Monday, March 31, 2014

Musings on The Wheel of Time: A Deeply Flawed Masterpiece

I just finished reading* the final book of the massive Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.  I have a lot of thoughts about it, so I decided to work through some of them here on the blog for everyone to see.  I will do my best to keep things spoiler-free.

*Well, listening to.  Three cheers for audio books!

Way back in 1997, someone gave me the first two books in the series as a high school graduation present.  I had never heard of these books but after reading The Lord of the Rings as well as Terry Brooks' Heritage of Shannara series, I was eager to dive into another fantasy realm.  And when I checked the local library and saw that the series was already seven books long, I was excited to be able to read so much and pretty sure that the series was almost done.  After all, how much longer than seven books can a series get?  Apparently seven books and sixteen years longer.

I devoured the first seven books and it wasn't long after that that the eighth book came out.  But there was no end in sight and it was two more years before book nine was published.  When I finally read it, I kept coming across major supporting characters who I had completely forgotten, and there was still no telling how many more books the series would last.  It was then that I decided that I would not read another book of The Wheel of Time until the series was complete, and then I would go back to the beginning and read it from start to finish.

Over the years I began to lose interest, remembering more of the bad than the good.  I wasn't sure if I really wanted to read those thousands and thousands of pages, especially since I could just go to Wikipedia and read a synopsis on how it all ended.  It was looking more and more likely that my relationship with these books was over and done with.

But then I became a fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, which led me to read several of Brandon Sanderson's books.  I'm not sure when it was that it finally clicked with me that it was Sanderson who had been chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series after Jordan's death in 2007, but his involvement in the final three books gave me a new interest in the series.  And then I realized that the library had all fourteen novels available as audio books.  So late last summer, I began my trek through all fourteen books* and I was quickly reminded of why I liked the books so much when I was younger and why I stopped reading.

*There is a prequel novel that I have not read.  As of right now, I have no plans to read it.

Robert Jordan is amazing at world-building.  Each different country our heroes visit is unique.  The countries each have their own cultures, governments, way of speaking, style of clothing, and even worldviews.  The smaller countries live in fear of or have uneasy alliances with the larger ones.  Then there are the groups of people that are not tied to geography.  You have the pacifist, nomadic Tinkers, the militant, almost religious order of the Children of the Light, and the women who can use magic (called channeling) known as the Aes Sedai.  Each culture views the Aes Sedai differently.  Some give them high honor, others a wary respect, while others try to pretend they don't exist.  One nation believes they are dangerous creatures who need to be tamed while the Children of the Light see them as witches who must be eradicated.  Each new culture Jordan introduces brings a new facet to his world and added complexity.

The world is populated with fascinating characters, and Jordan is good at giving each of them a unique voice.  And each character's view on a given situation is perfectly natural, even when it is at odds with the others in the room.  We'll get a chapter from Mat's point of view, and it's perfectly reasonable when he looks at Egwene and thinks she's getting too full of herself.  And we empathize with Mat when he thinks someone should take her down a peg or two for her own good.  But then we get the chapter from Egwene's point of view, and everything she's doing becomes perfectly reasonable and Mat is just a wool-headed idiot.  And so we empathize with Egwene when she thinks someone needs to knock some sense into Mat.  Jordan even manages to get us to empathize with the villains as we root for them to be taken down.

The magic system really works and Jordan does a good job keeping to the rules and making things believable within the world he set up.And the idea that channeling is safe for women but will lead to insanity in men is an interesting change of pace.

And the story is huge, growing bigger and bigger with each book.  There are emotional highs and lows as the best and worst of humanity are on display.  And the climax is gigantic.  The final battle takes up most of the final book and does not disappoint.  The Wheel of Time has replaced The Lord of the Rings as the standard by which all other epic fantasy will be measured.

Unfortunately, it is also the poster child for epic fantasy bloat.  While the first three books focus almost exclusively on the four main characters of Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene, book four starts the trend of focusing more and more on supporting characters.  By book six, there are so many different point of view characters that it's impossible to keep them straight without close attention to detail.  Sure, most of these are not even a full chapter in length, but all too often they left me wondering, "How important is this person?  Should I recognize her?  Do I need to remember him for later?"*  And at times it feels like Jordan is getting so wrapped up in his subplots that he doesn't have time for some of the main characters.  This leads to whole books where one of the big four is barely there or even absent altogether.  By book eight it feels as if the big four are reduced to supporting characters.

*One of the downsides I've noticed from listening to audio books as opposed to reading with my eyes is that I find it more difficult to keep track of characters.  When I read, I not only have the sound of the character's name in my head, but I also get the visual reinforcement of the combination of letters on the page that make up the character's name.  It's also much easier to flip back a couple chapters to see if character X is the person they were talking to back at the inn or the person who tried to sell them apples.

While Jordan is good at world building and characterization, I find him wanting when it comes to story structure.  I am a firm believer that each book in a series must have a beginning, middle, and end.  This does not mean that every book must stand on its own.  It should, however, present a problem in the early chapters to our heroes, and by the end of the book the heroes either succeed in completing their task or fail decisively so that they have to try something else in the next book.*  It starts out well enough, but as the series progresses, definitive endings become more and more rare.  Sub-plots are given a handful of chapters then are abandoned until the next book where they are picked up again as if it was still the same book.  One book serves only to set up the next book.  Another book is little more than people from all around the world reacting to the events at the end of the previous book.  I found it maddening to reach the end of a 200,000-300,000 word book only to realize that nothing was accomplished and I'll have to wait for the next book to see any kind of forward momentum.  This led to many of the middle books having little to no identity in and of themselves.**  I wonder if Jordan would have been better served to follow the Terry Brooks model in The Heritage of Shannara.  In that series, Brooks has three main characters, but instead of cutting back and forth between the characters throughout the series, book one focuses on Par (and Coll), book two on Walker Boh, and book three on Wren.  It's not until the fourth and final book that Brooks starts liberally bouncing back and forth between his main characters.  Two plot-lines I think really would have benefited from this treatment are the search for the Bowl of Winds and the Perrin-Faile-Shaido plot-line.

*Here's what I'm talking about, looking at the six-book structure of The Lord of the Rings.
Book I - Frodo inherits the Ring.  After learning of its power and the danger he is in, he takes it to Elrond in Rivendell.
Book II - The Council of Elrond determine the Ring must be destroyed.  Frodo, along with the Fellowship, takes the Ring south.  The Fellowship is broken and Frodo sets out with only Sam as his companion.
Book III - The remnants of the Fellowship join with the people of Rohan and the Ents to defeat Saruman and his army.
Book IV - Frodo and Sam take Gollum as their guide.  He takes them to the borders of Mordor, but betrays them.  Frodo is stung and Sam takes the Ring.  Frodo lives!
Book V - The remaining members of the Fellowship rally forces to defend Minas Tirith.  They are successful.  They make a desperate assault on Mordor to try to buy as much time as possible for Frodo.
Book VI - Sam rescues Frodo and they journey into Mordor.  The Ring is destroyed.  Peace is restored in Gondor and the Shire.  Everyone says goodbye.

**It also doesn't help that the book titles don't often have much to say about what is in their respective books.  "The Shadow Rising" sounds great as a title, but it's not terribly indicative of what's actually in the pages of the book.  And "The Shadow Rising" would be just as appropriate a title for just about any of the other books.

From what I've read about his process, Robert Jordan was very much a discovery writer.  This means he did very little planning ahead but let the story develop as he wrote it.  This method of writing is perfectly acceptable, but it can be very dangerous for a long series like The Wheel of Time.  The author can get sidetracked going down narrative rabbit trails.  While it broadens the scope of the story, it can also just as easily cause the story to lose focus.  Too often I felt like a sub-plot wasn't adding anything to the larger narrative, nor did it seem like it was going anywhere.

While there are many great characters in the books, at times I felt that there were too many strong characters.  Everyone was squabbling for supremacy.  While I understand the very human nature to ask, "What do I get out of it?" and try to end up with the biggest piece of pie, I got frustrated with so many of the characters refusing to work together, especially with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

I may have more thoughts later, but it's getting late and this post is already long enough.  There are no beginnings or endings with the Wheel of Time, but this is an ending.