Epic Bookshot #4: The Wheel of Time
Four million words.
One prequel novel.
And I'm done.
I couldn't tell you when I first started reading The Wheel of Time- I want to say it was sometime in and around junior high/early high school and for a long while, I was obsessed. I had grown up in the latter days of David Eddings when new volumes of series like The Mallorean and The Elenium and The Tamuli had been coming out every couple of years- so I was all too happy to jump onto another epic fantasy series and enjoy the ride.
Over the course of their original run in the early to mid-90s, I made it all the way to Book Ten, Crossroads of Twilight and then I got frustrated. It seemed like it was never going to end-- the 'plane' as it were, was circling the runway and didn't seem to be coming in for a landing anytime soon. So I kind of stepped away, because I was young. I was a teenager. I was bored. I'd see the subsequent volumes come out and sort of pick them up in the bookstore (hey, remember going to bookstores? Fun times!). Then Robert Jordan died and I think in my head at the time I was so dubious that some other author was going to finish these books and it'd be kind of lame that I just decided not to go back and pick them up.
(Granted, having snagged Mistborn: The Final Empire on Audible and started listening to some Brandon Sanderson, I now fully admit that was an idiotic thing to think-- but at the time, it seemed to make sense.)
Flash forward to last year. (Hey, remember last year? Which seems like 100 years ago now? Fun times!) After a weird, 'dropped onto YouTube at Midnight and featured Billy Zane' attempt at a pilot episode for a series, there was some more legal wrangling between the holders of the movie and television right and Jordan's estate until finally, in the wake of Game of Thrones and The Witcher, Amazon picked up The Wheel of Time and said, "oh, look at all this source material. I think we might have enough for a television show here." They started casting. They started filming. It's coming out next year sometime (assuming we get to next year that is) so what better time than to go back to the very beginning and make my way through the whole damn thing?
So I did.
I'll be honest: I'm not going to attempt to summarize the whole damn thing, so if you're reading this, I'm going to assume that you've read the series (or at least some of it.) Right off the bat, though, Robert Jordan throws down an interesting and- while I'm not an expert on fantasy- I'd call it 'trope-breaking' curveball. The Last Battle/Armageddon is coming and the man who can save the world (The Dragon Reborn) is going to need to be able to reach the male half of the True Source, saidin to 'channel.' Only here's the kicker: men who can 'channel' are doomed to go insane.
So right away, you have an interesting dilemma. You have to get your Dragon Reborn to the end of the series and keep his sanity along the way. Like I said, I can't claim to have read everything in fantasy- but the exploration of mental illness tied together with a magic system was unique at the time- and it only gets better from there.
Gender dynamics? Well, only the women can do magic/channel safely. The main magic order, The Aes Sedai have a group of women dedicated to hunting down the men who can channel and cutting them off from the True Source so they can't do it anymore. That's different. Of the twelve main nations in the world of the series, six of them have Queens and nobody seems to bat an eye.
There's also the overall cultural influences on the world that are worth talking about. As a whole, this series is a massive, massive departure from shall we say, more Eurocentric notions of fantasy. The influences of things like Hinduism, Buddhism and just Asia full stop are evident and refreshing. The level of cultural detail that Jordan goes into- not just overall, but for each individual country is almost exhausting but equally amazing, because it's a level of world-building that is just beyond anything I had ever read in fantasy before.
But, there's also a fundamental problem that Jordan runs into, especially in a series with what was planned to be twelve volumes but ended up being fourteen: the slog. Fans of the series define the slog as Volumes 8-10 (The Path of Daggers, Winter's Heart, Crossroads of Twilight)- but there's a stretch where Jordan wanders into the weeds a bit. The plot seems to stall out. (There's one book and I believe it might be Winter's Heart where one character, Elayne takes baths incessantly. That's like all she does.) It's frustrating- but when you break through and get to Knife of Dreams and then Sanderson's conclusion of the series, everything trips into fast forward and things start happening at a breakneck pace that makes you forget all about it- but when you're in The Slog, the series gets so so frustrating at times, but to be fair to it: it does pay off. It just takes a few books to get there.
Of course, now that I'm done with the entire thing, I want to go back and re-read it, to see what else jumps out at me. I think that's probably the real brilliance of this series- as soon as you're done, you want to go back and hit the high points- or re-read your favorite books in the series or take in your favorite moments throughout. (The audiobooks featuring Michael Kramer and Kate Reading are also fantastic if that's your thing as well.)
Overall: If you like fantasy and haven't tackled this one yet- what are you waiting for? Is it quite a time commitment and it takes some perseverance, but it's worth it. If you've been hearing about the television show and want to read the series before it comes out? Also worth it. This series is epic in every sense of the word and I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to see what they do with the television show.