Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson

Note on Spoilers: Nothing in this review is what I would consider a spoiler. Plot specific details are not revealed, however larger arcs are briefly discussed.


Setting out to write a review for a series can be daunting. When the series is fourteen books long (not counting one prequel), published over a period of 20 years, counts millions of sales, and invokes a huge range of very passionate opinions, it is even harder to review. But in large part because of the impact that this series has had on my personally over the past 19 years, I am attempting to write this daunting review, in the process opening up personal feelings, tackling some of the controversies of the series, embracing my love for the series, it’s meaning for me, and trying to not let that blind me to its weaknesses.


Please humor me while go back to the beginning – not the first book in the series, The Eye of the World (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), and not the prequel, New Spring, but the beginning of my relationship with The Wheel of Time. I’ve always been a reader, though in my youth my reading was dominated by the likes of Stephen King, spy thrillers from Clive Cussler and similar authors, Michael Crichton, and other popular fiction writers of the 80s and 90s. I was not what I would consider a big fantasy or science fiction reader, though I was exposed to some the concepts through King, Crichton, and even a Weis and Hickman trilogy. It was through the recommendation of a few of my cousins that I picked up the first Wheel of Time book in the fall of 1994, my freshman year of college. I devoured it. I burned up my meager student budget buying all the other books in the series that were available. Then I read them again. And again…

I begin my review of the series in this way for a few reasons. First, I think it’s critical to know that I am a fan, a fan who has been reading the series for almost 20 years, a fan who has re-read these books many times, a fan who regularly listens to the audiobooks for the series, a fan who has spent countless hours discussing these books in on-line forums, a fan who eventually started blogging about his love of SFF books as a result of the journey began on the first page of The Eye of the World. However, it’s also critical to understand the context of when the series began, for while it will in many ways be timeless, it is also very much a product when it was published. The early 1990s was a time when much of fantasy was dominated by clones of Tolkien, a time when fantasy was heroic, good versus evil, and not well balanced in such things as diversity and gender (there were plenty of exceptions, however these were the general trends). The Wheel of Time began by embracing the tropes of its time and then responding to them. However the series appears now, at the time of its beginning, it was something new.
At its core, The Wheel of Time is about a young man (Rand al’Thor) who destined to save the world and his journey to fulfill prophesy. Rand begins as a humble sheepherder in an isolated corner of a pastoral fantasy world that has many reflections of our own. Rand is ignorant of the wider world, scared and thrown in way over his head. The fellowship that flees a horrifying raid of monsters out of myth and nightmare include Rand, 2 of his boyhood friends, his nearly betrothed love, a village leader, a bard, a Gandalf-like ‘wizard’ and her warrior companion.
In this intentionally familiar beginning, Jordan begins to respond to the fantasy that has come before. Women hold a place of power in society and this is a world where the ‘original sin’ was committed at the hands of men. The characters reflect often (too often really) how adventure is nothing like it is in the stories and how heroes never go through what they do (such as sleeping in a haystack). And the points of view shift – they build slowly from a small handful in the first book, to many dozens of widely varying points of view throughout the series, though the largest focus remains on the core group that was present in the beginning. And, as tough as it is to see as such now, Jordan’s approach to epic fantasy was subtly subversive of most of the fantasy from the 1980s and earlier. It really was something new and fresh, less conservative and it did push boundaries.
One way in which The Wheel of Time played a large role in fundamentally changing epic fantasy is its length. The trilogy is sacred in fantasy, even to this day, but longer series are still quite common. Much of this is attributable to the success first attained by The Wheel of Time. And the length of the series is both one of its greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Through 14 books Jordan immerses the read in the world he creates. He shows the build up to an apocalyptical battle from many points of view and directions. The traditional fantasy fan who can’t get enough of such secondary worlds is rewarded by the depth of detail, the wide coverage and multitude of personalities involved. Other readers who prefer writing that is tight and focused, without a wasted world will suffer through the length. I fall in the middle, seeing and appreciating both sides. The fan craves more, more resolution, more focus on the numerous side plots. While other parts of me wish the books had received a heavy dose of editing and that the series was completed in half as many books (or even fewer).
With the length and breadth of the series, Jordan is arguably the first major fantasy author to suffer the tangle of multiple points of view. It is a trap that many fantasy authors have fallen into. It becomes a snowball growing as more points of view necessitate even more. Then the plot rambles through subplot after subplot and bringing it all back together is difficult in the very least. Some plots suffer through dragging on and on while others are forced into brevity that confuses matters. And the series grows longer, often lacking the resolution that fans crave. The Wheel of Time exemplifies these issues – and some fans love and defend the result to the end. Some readers never get through the middle of the series.
It’s tough to pick a bigger lightening rod than gender issues in The Wheel of Time. I’ll be honest, one of the things that first attracted me to the series was the portrayal of the female characters – they were real, they were not objects, and they mattered. Back in the early 1990s when I began this series, that felt new, different and refreshing to me. However, now 20 years older, a bit wiser, and a lot less ignorant, I see many of the problems in Jordan’s characterization of women. Let’s face it, the writing in The Wheel of Time suggests that Jordan has an unhealthy obsession with spanking, a warped perception of what makes women strong, a typically pornographic and juvenile view of lesbian sex, and an unrealized dream of having 3 girlfriends who are cool with that. There are issues where women are punished with rape and men not at all. But, there are women in leadership, there are women in combat, and women exist as much more than an object for men.
I believe that much of Jordan’s portrayal of women comes from being raised in the South where women of his generation often show the world one personality and release another behind closed doors. I also believe that much of the backlash that the series receives toward its female characters has been the result of young men having a dislike of women telling male characters what they should do. But, that doesn’t absolve the fact that there are some fascinating (and often horrific) gender implications throughout these books. Though it’s also good to remember that as terrible as some the gender implications are, these books were still a step forward when they first came out. In many ways the gender relations in The Wheel of Time reflect our society well – a mix of significant progress with clear examples of there still being a long way to go.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the series is Jordan’s interweaving of myth and legend throughout. In many ways the series is an exploration of the archetypes that exist across many societies worldwide where Jordan takes all the myths and legends of a huge number of societies and traditions and plays a giant game of ‘telephone’ with them before placing them back into his creation. Most readers will notice the most blatant examples of this (particularly with Arthurian myth), but it goes very deep to levels that only a few scholars (and really hard core fans) ever could appreciate.
Related to the underlying use of myth and legend to create his characters, Jordan also plays with the idea of prophesy and even predestination in his world. Prophesy is real, widespread, true and metaphorical in Jordan’s world. Rand knows that he is destined to both save the world and destroy it. He knows he will go insane and die. And we follow his journey toward and into insanity. We see how he falls into the trap of fulfilling prophesy because he knows he must. But we also are left wandering about what those prophesies mean – some are never fulfilled, some were fulfilled in ways that are not recognizable. And throughout I see a trickster at heart playing the reader with their preconceptions and what they know prophesy must mean.
Through 14 books Jordan touches on many other themes and ideas. Whether it be those discussed above, communications, lack of trust, posttraumatic stress disorder, or the exploration of a destined hero slowly becoming batshit insane. These books can be read on many levels that often become quite fascinating the deeper one explores, particularly in direction of myth and legend. Though in the last few years, it’s Jordan’s explorations of politics and political machinations that have become the most interesting parts of the books to me, even though they are quite often derided as being an over-written distraction.
Another positive product of the relatively large cast of key characters is that it gives almost every reader someone to relate to. I was 18 when I first began the series, so I was immediately relating to the Rand, Perrin and Mat, who were all about that age. As I’ve grown older, the older characters often hold more weight with me, with the younger seeming to be full of the flaws of youth. Few books offer such a variety of characters to relate to and it’s been fascinating to me to see how my relationships with those characters have matured over the past 20 years.
Much, much more can be said on various aspects of the series. Flawed characters, flawed writing, editing, portrayal of the ‘bad guys’, long baths and the washing of silk… But this is not the place for it, especially since I’ve already rambled on in this review nearly as badly as Jordan. Suffice to say, that these books do have a little bit of everything in them – and that’s the good and the bad.

However, I cannot close out the review before some discussion on the fate of Jordan himself. Tragically, he died of a rare blood disease before the series could be finished. The final three books were completed by Brandon Sanderson with the help of Jordan’s widow (also his editor) and his assistants. Again, much can be written on how Sanderson’s writing compares with Jordan’s and how the series finished. The series did finish according to Jordan’s wishes (which were dictated from his deathbed), but it was in Sanderson’s style – or at least the style Sanderson adopted to be consistent with the rest of The Wheel of Time, without seeming to exactly imitate Jordan’s style (which probably would have been a spectacular failure). But in general, Sanderson’s writing lacked the subtlety of Jordan’s, some of the characters were never captured quite right (particularly where humor was involved), and some the side plots suffered. However, the writing was often tighter, the pacing more consistent, and the end goal more directly achieved through both thematic and plot arcs. Some fans liked Sanderson’s approach better, and others will never forgive him for finishing the series. Again, I fall in between, but I will say that I think Sanderson handled things nobly and humbly as he succeeded in a near-impossible task. I’m glad someone finished the series and I think that Sanderson was the right choice for the job.

The characters of The Wheel of Time have been my companions for the past 20 years and I expect to revisit them regularly in the future. I’ve had a huge amount invested in these books and a large influence on my life. Through the series I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve shouted at the absurdity of things and thrown a book across the room. I’ve cringed and I’ve quietly put the books aside to compose myself. I’ve eagerly waited and waited for the next book in the series like a kid on Christmas Eve. I’ve debated, cursed, argued, and had drinks with fellow fans. For me no other set of fiction has had a bigger impact on my life. It is the best and worst of fantasy. I can only thank Jordan, Sanderson, and all of the many, many others who have worked to make this series what it is.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Mini-Review: Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

A while back I was looking for four things in my next book to read: 1) something relatively quick and light to read, 2) something written by a woman (I haven’t read many books written by women so far this year, so I wanted to mix it up), 3) something that was not being widely read and reviewed by other bloggers I tend to follow, and 4) something that was on my e-reader. Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) fit the bill on all accounts, and was especially appealing because I seem to like urban fantasy set in Britain and I’ve travelled to and enjoyed my stay in Bath, which is the primary setting for the book.
Between Two Thorns is clever in its basic construct – it mashes Regency Fantasy with the modern world as it mixes Fae with Humans. It also surprises in that it doesn’t turn out to be indistinguishable from paranormal romance, as it lacks a traditionally structured romantic plot, though I’d happily argue that the plot is definitely the set up for just such a romance.
In its execution, Between Two Thorns is a bit less successful. The writing at times feels clunky, and I quickly became annoyed that Newman steadfastly follows the rule that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger. When combined with just a few too many points of view and converging plots, the pacing of the book really suffers at times. It also fails to be all that original – the set up is fun and interesting, but it’s still just another story about a young woman breaking out of gender-based roles in society. Yes, that is a valuable topic, and yes it was done well in the book, but Between Two Thorns fails to distinguish itself from numerous other urban fantasy stories that set out to do the same thing.
In the end, the book was more enjoyable than tedious and it certainly met my criteria of light and quick. I have a copy of the second book of the Split Worlds trilogy, Any Other Name (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), and I haven’t yet decided if I’ll read it or not. I can see this book working very well for some, but is perhaps just a bit too ‘meh’ for me to have much more to say.


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