The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. there are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Thus begins every book in The Wheel of Time.
If these books can be said to be about anything, they are surely about how legends are formed, and how truth diffuses through a culture and changes with the telling. Central to these legends, and the telling of them, is the idea that time is circular, not linear. Heroes are born again in different ages, and battles are fought and fought again. Lews Therin battles the Dark One across time and space. He may go by different names, but he is the same soul each time.
This incarnation is the lead up to the final battle: Tarmon Gai’don.
Robert Jordan’s basic idea for these books was to explore what it would be like for someone to walk up to you, tap you on the shoulder, and say, “you’re the savior of mankind.” So much of the beginning of these books is the savior character grappling with this reality, and coming to terms with his fate. He doesn’t accept it easily. But another element that permeates these books is how his being the savior impacts the people around him. This isn’t quite like in Harry Potter, where he’s simply famous. No, the Chosen One in this story is basically king of the world. He’s not just famous, he has responsibility and influence. And that has weight to it.
Prior to A Song of Ice and Fire, the vast majority of fantasy books seemed to be barely concealed rip-offs of The Lord of the Rings, King Arthur, or Conan. There were exceptions, of course. But that seems to be the majority of stuff you’d find in the bookstore. If we look at the history of fantasy as being broken up into two eras – The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire – then The Wheel of Time bridges the gap so well. The first hundred pages or so virtually reads like a retelling of the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. As the story goes on, we see so many things that almost serve as the bedrock for A Game of Thrones. There’s even a “game” called Daes Dae’mar the noble houses play that reads like a less well developed version of the Game of Thrones. They’re all vying for power and position in The Wheel of Time, but you never get a sense of what exactly their trying to achieve like you do in A Song of Ice and Fire, so it’s all kind of empty feeling. And the consequences aren’t nearly so final in The Wheel of Time.
At it’s core, this series is about a farmer’s son who discovers that he’s really the most powerful man in the world. It’s part of the King Arthur lineage, I guess. But it’s a bit more modern and complex than, say, the Belgariad by David and Leigh Eddings*. I remember writing summaries of the chapters when I first read these books, and pouring over them for hints and details about the fate of certain characters. I also spent countless hours on WoTmania.com back in the late-90s arguing with people about these books, and the directions they would take, and how they ranked in the pantheon of fantastical storytelling.
Those days are long gone, but the memories remain, and they are good. Those memories hold up better than these books, in fact. But the construction of memory, I think, is one of the better aspects of reading. The lasting attachment we have to stories, in part, is a reflection of our experiences during the consumption of them. It isn’t necessarily the story itself, but the experience of reading it that matters. So the nostalgia we have for books we read years ago is more a fondness for that moment in our lives than it is the actual story.
Which is why you can never recapture that first experience. What you’re really remembering so fondly is your past. And, since you can’t go back in time, what you’re really trying to recapture is a bit of your past.
I guess. I don’t know. Maybe none of that’s true, and I’m just slowly going mad from quarantine (It’s May, 2020, where I am. Or when, I suppose).
Reading through it now, it’s fairly impressive how well plotted the books are – even when they are getting bogged down in too many details about the world (so much description of clothing and architecture). Robert Jordan had a good idea for where the story was going, and foreshadows much without feeling compelled to explain himself. He trusts that the reader will pick up on things. There are things that only make sense after reading later books, and I love this level of detail. In that way, it kind of reminds me of the Harry Potter books, which were clearly well plotted before they were actually written. At no point do these books really feel like they’re being made up as they’re written.
Lastly – just for the fun of it, I’m going to rate these books based on the memory of my experience from the time I originally read them:
The Eye of the World – 5 stars
The Great Hunt – 5 stars
The Dragon Reborn – 5 stars
The Shadow Rising – 4 stars
The Fires of Heaven – 4 stars
Lord of Chaos – 3.5 stars
A Crown of Swords – 3 stars
The Path of Daggers – 3 stars
Winter’s Heart – 3.5 stars
Crossroads of Twilight – 3 stars
I doubt my reviews will be the same, this time. Anyway. Here are my reviews (spoilers abound, but I did try to limit spoilers for future books in each review. So The Eye of the World doesn’t really have spoilers for The Great Hunt).
*Pardon the tangent – but do you know the batshit insanity that is David and Leigh Eddings? They adopted a boy in 1966, and a girl a couple years later. Both children were taken away from them by the courts, and both David and Leigh served a year in prison for child abuse. They locked the boy in a cage under the basement stairs, and when he was discovered by police he was covered in bruises, walked with a limp, and was scared. In his cage was a half empty can of beer, an open jar of horseradish, a saucer, and a hook sticking out of the concrete wall (which matched a puncture wound on the boys arm). I read their books when I was in middle school and loved them. I had no idea they were monsters until maybe a year ago.
The Eye of the World (4 stars)
On a farm in an isolated community in the middle of nowhere there is a young man. His name is Rand al’Thor. He is tall – and his parents aren’t his parents. If you’ve seen Star Wars, or read King Arthur, or are at all familiar with just about any example of fantasy literature – you know the drill. He has two friends: Mat and Perrin, and a presumptive girlfriend: Egwene. A young woman, slightly older, is an important member of the village. Her name is Nynaeve, and she cares for the sick and infirm. Things are changing in the world, and they’re even starting to feel it here in Emond’s Field.
Visitors arrive, and with them comes adventure and danger.
As far as memory goes, this book holds up pretty well. It doesn’t feel as lively as it did when I was 14, but the time passes well enough. I don’t have to skim through too much of the book, but it is fairly long, but I did at times wonder if I was going to get through this series like I planned.
After it was all said and done, the story felt fairly small. *Swipe for spoilers* After Rand, et al, leave the village, they get separated into a few different groups and have different adventures on their way to a reunion at the city of Caemlyn. Rand begins to use the One Power, Mat gets tainted by a ruby dagger, Perrin finds out he can talk to wolves, and Egwene and Nynaeve find out they can channel the One Power as well. They run into characters that will later become central players: Loial, Min, and Elayne. Mysterious and threatening figures talk to the boys in their dreams. After reuniting, they all make their way to the Eye of the World, where they see the Green Man die, and find a broken seal of the Dark One’s prison. *End spoilers* That story doesn’t seem like it needs 800 pages, but here we are. This is the world of Robert Jordan. The road is long, even when the ultimate destination feels as though it should be within reach.
If you can make it through a book filled with insufferably sexist depictions of the relationship between men and women, it’s not too bad.
And – holy hell – gender depictions here just about kill these books. It’s a foundational issue – because central to the plot is the idea that the “One Power” is divided into male and female halves. Everything in these books calls back to this. Men and women are different. Men and women have roles in the family, and in society. To some degree, women want men to take charge. And men and women, ultimately, can’t understand one another. Men all are wool-headed, and it’s the job of women to keep them in line.
If you’re starting to see red…I mean, don’t read these books. Because I think I’m underselling it.
It reminds me of the trope frequently seen on sitcoms like Home Improvement. The wife is the intelligent one in the family, who holds everything together while the husband is the comic relief – driving both the plot and the humor by his bumbling idiocy. This drove me crazy long before I ever knew what a “trope” was, or knew of the term “Mary Sue”. There’s something very similar going on in these books – and I can barely stomach it. And just about every woman I’ve convinced to read this book never made it to the second in the series.
Every single woman can best be described as a petulant, nagging harpy, and every man can best be described as well-intentioned, but largely unaware of what women want from him.
Except Min. She always seemed pretty chill.
But the worst are Nynaeve and (later) especially Faile. Holy shit. I know I’m going to skip a lot the chapters when she shows up (in the next book, I think? Ed: nope. The third book).
The Great Hunt (4 stars)
So….It’s a year later. March 24, 2021, to be exact. I couldn’t just jump into the second book after finishing The Eye of the World….and then I read a few dozen books. That’s alright, though. I started reading this series around the time A Crown of Swords came out (1996), and I re-read the books at least three times over the years (prior to the release of the subsequent three volumes in the series, before I put them down without reading the rest), so I’m not struggling too much to remember what happened in the first book.
All the characters were re-united at the Eye of the World in the last book, and we pick up The Great Hunt in the Shienaran fortress of Fal Dara. Rand, Matt, and Perrin join Shienaran soldiers on a hunt for the Horn of Valere (which calls heroes from the Age of Legends to fight at the Last Battle), which was stolen from Fal Dara by trollocs and myrdraal (the orcs and Nazgul of this world). Egwene and Nynaeve, meanwhile, travel to Tar Valon to begin studying the One Power so that they can become Aes Sedai. Most of the book is the men chasing after the Horn, with Rand getting separated partway through. Their destination is Toman Head, an unclaimed peninsula extending westward into the Arath Ocean. Egwene becomes a novice Aes Sedai while Nynaeve jumps immediately up to the next rank (thanks to her age) of Accepted. After toiling through the drudgery of learning how to Channel the One Power, they are given the task of leaving Tar Valon for Toman Head by Liandran, an Aes Sedai that’s secretly working for the Dark One (belonging to a sect called “The Black Ajah”). The reason given to them is to save Rand.
While these two groups are converging in the far western part of the continent, there’s also a mysterious enemy force invading from across the ocean. We find out, over the course of the novel, that they are the Seanchan – descendants of an army sent across the ocean centuries ago by the famed king Artur Hawking (whose middle name is Paendrag – in case you didn’t catch who Jordan was referencing). They’ve enslaved Aes Sedai with a device called an a’dam, which is a collar that controls their ability to channel.
Also converging on Toman Head is a group called the Whitecloaks. They are a holy order of knights set up to fight the Dark One and his servants, known as Darkfriends. They think Aes Sedai are all Darkfriends, and oppose them in every way. They think the Seanchan are all Darkfriends. They think anyone they can’t control is a Darkfriend. Basically, everyone who isn’t a Whiteclock is a Darkfriend. There are strong witch trial/Inquisition vibes with this group.
I’ll stop there with the summary.
Overall, I think more happens in this book than in the previous. There is a lot of journeying across the continent, but it didn’t feel quite as meandering as it did in The Eye of the World. Which isn’t to say the plot moved forward quickly – but I always felt like it was at least heading somewhere. Considering future books in this series – that’s higher praise than it might otherwise seem.
I think the biggest problem here, really, is that Robert Jordan had a tendency to give a character a phrase and have them repeat it ad nauseum. For instance, Rand keeps repeating his insistence that he “will not be used” by the Aes Sedai. Like, incessantly repeating it. It felt like in every section that was from his point of view, he keeps making this assertion – to himself and to others. These characters are all defined by (mostly) one trait, and it is a crutch that is leaned on all the time to describe their thoughts and interactions.
Nynaeve is angry (and tugging that braid).
Egwene is determined.
Matt is supposed to be the comic relief (he just seems like a 12 year old).
Perrin is slow and deliberate. And a blacksmith. Every analogy is related to blacksmithing in some way.
Rand is duty-bound and insane.
Moiraine is mysterious and bossy.
Lan is a stoic warrior.
It’s kind of mind numbing.
A thought occurred to me about midway through this book: channeling the power is different between men and women. As I’ve said, an important part of these books is the difference between men and women. It under-writes everything in these books. The One Power has a male half and a female half – and they are absolutely not the same. A man can’t channel saidar (the female half), and women can’t channel saidin (the male half). Well, how they interact with their half is entirely different. For women, they picture a flower that blossoms to reveal the ecstasy of the One Power. It can’t be forced, but must instead be embraced. The male half is a raging torrent of power that must be controlled.
Um. Maybe this is just me, but the descriptions seem very sexual. I’m not sure what got me thinking of it this way, but I kind of think the differences men and women experience with the One Power is a metaphor for perceived differences between male and female orgasms. Maybe I’m being crazy, here. I don’t know.
It’s probably worth noting that sex researchers attempted to study the differences in male and female orgasms, and couldn’t consistently distinguish one from the other using just descriptions by the participants. Neither male nor female researchers were particularly successful at predicting the sex of the participant by the description of the orgasm.
If that is true – what does it say about Robert Jordan’s mindset that the male half is corrupted by an evil taint? If this weren’t just a passing curiosity, I could probably build a deeper analysis of his depictions of male-female relationships and formulate some broader theory here, but….I’m probably reaching.
He’s not actually saying that the male orgasm is corrupting, and inevitably drives men to do terrible things. Probably.
The Dragon Reborn (3.5 stars)
I haven’t waited so long to get into the third book (though, I did read a few books before delving into it), and that’s probably a good thing. These books could have been condensed into a shorter narrative, there is a lot of fluff. In fact, the end of The Dragon Reborn is actually how Jordan had planned on ending the first book. In the writing, however, things got a little out of hand, and he ended up needing upwards of 2,000 pages to get to this point. There are lots of characters, and lots of locations, and lots of wandering around. This doesn’t always result in forward momentum, but it does build the world – and, at times, that seems to be the main focus of Robert Jordan.
And, generally, I love world building. I mean, it’s hard to read fantasy (especially high fantasy) if you don’t. Tolkien essentially wrote two books (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and then built an encyclopedia. The problem with Jordan isn’t that he constructed a rich world – it’s that he often did that at the expense of the story he was telling. For so much of these books, you don’t really feel like you’re going anywhere. There are entire chapters where nothing really happens.
While that’s evident almost from the beginning, I feel like we’re starting to see the first real signs of what’s to come here in The Dragon Reborn.
The Great Hunt was all about tracking down the Horn of Valere and Rand trying to understand that he can channel the One Power while learning that he is the Dragon Reborn, fated to fight the Dark Lord in the Last Battle. This book is the fallout from Mat blowing the Horn in a battle against the Seanchan and Whitecloaks and Rand openly declaring himself the Dragon Reborn. We’re also starting to get the first signs of the creation of the myth of the Dragon Reborn. Word is spreading around the world, and not all the news is true. As the word spreads, we begin to see that a nascent religion is starting to form.
Early in the book, the characters are split up. Rand has been debating how long he wants to stay around others for fear that his use of the One Power is going to drive him insane. Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne have all gone to the White Tower with Mat; they to become Aes Sedai, he to be cleansed of the dagger tainted by Shadar Logoth. Perrin, Moiraine, et al are pursuing Rand. And that’s…most of the book. Everyone is going some place, but no one is really doing anything.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did, for the most part. But I keep waiting for something to happen (even though I have a pretty good recollection of what happens here, and in subsequent installments), and I think I’m actually dreading what’s to come, because I remember this as the last of the really good books in the series. I think this really start to get bogged down in the next book (which I think is where they finally make it to the Aiel Waste).
What really slowed the narrative, here, are the Aes Sedai. Egwene was never a favorite of mine, and Nynaeve always annoyed me. The women, in general, always seemed to stress me out. Every interaction between men and women is basically the man is intimidated by the woman because she’s needlessly belligerent. Her view of him is that he doesn’t know anything, is mostly useless, and would be better served if he just listened to her.
So I don’t enjoy those chapters very much. With that said, I’m not disliking them as much as I remembered. I don’t think I’m necessarily more forgiving of Jordan’s writing, and I don’t necessarily think his characterization is better than I remembered it being. Maybe it’s just that I have a higher threshold for intolerable characters. I do still find the focus on male-female differences to be tiresome, and think the women are all largely interchangeable, but they don’t stress me out.
Maybe that’ll change as we get further along in the story.
We are introduced to some more characters (because there aren’t enough already) that will be prominent throughout the rest of the series. Faile, Perrin’s love interest, makes her appearance here, and she is just as terrible as I remembered. You know how all the women are super quick to anger, and want to dominate everyone? Faile is easily the worst, for me. We’re also introduced to the Aiel – including Aviendha, who is a main character. But there are also numerous important characters among the Aiel, and we’ll meet the rest of them in the next book, if I remember correctly.
I think I’ll stop here, for now. My plan, originally, was to write this massive review of all fourteen books…..but, look at this thing. I’m coming up on 4,000 words already, and I’m only three books in. Much like these books, my review grew in the telling. At the rate I’m going, this review would be upwards of 15,000 words – and no one is going to read that. So, if you’ve read this far, I’ll be back in a couple months with Part II.