to get through this epic. I read other things in that time, but so much of this most recent period of my life will forever feel linked to The Wheel of Time and for that alone I can already tell that this series will have a special place for me going forward. That said, my recommendation that others should take this plunge comes with caveats; you will have to get through some bullshit and it will take a long time and you’re probably going to hate Robert Jordan at points. But in the end, you will walk away with the feeling that you have been on a very long, complicated and ultimately worthwhile journey, one with ups and downs, with moments worth celebrating and moments better off forgotten. Before the rough patches I would have said I liked The Wheel of Time. Coming out the other side of them to reach a phenomenal ending, I can say I love this series in a way I doubt I would have had it just been six pretty good fantasy novels. Reaching the end was a challenge, and that made getting there that much sweeter. And the prospect of finally saying goodbye to this world and characters that much more painful.
In short? I regret nothing.
Writing words about writing words.