Saturday, January 2, 2016

Is the Wheel of Time Worth Your Time?

Should You Read The Wheel of Time?

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(There are plot overviews but no major spoilers for The Wheel of Time below).

Reading a book is a time consuming process.  When a person reads an enjoyable book, most people can ultimately say it was worth the time.  However, when a book turns out to be a complete piece of crap, then you never get your lost time back.  As far as first world problems go, there isn’t much more I can say that I hate than reading a shitty book, let alone a shitty series of books.

The fantasy genre is known for its larger than life plots and scenarios, and it’s also know for bringing that larger than life aspect to its page count, too.  Deciding to read a lengthy series has some serious implications in a person’s free time, hence this article is focused on helping people to decide if Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is worth reading.

Below you will find the numbers behind The Wheel of Time’s notorious length, a plot overview of the entire series, and some analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of Jordan’s writing.


The Wheel of Time By The Numbers

Are you are looking for a lengthy fantasy series? Look no further than The Wheel of Time.  It’s no wonder that The Wheel of Time is frequently called the War and Peace of the fantasy genre.  With a series that is eight times longer than the before mentioned book, many people avoid reading this series or can’t finish it due to lack of time. Here are the numbers behind the length of The Wheel of Time for anyone who is interested.
  • Number of Books: 14 plus one prequel
  • Length by Page Count: 12,529 pages
  • Length by Word Count: 4,422,397 words
  • Number of Chapters: 704 chapters
  • Length by Audio Book Time: 461 hours and 25 minutes
  • Length of Time to Write Since First Publication: 22 years and 11 months
  • Number of Authors: 2 (Robert Jordan books 1-11 and Brandon Sanderson books 12-14)

Tragically The Wheel of Time was not completed by its creator Robert Jordan who passed away in 2007 after the completion of the eleventh book.  Jordan’s widow chose Brandon Sanderson to complete the series, from the detailed notes Jordan had left behind.


Wheel of Time Plot Overview

Very broadly speaking the plot of the Wheel of Time is a classic high fantasy good guys vs bad guys type of story.  The plot focuses on finding a person called the Dragon Reborn, who is supposed to be a reincarnation of the most powerful magical being that ever lived.  Once the Dragon Reborn has been found it is his task to unite the world against the Dark One and save the world from evil at the Last Battle.

The caveat is the Dragon Reborn (at least in previous reincarnations) saves the world but in the process goes insane and kills all of his friends, family, and other loved ones.  In addition to this, he virtually destroys most of the world in the process, and kills what could be assumed to be the majority of the living population.


The Wheel of Time’s Weaknesses

There are three things that are largely considered to be the greatest weaknesses in Jordan’s series: the length, the simplicity of thematic ideas, and finally the character interactions and dialogues.  (I’ve phrased these as questions as to insert a personal opinion about the series here).


In regards to the first complaint, is the Wheel of Time too long?  Yes.

To be fair I enjoy reading and have no serious complaints about reading a lengthy series, but that doesn’t mean this series could have been shortened.  Jordan uses lengthy sections of prose to describe his world, and for the most part I personally find that these descriptions really help to solidify this world as a real place.  However, it can start to become real cumbersome when the plot is barely moving, and Jordan is going on a two page description of different cuts of dresses.

The real problem with the length though is the slowing of the plot to a near standstill in the middle of the series.  Books 1-6 move at a fairly brisk pace, but books 7-10 slow down and plot-wise almost grind to a halt.  Books 7-10 contain most of the weakest books in the series, and it is largely due to the focus on side quests that don’t need to be there. It also turns the main plot thread into an auxiliary plot thread and dilutes the content of the larger and more important plot.

When you get to the middle books, its quite obvious that these could have been condensed into one, or maybe even two books.  Unfortunately the middle books weren’t cut down to size, and as a result they end up becoming really bloated, and this bloating takes away from the overall quality of the story.  It isn’t until Book 11 begins that the series starts to get back on track on a more consistent basis.


In regards to the second complaint, does the Wheel of Time have simplistic thematic ideas? Yes.

To be fair though, simplistic thematic ideas have long been a common criticism of the fantasy genre.  Most of the lessons, morals, and themes used in the Wheel of Time have been used before.  The importance of love and friendship, the cost of doing what must be done, and the cyclical nature of time are frequently explored ideas in Jordan’s series.

Perhaps the most import theme or recurring idea that is explored is the dualities and balances that exist within the world.  The two major dualities explored in this series are the differences between good and evil, and the differences between men and women.  The exploration of good vs evil has been done so many times, there really isn’t anything new to say there, and subsequently Jordan doesn’t say anything new here.  The other duality, the differences between men and women, is done very poorly by Jordan, and this leads directly into the third major complaint.

(The exception to the simplistic thematic ideas is the balancing of creation and destruction, which is talked about in more detail under The Wheel of Time’s Strengths). 


In regards to the third complaint, does the Wheel of Time suffer from issues with its characters? Yes – Big Time.

I have to admit that for some reason I do largely like the characters from The Wheel of Time (otherwise then why read it).  However, that’s not to say they aren’t flawed.  As a matter of fact the characters in The Wheel of Time are probably the most flawed aspect of the entire series.  Now the motivations and interactions between the characters in regards to how they treat good and evil are handled really well, but the way the characters treat one another based off of their gender is terrible.

When Jordan has two or more men talking to one another, the dialogue and character interactions are mostly fine (unless they are talking about women).  The same is true for two or more women talking to one another (again unless they are talking about men).  The problem comes back to how men and women interact with each other throughout the series.

The men are almost always portrayed as complete idiots by the women, and the women always come across as complete bitches to the men.  When it comes to relationships or any other gender related conversation Jordan fails to make readers empathize with his characters. Since duality is a major theme of this series, and the differences between men and women is a frequently explored idea within duality, there are a lot of interactions between the genders in this series.  Nearly all of these interactions are complete failures.

(I don’t want to give specific examples because I want to avoid spoilers for this article, but you would not be hard pressed at all to find them).


The Wheel of Time’s Strengths

Despite some pretty significant flaws, there are a number of strengths that can be appreciated by people who enjoy fantasy books.  These strengths include Jordan’s world and culture building skills, the creation of a believable magic system, and the creation of an engaging plot through duality and prophecy.


World Building and Culture Building

The greatest strength of this series is Jordan’s ability to create a detailed, rich, and believable world.  The cities, the fields, the forests, the buildings, and the people are described with great clarity.  Jordan really has readers visualizing this world easily.  There may be questions of pronunciation of words and names, but there is little to question in terms of what certain cities and people look like.

Broadly speaking there are three cultures that dominate Jordan’s story.  Without getting into spoilers these different cultures allow Jordan to explore a number of different systems that can dominate various societies.  Jordan explores the manipulations of politics, the power of aristocracies, the importance of honor, the detrimental effects of slavery, and many more ideas through the eyes of different cultures.  A lot of the cultural differences allow Jordan to explore a number of sub-themes from different perspectives.  These sub-themes are actually very intriguing, and it’s unfortunate they don’t occupy  more of the story’s time.
Being a good vs evil story set in the fantasy genre, The Wheel of Time will naturally be compared to Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien’s Middle Earth is without a doubt the greatest fantasy world created, but it’s fair to say that Jordan gives him a run for his money.  Jordan relies less on fantastical creatures than Tolkien does (no elves and dwarves here), allowing the story to focus more on humans and human interactions.  On the flip side Jordan’s world is a lot more magic intensive than Lord of the Rings.


The Magic System

There are two spectrum’s of magic that are used to various degrees in nearly every fantasy story.  A fantasy book/series will have a spectrum of how much magic is used, and another spectrum for how many rules are applied to make a magic system work.  Knowing if a fantasy series uses a lot of magic or if a magic system has a lot of rules often impacts how much a reader will like the book, since magic is such a large part of the genre.  Here is a brief overview of some the most popular fantasy series’s use of magic:
  • Lord of the Rings: Some magic, no rules.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Little magic, no rules.
  • Harry Potter: Lots of magic, lots of rules.

The Wheel of Time is a series that has a lot of magic (called channeling in the books), and it is a series that has a fairly limited amount of rules as to how the magic works.

The most interesting thing about magic in The Wheel of Time, though, is how the mechanics of the magic system is separated by gender.  Women channel saidar and men channel saidin.  The way each gender learns magic is different, and each gender has different respective strengths and weaknesses.
Another interesting element is added at the beginning of the series when it is revealed that the male half of magic has been tainted by the Dark One, and as a result all males in the world who can channel will eventually go insane.


An Engaging Plot Through Duality and Prophecy

Despite using the old and worn good vs evil scenario, Jordan manages to create a fairly engaging plot.  This is largely done through the idea of duality, particularly with the theme of balancing creation and destruction.  There are a number of prophecy scenarios through this series, and all of them help propel the various plots and subplots forward as well as the development of the major characters.  The most significant of these is the prophecy of the Dragon Reborn, which drives the primary plot of the entire story.

As mentioned in the plot overview, the Dragon Reborn both saves and destroys the world.  This drives a lot of the conflict in the story as many people in the society believe the Dragon Reborn should be killed.  A lot of society believes he should be killed because if he doesn’t exist than there won’t be a last battle, and thus no breaking of the world.

Additionally, due to the immense amount of power that the Dragon Reborn has, a number of groups of people attempt to find ways to control or manipulate him.  He becomes a target for both good and evil and subsequently he has to frequently deal with being physically attacked or being psychologically manipulated.  This experience leads the Dragon Reborn down an intense path of character development that features a number of highs and lows for the character.

As the story progresses, various other characters face their own trials, and although they are not as significant as primary plot thread, they still largely add to the movement of the plot and the story (at least until the middle portion of the series when Jordan tries to juggle to many plot threads at once).


The Wheel of Time is Recommended For….

Is The Wheel of Time worth reading?  In my opinion, yes.
I’m going to bullet point the various types of people The Wheel of Time is recommended for:

  • People who are really into High Fantasy
  • People who like a long story with a large cast of characters
  • People who don’t mind a classic good vs. evil story
  • People who are in Middle School or Older
  • People who really enjoyed Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings
  • People who don’t mind the above mentioned weaknesses in the stories they like to read

Here is the bullet pointed list for the various types of people who probably won’t like the Wheel of Time:

  • People who are slow readers or read infrequently
  • People who are looking for morally ambiguous characters
  • People who don’t like lots of magic in their story
  • People who are looking for in depth thematic revelations
  • People who enjoy the above mentioned strengths in the stories they like to read

Granted this is a very flawed series, it was still enjoyable, but only if you are able to look past its flaws. The page count may be long, but you can fly through these books fairly quickly.  It’s not like you’re reading War and Peace and you have to think about every sentence. The bottom line with The Wheel of Time is it was fun to read, and that’s why I liked it.

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