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…
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.
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.
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.
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.