I have finally finished a solid near-decade long project. I have finally finished the massive Wheel of Time. I originally picked up the first book back in 2007 with the intention of reading influential epic fantasy. And let’s be clear: it is does fulfill the epic scope. With 14 books covering about 4.4 million words (Thanks Wikipedia!), it is massive. Read on to see my musings on just how it stood up.
It’s hard to state just how important the Wheel of Time is to fantasy. Love it or hate it, the book was influential. So influential that a lot of late 90s fantasy tended to feel very similar, and some things that Jordan did tended to feel cliché by the end of a decade of being recycled. It also sold a lot of books. It certainly wasn’t the only book selling, but I can’t help but think it and the Shannara books helped pave the way for the popularity of fantasy today.
(I mean, it inspired a metal song. METAL!)
Here’s a really important point I want to get across before we get much farther: genre is a conversation, and that conversation is continually evolving. For some readers, this is a book series they shared their life with for over twenty years. Those readers who grew up with it are coming to it with a very different lens than myself, who first picked up the series in 2007. So if I come to different feelings than the faithful readers of the series, just understand we might have a different lens here. I certainly don’t mean to imply someone should or shouldn’t like a book series.
Lastly, consider it a forewarning that there are SPOILERS ahead.
The series feels extremely immersive. Jordan manages to give you a delightful sense of place: from the streets of Camelyn, to the spires of Tar Valon and the White Tower, to Emonds Fields in the Two Rivers. The world feels big, with hundreds of POV characters and thousands of named characters. You can get lost with the characters as they travel between these cities, and it is immersive fantasy at its best.
The series premise might seem cliché: here’s a big bad that is trying to wake up and destroy the world and it is up to our heroes to stop it, but the series plays it straight up and it is effective. The reason it is so effective is that there is an elaborate mythology layered on it: The Dragon, Lewis Therin, has been reborn in Rand Althor, and it is up to Rand to defeat the dark one. But it’s not just that – Rand and his friends are Tavarren, they literally bend the pattern around them (this is also the first and only time I have seen character shields be part of the canon). The male and female half, the corruption of the male half and how it hangs over Rand’s head with impending madness, these details take what might seem a cliché premise and really flesh it out. Those are the details that let you get lost in the story.
The series also has some very epic payoffs. Egwene Al Vere marching out wielding the flame of Tar Valon at the last battle, Rand fighting in the sky against the Dark One with a sword of light and fire, the cleaning of the taint of the male half and fixing the sky from the Dark One influencing the weather: these are all moments that had me punching my fist into the air cheering.
The Less Good
With every good, there is some bad. For me, reading the series in 2010, there was some things that very much troubled me.
First, let’s talk women for a second. I have never read the word bosom so much in my life. Bosom, bosom, bosom. For a while when I kept track of how long it took for Jordan to describe a woman’s chest. It wasn’t long. They also all seemed to either be exceptionally busty or not have any bust at all. Which, I suppose is technically average?. Okay Jordan, you’re a boobs man. We get it.
But it’s not just this weird boob fetish. It’s not even the seemingly 14-year-old fantasy of Rand just getting to be with three women and they’re all totally cool with it. No, the thing that was really troubling was what lurked a little below face level. When I took a step back, almost all of the positions of power were filled by men, and almost all of the women defined themselves by their relationship to men.
This is most vividly demonstrated by Egwene Al Vere and Gawayn. At one point, Egwene is basically telling him off that he isn’t even remotely respecting her office or trusting her, and as a reader I was really engaged because he had been completely disregarding what she had explicitly told him “for love”, and then immediately in the next scene, BAM. It turns out she’s quietly mooning for him. What?
Moraine, one of the most badass characters in the earliest books, even marches with Rand into the last battle. And she then proceeds to wordlessly stands there. Even Tom Merrilyn gets more screen time protecting “his wife” (Oh yeah, because when Moraine was rescued from eternal torment one of the first things she did was get married).
Or Elayne, who is named the commander of the armies of the last in the last battle. LIKE, SHE IS NAMED THE COMMANDER OF THE ARMIES OF THE LIGHT. HOLY CRAP THAT’S SO COOL THAT’S – oh, and she is now immediately listening to the 4 men that are the great generals. The four generals taken out? Great, maybe she’ll give order- oh, or Matt can be in charge. Way to place a woman in charge?
I’m not saying there aren’t any badass women in this series, or that they don’t do anything cool. There are and they do. And there are certainly women who are gifted in the power and call down lightning, cause the ground to explode, etc etc. But all too frequently the women aren’t in positions of power, subservient to the men, or are defining themselves in relations to men. One cannot read the Wheel of Time and not mention this, because this undercurrent is omnipresent throughout the entire series.
On top of that, I cannot think of a single POC in the entire story. I mean, it’s possible I’m forgetting one character among the hundreds in the series, but the point remains that every major character in the story, and every major character in a position of power is white. And don’t get me started on the Aiel.
This isn’t the place to discuss why we need diversity and representation in fiction – lots of people more qualified on the topic than me have written about this topic at great length. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t read this series because it doesn’t have representation, nor should you feel guilty if this is a book you love. For me, as a person who has spent a lot of time reading diverse books like this, or this, or this, or this book with kickass women, however, I definitely notice the lack of representation.
If anything, this only reinforced to me that I need to be intentional in my own world-building and my own writing. Jordan is a good writer, he’s detailed, he’s immersive, and even for that skill he is terrible about that representation. If you don’t intentionally include it, it won’t be included.
There’s also some structural problems with the series. First, Rand is frequently externally driven. He does things because “the prophesies of the Dragon” say he should. We don’t know what those prophesies actually are, so Rand becomes a weird tautological chess piece where he does things because he’s told he should do things. More than once I found myself going “Why does he need to invade that Kingdom again?”
On top of that, within the individual installments themselves, particularly in the later books before Sanderson picked up the series, the characters would spend literally hundreds of pages thinking, scheming, talking to themselves that they had a plan, and telling other people they’ve got a plot. It wasn’t foreshadowing; it was infuriating. When things finally start happening in those books, interesting and epic things happen. But for a large part of the books you’re just kind of waiting while everyone talks about how they’re planning.
Ultimately, the Wheel of Time feels like a story without consequences. Hundreds of thousands of Trollocks are charging, and we just have a dramatic cavalry counter-charge and that’s… fine? The Dark One is spoiling food everywhere, we don’t see anyone going hungry. Rand loses a hand, but it barely impacts him as a character – we see it when he spars with his Dad, but then he thinks hard and it’s fine (to be fair, he also had trouble buttoning his shirt. Once). Matt loses an eye, and it literally does not matter the rest of the story. He’s still able to fly, toss, throw knives, ride, and fight just fine. Lan makes a noble sacrifice (in what I admit was a pretty badass sequence) to take down one of the Foresaken, and then the horn of Valere blows and he’s back and not actually dead.
I started reading the Wheel of Time to see just what all the fuss was about, and because I wanted to be exposed to such an important series in the genre. It was with me the better part of ten years too; I got to see Rand go from some farm boy to the Dragon Reborn. I got to see just what sort of twists and turns can make up a big fantasy series, and I got to see some wonderful world building. Moreover, I got to watch Sanderson bring in the 14 book series for a landing. And he did, and I actually enjoyed the twist where Rand gets to have a happily ever after.
And this was a journey for me. It covered a decade of my life. It took me on adventures to places I didn’t expect, to characters I had revisited time and again over ten years. It followed me from Penn Station in NYC to my small apartment in Kansas, from a girlfriend I was head over heels for (and who was bad for me) to my wife who is amazing and I am also head over heels for. Moreover, the series did have a resolution, an ending, and a closure that for many fans they thought they would never get when there was word or Jordan’s death. As a craftsman, I hope I can leave my readers with a sense of closure even a tenth as impactful.
Are their lessons? Yes, I’ll learn from them. But I have to tip my hat for Robert Jordan building a world that readers could meander through for millions of words. And I owe a bit of thanks to Brandon Sanderson for giving it an ending.
Perhaps then it is only fitting, that I end the review with one final quote from A Memory of Light:
There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of time. But it was an ending”