James Oliver Rigney Junior, a man better known to readers everywhere as Robert Jordan, wrote what is today arguably the most successful, best known and widely read of all modern fantasy series in the form of The Wheel of Time. Sadly, Jordan (I’m going to use his better known pen-name from now on) died in 2007, before he managed to complete his epic, and it was left to his friend and fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to finish his work from the extensive notes that he left behind. Jordan’s fans are sometimes, rather unfairly, referred to as the Trekkies of the fantasy genre and his critics (many of whom, oddly enough, are former fans) are well known for being rather… erm, vitriolic in their opinions. When you add the fact that we are talking about an author who tragically passed away before he had the opportunity to complete his life’s work, any criticism or evaluation of The Wheel of Time is fraught with difficulty at the outset. It is therefore with some trepidation that I approach the question (which I nonetheless think is an important one to answer): is The Wheel of Time actually any good?
I’m going to nail my colours to the mast straight away by saying that when I read the first couple of volumes in The Wheel of Time series I was blown away. Robert Jordan’s world lies both in our future and in our past, a world of kings and queens and Aes Sedai ‘witches’, women who can tap into the True Source and wield the One Power, which turns the Wheel of Time and drives the universe: a world where the war between the Light and the Shadow is fought every day. At the moment of Creation, the Creator bound the Dark One away from the world of humankind, but more than 3,000 years ago Aes Sedai (then both men and women) unknowingly bored into that prison outside of time. The Dark One was only able to touch the world lightly but, before he was sealed away again, his taint settled on the male half of the Power. Eventually every male Aes Sedai went mad, and in the cataclysm known as the Breaking of the World they destroyed civilisation and changed the very face of the earth, sinking mountains and creating seas. For this reason, for more than 3,000 years, while nations and empires rose and fell, nothing has been so feared as a man who can channel. But for all those years there have been prophecies that the seals on the Dark One’s prison will weaken and he will touch the world once more, and that the Dragon, who sealed up that hole, will be Reborn to face the Dark One again. A child, born in sight of the Aes Sedai stronghold of Tar Valon, on the slopes of Dragonmount, will grow up to be the Dragon Reborn, the only hope of humanity in the Last Battle – a man who can channel.
One of Jordan’s great skills as a writer was his ability (at least to begin with) to correctly pace his story, give full descriptions of the setting and actions of his characters and at the same time not lose the reader. Despite the length of the first Wheel of Time novel – it’s almost a thousand pages long in paperback – I never for a moment lost interest or thought that the story was plodding or badly paced. If anything, by the time I got to the end I thought it was too short and was desperate for more! Another big draw was Jordan’s knack of creating warm, real and genuinely likeable characters, whose stories you really want to follow. I always feel that a certain lightness of touch and humanity is essential in any fantasy story, which could otherwise easily be too focused on simply creating fantastic places and races. That’s why I’ve always appreciated the lighter, character moments in The Eye of the World and its sequels – the banter between the three main characters, Rand, Mat and Perrin; the humour inherent in certain minor characters like Loial the Ogier and the gleeman Thom Merrilin; the battle of the sexes and the romantic entanglements, which often seem just as important as the quests and wars. For the dedicated fantasy readers there are plenty of quests, battles, monsters and magical occurrences as well, of course, but I think that one of the strengths of the series is the way they are played out against the other elements, all of which serves to make the world of the Wheel of Time feel breathtakingly real.
Robert Jordan’s world is also one that feels very original. I’ve made references in previous posts to the fact that there are strong echoes in The Wheel of Time series of earlier classics such as Dune and Lord of the Rings but I don’t think that this is overdone, and it certainly doesn’t diminish Jordan’s achievements. Too often fantasy tales can seem to be not the original work of the author but yet another entry into a shared universe whose rules, setting and races have been created already. This is not the case with The Wheel of Time, which contains many original features that make it unmistakably Jordan’s world and no other that the reader enters whenever he or she picks up one of the books. I’ve already mentioned Aes Sedai and Ogier, but there are also Trollocs, the beast-man hybrids who are the foot soldiers in the Dark One’s armies; the chilling, eyeless Myrddraal, who command the Trollocs; the rock-hard Aiel tribesmen who live in the waste beyond the Spine of the World mountains, and whose destiny is inextricably linked to that of the Dragon Reborn; the equally tough Warders who are bonded to Aes Sedai; and the foremost of the Dark One’s servants, the Forsaken, who were also sealed away from the world with him and may be returning. There are Blademasters, Wolfbrothers, Sea Folk, Gleemen, Illuminators, Whitecloaks, Seanchan, Borderlanders, Darkhounds and even an appearance by a Green Man (and several Gray Men). All of these serve to make for a very real, individual and unmistakable setting. As one of Jordan’s peers once said: ‘On very rare occasions, very talented storytellers create worlds that are beyond fantasy, worlds that become realities. Robert Jordan has’.
Much has been said about the length of The Wheel of Time books and this is where my view gets slightly less sympathetic. It’s difficult to appreciate now, but when I first read The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, I genuinely thought that they were the first two entries in a trilogy. As I said above, despite their length, they were fast-moving and absorbing, and seemed to be heading towards a dramatic conclusion. Then I read The Dragon Reborn – still a great book but I was, for the first time, a little perturbed at the pace of the story. Okay, I thought, this isn’t going to be three books, it’s going to be six books, tops. Then along came The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos – all excellent, all miles ahead of any other epic fantasy novels out there, but the lack of an ending being in sight was starting to get alarming. How long could this series possibly get?! More characters were being introduced all the time, new story threads were appearing and the lack of movement in individual books compared with the first entries in the series was striking. A lot of talking, a lot of ominous signs but not a huge amount of action or story progression – not a good recipe, I thought, but I was afraid to voice my thoughts aloud for fear of offending Jordan’s no-doubt legions of fans. Then I hit the internet.
The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn were published in quick succession between 1990 and 1992, with later books appearing at steadily greater intervals. This may be hard to believe now, in 2012, but in the early to mid 1990s I didn’t automatically go to the internet for all of my information. I was happily carrying on in the thought that I was in a minority of one concerning the direction in which The Wheel of Time series was going, until one day I came across a forum discussing Jordan’s work – and it wasn’t very complimentary! All of the same reservations that I had were being voiced, more loudly, by plenty of others. There were suggestions that Jordan was simply prolonging the series out of greed, in full knowledge that his many fans would seemingly buy another Wheel of Time book even if it just featured his hero Rand al’Thor prognosticating for 700 pages (which is actually almost an accurate description for A Crown of Swords, the seventh entry in the series). His lengthy, detailed writing style – a joy early on in the series – was beginning to grate, especially when it began to seem like there might be another twenty Wheel of Time books to go before we got to the end. Then The Gathering Storm came along.
It would be unfair, inappropriate and just plain in bad taste for me to say that it took Robert Jordan’s death for his series to get back on track. There were signs in the last Wheel of Time book that he penned that the pace was at last picking up and that he was perhaps taking his fans’ criticisms on board. He publicly acknowledged that his structure for the tenth volume, Crossroads of Twilight (where he showed a major scene from the prior book, Winter’s Heart, from the perspective of the main characters that were not involved in the scene), had not worked out as he had planned. Knife of Dreams, the eleventh volume, had a much more positive reception from critics and fans alike and before his death Jordan announced that the twelfth volume, which he had previously announced would have the working title A Memory of Light, would conclude the series. This final volume was partially written by Jordan before his untimely passing in 2007. Brandon Sanderson, a bestselling fantasy author in his own right, was chosen by Jordan’s editor – his wife, Harriet – to complete the final book. The scope and size of the volume was such that it could not be contained in a single book, and so, in 2009, The Gathering Storm was presented as the first of three novels that would cover the outline left by Jordan, chronicling The Last Battle and Rand al’Thor’s final confrontation with the Dark One.
Now, Sanderson’s style is not for everyone – as he freely admits in the foreword to The Gathering Storm: ‘I cannot replace Robert Jordan. Nobody could write this book as well as he could have’. For long-time Wheel of Time fans there are definitely parts in Sanderson’s book that jar with the earlier Jordan-penned entries in the series. Overall, however, he does an outstanding job of adapting his style to that of Jordan’s, in some ways even possibly exceeding Jordan’s abilities, especially when it comes to the action scenes. Sanderson superbly picks up the pace of the whole story, paying off several little plot seeds from earlier in the series, cutting threads that have been hanging for far too long, and, finally, doing some much needed pruning of a cast list that was starting to rival that of the complete works of Shakespeare. What I particularly like about the Sanderson-penned Wheel of Time books is that they feel so modern, even though they are the latest entries in a series that is over 20 years old. Let’s not forget that, when The Eye of the World first came out way back in 1990 it was regarded as fairly groundbreaking stuff, and both The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight continue this tradition. I definitely think that Jordan’s legacy is in safe hands and look forward to A Memory of Light in the firm belief that it will provide a satisfactory conclusion to what is undoubtedly one of the finest epic fantasies ever written.