Saturday, July 27, 2013

{Series Sunday} The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan

Series: The Wheel of Time Series
Author: Robert Jordan (Completed by Brandon Sanderson)
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Fantasy
The Unofficial Website for WoT lovers

Synopsis: (borrowed from because I couldn't break it down this concisely).

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time is a story that takes place both in our past and our future. In his fantasy world, the Dark One, the embodiment of pure evil, is breaking free from his prison. The overall plot is about a man who learns that he is the reincarnation of the world's messiah and is once again destined to save the world from the Dark One -- but possibly destroy it in the process. This saga is not only his story, but the story of an entire world's struggle to deal with war and change, destruction and hope. The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

May the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

So, the reason I've been very quiet for the last two months is because I've been buried in the Wheel of Time. A friend first recommended the series to me years ago, but I didn't realize that while the series may be called The Wheel of Time, not a single book is and couldn't remember who the author was well enough to look it up. But I kept the recommendation in the back of my mind for years. My husband has been reading them for years and when I finally decided that I could probably listen to audiobooks and still do work, I decided to dive into something that I otherwise would not have likely found the time to read.

If you're a fantasy lover and you haven't heard of this series, I'd be surprised. I'd be much less surprised if you haven't read it, for a couple reasons. Number one: probably one of the biggest claims to fame WoT has is its sheer length. Fourteen full-length novels averaging about 300,000 words per novel (by comparison, your average YA is between 40-60,000) plus a bonus prequel which is just shy of 125k (still twice the length of the average YA book). All fifteen books together are over 11 THOUSAND pages. Let's face it, even for those of us who love reading, that can be intimidating. Number two: it took 23 years for the full series to be published, and was in serious jeopardy of being completed when the author died in 2007 (thus the "completed by Brandon Sanderson" note at the top).

First question and probably the most important: is it worth reading?

My answer: yes. Emphatically, yes. It is well-worth reading. It is epic fantasy noted for its length, the complexity of the world, its magic system and its massive cast of characters. These books are very compelling. I found myself thinking about them, wondering about them, when I wasn't reading/listening. I wondered what would happen next, how people would change, how people would interact, who was good, who was bad? I had started two other books and figured I would continue to read those when at home and just listen to WoT at work (and on my nice lengthy commutes). Didn't happen. I was so compelled by this world and these characters that the other books I'd been reading took almost instantaneous backseats. They could not compete for my attention. And because my husband has read them, I could come home and switch from the audiobook to the print.

So, what's so awesome about it? Number one, I'd have to say, is the worldbuilding. There are a serious amount of people and cultures and countries running around in these books, but I think the thing that struck me the most was that--although there are about twelve or thirteen different countries/cultures we get to see, not only are they well-developed in their own rights, but nothing is picked up solidly from the world we know. I find a lot of fantasy either nearly copy earth cultures or at least borrow heavily from them. Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series almost straight up copies the Japanese with the Yamani Islands. In WoT though, I only once felt like these cultures or nationalities had direct ties to anything in the real world. The Tinkers with their bright clothing and nomadic ways of traveling in wagon caravans reminded me heavily of traditional gypsy stereotypes, but they were the closest ones. The Aiel, red and sun-haired, tall and light-eyed, are a desert warrior culture. Illianers have beards but their upper lips shaved and talk like pirates, "I do be thinking...". Arafellin men wear their hair in braids with bells. The women are known for being alluring and dressing in scandalously deep-plunging dresses which are barely opaque and being fierce bargainers.

Something I found particularly interesting is the fact there is a surprisingly strong social equality between men and women and strong female characters abound throughout the series. There's even a very good reason for why there so little social inequality between men and women--the major political force in the world for the past 3,000 years has been the White Tower, ruled by the Aes Sedai (EYEZ seh-DEYE)--the all-female magic users of the One Power. They are advisers and mediators to the rulers of the world and are often considered the forces behind the thrones, pulling strings and making the rulers of the world dance to their tune.

"An Aes Sedai never lies, but the truth she speaks may not be the truth you think you hear."

Anyway, it was a nuance that I found both intriguing and refreshing. If anything, there was a vague overtone of women, in general, being considered more competent in the matters of being in charge than men. In either case, the series is written largely in third person limited from a lot of different characters' perspectives, so there is a fairly amusing vein of "because you know that men gossip and can't be trusted to keep anything quiet" from female characters and exactly the reverse sentiment from some of the male.

"Never prod at a woman unless you must. She will kill you faster than a man and for less reason, even if she weeps over it after."

"Most women will shrug off what a man would kill you for, and kill you for what a man would shrug off."

"If the world is ending, a woman will take time to tell a man something he's done wrong."

 All right, so the world-building and the culture-building are excellent. The overarching plot--the Dark One is breaking free from his prison and the Chosen One (Dragon Reborn in the WoT's case), must defeat him at Tarmon Gai'don (which if you say really fast is very similar to Armageddon) is pretty basic. So, why does it take 11,000 pages? And what makes slogging through them worth it?

First, all that worldbuilding takes time. Second, although Rand (the Dragon Reborn) is ostensibly the main character, there are actually several other main characters running around and what they do is basically as important in the long run. The series covers about two years from beginning to end (prequel notwithstanding), and all three of the main characters (Rand, Perrin and Mat) go through tremendous change and growth over the course of that.

Which brings me to the second reason to read the series: the characters. There are so many characters worth reading about and following through the series, you just want to see them all. I can't give much in the way of examples without serious spoilers, but I think it's fair to say that pretty much everyone takes incredible journeys throughout the series. Characters are really a make-or-break thing for me and if I hadn't loved the characters so much, I wouldn't have gotten through it, no matter how fascinating I found the world. I was surprised to find a character that I initially wanted to throttle turning into one of my favorites. My feelings about a number of characters changed over the course of the series, both as they changed and in variation of how other characters viewed them. The characters, on the whole, are very real and multifaceted. There aren't a lot of stereotypes or filler characters in here--they all feel much more real than that.

All of this gushing having been said, there are some things that irk me a little about the series. One is that Rand's character arc goes through some really rough patches and he makes a lot of bad decisions. There's a reason for it, and it's a very good reason, but it still meant that there were four books in which I could barely tolerate reading about him. He eventually sorts it out, but it takes a while. I fell in love with him again, by the end, but it was rough going there in the middle. Fortunately, Mat, Perrin and a few others were enough to motivate me through the rough patches.

The second is something that is a person irk and I think other readers could really enjoy. WoT
gives you glimpses of the bad guys. You don't spend nearly as much time with them as with the good guys, really touches here and there, but for me, I don't care about them enough to want to see what they're doing behind the scenes. Most of the time, it's information for information's sake, allowing the reader to see the whole picture and fleshing out the bad guys more. One thing these chapters do is more-or-less eliminate bad guy monologue-ing (since you actually get to see what's going on with them and their interactions, they don't need to monologue to explain themselves). For a lot of them, it establishes that they're total sociopaths, if not psychopaths, and honestly, I couldn't care less about most of them. I'm not particularly a fan of reading about them doing terrible things either. I got to the point where I realized I was reading about one of them and just wanted to skip. On the whole, I don't think that much would have been lost without these chapters (plot-wise, you wouldn't have gotten near the character development of the baddies without them), but I do think a lot of others would enjoy them.

In the same vein, a particular trope I see in fiction that irritates me is dreaming. And it is used a lot in the WoT. I like things to be explained and vague dreams or symbols or, Light forbid (to use WoT lingo), metaphorical foretelling dreams aggravate me. I found the recurring dreams the boys share in the first few books particularly annoying. As the significance of the World of Dreams is built up in the books and the characters are in control there, I didn't mind it. But at the beginning, I was getting a little twitchy about dream sequences.

The two things that made me kind of nutty may be particular to me. While I'm actually really good with a large cast (and the number of characters in WoT is staggering, there are probably twelve arguably "main" characters, and the supporting cast is similarly massive), but there are a lot of characters running around that have similar names. Myrelle, Merilille, Faolain, Falion, Saerin and Seonid (those two were particularly bad because they interact a lot) are just a couple of examples. It would not be so bad, except I mostly "read" the books by listening to them, and since I couldn't see the spelling differences, and they're very similar, they could start getting mixed up. All of the main characters have pretty unique names, so there wasn't any worry with those, but there are so many side characters running around that such similar names could be irritating. The second is, I'm sure, a particular pet peeve of mine since I'm a linguistics junkie, but I hate it when authors use apostrophes to make things look foreign. I also don't like it when you make up words and there is no logic to their pronunciation--this is not to say you can't make up words, just if you're going to make them up, have a logic to their pronunciation with respect to their spelling. I could rant, I won't. But Domani and damane are pronounced so similarly as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another when spoken, which caused me a bit of confusion at places. 

Two further notes about this series. The first is that it reads like one enormous book. Having read it straight through, it really, really felt like one large story. I cannot imagine picking up any of the middle books and having even the vaguest idea of what was going on. The first two have plots that sort of stand on their own, but aside from that, it's all part of the big plan. I laughed with my husband that we found most of the titles more-or-less meaningless. The second is that the author did die before the series was completed. Brandon Sanderson finished off the last 3 (it was supposed to be 1, but no publisher would let you put out a 3,000 page book, so it got broken into 3), so the writing changes a bit. I liked Brandon Sanderson already, so I was quite happy, and I think he did a more than respectable job, but the feel of the last three is notably different. They move much faster on the whole and, I found, there's a stronger sense of humor in them. Given that they're the lead up to the final battle, I think the levity is warranted, but I distinctly remember laughing a lot more (or trying not to bust out laughing) over the last few books. Or at least the first two of the final three. The last book is, in effect, one very long, very big battle. And characters die. Fewer than I honestly expected would, but it is epic fantasy and not everyone gets to walk out with a happy ending. The other bummer is that there's no more. I'm a little heartbroken to be done with it because I know there isn't anymore to this series, this world. There is so much that we could still see and we probably won't get to. Sanderson finished the last three with extensive notes and the help of Jordan's editor/wife, but has stated that to expand into places Jordan didn't leave much specifics on would be exploiting the series. I disagree, because I think being able to have more of this series isn't exploiting it, as long as you working to do it justice and you're doing it for the fans. But it's fair to say there probably won't be much, if anything, else.

I suppose it's worth noting that I started with the prequel novel, which takes place about 20 years before the main story. I loved it and thought it was a fascinating introduction to the world and to characters I would grow to love, but I've read that a lot of people didn't care for it. I think that's because if you read it partway through or after the main series, it's kind of fluff. For me, it was a great hook into the world.

I would definitely recommend the audiobooks because Kate Reading and Michael Kramer were awesome.

So, in conclusion--excellent series. It could be used as a master course on world-building, it's so intricate and well-developed. However, the length of it means it's not for everyone. I recognize that. The audiobooks are 461 hours. That's nineteen full days. So, this series requires a serious time investment. Do I think it's worth it? Yes. The complexity of the world, the depth of the characters, the scope of the overall plot are well worth it. It's a surprisingly clean read, in the vein of traditional fantasy, with all of the sex off screen, its own system of obscenities and relatively little graphic violence makes it accessible to just about any audience. And beware if you get started, because I don't know that you're stopping until you get through it all.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.

Books in the Series:

0. New Spring
1. The Eye of the World
2. The Great Hunt
3. The Dragon Reborn
4.The Shadow Rising
5. The Fires of Heaven
6. The Lord of Chaos
7. A Crown of Swords
8. The Path of Daggers
9. Winter's Heart
10.Crossroads of Twilight
11. Knife of Dreams
12. The Gathering Storm
13. Towers of Midnight
14. A Memory of Light

Note: Most of the images used in this post are for the new ebook covers because I think the print covers are horrible, A Memory of Light notwithstanding. If there ever was an example of "Don't judge a book but its cover..."

1 comment:

  1. Back many years ago, when there was only like 8 books out, a guy I liked at the time introduced me to this series. He was reading book 8 at the time. He had the other 7 and offered them to me to read. *looking sheepish* I enjoyed the books so much I had the first 7 read while he was still in the middle of book 8. (He wasn't a very fast reader). But then I did a very, very bad thing. I borrowed book 8 while he was still reading it and finished and returned it before he knew it was missing. He was so mad when he found out what I did, he didn't talk to me for like a week. It did however push him to read faster and finally finish the book!

    2 years ago I rediscovered the series and reread books 1-8, and then read book 9 & 10 and started 11 before bogging down. The unfinished 11 is still sitting on my shelf, collecting dust. I am about 1/3 of the way through it.



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