I tried to finish The Wheel of Time.
I should say straight up that this is not a post I’m entirely comfortable making. The saga’s author, Robert Jordan, died only a few years ago, tragically one book away from completing his fantasy series. I certainly don’t want to be disrespectful, but art is there to be critiqued, regardless of the nature or status of the person involved. More importantly, I feel that Jordan’s misogyny, which I’m finally coming to grips with, makes criticism of his series justified, even at this point in time.
I began the series in Year 9 on a friend’s recommendation. Seven books were out by that point, and the concept intrigued me. In hindsight, I’m not sure why exactly, because all I would have been told was that it was a cool Tolkien-esque fantasy – hardly unique, but perhaps the prospect of immersing myself in a fantasy epic over many volumes trumped concerns about plot. So read them I did, and I enjoyed the early books. The world was meticulously created and the villains gothically cool, with no reliance on bastard sons and barbarians as so many doorstop fantasy novels seemed obsessed with, based on their blurbs. But by the fourth book, I got suspicious. This was a 1000+ page tome that simply didn’t need to be that long. Rather than being a page-turner, it was a struggle, because the texture and characterisation that slowed things down were flat rather than entrancing. But the pieces were still falling into place, so I was patient.
By book 7, I realised that the incident-to-page ratio was widening dramatically. By book 9, even though it ended with the first game-changing plot development in quite some time, it was evident that Jordan had become bogged down in description, endless politicising and discussion, and yet more world-building. Any book series with any integrity, particularly one with volumes over a thousand pages, would be on the downhill slope by now. But no, partway through book 10 I realised that Jordan had been consumed by the quicksand of his own imagination. All he could manage was to wander around his world like a player in a lavish PC adventure game who prefers to see the sights rather than take on the mission, possibly because he had added so many incidental characters, cities, reborn Forsaken, and yet more Aes Sedai that he had no idea how to finish this teetering, hole-ridden Jenga-stack of a narrative so that it still stood up.
So I gave up early in book 10 shortly after its publication and moved on. I heard about the next installment, and was appalled and saddened to hear that Jordan had died before completing the series, then intrigued that an established fantasy novelist, Brandon Sanderson, would complete the story from Jordan’s notes and completed prose (I’m always a sucker for unfinished projects and lost versions, particularly films, getting unearthed and completed). I still had enough fondness for the central narrative thrust – the farmboy-come-Dragon Reborn versus the Dark One – that I sorta wanted to see how it ended.
So a few months ago, I started again with book 10 having heard that book 11 was a return to form. I viewed it as a speed reading exercise, and the fact that I recalled everything from the Dragonmount summary despite racing through vast tracts of description told me a great deal.
What an astoundingly, shockingly narrative-free book. If the texture and characterisation had any grace or insight, then it could have been a masterpiece of mood and ambience if sheer page count was a criterion. But Jordan’s description has always been hollow and superficial. His obsession with describing rooms and the intricacies of Aes Sedai custom and wallowing in speculation about possible motives and outcomes was not rich or dynamic, as any lengthy description needs to be to justify its own existence. Instead, it was turgid and pointless. Jordan did not seem to understand that by book TEN, the world-building should be over – it simply HAS to be. We have more than enough information – now get on with the plot.
Instead, the Wheel of Time became a story about sitting around waiting for the Last Battle. Virtually all scenes are discussions in rooms. Even though there was an invasion from abroad by the human Seanchan people, we barely ever saw an actual fight – in a war! It seemed like a very peaceful and laid-back siege. Fans will blast this criticism as being fueled by an inordinate fixation that storytelling simply must equal action scenes – far from it. What they don’t understand is that there is a difference between action and action scenes. Action merely means “things happening”. Plotting IS action, and even character development can be action when it tells us something new. Jordan gave up on action several books ago, at least on any that wasn’t the narrative equivalent of running on the spot or looping the athletics track, except for once or twice a novel reminding readers that there was actually something at stake. It’s as if the Wheel of Time is a fantasy TV show – it doesn’t have much of a budget, so it could only do big action scenes once or twice a season, yet it also doesn’t know how much longer it has to tell its story because it’s so successful that the suits don’t want to axe it while it’s still making money (an approach fatal to audience investment, as the moneymen behind Lost finally realised).
But this is a novel, written by one author, who owns the copyright – Jordan had all the control, yet wrote as if he was at the mercy of market forces. More likely, he wrote himself into a corner, and had established so many cities and lands and characters that he could explore them endlessly while he figured out how to finish the actual plot.
That approach might have worked if the characters were remotely distinctive. Instead, Jordan created hundreds of characters who blended together so completely that it felt like the cast was populated by the clone troopers from Star Wars. Every Aes Sedai was more or less the same as the next. Yes, some were more scheming than others, and Moiraine was quite nice, but for all intents and purposes they were stock characters. The same goes for every noble and countryman from Camelyn, Cairhien, Tear and all the other places that are mere stops along the journey rather than vital, unique places that justify their place on that map at the start of each volume. The character names don’t help – nearly everyone who isn’t a Forsaken has a name filled with vowels and soft syllables – Bashere, Cadsuane, Amyrilla, etc. The names bounce off your brain, which would be fine if the characters they were assigned to didn’t do the same thing.
Dull characterisation is one thing, and it would be rude to lambast the series just for that given the author’s passing prior to completion. But the offensive and omnipresent misogyny makes the series ripe for criticism. Nearly all the female characters fall into two categories: aloof bitch or subservient idolater. It’s remarkable that Jordan expected us to invest in so many Aes Sedai when he clearly has such contempt for all of them. They are either scheming, uncooperative, or whinging about men. Conversely, Elayne must be the most simpering queen in fiction that we’re actually supposed to root for, constantly pining for Rand and relying on her brash offsider, Aviendha (herself initially strong but softened purely by falling for the hero) even though the plot calls for her to actually be someone of influence. To confirm my suspicion that this is actually Jordan’s attitude, he does not merely have one of the male characters bemoaning how women are so moody and that “we’ll talk about this later” means doom – nearly all the primary male characters think this way, and they are never criticised for it. It just gets distasteful.
But the icing on this shitty cake is that Jordan’s description of women has a glaring focus on the physical when compared to descriptions of men, sexualising them when it’s not remotely relevant to the point of being derogatory. He is quite obsessed with breasts, and virtually every description of a new female character mentions her “ample” or “pleasantly small” bosom, and I swear, halfway through book 11, not ten pages have gone by without a character “folding her arms beneath her breasts”. This bizarre phrase has been overused since the series began. Apart from being a useless, space-filling descriptive flourish since the character in question is rarely trying to communicate dissatisfaction or resolve, it is inherently pointless – there is, quite simply, no other way that women fold their arms!! It is obvious to anyone who has ever actually seen a woman that this positioning goes without saying. Would we ever see the phrase “he sat with his hands in his lap” clarified with “beneath his penis”?. No, yet eleven books in, Jordan is still at it, and with this and many other instances of objectification is implicitly telling us that a woman’s sexuality is the one true yardstick for understanding her rather than her intellect or skill, because he makes abundantly clear elsewhere that strong, independent women are not to be trusted, only those who ally themselves with a man first, such as Aviendha. And don’t get me started on the main character having three women so in love with him that they agree to share him, even though they have no desire to be polyamorous. The male wish fulfillment is so blatantly irrelevant to the plot, themes, or characterisation that it’s like watching an episode of “Entourage”.
It was this sinister attitude to women and the endless repetition of tropes and themes (I am so tired of Lews Therin saying something mad and Rand telling him to shut up) that finally prompted me to give up, a little over halfway through book 11, Knife of Dreams. I was emboldened by my rapid progress through book 10 and truly wanted to see the series through to the end, but the road to that end is too drenched in molasses for me to continue. No ending is worth such masochistic boredom and tolerance of such grandly irresponsible writing.
The Wheel of Time is the ultimate abuse of the notion that fantasy has to be told in massive installments, telling an epic story in such an absurdly procrastinatory fashion that it no longer qualifies as such – the scope has not widened, it has merely been pulled along itself like an elastic band until every atom is recounted in tedious detail. Several authors have demonstrated the value and thrill of the multi-book fantasy series by exercising some restraint, never forgetting that quality trumps quantity.
But it seems that so many fans are still very happy with quantity – the Wheel of Time continues to top the New York Times bestseller list, even though barely a single media source has reviewed it in many years. It has become a product rather than an artistic endeavour, relying on fans having the patience and forgiveness of saints. It’s just a shame that Jordan died before he could right the ship and end the series in a fashion befitting the original intrigue of his concept, derivative of Tolkien and Dune though it may have been. I’m happy for those fans who continue to find value in the series, and am hopeful that Sanderson has brought a fresh perspective and injected the series with some drive again. I wish him well, but the decision to turn Jordan’s last volume into three volumes, necessary as it may have been to end the series in a fashion that didn’t give readers whiplash following the glacial prior installments, merely demonstrates that this is already a hopelessly bloated endeavour that is not worth the many hours required to see it through.
Fourteen doorstop volumes is shamefully verbose and holds readers in contempt. The Wheel of Time name ended up perfectly encapsulating how these endlessly repetitive tomes elicited a vertiginous sense of deja vu; it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m so relieved that the spell of closure has been broken and I’ve freed myself from the obligation to finish this behemoth. I’ve been reminded that there is so much exciting, innovative, and concise fantasy offerings out there that dare to offer new perspectives instead of dining on Tolkien’s leftovers. I’ll be seeking out the most recent China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer novels without delay. If you are afflicted with Wheel of Time-completism too, I hope my story has helped shake you free as well.