“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.” – The Eye of the World
Modern fantasy is attributed almost exclusively to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and rightly so. The three books laid the groundwork for the mythic traditions that would become high fantasy, as well as bringing the traditional quest narrative into an accessible light inspired by the epic poetry of Homer. Given weight by the heroic structures of Joseph Campbell, the books were Tolkien’s attempt at crafting Germanic myth for the British isles beyond the King Arthur legends, diluted and adapted through many different versions, ranging from Thomas Malory to T. H. White, and later on from Mary Stewart to Marion Zimmer Bradley to Clive Owen. In the process, Tolkien also brought about the creation of dozens of other epic fantasy series of varying quality and number.
Epic fantasy truly came of age with the 1977 publication of Terry Brook’s The Sword of Shannara. A fantastically accessible read, the book spawned the massive Shannara series, eventually turning from a traditionally fantastical world into a rumination on mutation and magic in post-apocalyptic America. However, anyone reading The Sword of Shannara cannot help but notice the more-than-passing resemblance to the plot structure of Lord of the Rings. To sum up, a small child/hobbit/underdog discovers they alone have the means to save the world from an evil dark lord (singular). With the help of a rag-tag band of misfits/warriors/dwarves/strippers (if you’ve been to the burlesque lately), they travel deep into a dangerous world, narrowly thwarting the complete destruction of their beloved, country-style homesteads, usually at the cost of thousands of anonymous soldiers spent during an epic battle sequence that might have been prevented if the small child/hobbit/underdog had HURRIED THE FRACK UP instead of ruminating over the lapse between good and evil in mortal beings for 100 pages while lounging around in an Elvish/Dwarvish/crypto-humanoid paradise.
But I may be getting ahead of myself.
Following The Sword of Shannara, other series closely resembling the plot structure of LOTR began to rear their heads, including David Eddings’ Belgariad, Tad Williams’ DragonBone Chair, and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth. Amidst this fantasy renaissance, other genre innovaters would rear their heads from time to time, including Bradley’s aforementioned Avalon cycle and Glen Cook’s Black Company. As more and more epic fantasy series began to appear, page counts began to explode, as writers turned to self-indulgence and truly epic storytelling on a grand scale while conveying basically the same sort of quest saga.
Which brings us to Robert Jordan.
The Wheel of Time was first published in 1990. Twenty-two years, thirteen books, and two authors later, the world is anxiously holding its breath (exaggeration, as only avid readers of the series are holding their breaths by this point, but we’ll get into that as well) for the fourteenth and ultimate volume of the series, to be published (as of this writing) January 8, 2013.
As far as the overall plot is concerned, there is little new to be found in the core mythos of WoT (As the overall series shall be referred to throughout this article). The main concern is an ever-happening conflict as the Shadow, Shai’tan (wonderfully original name), tries to take over the world and cover the land in darkness and Trollocs (human/animal hybrids). The magic in the world is used by those sensitive to its power and ability; reflecting the Asian nature of much of the world, it is split between saidar, the feminine magic prevalent throughout the world, and saidin, the masculine form tainted long ago by the Shadow so that males cannot use it. Unfortunately, only the coming of the Dragon (a powerful male magic user) will stop the Shadow. This is unfortunate because by using saidin, the Dragon is doomed to go mad, which happened the LAST time the Shadow tried to take over. (This happens roughly every 3,000 years, in a cyclical pattern. Hence: “Wheel of Time”)
The main character of the series is one Rand al’Thor, a young man from a small village thrown into peril when it is discovered that he and his two friends, Perrin Aybara and Matrim Cauthon, are those rare people who have the ability to change the “pattern” around them, thus changing the way that things happen within their world both for good and for ill. Dragged along on their quest are their friend Egwene av’Vere, Nynaeve al’Meara the village wisdom (or healer or something like that), Lan al’Mandragoran, the leader and king of the destroyed kingdom of Melkior, and Moiraine Damroded, an Aes Sedai (female wizard/monk/thing) who recognizes that Rand is “the Dragon Reborn.” Set against them are the Forsaken (the Shadow’s Twelve cronies), prevailing political beliefs that cast an unfavorable gaze upon magic users (particularly males, who have a tendency to go on wild, destructive flights of fancy), and various other evil creatures and demons that plague the world around them.
In short, nothing far outside of your basic quest story. Young hero against impossible odds rallies the world against evil and in the end prevails.
Which is where WoT gets interesting/not interesting.
You see, as mentioned before, there are (as of this writing) thirteen WoT books. Well, fourteen, but we’ll mention THAT later as well. And these books are not small volumes of short stories that merely advance plot. No, these are 1,000-page tomes that delve into and explore the world of the WoT with such detail and specificity, you could teach college courses on the Culture of the Wheel of Time and never be able to cover everything within a one-semester time frame. Jordan’s world is almost impossibly dense, made even more so by a backlisting of literally hundreds of side characters, each of whom has a major plotline that somehow connects back to Rand’s overarching quest to defeat the Dark Lord Shai’tan in the ultimate book.
All of this is a treasure trove to devoted fans, who snap up the books like candy, reread the entire series over a year’s course, and debate endlessly in message forums the nuances and theories behind the stories of the books.
Which is unfortunate.
Because the WoT series as a whole is, quite frankly, boring as all hell to read.
A boo- by-book breakdown is the only sufficient way to truly recognize the massive disappointment that comes over time with reading WoT, as well as the level of dedication needed to make it through the series as a casual reader. These books are no small time commitment, and demand an indulgence on a truly legendary scale. As a fantasy writer, I am partial to devouring new books as quickly as my time might allow me to. However, even WoT is daunting for me, a notorious speed reader. I started reading the first book in December of 2010. By November of 2011, I was just entering the first of the Brandon Sanderson books. That’s nearly a book a month, with very little time devoted to reading ANYTHING ELSE. And what’s more, the nature of these books is that you will become frustrated as you read, punctuated by supreme excitement, followed by the inevitable depression that comes when you realize that you are NOWHERE NEAR the conclusion of the series.
But I digress. What follows might be considered a “live” blog of my reactions to reading the books, in consecutive sequence of when they were published. There might be spoilers for those who have not read the books, but I am going to try and keep this relatively spoiler-free in case of the possible chance that you might read this and decide to sign your life away to Tor Publishing and read these things for yourself.
You’re welcome, Earth.
Book One: The Eye of the World. Published 1990. 782 pages
I will be honest. This is a good read. It serves as a fantastic introduction to the series, and nicely tells the tale of Rand and his friends making their way from the Two Rivers in the company of Moiraine and Lan towards the Eye of the World, a giant pool of untainted saidin that the Shadow has nefarious plans for.
Or so I gathered. After reaching the Eye of the World, I flipped back through the entire book, searching for any mention at all of what the hell the Eye of the World is. It’s not in the book. I looked online for the definition, in an attempt to understand what the hell is going on. It makes sense, and in hindsight one can gather this from the book itself. A the time, however, I remember being frightfully confused. And then the Giant Humanoid Tree showed up and shit got weird.
But this is the high point of the series. The plot moves along quickly, characters grow and are given moments to shine, and we get an understanding of the world and how it works. When this was written, Robert Jordan originally planned for a trilogy, with a possibility of a six-book series. This is evident in how much gets accomplished. The seeds are laid for Rand to become the Dragon Reborn in later books, while two of the Forsaken are offed right on the spot in the climax. Things are happening! An entirely worthwhile read.
The chapters get long-worded, the detail is there, and hints of the growing sexist divide in books-to-come are laid. Characters are briefly introduced who will have a greater bearing on future events. More importantly, things happen which for some reason Jordan decided to have as Major Plot Points in subsequent books to come. My chief complaint is the knife stolen from the evil city of Shadar Logoth. Mat ends up being slightly possessed by the dagger, which would be cool if when that plotline were resolved, it would be finished. However, things are not meant to be simple in WoT. As later books will prove. To do that, we must continue onwards. Verdict: Keep reading.
Book Two: The Great Hunt. Published late 1990. 681 pages.
This volume reads somewhat quickly, given the overall series. This book introduces the Aiel, the mysterious nomads to the east with a shocking connection to Rand. It also introduces the character of Lanfear, the Forsaken who is madly in love with the Dragon, and who spends much of the book trailing after Rand in disguise. The Seanchan, invaders from a far-off land who are prophesized to return and take over the world, also rear their heads, capturing magic users with collars and forcing them into horrible slavery. The Black Ajah also show up, Aes Sedai who are in the service of the Shadow. And during the climactic battle at the end, Rand gets permanently wounded by Ba’alzamon, who might just be an incarnation of Shai’tan.
In short, a lot of shit goes down. And it reads quickly, leaving the reader at the end ready and breathless for the next volume. If only Jordan could sustain this pace. Verdict: Keep reading.
Book Three: The Dragon Reborn. Published 1991. 674 pages.
Mostly, he does.
Rand disappears for a good portion of the book, dealing with the voice of Lews Therin in his head. However, this is where Perrin first begins to reveal himself as a prissy little ethicist. Egwene and Nynaeve, joined by Elayne Trakand, heir to the throne of Andor, begin a pursuit of the Black Ajah (even though they just joined the Aes Sedai… because, you know, they’re powerful and innocent). Also, Elayne has the hots for Rand. This becomes important later.
The fantastic climax involves two Forsaken biting the dust, while another seal on the Dark Lord’s prison (oh yeah, he’s also the Dark Lord! And his prison is sealed by seven unbreakable tablets! Which are beginning to break! Huzzah!) is broken. The six-book series option by Tor would seem to be a wise move.
Ah, but now let us see. Verdict: Keep reading.
Book Four: The Shadow Rising. Published 1992. 1001 pages.
This is where things begin to go south. Much of the book is an expedition into the Aiel Waste, which also goes by the name of the Most Boring Land Ever That Can Still Manage to Kill You Ten Different Ways. Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai revolt and depose Siuan Stance, one of the coolest characters in the book, all the more important because she’s female.
Why does that matter, you ask?
Because Robert Jordan absolutely destroys his female characters for the rest of this series, starting right around here. Nynaeve becomes whiny and petulant while becoming obsessed with Lan; Elayne and Min become obsessed with Rand and providing him babies (as does the Aiel maiden Aviendha). Let’s revisit this: Rand has ultimate power, the love of half of the land, and THREE women madly in love with him beyond their control. And he’s a whiny bastard. Fail.
But some good things happen here. The Aiel are revealed to have a wonderfully developed culture. The big conflict at the end results in the capture of a Forsaken who teaches Rand to use magic. However, this is also the longest of the WoT series, and slogs through many parts. Brace yourself because it’s about to get worse. Verdict: Things are about to get murky…read on.
Book Five: The Fires of Heaven. Published 1993. 963 pages.
This one also begins to slog. Rand comes back and takes over a kingdom. Why? Because he can, because he needs to, because it was there. Mostly because he’s slowly transforming into a sort of Nietzschean Uber-Douche. Who knows?
The Aes Sedai form a rebel colony. That everyone knows the location of, yet no one does anything about from the headquarters in Tar Valon. Because there’s bigger fish to fry?
Really, the best thing that happens is Mat, who suffers/benefits from the effect of his stumbling through two magical portals in the prior book. Mat becomes the saving grace for much of the rest of the series, simply due to his smart-ass attitude and carefree nature. (However, the use of the word “bloody” as a swear seems too forced to be of any consequence for the rest of the series. When compared with my other problems with this series, that might seem like a relatively small complaint. Well, too bloody bad. I will bloody well do what I bloody well please.)
Like the previous books before it, the ending once again features an exhilarating climax, involving the demise of yet another Forsaken and the capturing of another kingdom. However, in one fell swoop, Jordan kills off both Moiraine and Lanfear — two of the few remaining interesting and uncompromised characters in the entire series. You’d think the end was in sight. Because if you’re killing off these characters, you’d be close to wrapping up the story, right?
WRONG. Verdict: Worth it for the end. I think.
Book Six: Lord of Chaos. Published 1994. 987 pages.
This book was a Bitch to get through. Much deals with the development of other men who can use magic into a fighting force called Ash’a’man. They’re a moody bunch who Rand promptly puts under the control of his homicidal psychotic lieutenant in order to train other men not to be Aes Sedai puppets. Because, you know, women only want to try and ruin men and other bad things.
Oh, and those Forsaken who died before? Yeah, they’re not dead. At least four get reincarnated. Apparently, death is impermanent unless you’re a good guy. Or evaporated by balefire, which just destroys time and the pattern itself. However, it doesn’t revive Lanfear’s badassery. Just her withered husk. Because, you know, women bad.
But the battle at the end is the bee’s knees. It’s tits. It’s gargantuan. Blood-wrenching. Again, it’s only the last 100 pages or so, but it’s completely 100% worth it. So much awesomeness. Verdict: Dumai’s Wells. Be there.
Book Seven: A Crown of Swords. Published 1996. 855 pages.
Book Eight: The Path of Daggers. Published 1998. 672 pages.
Spoiler alert. Remember that dagger from six books back? An evil Gollum guy steals it and stabs Rand. Verdict: Avoid murky fog.
Book Nine: Winter’s Heart. Published 2000. 766 pages.
In this book, saidin is cleansed. Almost as an afterthought in the last 100 pages, which become the coolest, best-written 100 pages of the last however-many-millions of words. Which is unfortunate, because to get to these pages, you have to read the first 666 pages of this clunker of a novel. Rand is gone for most of the book, healing and turning into even more of a whiny putz with a short temper, and Mat doesn’t even show up. If it were possible through this project to just have you read the last 100 pages and skip to later books, I would suggest it. Alas, that is not what we’re about here. We must press on. Verdict: You’re in too deep now. To stop reading is tantamount to admitting failure. To quit is to fall under the Shadow…of Proper Judgment.
Book Ten: Crossroads of Twilight. Published 2003. 822 pages.
Half of this book concerns what happened in Winter’s Heart from the perspective of the people who weren’t at the cleansing of saidin. In short, the low point of the book. Once you realize you’re rereading something that already happened, things get depressing. Quickly. Move on. The end is nigh.
Oh wait, no it’s not! Verdict: Twelve books…it’s only gonna be twelve books…twelve…
Book Zed: New Spring. Published 2004. 334 pages.
Right around this time, Robert Jordan decided that exploring the world behind the books was more important than advancing the plot. This tome deals with Moiraine’s attempted discovery of the Dragon Reborn’s birth on the side of a mountain after a battle. Not the battle. Not the discovery of the baby. The process in between. We never see Baby Rand, or the battle that his “father” fights in. Nope. Courtly Aes Sedai happenings, including Moiraine and Siuan’s early days in the tower. Reading this, I felt cheated. The series had literally regressed by my reading this.
Fan outcry stopped Robert Jordan short of publishing more of these, which is good, because this one comes across as bad fan fiction more than adding anything to the world. Verdict: Oh my God, avoid this thing like the plague. Unless you’re a masochist.
Book Eleven: The Knife of Dreams. Published 2005. 837 pages.
Somehow, this actually manages to accomplish things. The first fifty pages are the best thing I’ve read that doesn’t involve an immediate battle for at least four books (not counting New Spring). Things move faster and resolutions begin to come across more and more.
Which is made worse because Rand is STILL a massive douche. Verdict: When your hero is completely unlikeable and drags the series down, you have a massive problem.
However, the end is in sight, a point made clear throughout the book. The next book oughta be the one that makes the whole thing worth it, right?
Book Twelve: The Gathering Storm. Published 2009. 766 pages.
Written by Brandon Sanderson.
Oh, yes, the tragedy. Before he could finish his final book in the series, Robert Jordan passed away. However, before this happened, he left pages and pages of notes (including the final chapters of A Memory of Light apparently, according to Mr. Sanderson).
When writing this, Sanderson found that there was too much, as we mentioned before, and split the outline into three books. This is the first.
I have to say: it’s completely worth it.
The book reads incredibly quickly, despite its relative length. I actually care about what Rand is doing. Much of the crippling description is cut out, and the women begin to recover some of their former chutzpah. Heck, the end is masterfully written, allowing Rand to finally and literally get over himself. That plus the inevitable resolution of the fifty different plotlines begins here. Oh, and several characters of lesser intention finally get theirs in the end.
I don’t want to be too judgmental of a dead man’s work, but Brandon Sanderson taking over the series might be the best thing that could have happened to these books, if only to give them an ending and climax worthy of the promise that came around in the beginning of the series.
Verdict: Must read. But only if you invested a year of your life into the first eleven books, you sorry human being.
Book Thirteen: Towers of Midnight. Published 2010. 864 pages.
Unfortunately, Sanderson doesn’t solve everything. Like the sudden reincarnation of characters. And the introduction of plotlines from left field. Spoiler Alert: Bringing a dead character back to life should not involve them losing everything about them that made them a stone-cold killer in the first place.
But I digress.
This book also reads quickly, if not quite as fast as The Gathering Storm. The end, however, falls short for me, feeling rushed. Sanderson doesn’t quite capture the ability of Jordan to write a clear, clean ending that keeps a breathneck pace while jumping back and forth between perspectives. If anything, this was actually a major disappointment, considering it involves Mat truly coming into his own. Sad times.
And the ultimate problem: At the end of this book, the shit hits the fan. In a major way.
And now we have to wait for the next book.
Because we’ve been hooked for twenty-two years on the Wheel of Time. And we’re still hooked. Despite the utter failure of Jordan to tell a story without antiquated views of matriarchy, extreme description, cluttered exposition, and a backlog of characters that we truly don’t give a shit about. What he does is create a compelling quest that has been told over and over again, yet never gets old, creates over a dozen wonderful set pieces, and a few characters that elevate the series above standard hack-and-slash fantasy into something truly worth reading, an elevation of the genre.
Or, you know, you could avoid all of that and read A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. But who am I to tell you what to do?
A Memory of Light, the 14th and final book in the Wheel of Time series is released January 8, 2013.
About bloody time.
 Not including World of Warcraft, although Dungeons and Dragons owes a debt, to which WoW owes a debt, so…screw it.
 Six Degrees of Separation, or Octagonal Degrees of Orc-Ness.
 Sort of a “Here’s looking at you, Drizzt”. (The D stands for Douche)
 One thing Robert Jordan is not? Subtle.
 Oh yeah, the series is so long that the original author, Robert Jordan, sadly passed away from terminal heart conditions before the series could be concluded. He had planned for the final book, however, leaving behind notes to conclude the series. After his widow’s careful selection of Brandon Sanderson to complete the series, she passed over his notes for Volume Twelve. These turned into Three (3) additional books, giving a sense that Robert Jordan could not possibly wrap up what he had started with just one 1,000 page book. No, we needed THREE.
 I’ve got a giant backlog of reading to work my way through because of this.
 All page numbers come from Mass Market editions of the books. Hardcovers are readily available…but why? The Mass Market copies take up enough space as it is.
 One of my problems with fantasy is when things in post-LOTR series are claimed to be stolen from Tolkein. Trees have long been roaming the pages of fantasy, myths, and general popular culture. For pre-LOTR tree people, I give you dryads from Greek mythology, the trees from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and at least two separate “Silly Symphony” cartoons by Disney. All of which predate Tolkein. That being said, this guy in WoT feels horribly forced. Especially as nothing like him EVER SHOWS UP AGAIN.
 The one thing that I really appreciate about the WoT series is that the last fifty to hundred pages of any of the books is always riveting. There’s always something at stake, the pages are well written and bounce between perspectives admirably, and the pace is lightning fast. It’s also an intense drawback because what it does is make up for the previous pages of drudgery that you’ve slogged through, while increasing your need to read the next book. I kid you not, this happens in nearly every book. Nearly.
 Continuity in fantasy is for sissies.
 See what I did there? See how lame it is?
 I shit you not, evil fog.
 Seriously, one of his major character points is he’s worried about hurting one of the THREE different girls he’s bedding, all of whom are obsessed with him and little else. And he treats each of them like dirt. Uber-Douche indeed.
 “The fuck?” you say. Read the book. You know you’re thinking it too.
 Seriously, so much tragedy and catastrophe in this series could be avoided if the characters would only not STEP INTO THE GODDAMN EVIL FOG.
 Too late.
 Literally, the Fucking End of the Book.