Today, for my first movement of my story talks from livejournal to tublr, I am going to take a good look at the Wheel of Time series, started by Robert Jordan and currently being finished by Brandon Sanderson.
Counting from birth, the series is about a year younger than me, from conception probably somewhat older. I’ve done reviews and analyses of the individual books and, with the final volume just around the temporal corner, I feel a look at the series as a whole is in order.
This will contain spoilers and lots of them, but will by no means be a stand-in for you to get all the information for the final installment without reading the others. Be aware, as there is so much information that is intended to be given over more than a dozen books, some of this will sound rushed and messy.
When I was about to start the series, I said on my livejournal that I had been led to believe it was a “more standard coming-of-age tale” when compared to Discworld, which I was also still fairly early in. I believe the proper sound is “Ahurm.” The first two or three books I feel can broadly be captured under that heading for what I suppose you could force yourself to call the three main characters. At the time, I suppose, they were: Rand al’Thor, a tall redheaded shepherd goes from wide-eyed farmboy to an effective fighter and resourceful adventurer; Perrin Aybara gets the girl and finds his wolf powers; Mat Cauthon learns to fend for himself and manipulate his unnatural luck. They spend many of the books wary of manipulation by Aes Sedai, women who can channel the One Power and are famous for many things, but especially for certain particulars.
Aes Sedai cannot outright lie. They are bound by sorcery to “speak no word that is untrue.” This has backfired horribly on them over the centuries as they are now known by reputation to be so skilled at manipulating both their own words and people’s expectations that the average man won’t trust that they aren’t somehow twisting a simple yes-or-no answer. They are also famous for their “ageless” faces, looking both young and old. This is thought to be due to long use of the Power, but is shown to really be due to the magical oaths they swear altering their appearances and limiting their lifespan (the silver lining is that channelers can live for centuries, so instead of a seventy-year span being reduced to forty-five, it is seven hundred going down to three). Finally, while there is a specific subset of them that do this, they are famous for finding men who can channel the Power and “gentling” them, or cutting them off from it. The inability to touch the Power but still sense it drives most men to suicide. “Stilling,” the female equivalent, does the same. They hunt down men who can channel because the male half of the power Saidin, tainted by the “Dark One,” a dualistic god of evil, drives men mad. To describe why this is important, imagine if a load of explosives capable of leveling a city was both sentient and insane.
As the series continued, the plot expanded in scope and the three ta’veren, while still three of the most important characters, could go entire books with a single perspective chapter. After the characters came into their own as men and not boys, they still had eleven more books to go through. Against the backdrop of the apocalyptic Last Battle brewing, Rand must try to unite the various disparate nations behind his banner and deal with the double revelations that he is the reincarnation of an infamous kinslayer who lives in his head and can channel saidin and is therefore doomed to insanity and death. Perrin has to defend his home against both fanatical zealots and nightmare monsters. Mat accidentally raises and effectively leads an army by getting the memories of dead warriors forcibly shoved into his brain.
The expanding cast is too huge to easily go into, but it includes Egwene, Rand’s childhood sweetheart and Aes Sedai in training (and, for a good chunk of the series, their Amyrlin or leader), Nynaeve, her former mentor and one of the most powerful channelers of their age, Aviendha, an Aiel warrior woman who can also channel, Elayne, hair-apparent of Rand’s home queendom;, Min, a woman who cannot channel but can see the future infallibly, the Forsaken, thirteen powerful channelers from the last time the Dark One was attacking the world directly who were frozen in time and are now released, and numerous backup characters, allies, enemies, bystanders, minions and townsfolk.
As the three ta’veren twist events around them and the others run to keep up in the war against the Shadow, another problem bites them from behind: the Seanchan, a stiflingly ritualized and rigidly stratified empire across the sea. Their Empress is given the status of a living god, as is her ancestor Artur Hawkwing, and they feel that it is not only their right and inescapable responsibility but their very destiny as a nation to reclaim Hawkwing’s former lands. This is an Empire where looking a social superior in the eye is considered a grave legal offense, and as Rand is a rival conqueror who is not the Empress and is a man who can channel, he is an abberation. However also, the Seanchan have a modified version of the prophecies that herald Rand’s coming. Whether modified by the servants of the Shadow or by Seanchan propaganda, it is believed that Rand, as the Dragon Reborn, will kneel to their Empress and be her servant. There was a brief hope for peace in the interim between the murder of the Empress and the raising of her daughter, Mat’s wife Tuon (I told you this would be fast and messy) to the throne, but as Rand wanted to be an equal to the supposed living goddess who can, to the Seanchan, have no equal, it fell apart. Oh, and I failed to say already that they have magical leashes that enslave and dehumanize women who can channel, and again they consider it both their right and responsibility to do so.
A number of the problems the characters face, rather than be the product of diabolical machinations, are products of their own weaknesses and flaws, which is a very realistic tack to take. Rand could have gone much farther and faster if he was willing to kill women. Now before you panic and say that I, Jordan or Sanderson condone violence against women (because I don’t), I mean a woman who is, much like Rand, basically a walking magic nuke. A primary example is Lanfear, Rand’s psycho ex-girlfriend from his previous life. She is one of the thirteen chanellers who were frozen in time in service to the Shadow. Because he is a woman, based both on his own culture and his growing Saidin-madness, he can’t kill or attack her even when she is trying to murder his girlfriend. Or, well, one of them.
Jumping tack again, says I the master of segues. Rand has women trouble. I’ll speak more on the battle of the sexes in the themes section, but Rand’s problem with women is a little different than the theme of gender strife. He is genuinely in love, by the midpoint of the series, with three women, Elayne, Aviendha and Min. For better or worse, all three of them reciprocate. While an agreement is reached, there is still unresolved awkwardness even now.
Perrin’s woman trouble is more straightforward. His wife, Zarine, who is nicknamed or renamed Faile (which I do pronounce “fail,” I didn’t really like her character until book ten) is kind of insufferable. Oh sure, he loves her dearly and the narration lets us know it, but she is very bossy and haughty and, while her impulsiveness does help at least once, for the most part she is a problem-causer.
I mentioned that Mat married the heir of the Seanchan Empire. I believe that accidentally marrying the future ruler of an invading army is by definition, woman trouble.
So at this point in the series, many of the hundreds of tiny side-threads are resolved. Not all, of course, there’s still one more book, but many of them. To give you an idea of how many plot threads are present throughout, there is at least one other external invasion and a major civil war between chanellers (probably two, once Rand founds his school for male chanellers and that gets taken over) that were not, I feel, big enough to mention in terms of summary. This series is damned massive.
The Structure, Style and Themes:
The structure of the series is through third person limited perspective, jumping from one to the other. Usually one chapter will be mostly one character, sometimes jumping from one character to another. Usually, but not always, it will be jumping from a perspective character to someone they just encountered. The way the world and characters is described tends to be a character walking into a room, then the room and everyone in it are described in detail, then action. There are exceptions, but mostly that is how it goes.
I do not know Jordan’s writing process. I do not know to what extant he outlined, or to what extent he wrote as things happened in his mind. However, while there are dozens of little mini-plots that branch of from the main one at times, they all make sense in terms of “the character would act in a way that necessitates that.” It was a tradeoff and I think that, while it would be frustrating for people waiting for the books to come out so that they could advance the plot, for people starting the books now it just means you need a lot of time and patience.
The amount and depth of the themes tend to be represented by the book size. The theme everyone seems to focus on is the “Mars and Venus gender contrast.” Okay, let me offer my two cents. I get that men and women tend to by turns intimidate and confuse each other. While I am firmly in the camp that says emotionally and intellectually women and men are equals and can just go under the broad heading of “human,” sexually is a whole ‘nother matter. Yes, sex is fun and very good, and it’s possible that the awareness of that one fundamental difference of sex organs and the different internal balance of sex hormones can inspire some level of communication issues even with people you, yourself are not attracted to. While I think a lot of time is spent on it over the whole series, it is usually with each character puzzling through it in different ways. I also feel that this topic is, for whatever reason, over-represented in online discussions of the books.
The far more important and, when you aren’t talking about it online, present theme is the views of evil. Most great works of fantasy have some point to make on the nature of the big E, whether it is Tolkien and his use of the corruption of noble causes and “wraithing” set against the presence of a physical dark Lord or Martin, who has most of his war of good and evil be waged within the characters. Because Jordan uses a dualistic world, where there is a good god and an evil god, one based in order and creation and the other an embodiment of chaos and destruction, he has a clear and present evil, a shadow to go against “the light.” However, realizing that is both cliched and boring in fiction, Jordan added the politics and plotting and Seanchan. By having there be an extraordinary amount of infighting among the people who should be united against a physical embodiment of evil, he made his story much more deep and interesting. People try to gain from the situation, or feel themselves honor-bound to attack those who should be their allies, or are stuck in petty and simplistic ways of thinking. This is why the series, I feel, struck such a chord both in Jordan, the war veteran and in his readers who were growing up or living in the aftermath of the Cold War.
The Death and Continuation:
Here is where this story takes a sad, yet also tentatively hopeful, turn. Robert Jordan died, just as he was writing what he said would be the last book. His wife and editor, Harriet, found Brandon Sanderson, already an author of his own fantasy series and a longtime fan of Wheel of Time to finish the massive undertaking. He, in turn, had to split it into three.
Reaction has been varied. Some like the quickened pace, although note that based on book eleven which was also much faster Sanderson is not wholly responsible, some are just grateful that the series they had followed for nearly two decades would be finished, and some, like my own respected friend and editor, think that Sanderson strays from the core of the characters. However, the fact that there was so little controversy surprises me extensively.
I don’t dislike, on the whole, a single book in this series. Book ten was a chore to read for the most part, and was so damn slow (only Mat’s plotline seemed to significantly move), but it had enough cool moments that I couldn’t say I outright did not like it. I like the themes and characters, but most of all I would say I like the world. Cyclical time is a big thing in some of the series I’ve read, added to that the idea that the series is set in our own mythical time and that our own real time is theirs I find absolutely fascinating.
I even like Sanderson’s work, I’m not gonna lie. I spot the differences in nuance here and there, but for them most part I would say that they could have done a lot worse to finish the books with. I actually like how Mat and Talmanes’ humor became more overt, but that is just me. His writing style is different, but like Jordan he is very descriptive, even if not in the same ways. I am very eager to see how he handles the end of the series.