Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Defense of The Wheel of Time

I’ll tackle this one since I just finished the 13th(!) tome in the Robert Jordan / Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time series, The Towers of Midnight, and its all so fresh in my mind.  These are books that linger with you, whose characters and little mysteries bustle around in your brain for weeks.

It’s hard to believe that I started these books oh, fourteen years and three million words ago. Ninety-one hundred (hardcover) pages of a single, continuous narrative. It’s ludicrous. And a bit overwhelming. The Lord of the Rings times seven.

Each time, during the lull between books, I almost begin to believe all the negative buzz. How it drags on and on, how inferior it is to other books of its kind, how derivative it is.

Then a fresh copy is delivered into my hands. And I’m whisked away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Wheel of Time has its faults. Many, many of them. I’m not (and never have been) blind to those. Some of the characters rub on you. There’s a definitive pattern to each book, a slow (at times glacial) buildup toward a confrontation between the series’ primary protagonist and one of the “Forsaken” - the chosen generals of the Dark One. Of the thirteen books, at least nine of them finish in this fashion.

To boot, you have that customary fantasy epic dichotomy of “good” and “evil”. The Creator and the Dark One. Doesn’t sound so unique, eh? It’s Paradise Lost meets The Lord of the Rings. The good are never wholly good, but they are mostly good. And the evil are almost always despicable, heartless characters (though often given human motive).

There is the typical fantasy "cannon fodder". Trollocs are nothing so much as orcs in disguise. The Forsaken? Ringwraiths. The Dark One? I won't even go there.

And the repetition!! I think it almost goes without saying that when you travel with the same cast of characters through 9000 pages, things will be repeated. Nyneave tugs at her braid. Mat curses and rolls his dice – “Blood and bloody ashes!” Perrin just wants to be left alone, he doesn’t want to lead. He’s no bloody lord. Rand hardens himself, argues with the voices in his head. Lews Therin’s refrain of “Ilyena!”

I have occasional problems with the pacing and, in spite of the kudos I have to give Sanderson for the job he is doing in completing the work, I have problems with Sanderson’s heavy-handed use of foreshadowing.

I have issues with the heavily southern Christian mythology of the world. The Creator is far too similar to the Christian God. The protagonists are like conservative backwoods southern farmboys. Rand bloody Al’Thor (the main protagonist) is too damn much of a Christ figure, especially since he’s transformed from "Rand the Grey" to "Rand the White" (not literally, the Gandalf reference is mine).

So what is here worth salvaging? Why dedicate the kind of time and effort required to wade through such a repetitive and oversized monstrosity?

Because it works.

Because for all of the problems, the world is there. It exists in a way that Middle-earth exists, in the way that Gormenghast and Ryhope Wood and The Seven Kingdoms exist. Full of raw hope, intrigue, and emotion. Full of characters we care about, however much they dance on our nerves.

The characters struggle with inner demons. No one in this world is perfect. The wise make mistakes. The heroes slowly crack beneath the strain. But their biggest foes are always themselves.

Talk of The Wheel of Time as derivative all you like. Jordan was brilliantly inventive.

The Aiel are his masterpiece, a fallen warrior culture with a shady past and an intricate, fascinating system of honor.

The Seanchan – however they may resemble a far eastern fighting force – are remarkably detailed. Their culture, their complex system of alliances and politics.

And that doesn’t even touch on the Aes Sedai. Schools for wizards (since that is what they are based on, at least in part) are far from original in fantasy novels. But schools solely for female wizards? And the level of intrigue and political maneuvering that takes place amongst the Aes Sedai is mind boggling. Jordan makes extensive, and effective, use of game theory (at least in its political aspect).

We also get in Jordan (a writer with an extensive military background) the body language of power. Body language plays a larger role in The Wheel of Time than in any single fantasy I can think of. Warders emanate lethal abilities. Aes Sedai give nothing away, but hide all emotion behind a cold mask of utter control. The darting of eyes, the stance of the body, the deadly agility of a stride.

Tel’aran’rhoid? Jordan’s world of dreams? I won’t even get into that. It’s too incredibly wonderful. Jordan sets the bar for dreams.

Jordan is not a great stylist, and Sanderson follows in his footsteps. They are not Patricia McKillip, who writes fantasy with a dreamlike, poetic flair. The writing all but disappears beneath the surface of the story. There is nothing to trip you up, no roots to snag at your boots as you dart past. And that is as it should be. It gives the narrative urgency, like a horse at the gallop. Even when the plot moves ahead at a mere trickle, the writing pulls you along for the ride.

More yet, Jordan thrives with battle scenes. He understands tactics. He knows the exhilaration of the fray, the lust for battle, the fear and dust. He understands how to share that burst of adrenaline with the reader, to transfer it through the page and into the sweaty hands gripping the edges of the book.

I could go on and on, because I think for all its shortcomings The Wheel of Time repays patience and dedication. I’m anxious to see how Sanderson wraps things up with the final book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with The Wheel of Time.


  1. I have never read even a little bit of the series. Cody is a fan and I must say I am both intrigued and intimidated by the amount of reading to be done to catch up to the current book. Any idea when it is supposed to be out and how I would have to pace myself to just be ready for it when it comes out?

  2. That would depend in part on how fast you read. I find I have a tendency to read WOT books faster than I read most, because they're easy to read and quick-paced. But they're still long books. And, oh yeah, there's 13 of them. The final volume, A Memory of Light, is scheduled to be out near the end of this year (November?). So in truth, if you wanted to be ready the for the new volume when it arrives AND you intend to read some other stuff along the way (such as book group selections) I would suggest you start now.

  3. I am a pretty fast reader. I think Cody has them all and Colton is reading them...I will have to see about getting started.

  4. OK not sure how that happned but now I am following you twice...logged in with my gmail both if you can remove followers you may kill one or both of these and I can get it straight.