Ages come and go… reading Robert Jordan’s fourteen books of the Wheel of Time, at not quite four and a half million words.
My overall evaluation is that I liked it well enough to consider it time well spent reading. The entire series is very ambitious in its scope, which brings with it both pros and cons depending on the reader. The Wheel of Time books are actually the work of two authors, Robert Jordan and then Brandon Sanderson who finished after Jordan’s death. I am a fan of Sanderson’s more recent work, and so took on the Wheel of Time in order to read his work as well as Jordan’s work which he says influences him greatly.
First of all, there are a lot of threads to the story’s pattern. There are a million characters and dozens of nations and cultures. There are several thousand years of history which are fairly relevant to the plot. It is probably comparable to Tolkien, if Tolkien had spent his time more on humankind and magic instead of elves, hobbits, divine spirits, dwarves, and so on.
Perhaps the crowning jewel in my opinion, of the creativity of the books, is the nature of being ta’veren. A person can be ta’veren, and they do not have magic persay. Instead, they alter the probability distribution of events around them, and unusual events are far more likely to happen, both good and bad. Lots of coincidences happen around them, simply because they can. It is magic, but yet it isn’t, and that I quite like.
The Wheel of Time is fantasy, but the magic is so consistent in its use that the magic might as well be physics. There are magical means of transportation, but most things still move no faster than a walk. It takes time, money for food and a place to sleep, and people get tired. There is a great battle of good (the Light) vs evil (the Shadow), but most of the good people are not perfect but sometimes mislead normal people. Characters travel through mud and rain without truly waterproof garments as we take for granted now. Armies take time to train, and are very expensive.
In short, the books are far more practically-minded than most ‘realistic’ books set in the real world. I think one of the things I really like about the Wheel of Time is it is filled with doers, characters who are focused on getting things done. Those of both good and evil take initiative, and those who do not take initiative usually find themselves disappearing from the plot, or just disappearing altogether.
While yes, there is a lot of ‘prophecy’ supposedly guiding the characters, the prophecy mostly serves to entertain the readers with speculation, as it is too vague to give clear orders. A lot of unexpected things happen which divert characters all over the place. I think it serves to showcase the value of adaptability, but others might find it makes things too complicated. Regardless, I think these events could make for rather good episodes of a TV show, connected as they are to the main plot, but also discrete occurrences with unique variety. That assumes of course a massive budget to make everything look good, so we will have to see what Amazon does with it all as they adapt it for the screen.
Some things are a little too cinematic. Jordan’s work has some strange repetitive things – ‘smoothing of skirts’ is one overused phrase. Certainly there are lots of ‘ample bosoms’. Almost every character, and especially the women, seems to be described as a model. Is this meant to be the shallow reality or just him saying everyone is beautiful in their own way? I fear the former and hope for the latter.
Perhaps it is an over-idealization of the premodern world, when men were men and women were women. Jordan has mixed messages on the right way to run society, pretty much every type of system used in his world ends up tripping and falling on its face by the end of series at least once, except the magical land of the Two Rivers. These are more than a bit idealized, with isolated rural farmers who are somehow wise, strong, healthy, peaceful but natural warriors, beautiful, love tobacco, and have never seen a tax collector in their life. Although women (the Women’s Circle) are more powerful than the men in affairs, so maybe the message is that conservative political positions are ideal, but only if those holding the power and making decisions are women?
Probably the most aggravating fault is the lack of depth to the villain characters. They are dynamic in their actions, but their motivations, which we are tediously exposed to numerous times, are usually “I am just so evil.” They are selfish and power-hungry to a ridiculous degree – basically just endless greed. While greed is certainly a problem, I would feel better if the characters had some realistic depth. Sanderson helps on this greatly. He tries to work some depth into the characters, showing one of the super-evil Forsaken (Demandred) having passing thoughts of doubt and love. He brings in some history of how mistakes and betrayals turned some from good to evil in more believable ways. Sanderson shows Moridin (one of the most evil) to just desire oblivion, to desire the Dark One’s victory simply to end the suffering that serving it brings him so often.
I am generally annoyed with the modern Christian tone of it, that there is a devious Shadow/Dark Lord/Evil who is very active, rather cunning, and just wants evil evil evil for the sake of evil because evil. Then there is a mysterious Creator/the Light which plays no active role whatsoever, not even the occasional get-well-soon card, and yet is continually praised just for theoretically existing to inspire. It is all just a pretext to have lots of battles without the reader questioning if those battles are truly necessary. Well I questioned anyway so maybe a bit less of that, next time, eh? Sanderson seems to have agreed, as in his own works he doesn’t use much of prophecy, and his divine forces (Shards) represent a whole host of natural forces bonded to men, not just ‘good’ and ‘evil’ explicitly.
Towards these points, the reader might be perfectly content with reading the first three books or so, then skipping to book eleven to the end. The last books rely on a grand world which has been well built, with the story flowing under Sanderson’s guiding hand. The first books rely on a smaller scope world where the author wasn’t quite as ambitious, and are closer to a YA-style fantasy. The middle books are the author feeling his way outward towards polishing up that grand world. Still, all the books are consistent, with relatively few plot holes for a book this large, which is something few authors have achieved. Tolkein stands far above most authors for the sheer completeness of his world from the beginning, but then again he also spent twenty years writing, and had the luxury of a well-paid Oxford professorship which most authors don’t have.
Consistency, rich visuals, and focus on creative realism lay the foundations for an excellent TV series, should one have a massive budget to do them justice. The authors more implicit morals are told quite clearly, the values of initiative, resolve, and adaptability shine across the diversity of the cast. Even the most stubborn of the ‘good’ characters bend to reason, rise despite their wounds, and try to make things better. Really, the structure of the story is quite good, filled with good adventures and interesting characters.
Yet for all the sophistication in the world-building and the many strands of the narrative, at the end of the day the foundations are shaky as you just have Mr. Evil who has to be fought desperately but will (spoiler) inevitably lose. Mr. Evil is good for shorter form fiction, such as religions and politics, where for the sake of agreement and simplicity you can’t lay out all the complications of real world problems. Add that to the ‘Wheel of Time’ which is the fact that apparently the exact events repeat over and over endlessly (time is an endless loop), and you are left with a base reality that is: Good fights evil, good wins simply by saying ‘ha ha, I win, you can’t beat me because obviously I am so good‘ at which statement evil runs away in horror, and this repeats endlessly because evil (despite showing lots of cunning) is apparently too stupid to realize that the same old tricks ain’t gonna cut it this time around.
Apparently this type of world view gives many people great comfort in their religion, but in this story I am left feeling like no growth or change has occurred, so what really was the point of all that death? Perrin and Nynaeve notably grow as characters, but rather too many regress, if anything. For all the practicality thrown in, these stories are more of an elaborate amusement part ride, and although aspiring to be more, don’t quite reach it.