The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In 2016, an Age of Kindles and long train journeys, this reader finally finished the epic fifteen-book series through the Westlands. The fate of future story enjoyment hangs in the balance. What was, what is, and what will be may never compare to the journey I went on in Robert Jordan’s epic collection.
There are many, many, fantasy series out there, and one of greatest (first world) troubles a reader of fantasy might have is picking a series to read. If you only have limited time to read each day, then you’ll want to make sure you lock yourself into something good! I don’t know about you, but if I start something, I damn well finish it. Even if it turns sour before the end. The Wheel of Time was an enormous series to get stuck into, and while we had our ups and downs, our slow times and our fast, I regret none of the time I spent with Rand Al’Thor and the hundreds of characters he meets.
It all starts innocently enough. Emond’s Field in the Two Rivers region is a sleepy farming village that is cut off from much of the developing world. The people live a simple life and keep very much to themselves, so much so that even the Monarch has nothing to do with the place, and few are sure whether or not they even have a King or Queen. Emond’s Field is home to three very important young men (among other characters who form a large part of the story!); Rand Al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara. All three of them catch glimpses of an evil presence close to home, prior to the arrival of a fabled Aes Sedai and her Warder, Moiriane Sedai and Lan Al’Mandragoran. Within a few chapters, the three boys are whisked off out of the village on a journey to the Northern reaches of the known world. From there, the story spreads out across the world, with our characters splitting up and having their own adventures with a grand cast of characters. The whole set up is remarkably similar to my favourite genre of videogame, the JRPG. It was easy to get caught up in the unfolding adventure told in The Eye of the World, and it was no time at all before I’d tapped right on the side of my Kindle Paperwhite for the last time, and was prompted to purchase The Great Hunt for £6.99 (if you’re interested, the whole Kindle series set me back £104.85).
Throughout the first couple of novels, I found Rand Al’Thor to be a great main character; a man struggling to come to terms with unwanted nightmares, unknown enemies, and the small matter of being able to wield the tainted male half of the One Power, Saidin. For obvious reasons, the man who would end up becoming the Dragon Reborn was the focal point at the beginning of the series, but it wasn’t long before the sheer number of characters in the book left poor old Rand Al’Thor being swept somewhat by the wayside, and putting in minimal appearances for much of the story, and many of those did little to forward his story until late in each entry.
Now, I really did enjoy the overall story of The Wheel of Time, but it was frustrating to come to terms with reading so little about the character that the whole story was originally focused on. Fortunately, the vast majority of the players in this story were all interesting in their own way, and the annoyance of losing Rand’s journey was often diminished by discovering more on how Perrin had become able to talk with the wolves, and watching how Mat managed to come out on top again and again, no matter the dire situations he found himself in. And Jordan doesn’t just limit us to the three boys, he opens up the story to the point of view of characters from around the world and from all walks of life. Chief among these characters are the Aes Sedai – women who can channel Saidar, the untainted, female half of the One Power – and the women who would eventually become them. Egwene Al’Vere and Nynaeve Al’Meara from Emond’s Field play a huge role in the story, The Amyrlin Seat Siuan Sanche (chief among the Aes Sedai) follows a tragic tale that would have been a great story told alone. Countless women from the seven Ajahs (factions) of the White Tower (headquarters of the Aes Sedai) take the reigns at various points and give us new insights into the workings of the Tower, and we also get to find out how three women in love with Rand Al’Thor overcome the difficulties of all wanting to be with the same man (spoiler alert – Rand just gets to be with three women…). We even get to spend a good deal of time with several unsavoury characters that are acting in the interests of the Dark One.
It is always refreshing to see how the evil characters view the unfolding story, and it also means we get to spend more time with Jordan’s excellent horde of vicious monsters and terrifying beings. Jordan’s Trollocs form the footsoldiers to rival Tolkien’s Orcs, huge creatures formed of an unnatural mixture of human and animal. More chilling are the Myrddraal, evil creatures that drive the Trollocs and form the basis of tales told to scare children around the world. Similar in build to men, Myrddraal have no eyes yet no disability when it comes to locating their prey. They can move on shadows and disappear when escape seems possible. They move with horrifying speed and an attack from their blade nearly always proves fatal. Elsewhere are the vampire-like Draghkar, Seanchan monstrosities from across the ocean that resemble great lizards and dragons, and the nightmares that inhabit the dead Blight to the north. Everything on offer feels very much a part of the world they inhabit, and are a change to oft-used goblins that are seen in many a fantasy tale. With these creatures, the story can often become quite violent, with many a ruined throat and charred corpse to be found. However, the writing itself remains largely clean throughout (assuming you aren’t offended by “bloody” and “flaming”, otherwise this will be the most foul-mouthed story you’ve ever read).
One of the most interesting aspects of The Wheel of Time is the One Power. Split into two halves of Saidin and Saidar, that can be used exclusively by men and women with the talent, the magic of the story is ubiquitous enough that it can be used in almost any situation without feeling forced, or simply a means to an end. Certain characters have greater abilities with different aspects of the power, such as fire and earth magic, healing, or controlling the weather. The One Power allows us to see the usual range of magical abilities we expect to see in fantasy, and still manages to feel very much a product of the story itself, and not something borrowed from other stories you may have read.
With the One Power being such an important force in the world of The Wheel of Time, the taint-free female half of the power has caused the world to develop into a very women-oriented place. Men who can channel are reviled, doomed to go mad and threaten the very fabric of the world, capable of bringing dark forces that everyone should rightly be terrified of. As such, the rare men who can channel are hunted by the Aes Sedai, and elsewhere around the world are simply exiled or sent to their deaths by various forms of execution. That the Dragon Reborn – the man destined to battle the Dark One and bring peace to the world – is a man that can channel, there are mixed feelings throughout the world debating whether or not such a man should be allowed to thrive or be neutered. After all, without a Dragon for the prophecies, the fated end times cannot come without him there.
A frenzied reaction from the Aes Sedai takes place whenever a man pipes up that he is the said saviour of the world. Rand Al’Thor is one of several men who end up proclaiming themselves as the Dragon Reborn around the beginnings of the story (very rarely can four novels be classed as the beginnings, but they certainly are in this case). Of all of the men, Rand is the most reluctant, terrified of going mad and rotting away, unable to accept that friends and family will come to revile him for the power he holds and the destiny he faces, and very uneasy of the prospects of fulfilling the prophecies he is bound to carry out. Yet despite his reluctance, Rand finds himself ticking off the boxes one by one, locating the Eye of the World and the Horn of Valere, dispatching the first of the awakened Forsaken, agents of the Dark Lord, and eventually proclaiming himself the Dragon Reborn itself. Rand’s rise to the Dragon is very well done, and his struggles with the torrent of pure power that is Saidin had me believing he would be ruined long before the climax of the story.
It is at around the point of Rand accepting his status at the Dragon Reborn that the story begins to slow down and lose momentum. Rather than pushing on full steam ahead towards the destined Last Battle, books five to ten begin to spend more time with many different characters as they spread out around the world, seeking out the tools needed for Rand and hunting down the secretive members of the Dark One’s forces. At the time, reading these books wasn’t so much of a chore as it was just mildly frustrating. All the places that Jordan takes us are interesting, and I don’t care how many times Nynaeve tugged her braid, or an Aes Sedai smoothed her skirt, each character felt unique and interesting, especially as we get to see the story from several very different points of view. It’s just that… well, we know that Rand’s nemeses, the Forsaken, are out there and gaining power. I wanted to see him deal with them more regularly, and the snippets we see of Rand edging ever closer to each one made it a huge tease when it seemed a huge chapter was on the horizon, only to be diverted away by another day spent with a travelling circus.
As the story begins to draw to a close (and by close, I mean the final ~4000 pages), big things begin to happen with the male half of the One Power, and it finally feels like the story is picking up again. Unfortunately, it was at around this point in 2007 that Robert Jordan sadly died, unable to finish his story within his lifetime after releasing 11 releases in the main story, and one prequel book. Back in 2007, I was already reading The Wheel of Time but was only at the fifth book, The Fires of Heaven, and perhaps misguidedly decided to give up on a story that I doubted would ever see an end. In a somewhat surprising turn, the series was picked up by renowned fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, and wrapped up in a further three entries.
Now, I have no idea what Jordan’s intentions were for the remainder of the story. I mean, everyone that has finished the series will have the gist of it, but was this exactly what had originally been planned? My personal opinion is that Brandon Sanderson was the best thing to happen to the series, and I mean this with no disrespect to Robert Jordan himself (after all, he created this amazing world that so many have become lost in), but I can’t help but think that had Jordan carried on, the Wheel of Time would have ended up as twenty books, and probably wouldn’t have been finished even now. The Gathering Storm was the twelfth book in the series, and from the first pages it becomes apparent that the pace of the story has finally kicked into high gear, with developments coming thick and fast and a tangible sense of foreboding growing throughout the final three novels. It really feels as though the world is coming to an end, hope is sparse and death is ubiquitous. With each book, the Dark One and his minions inch closer and closer to their goal of annihilating the world of light, and by the time the last battle came around (which is largely the entirety of the final book, A Memory of Light), I was tearing through pages, desperate to find out how everyone fared. I even had re-read a few pages several times just so that I could take in what was happening to these people I had been reading about for fourteen books. With so many people dropping with each page, I began feeling quite shell-shocked by how sudden each loss was, and how the characters had no time to mourn in face of the disasters around them.
One might think that changing authors would derail and ruin a story, and anybody would have been forgiven for being wary of seeing what was about to become of their favourite characters. By and large, Sanderson did an excellent job of maintaining the essence of the characters we all know and love. In fact, out of the hundreds of characters he had to deal with, only Mat Cauthon felt a little off. And that isn’t to say that he was badly written – some of my favourite chapters of the final three books focused on Mat – he just felt slightly different, as though we were picking up the story in an alternate dimension where the only difference was Mat was a bit… funnier. Given all of the dimensions that Rand witnesses early on in the story, this is probably a fairly acceptable way to look at the last three books.
Thanks to the urgency and horror contained with the final novels, the slower books in the middle of series take on a new life. We are able to look back on a time where the world wasn’t on the brink of disaster, and the forces of good were still able to keep the situation in hand. Had the whole series run at the same pace, then the Last Battle wouldn’t have had the impact it now does.
The Wheel of Time is a huge commitment. Fourteen main books and a shorter prequel. Each book is somewhere between 600 and 1200 pages, and they more commonly lean toward the larger number. Reading the series took me eleven months, and as I closed the final book I was met with an emptiness that I have never felt from a story before. It is always sad to say goodbye to any great characters from a book, but I spent a lot of time with Rand Al’Thor and company. The story was wrapped up well, and in my mind the characters still live on in the their world, enjoying new adventures that we’ll never read about. Turning the final pages didn’t feel like reaching the ending of The Wheel of Time. There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of The Wheel of Time. But it was an ending.