This month we’re going to look at some epic fantasy. The Wheel of Time turns throughout fifteen monstrously huge books (well, fourteen and one shorter prequel novel) that make the A Song of Ice and Fire books look like novellas in magazines. Seriously, I could kill someone with one of the hardbacks without much effort. The first eleven were written by James Oliver Rigney Jr, also known as Robert Jordan; after his death the series was finished by Brandon Sanderson. Mitchell gets to have some input this time too. Cut for length, though this is nowhere near as long as the Pratchett post.
Unlike previous spotlights this isn’t an unequivocal recommendation; I love the books or I wouldn’t be writing this, but I don’t think they appeal to everyone. The style is very different, much heavier – you have to pay attention, at least on the first readthrough, to keep all the names and places straight and track which of the sizeable cast are where at any one time. The overall tone is far more serious as well – there is humour present but that’s not the focus.
[These books are very much in Problematic Fave territory; there’s a lot to love in them, but I have a very hard time recommending them without serious caveats. There is a lot of gender essentialism, even baked into the very cosmology. There are some things that are absolutely infuriating and might be triggering; for example, places where relationships are handled badly and in places it comes close to endorsing (emotional, sometimes even physical) abuse when done to men by women; more on this later. There are one or two side arcs that we both skip if not skim on rereads because of this. Another major theme has to do with “insanity”, and while the writing is often subtle and nuanced, and does interesting things with it, it can come across as insensitive at times.]
The plot is very familiar to all fantasy fans. Our teenage protagonist leaves his rural backwater village and goes on a journey with a group of warriors and magic users to defeat the big bad evil, with plenty of war and prophecy and magic thrown in, all culminating in a dramatic final battle. It’s a classic for a reason, and the reason I’m spotlighting this particular series is the worldbuilding and characterisation. Once you get the names straight, you won’t find it very difficult to remember who’s who and which country is which; everyone has their own developed personality, rather than the usual shortcut of everyone having their single personality trait that crops up every time they’re onscreen and that’s it. Most of the main cast get multiple point-of-view chapters, which helps develop them further (and lets you skip past those you don’t like on later re-reads). Each nation has their own culture as well.
The Wheel of Time universe (the world itself doesn’t have a name; fans christened it Randland after the protagonist, Rand al’Thor) is built on the premise that everything is absolutely binary. The underlying magic, the True Source or the One Power, comprises two forces called saidar and saidin. Women are able to touch and use saidar, and men saidin. The two forces together form a balance that keeps the wheel of the universe turning, and one of the many symbols used is essentially a yin-yang. Both saidar and saidin use the same elements – the usual four, plus Spirit – but in different ways, and both feel very different to their various wielders (known as Aes Sedai). Likewise the universe is controlled by the Creator and the Dark One, balancing the forces of Light and Dark.
Back in Randland’s past, a male magic user known as the Dragon attempted to permanently defeat the Dark One, who responded by tainting saidin. Ever since, every male magic user is doomed to go insane. The ones involved in the attack went mad and destroyed a lot of the world’s civilisation, which seems to have been on a par with our current world, and ended up sending everyone back to the typical medieval-fantasy setting as a result. As the story opens, the female Aes Sedai have their own city-nation and a great deal of power, though they are feared and distrusted by the general population; the male Aes Sedai were destroyed in the aftermath of the Breaking, and any men found able to use the One Power are permanently cut off from it, which usually ends in suicide. Over the course of the series the previous balance is more or less restored.
The Aes Sedai are only one aspect of the series, though there’s enough material there for most authors. Every non-magical nation has a stake in the war that gradually spreads across the world, some because their monarch or heir becomes part of the main cast and some in their own right. There’s a wide variety of cultures and societies; matriarchal, patriarchal, something close to equal, polygamous, polyandrous, monogamous…
Obviously, this completely binary universe by its very nature can’t be very inclusive. Beyond some odd magical shenanigans, there are no truly genderqueer characters, and very few acknowledgements of homosexuality (it does improve a little in later books, but not enough). There are a number of people of colour from various real-world-analogous cultures, but the main cast are generally white where descriptions are given. The series was begun in the Eighties and the original author was religious and a war veteran; I don’t have the source, but he has stated that he just wanted to focus on what he knew rather than making a conscious decision to exclude anyone. I can’t comment on the truth of it.
[Jordan having been a veteran really does come through in his writing. The fights and battle scenes in this series are incredibly well-done, and it’s not hard to tell that a lot of that has been affected by his personal experiences; likewise, there is a real awareness of the cost and horrors of war that comes through in how he characterises his soldiers and generals. He famously collected mediaeval weapons and would practice with them before including them in the story, so that he would know the sorts of things they were capable of and what they would feel like to use. It definitely comes through.]
In a similar vein, when covering so many permutations of how societies can function and such a variety of characters, inevitably some depictions are going to be sexist. And they are. I’m not going to list specifics, both because of spoilers and because there are a lot in a series this huge, but there are some moments and some characters and some side stories that really haven’t aged well. For me personally it doesn’t spoil the experience of re-reading the series, because there is no malice in it and it’s more the author’s ignorance than any genuine hate, and because for every badly written or badly shown character there are (in my opinion) several good ones who make up for it, but it’s something to be aware of.
Likewise, there is rape present [and some other violations of consent such as mind control]. Not anything on the scale of A Song of Ice and Fire, I hasten to add. This isn’t your sadly all too usual ‘medieval grimdark society so rape is common so it must be shown constantly and most female characters must be constantly threatened with it’. Off the top of my head I can think of four instances – two male on female, two female on male, which is unusual. There are no sex scenes (on page) in the series so there’s nothing graphic, and other characters do notice and condemn what’s happening, if not as strongly or as universally as they should. Again, this is mentioned more for completion’s sake. Other bloggers have covered it in much more detail and I’ll link to a couple of them at the end.
[I have to weigh in here, because there is some stuff in these books that I personally found at least partially triggering on a recent revisit. In particular: there is a male character who is raped repeatedly by a woman in a position of authority over him, and the narrative often seems to try to play it for humour even as it depicts realistic psychological consequences in what it does to him (sometimes, anyway; other times he’s just written as bothered by the reversal of gender roles, which… ugh, no). Some other characters also laugh and disbelieve, or view it as deserved comeuppance because the man in question is a promiscuous flirt. I haven’t written a full piece about it because I find it difficult, but I was once sexually assaulted by a woman, and it took place in public to the laughter of onlookers because they couldn’t believe my refusals were sincere. The laughter and mockery and sheer denial is what I remember most years later, and that’s the aspect of how this was written that really got to me. (Sexual acts themselves aren’t shown on-page, but the coercion and threats certainly are, in sufficient detail.) Now, this is only one plotline, but due to the sprawling nature of the narrative and multiple-POV structure, it ends up getting dragged out over a book and a half or so and definitely overstays its welcome (to the extent it was ever welcome at all). There is one other relationship plotline that I think is handled as negligently by the narrative (in a way that verges on toxic and could be potentially triggering), involving wilful misunderstandings, miscommunication, and emotional abuse in a long-term romantic partnership, which ends up concluding that the man just needs to adapt and learn to live with his wife’s controlling jealousy and possessiveness. Thankfully, there are other relationships that are handled much better and less painfully; these two just happen to be the lowest points.]
A no-spoilers review like this does limit what I can say that isn’t a warning about the negatives, which is a shame because I could talk for hours about these books. They weren’t the first high fantasy I read – I did steal the first one from my brother and try to read it when I was far too young to cope with books on this scale, and I’m very glad I returned to the series later – so I already had a taste for the genre, which is good. They are hard work the first time through, but so worth the effort. The detail and planning that went into these books is nothing short of phenomenal, and on every reread you’ll spot a turn of phrase or background detail that foreshadows something several books in the future.
[I don’t think they actually need to be hard work for the reader, per se, though that detail is definitely there and rewards those who go slowly and pay attention. I’ve actually found they can be pretty quick reads, if you want them to be (so don’t necessarily overlook them if what you want is a page-turner to read on holiday or something): the plots move along and (for better or worse) there is a lot of descriptive text and the suchlike that is easy to skim past and gloss over while not missing out on the narrative. Though I haven’t for a while, I used to reread the entire series every year or two, and I’d pick up on new things every time.]
Jordan wrote the first twelve books (and part one of what was originally going to be a three-part prequel) before he died, and left extensive notes about how the series was going to end. His wife Harriet (a professional editor) was heavily involved from the start, and worked with Brandon Sanderson as he wrote what was meant to be the final book and turned into three books – and could have been four, because even on this expanded scale a few plot points sadly were left to fizzle out. I’m not as much of a fan of those final books, but that’s not really because of Sanderson; I like his writing well enough, though he’s not one of my favourites. He had an impossible job trying to finish someone else’s long-running monster of a series and I think he did it as well as anyone could have done. But understandably he didn’t have the same grasp of the characters as their creator did, and he kept to his own writing style rather than try to mimic Jordan’s, which while it was certainly for the best does mean it’s quite easy to spot which parts are original and which parts were his additions.
[While I agree with this, I also think the last few books feel weaker for another reason. In a series as long-running as this one, and one which goes so heavily in on foreshadowing and building to a climax (and one in which so much of the fandom activity before it finished involved theorising about what various prophecies meant and how it was going to end), it would have been utterly impossible to satisfy the expectations we all had. To the authors’ credit, they tried damned hard and some aspects of it do work quite well. (That said, I recently reread the final book because it’s the one I’ve spent the least time with, and found it a bit hollow on revisit; I think a positive experience of that book really relies on adrenaline, the buildup from everything that came before and the drive to finally know what’s going to happen.) I think the experience I had with this series is one of the things that’s led me to my current philosophy on stories and endings, that the journey matters as much as if not more than the destination if there even is one. Real history doesn’t have clear-cut beginnings and endings (something this series even pays lip service to with its titular motif), and I often think fictional stories maintain the most verisimilitude when they acknowledge that. Wheel of Time in many ways does the best it can as an ending-focussed narrative, but I think that very structure may be a mistake. I was definitely more fond of the series when it was unfinished; the last few books are much more plot- than character-driven and it shows (surprisingly for a series with a focus on prophecy, it manages to be quite character-driven prior to that).
I also think it is worth pointing out to new readers that the first book is not particularly representative of the series either; it can be slow going, especially at first, and quite a lot of it is structured as intentional homages to Tolkien so it can come across as derivative. (Allusions to other stories and mythology never stop playing a role, it’s a big part of this series, but it’s much broader and less monolithic later on.) The series really becomes its own thing starting in book two.
To make a long story short, the books have their flaws, both in terms of pacing and blind spots. But if you are able to get past that, or perhaps to consider some of them as aspects of worldbuilding rather than assertions about how actual humans behave, there really is a lot to enjoy in these books, and a lot of wonderfully layered characterisation and storytelling to sink into. I think it’s the best execution I’ve encountered of the “traditional high fantasy” and “prophesied chosen hero” tropes, it definitely leans into the monomyth idea quite hard and does some really interesting things with it. Just know what you’re getting into: it’s a long series, long enough to really get invested in, but also enough of an investment that having to ragequit would be even more frustrating than usual.]
Beyond the books, there are a few things to talk about. There are two companions, the first (The World of the Wheel of Time) published after book seven and the second (The Wheel of Time Companion) published at the end of the series. Trivia for you – book seven in my collection is held together with tape after literally breaking in half due to too much re-reading of a certain chapter. [Mine too, actually.]
I learned while writing this post that there’s a paper RPG based on the Wheel of Time. It would be one hell of a campaign setting so I shouldn’t be surprised.
There’s a very odd computer game from 1999 (allegedly) based on the series. I’ve seen a let’s-play on Youtube a long time ago and it was interesting, but I can’t say it had anything much in common with the books aside from the area maps; it’s a first-person shooter involving magic missiles instead of bullets, basically. [They made a decent effort to fit the scenario into the books’ backstory, and it almost works, but not quite. Honestly, I find it rather charming that they made the attempt.] The music from it, by Robert Berry, was eventually expanded and turned into a soundtrack album, imaginatively titled A Soundtrack for the Wheel of Time, which I like and listen to frequently but probably isn’t to everyone’s taste. [I like some of the tracks a lot, but a few of them are cringe-inducing and overall I don’t think the music fits the books particularly well, to be honest. Still, I won’t say not to look it up if you have any interest.]
Other music of note: The German band Blind Guardian have written two songs dedicated to the Wheel of Time series as part of their 2010 album At the Edge of Time: “Ride into Obsession” and “Wheel of Time”. Swedish band Katana also wrote a song, “The Wisdom of Emond’s Field”, on their 2012 album Storms of War. The American power metal band Noble Beast, on their 2014 album of the same name, wrote a song called “The Dragon Reborn”. I didn’t know about any of these and need to look them up (especially the Katana one, the Wisdom is my favourite character).
American composer Seth Stewart produced a full-scale orchestral work called “Age of Legends”, inspired by the eponymous era of myth and magic described throughout the Wheel of Time series. I think I need to look this up too, it sounds awesome.
All the books have audiobook adaptations. Hope you have a spare 30+ hours for each one! Michael Kramer handles the chapters focusing on the male characters, Kate Reading handles the females. They both do a decent job, though some character names are consistently mispronounced in strange ways.
There have been comic book adaptations of New Spring (the prequel) and The Eye of the World, the first book in the series. In theory the entire series is going to be adapted, but work seems to have stopped years ago.
As for film and television… the rights have been bought and sold a few times and so far everything has fallen through. [Let’s not talk about “Winter Dragon”.] These are not going to be easy to adapt but I really hope they do manage it someday. The most recent news was that Sony Pictures got hold of the TV rights last year; fingers crossed.
Finally, two bloggers for you. Tor’s Leigh Butler is one of the leading authorities on the Wheel of Time and if you browse through her catalogue at that link you’ll find multiple re-reads going back decades. And for the past three years Neuxue has been blogging a blind read; she’s near the end of the final book now so this is a good time to jump in if you’ve read the series yourself. I’m very impressed with how much she’s found that I totally missed.
[I absolutely second the recommendation for neuxue’s readthrough, reading that recently is what reminded me how much there is in these books that I do genuinely love. It’s much easier for me to remember the infuriating and/or problematic bits, for whatever reason. She’s also been pretty good at wrestling with the problematic aspects without excusing or minimising them.]