(I will try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but still tread with caution)
The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (finished by Brandon Sanderson) is a fantasy classic and no one needs to read my thoughts on it. In fact, there is nothing I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. Countless words have been spilled talking about this wonderful, legendary series and no one needs to add any more. Yet, here I am.
Sometime last year (2019) I decided I wanted to know what all of the fuss was about. I prepared myself to read The Wheel of Time. Little did I know what I had committed myself too. Over a year later, through 14 books, approximately 12,000 pages, and 4.4 million words later, I finished.
What all of my thoughts basically boil down to is: I agree with what’s already been said.
The Best Worldbuilding in Town
Easily, the best this series has to offer is the world-building. Unmatched by anything I’ve read in fantasy (yes, that includes The Lord of the Rings), this series offers unique cultures that vary wildly, consistent characters within those cultures, political intrigue, varying dress and customs, vivid landscapes, and much more. No part of the world feels the same as other parts and all of it is insanely fleshed out.
The world has history. We aren’t in a new, unexplored realm. We are plopped directly into a world that has had things happen to it. People understand this history and it shapes how they interact with the world. It shapes the governments, the characters, the conflicts, all of it. This world feels lived in, which is something I miss in a lot of fantasy series. Sure, the world might be sprawling and beautiful with unique people groups, but is it old? Has it breathed? The Wheel of Time gives me that world and it’s amazing.
As I’m in the brainstorming sessions for my first attempt at an epic fantasy novel, building new, distinct, and deep cultures is hard. Jordan created eight or nine of them.
A lot has been said about the Wheel of Time magic system, for good reason. It is complex, but explained well. The characters don’t often know the full extent of what this magic can do. Seeing characters learn new things, do new things, and utilize the magic in unheard of ways is a really cool experience. And it never comes across as if the characters are breaking the magic system. It is a hard system that the characters work within to do wonderful things instead of breaking to resolve plot points.
In this world, there are two primary sources of magic; one is used by men and one by women. The male half of the magic is tainted and, eventually, turns men insane. The idea that none of the magic users are exactly trusted, but the men are actually viewed as criminal or darkfriends added depth to this story that was really fun to see play out.
However, we are told repeatedly that the age this story takes place in is horribly inadequate at magic. A lot of knowledge was lost when the original dragon broke the world. The forsaken are from an earlier age and are supposed to be far more advanced in magic, but when we see them they don’t really do anything cooler than the heroes in the story. They do magic that the heroes won’t do – magic considered evil – but they don’t do anything awe inspiring. That was a bit of a bummer.
With all that being said, the magic system is one of the best that I’ve read.
It starts basic and expands – that is the only way to properly summarize this plot. With 14 books, you would never expect to stay where you started, but Jordan keeps you within eyeshot. We start with the premise that the Dragon will one day be reborn and fight the Last Battle. That is the overarching plot that anchors the story, but we take a lot of sidesteps along the way.
Some of those side-plots are interesting, but some seem like a distraction. I found myself at various times completely uninterested in one character’s current plot and wanted to return to a different plot. But that isn’t necessarily a knock against the series. With this many intertwining plots, it’s impossible for all of them to be the most interesting all the time.
If you speak with anyone at all who is versed in the Wheel of Time series, they will undoubtably mention the slog. Let me tell you straight up: the slog is real. Near the end of Robert Jordan’s time writing the series, three or fours books (depending on who you ask) were so slow paced they may as well be considered boring. In fact, I am not ashamed to admit I skimmed one of them (on the advice of a Wheel of Time fanatic who assured me I wouldn’t miss anything if I skimmed it). The slog is real and it is tough, there is no getting around that, but if you power through, the end is so worth it. Generally, the slog is books 8, 9, and 10, but it varies by reader depending on which story lines you connect with.
The payoff is so worth it. Jordan returns to form with Knife of Dreams and Sanderson takes us home in fantastic style.
A common complaint is that the series is derivative of classic high fantasy, notably Lord of the Rings. Jordan admitted to basing the first book off Lord of the Rings, but if you get through that, it expands into so much more.
I loved some of the characters and I hated some of the characters. There were things I liked about the authors’ decisions and things I didn’t.
For starters, I don’t think there was a single character I disliked because they were written poorly. There were three or four characters I didn’t like because of how they were and what they did (like Tuon and Gawyn). So, that isn’t a nock against the series at all. In fact, it’s a point in favor. I shouldn’t like and root for every single character because, even though they work together, they are diametrically opposed some of the time.
At times I didn’t like how Jordan chose to describe the characters, but that is a common complaint. Jordan had a knack of closely examining every article of clothing every character wore. I think that goes back to his insane world building. He was thorough and knew what different cultures would wear, so that played out in the story. But it got tiresome as a reader. Also, he repeated himself a lot (cue tugging on a braid and men not understanding women). You’ll experience multiple instances of deja vu as you read a character do the same thing many times.
All of the characters felt unique and they each, for the most part, had arcs that were developed and examined. You can do that when you write 14 books. Watching Rand’s journey through the series almost gave me whiplash. However, he wasn’t the only one. All of the characters grew in extraordinary yet believable ways.
However, the one choice Jordan and Sanderson (probably Jordan, I’m willing to bet Sanderson played off Jordan’s notes for this one) made involving the character arcs really annoyed me. Almost every major character ended up in a couple. Some of them made sense and we watched the relationship blossom and evolve. We felt a part of it from the beginning, it made sense, and we rooted for it. Like Lan and Nynaeve or Rand and…any of his women. But some felt thrust upon us. As if the story wound down to the end and Jordan thought “Well, they have to end up with someone.” Am I the only one who really didn’t understand why Thom and Moraine got together? That seemed out of nowhere.
Also, like other people, I wasn’t a huge fan of the fake deaths at the end. Though I am of the opinion that your main characters don’t have to die, I don’t want to think they have only to have that rug pulled out from under me.
[END OF SPOILERS]
With so many books, I couldn’t keep track of every character. Naturally, I didn’t pay too much attention when some were introduced because I thought they were minor. In almost every case, I was wrong and ended up not being as affected by a huge reveal because I didn’t remember the character.
With 14 books, there is a lot I could say about this series, but I’m trying to keep it brief.
I loved my journey through the Wheel of Time. I think it rightfully deserves its place in the pantheon of fantasy series, but I understand people who might be hesitant to start it. I would never recommend this series for someone brand new to high fantasy or someone who doesn’t read much and wants to read more. Its a commitment; it’s a journey.
Also, I do think I was cheated out of part of the experience by starting after the series was finished. Due to the prevalence of spoilers everywhere online, I couldn’t look anything up without something being ruined for me. You cannot even start trying to Google a character’s name, because auto-complete might spoil something. Since there were so many characters, I couldn’t remember them all. It would have been nice to get a brief re-cap when I saw one of them again. Or to be able to speculate and theorize with other fans.
Regardless, that can’t be helped. If you are a fan of Fantasy, you need to read the Wheel of Time.