I read this series fairly continuously between June, 2014 and August, 2015 – just over a year. That’s a pretty big investment of time, and the question I get asked most often by people who haven’t read the series yet is: Is it worth it?
And that’s a difficult question to answer. There are things that I really enjoyed about the series – enough so that I don’t feel like my time was misspent, I don’t regret reading it – but there are also some pretty big flaws. So I guess I’ll just note my thoughts, and let anyone who reads this draw their own conclusions.
I’ve heard complaints that Jordan did a lot of ripping off of Tolkien’s work, but I think that he did that intentionally, as a way of situating the reader (within the micro context of the Two Rivers) before taking us out into the wider world. In fact, I think that’s very much like what Tolkien himself was doing, in providing us with Hobbits who are in many ways so much like early 20th century Brits. I, personally, think that Jordan might have had a bit more faith in his readership, but the Wheel of Time series is quite popular for a fantasy novel – especially for one that requires the investment of reading 14 books at over a thousand pages each – so he was obviously on to something.
Jordan’s writing leaves quite a bit to be desired. For one thing, it’s incredibly repetitive – a problem that I think is much more irritating in print than it is in audiobook. He seems to have chosen a default mannerism or catch phrase for each character and just gone to town (Nynaeve’s braid pulling and complaints about “wool-headed men” being the most frequently cited).
His plotting suffered a similar issue. The first novel was quite action-packed and had a lot going on, but the series slowed after that – getting worse and worse with each new novel, culminating finally in the dreck that is Crossroads of Twilight. It felt like Jordan would sit down at his desk and just free-write until he managed to figure out where he was going, then hit publish on the whole thing (except that, with Crossroads, he never actually managed to get anywhere).
This cleared right up with Sanderson’s books, though. Those actually moved, and really managed to reinvigorate my interest in the series.
Jordan seems to have had a lot of gender hangups. It’s clear that he tried very hard to include women, giving them lots of active roles to play, making them powerful and interesting, and giving them lots of important social positions (with the Women’s Circle as the true leaders of Emond’s Field, and the number of reigning queens). The problem is that he just couldn’t seem to figure out how that level of equality might translate into day-to-day interactions.
I do realize that some of that is due to the worldbuilding itself, and how the magic system is divided along gender lines. The problem with that explanation, however, is that the gendered magic wasn’t necessary. Without his assumptions about gender, Jordan could have come up with some different way to distinguish between magic classes. Or, at the very least, he could have avoided making wielding the female half of the One Power an act of submission and wielding the male half one of control. The dwelling upon female characters needing to learn proper submission, and glorying in submission within the context of their magic, was extremely awkward.
In fact, the gender relations in general tried my ability to stay with the series more than anything. Jordan constructed a world in which men and women seem to be in open conflict with each other at all times, believing the other group to be stupid, weak, and incapable.
And this came through most strongly when Jordan tried to write relationships. He did a fantastic job at writing female-female friendships, with those relationships being among the most complex, deep, and organic-seeming friendships I think I might have ever seen in fiction. His male-male friendships, however, were fairly absent from the series. The narrator told us that Mat, Perrin, and Rand were all friends, sure, but none of that was particularly evident in the series. They’d follow each other’s orders, or do favours for each other, but it just seems so superficial, and based on nothing more than that they all grew up in the Two Rivers and that the plot required them to work together.
But it was in the male-female romantic relationships that Jordan really struggled. Rand and his girlfriends fell in love with each other because the narrator tells us that they did. At no point did they ever actually seem to have chemistry, or anything deeper than simply an acknowledgement that they are fated to be together. This is largely due to the fact that they spend practically no time together, and have little more to fuel their relationship other than Min’s assurance that they will be in one (Rand and Min do spend a bit more time together, and their relationship is a bit more organic than the other two as a result). This could have been interesting – with all the plot surrounding fate, what it means for something to be fated and what role individual agency can have within that context, there was every opportunity to fate them to be together but perhaps have one resist, just as an example. But instead, the three women are told that they will love Rand, so they automatically do and Rand gets to have his little harem.
But things don’t get really bad until Perrin and Faile, in which the relationship seems to be based on mutual abuse, jealousy, and spanking. It was just sickening to see Faile – a strong and potentially very interesting character – only be happy in her relationship once she coaxes Perrin into yelling at her and hitting her. And for the narrator to let this play out as though it is simply a natural truth that strong women crave stronger men who can properly force them into submission. It was unnecessary and completely gross.
Given how well Jordan can write relationships (as evidenced by his female-female relationships), it’s hard to see this as anything other than an expression of his gender hangups.
My last complaint is with Mat, though this is less about Jordan and more about his fans. Mat was a nasty character, the butt of a joke. He’s a womanizer of the worst sort, who views women as objects to conquer, use, and then dispose of (at times, the descriptions of his “conquests” sound a little like they might be rape). He sees women as weak and inferior, and always in need of his rescue. He is a jealous friend, incapable of finding any kind of joy in seeing his so-called friends find happiness. He is an all-round, thoroughly nasty person. Which is fine. I’m okay with anti-heroes and dark heroes. The problem is that fans keep defending Mat, or laughing about all the “hilarious” situations he finds himself in (like, you know, getting raped and imprisoned as the sex slave of a queen). And that really worries me – that there are a whole lot of readers out there who can see Mat as comic relief, or even as a morally good character.
So those are my complaints, all the things that made it difficult to get through the series. I’m glad to say that most of them cleared up – all or in part – in Sanderson’s final three books. I haven’t read Sanderson’s own works, so I don’t know how he handles worldbuilding, but he’s certainly a much better writer than Jordan. Compared to the previous dozen, the last three books were an absolute joy to read.
In the positives column, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding, as well as several of the characters. The female characters, in particular, were really great to read – particularly in a genre that is so often male-dominated. I was extremely impressed by Jordan’s writing of the friendships between the female characters, and the way they interacted when the male characters weren’t around. I also really liked the amount of foreshadowing, and the way that something might be set up in an early book, yet the payoff wouldn’t come until the very end. It was just so much fun to keep having these “oh! So that’s what that was setting up!” moments of figuring out connections.
In the end, I wish that the same series with the same plots had been in the hands of a better writer from the start. But as is, while there were times when I seriously considered quitting, but I’m glad I stuck with it until the end. Also in its favour is the fact that the series is now finished, so new readers needn’t worry about the Game of Thrones Syndrome that is so often a risk with lengthy series.
Buy The Wheel of Time, Boxed Set I, Books 1-3: The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn from Amazon and support this blog! Continue reading