If you're not familiar with the Wheel of Time, the series created by Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson, this article won't mean a whole lot to you. I'm writing this primarily for other people who have read the series, primarily because I'm curious as to whether they can see the same things I see, or if it's just me. If you've never read it… well, there are probably spoilers.
I never managed to finish the Wheel of Time. I'm frustrated by this, especially since the story has been finished, and I'm invested enough in the story, even now, to want to know how everything works out. But even wanting to know hasn't been enough to sustain me. I'm one of those people who feel like the WoT dropped off in quality, pretty severely, somewhere around the middle, and I always wind up giving up. I don't think I've ever made it to book ten. I'm pretty sure I've never finished reading book nine.
It's painful admission, because the first four books in the series are in my top ten list of Books I Will Probably Love For All Time. Book Four is my favorite in the series for any number of reasons: the Aiel, the exploration of the dream-realm, Rhuidean, the big reveal about the Tinkers were all neat storybuilding stuff, and the things that happen to Mat Cauthon and his memories were some of the most interesting character developments I've read in any series I've picked up. Books Five and Six aren't quite up to the same level as 1-4, but they're still pretty fantastic. The first half of the WoT is a brilliant story. It made me not just willing to suspend my disbelief, but happy to.
“Here it is! My disbelief, it's right up there, on that line! I don't need it right now, give me the story!”
Something changes in Book Seven. A lot of people complain that Book Seven is where the story starts to slow down, and that's true, but my firm belief is that the reason the pace is a problem is because it allows the reader to notice a more serious problem, one that starts to show up in Books Five and Six, but is easier to ignore. It is the problem that makes me hate the series, even as I love the series.
I'll tell you the problem in a bit. First I want to talk about the good stuff.
THE GOOD STUFF
A number of readers will be put off by the apparently traditional setting of the series. It starts out in a far-away, backwater village, where all the inhabitants are largely ignorant of the goings-on in the rest of the world. The primary protagonist is a shepherd boy who is just about to come of age. He is marked by prophecy and destined to inherit a great and terrible power in order to save the world.
If you summarize all the main points, it sounds like a paint-by-numbers fantasy story, and I can feel some of you rolling your eyes at it. But Jordan does some really interesting and marvelous things with that beginning, and some of those paint-by-numbers elements are turned on their ear.
First, Jordan puts a lot of effort into making Emond's Field (the remote village) feel like an actual place. In my mind Emond's Field rivals the Shire in terms a starting location in a fantasy setting feeling like a place you could actually visit. It has people in it who live together but don't necessary like each other, it has local politics that feel fully fleshed out (the council, the Women's circle, the Wisdom) – in other words, it's not just a background setting, it's a society. The characters who leave Emond's Field take that society with them, and as the story develops you see bits of that society fall away, but you also see bits of that society remain. Some of the prejudices the characters have in Emond's Field stay with them as the story develops, even when abandoning those prejudices might make things easier for them.
(And, as befits a complicated story, whether or not there is any truth to some of the prejudices is rather nuanced.)
One of the things the story sets up in Emond's Field is that the relationship between adult men and women is a little complicated. It's not quite a society of equals simply because there appear to be, at least in broad strokes, societal roles that are considered “male” and “female.” On the other hand, it's difficult to call Emmond's Field wholly patriarchal or matriarchal, even though the Council is all male and the Women's Circle is all female, because if you asked either group who was in charge they'd say “well of course we are” (and if you asked the Wisdom she'd say “of course they'd say that, but I'm the one running the show”) and none of them are exactly wrong, depending on how you look at it. The Eye of the World (Book One) was the first fantasy novel I'd read where gender roles were deliberately incorporated into the world in a way that was complicated and messy while still feeling not modern. And at the same time, the characters themselves—pretty much all of them—were flawed enough so that they didn't see the complexity of the society. The characters would lean on “tried and true sayings” that dumbed the whole thing down. And that also felt complicated and messy, because as the reader I could see things the characters didn't.
Somewhat related to this idea of the way gender roles was introduced was the Aes Sedai, which took those gender roles and smashed them to bits. In this world, women are the only people who can safely use magic (well, channel the One Power—same difference!) without going batshit insane. When a man has the ability to channel, it's inevitable that he's going to go insane and hurt people. Women can channel safely, with training, and so one of the things the Aes Sedai do is deal with the male channelers. And because they are the only ones who can, they are often hated and almost unversally feared.
So in one respect, from a genre perspective, the Aes Sedai are the “good guy wizards,” with rumors of a secret sect of “bad guy wizards” lurking within their numbers. But they're not universally heroic: they don't go insane, but they're still people, and they possess all the strengths and faults that people have, only they have a crap-ton more responsibility on their shoulders. And the Aes Sedai as an organization has his immensely mythic, tragic quality to it, because once upon a time both men and women were Aes Sedai, and then the men went insane and started killing everyone. And the women were forced to turn on these men and kill them, because there was no cure. And then, after having to kill the men who had been their friends, their partners, and their comrades-in-arms, they had to square their shoulders, pick up the pieces, and do what they could to put all the broken pieces back together again. And part of what they had to do was deal with men who, through no real fault of their own, were eventually going to lose their minds and try to destroy everything around them.
The Aes Sedai were badass. The Red Ajah, the group of Aes Sedai dedicated to making sure male channelers were dealt with before they wrecked the world again were double-badass. Imagine if Galadriel had showed up at the Council of Elrond, said “nevermind Gandalf, I got this” and started killing anyone who had ever even looked at the one Ring, buried Sauron under three miles of rock, and beat the crap out of anyone who even looked like they were walking in the general direction of Mordor while carrying a shovel. They were out to save the world, and they weren't going to say “please” first.
The other subversion of the standard fantasy line came with the story arc for Rand, the primary protagonist. Rand, this simple country shepherd, discovers to his horror that he's the “Dragon Reborn”—which means that he's the reincarnated soul of the most powerful of the male channelers who went crazy, way back in the day, and nearly destroyed the world in the process. It also means that there's a prophecy about him that says he'll destroy the world by breaking it. It also means he's a male who can channel, and not just a male who can channel, but a male who can channel to an insanely powerful degree. Which means that he will inevitably go insane and kill everyone he knows and loves, and when that happens there's not going to be ruins so much as there will just be glowing ash.
Now, standard fantasy story arc will have the Chosen One bitterly resent being the Chosen One, spend a great deal of time resisting it, until the Wizened Counselors can point him in the right direction and finally, just before the Final Battle With The Great Evil, he accepts his role, steps up, and hands a righteous beatdown. Rand doesn't do that. Rand bitterly resents being the Chosen One, because it means he's gonna go nuts and die, and he's not big on that, but by the end of the second book he accepts it and then decides “well, if I'm gonna do this I better do it right” and STARTS DOING RESEARCH BY READING ABOUT ALL THOSE PROPHECIES HE KEEPS HEARING ABOUT. And the Wheel of Time, ladies and gentlemen, is the absolute first time I had ever seen that happen in a fantasy story. I mean, I vaguely remember reading other stories where at some point I would find myself mentally screaming FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY WOULD YOU JUST DO SOME HOMEWORK and suddenly here was a story where the guy was actually doing his homework because he was taking the Chosen One job seriously, even if he hated everything about it.
That choice alone makes me grateful the series exists. Even if everything else about it had been absolute dreck, that choice would make it worth noting.
But there's even more good stuff in the book. Generally I'm not fond of the political arcs in fantasy stories—I recognize that they're kind of inescapable when you're dealing with stories set in large worlds, but I find them tiring, probably because I'm shallow and I want more monster-bashing and ruins-exploring but hey, that's the way it goes. But there are political elements in these stories that I found myself immensely interested in. Our Hero The Dragon Reborn is something of a problem for the Aes Sedai—they're perfectly aware of the prophecies that talk about how the Dragon Reborn will be needed to save the world, but that doesn't change the fact that he's a ticking time bomb that will inevitably go off and leave a large smoking crater behind when he does. So how to deal with that? Some want to try to aid him and guide him in order to maximize his effectiveness while minimizing his crater-leaving. Some want to enslave him, in order to make sure he does what he's supposed to do when he's supposed to do it without leaving a crater at all. Still others are all HEY HELLO MALE CHANNELER BIG SMOKING CRATER AHEM and want to deal with him using methods that have been proven historically reliable.
But wait, there's more! While one group of people are arguing over whether or not he's the Dragon Reborn, another group of people are arguing over whether he's the One Who Comes With The Dawn, which is an entirely different prophecy unconnected with the first! And they don't really care about the first prophecy, because it's not about them, and the two groups don't necessarily like each other. Oh, and if it ever came to blows, the second group would mop up the floor with the first, because they're Badass Desert Warriors Who Are Badass.
And there's an invading army from an unknown land who have the ability to enslave channelers. Just to keep things interesting.
There are all these things that keep happening in this world, and Jordan makes the story compelling not just because the things are fascinating (which they are) but also because he makes you root for the people who are trying to handle them. The characters have strengths and weaknesses (genuine strengths, that make me want to pump my fist in the air when they make a choice to do something awesome, and genuine weaknesses, that make me want to bash my head against the wall when they do something stupid) that make their successes and failures feel fully earned. There are multiple instances of two people desperately trying to save the world finding themselves squaring off against each other (metaphorically, at least) and to the reader it's painfully clear that the conflict is actually harming the big picture but at the same time, what else would they do? They both know the other is wrong and must be stopped.
And of course there are plenty of actual bad guys who need defeating.
I found all of this fantastic. I was in. I wanted more.
And then Book Seven happened.
THE BAD STUFF
The problem, I think, began before Book Seven, but Book Seven is when it reached critical mass. Up to that point Jordan had done a solid job of establishing distinct, fleshed-out, well-rounded personalities for all his characters, and that was no small task. There was no danger mistaking Rand for Mat for Perrin for Tom for Lan for Rhuarc (well, maybe Lan for Rhuarc) for Moiraine for Nynaeve for Egwene for Elaine for Min for Loial and it goes on and on and on. And through the series, Jordan developed a number of character tics that he'd use for each character to underscore a specific trait. Nynaeve, for example, is infamous for sniffing loudly while jerking her braid when she's pissed off.
At the beginning of the book there was a ton of focus on the main story and character development. There was also politics, but the politics were at arms length, usually introduced in a way that directly affected the main story. As the story progressed, the political aspects of the world became a lot more prominent, and the storylines started branching out like crazy, until instead of telling a single story, Jordan was telling tens of stories, all dealing with specific subsets of the main cast (and introducing new characters). And it is my view that the more that started happening, the harder it became to maintain the level of character development he'd established in the early books, and the more he started relying on the character tics he'd developed as crutches.
So instead of watching Rand try wrestle with whether or not he had started going insane, you'd get a perfunctory line about Rand wondering if he was going insane and then a lot of time devoted to Rand wishing he understood women the way Mat and Perrin did (while at the same time, Mat would be wishing he understood women the way Rand and Perrin did, meanwhile Perrin would be wishing he understood women the way Rand and Mat did). And Tom Merrilin would get exasperated and blow through his mustaches, and Moiraine would look cool and distant, and Egwene would think something about “wool-headed men,” Lan would stare impassively as if he were cut from stone, Elayne would nervously smooth out the folds of her green-and-blue silk skirts with the yellow-ribboned tassles woven into the fine white lace, and Nynaeve would—you guessed it—sniff loudly and tug at her braids.
Oh, and Aviendha would decide she had toh to somebody about something, and would be unable to explain why to anyone's satisfaction.
And at the same time, the complicated and messy realities of gender interaction established at the beginning of the series was smoothed out into the caricatures that the characters assumed was the truth. Whenever the story focused on the men, the women were meddling and manipulative (especially the Aes Sedai). Whenever the story focused on the women, the men were obstinate and dumb as rocks. And worst (for me) was that all the majestic, tragic grandeur of the Aes Sedai was oversimplified into a bunch of infighting, and the Red Ajah settled comfortably into the role of misguided lunatic hardline antagonists.
And honestly, the truth is that the streamlined versions of the characters probably weren't bad. Jordan is a fantastic writer.1 But it was as if, having reached the midway point in his journey, he noticed the plot was overburdened—and the ballast he decided to pitch over the side just happened to be all the stuff he was doing that was really hard to get right, which also happened to be all the stuff he was doing that I thought was so freaking cool, and everything else shined less for it.
I think that may have started to happen a little in Book Four. Not a lot (well, except for Aviendha, she was all about having toh in Book Four) but a little. Which is odd, because it's still my favorite book. I think it got a little more noticeable in Books Five and Six, but they moved forward at enough of a pace that it didn't hurt too much. Book Seven slowed everything down, though, and when the plot slows down the characters have to really step up their game, and they… didn't. They were still running in degraded mode, more or less. Less so with Mat, but he didn't really show up much (hell, he was left out of an entire book).
I never got past Book Nine. I'm told that the last book he ever wrote on his own (Eleven? I think) was a return to form, but I've never been able to get there, despite multiple attempts. At book Seven I start skimming, and by Book Nine I inevitably think “why am I skimming? I should read something I want to read instead” and then I usually go read The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper because that book is pure awesome.
THE SCARY STUFF
So I love the Wheel of Time, because Jordan was a fantastic writer and the first six books were brilliant, but I hate the Wheel of Time, because by Book Seven it felt like he'd given up on some parts in order to concentrate on others, and the parts he gave up on were the parts I wanted. And while this frustrates me as a reader, it actually terrifies me as a writer. Robert Jordan is a better writer than I am, and if he can fall into this trap it's a good bet I will.2 And someday I'd really like to write something on the sheer scale of Wheel of Time—something that jaw-droppingly immense. If I do, the danger of me wandering into the trap of eventually writing my characters in “degraded mode” will be ever-present.
It's exhausting and demoralizing just thinking about it.
Anyway, I'm trying to get through the Wheel of Time again. This time I'm going the audiobook route. I'm not sure I dig the narrators—they're competent, but the style leaves me a bit cold—but I'm enjoying it so far. Maybe this ridiculous commute I'm doing will finally get me past the rough spots so I can finally discover how the story ends.