The Wheel of Time Keeps on Turning (or How I Was Broken by the Wheel of Pain)


Young Conan is prepared for a decade of torture reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

There’s no denying it, I’m a complete fanboy when it comes to fantasy literature. I’m the kind of gormless sucker who can enjoy just about anything with swords and spells, wands and witches, knights and maidens, or dragons and demons. If it’s fantasy, I can usually buy into it. I love all the tropes and cliches of fantasy. A good story and strong characters and striking prose are why I fall in love with some books, but the trappings of fantasy are always an irresistible draw.

As long as I know what I’m getting into, I can even enjoy the very worst kinds of Dungeons and Dragons novels. You may know the kind of books I’m talking about; the ones that have no seeming sense of story progression or coherency, but instead read like the random adventures of smart-assed D&D players cobbled together into something that’s supposed to be readable, where most of the dialogue sounds like wisecracks that are probably only funny once everyone around the game table has had a couple beers

But that’s fine. A twinkie may be garbage food, but it’s still delicious.

Point being, when a work of fantasy aggressively aggravates me, I tend to become a bit dismayed. I am, after all, such a damned forgiving reader when it comes to the genre.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, my two favorite, actively working fantasy writers were Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Williams’ trilogy Memory Sorrow and Thorn and Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time both had a vibrancy and breadth of immersive detail that I hadn’t been encountering of late in the fantasy I’d been reading, and they were both populated with a wide variety of distinct and engaging personalities. Following the maturation of young characters such as Simon, Rand, Mat, and Perrin was in turns frustrating, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and it was all wonderfully textured with clashing personalities and the dichotomy between these young heroes and their older, more experienced counterparts.

The climax of Memory Sorrow and Thorn fell a bit flat. It all seemed to wrap up a bit too neatly and easily, and the twist was predictable. But the journey up until then had been so enthralling that a bit of a letdown at the end was, at worst, a minor flaw.

The climax of The Wheel of Time

Well, I don’t actually know. I’ve never been able to get there.

I was first reading the books as they saw print, eagerly awaiting each new volume. The first book, The Eye of the World, was a blatant and deliberate riff on Tolkien, but I was hooked by Jordan’s world, his characters, his magic system and they way it was reflected in his societies and gender relations. The second and third books were great reads, with Jordan feeling free to abandon his emulation of Tolkien. The fourth and fifth books were entertaining enough, though they were starting to feel more like separate adventures rather than progressions of the overall story. The sixth book, Lord of Chaos, felt like a book where not much happened. Hundreds of pages going nowhere, salvaged only by a gripping and cathartic climax. It was the seventh book, A Crown of Swords, that broke me. I got about halfway through, wondered why I was still reading, and never picked the book back up.

A couple years ago I decided to give the series another go with a marathon read of the entire series, the plan being to be ready for the releases of the final post-humous volumes. Maybe I had missed something the first time around. I managed to get a couple chapters into the sixth book before giving up again.

I chalk my failure to get even halfway through this immense, fourteen book series to a couple factors.

1. Boredom: The early books, even though they were dense with minutiae and loaded with dozens of characters, always seemed to be actively moving the story forward. Rand was always moving one step closer to madness and one step closer to his ultimate destiny. The characters were always learning and growing, and new revelations were always being made. But as the books progressed, they became more and more weighed down with filler and pointless diversions. It was like Jordan, having created such a well-developed world, was happy to use his world and characters as an all-purpose plug that he could jack into the socket of any new fantasy story about quests for magical artifacts. Nothing carried any import, because nothing was really happening.

2. Characterization: I could have lived with the characters becoming somewhat stagnant. If you continue to steadily grow and evolve the characters over such a long span of books, you risk ending up with characters who bear no resemblance to themselves. But it’s terribly frustrating when this stagnation leads to the characters becoming cartoonish caricatures of themselves. Rounded, complex characters were suddenly being presented as flat and stale, defined only by their most distinctive trait and their inability to get along with the opposite sex. Rand was angry and a bit crazy, Mat the consummate smart-ass and contrarian, Perrin the slow, methodical thinker. None of them understood women, as the reader was constantly being reminded. The women fared even worse, coming across as spiteful, ridiculously myopic harridans. What had once been an engaging fantasy epic with interesting character dynamics was now reading like a bad parody about the battle between the sexes.

Both points, of course, are simply symptoms of the real problem with The Wheel of Time, which is that the Wheel kept turning, and turning, and turning, until it had worn such a smooth, deep groove that it couldn’t gain any more traction, so it was left to pointlessly spin, spin away. It’s tough enough to maintain quality, keep things fresh, and meet expectations within a single story or novel. Forget about trying to pull it off with fourteen 900 page novels.

I do feel a bit guilty about my inability to finish Jordan’s magnum opus. Even though I’m no longer a fan, it always bothered me that Jordan passed away before he could finish the series, and as a result I feel a bit dirty even now when I criticize his work. I hope his fans were pleased with the work that Brandon Sanderson did to turn Jordan’s extensive notes into the series’ three final volumes. They deserve a good payoff after the loyalty and patience they graced Jordan with, and Jordan deserved to have his story be complete.


6 responses to “The Wheel of Time Keeps on Turning (or How I Was Broken by the Wheel of Pain)

  • Julia

    I don’t know the books, but I like your article! ๐Ÿ™‚ I know the feeling when a series turns sour along the way. Committing to a series is kind of a big deal then, isn’t it? You really invest something in the characters and just hope and hope that the author keeps it up to validate your trust. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • mikelpen

      Yeah, it’s a risk you take with any kind of long-form storytelling. Television shows are notorious for running far beyond the point that the ceased being interesting, and it’s hard to think of any book series that lasts several books or more that don’t at the very least take dips in quality here and there.

      I love the idea of writers building worlds that are so rich in depth and detail that they could write a story that lasts a generation, but without a good framework of a strong beginning, middle, and end, they’re setting themselves up for a daunting task.

      I still recommend The Wheel of Time. I just tell people that I only recommend the first three books. They work fairly well as a stand-alone trilogy as far as thematic content and characterization goes.

  • Mark

    Yeah. Yeah. I have nothing to add. Yeah.

  • Miriam Sagan

    I’m on Book Six–will I live long enough to finish at this rate? Enjoyed your essay.

  • nathanieldarkish

    I agree that around book 6-7 the series got quite boring. It felt like a long history book that focused on the characters I wasn’t excited about at the time. However, stopping reading at that point is unfortunate because immediately after that point I felt the series regained its steam and was fantastic until its conclusion.

  • Louise Trakand

    Wheel of Time slows down book 7 and doesn’t speed up again until book 12 or so, except for a couple chapters. Literaly, whole chunks of Lord of Chaos are just Nynaeve wandering around Salidar. Nothing. Just her going about her daily business and complaining. That being said, I was able to make it through the books because I had someone encouraging me to read them, who would talk about the books with me, and tell me there was hope.
    Likewise, it took me just about forever to read Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and this was pretty recently. They were pretty good, the storytelling was fantastic, but just so dense. Also with this, however, I had someone who was encouraging me to read through and would always check up on my progress and even bought me the books – so, guilt-tripping, in a way. But it was worth it, even if I was constantly forgetting who all the characters were. I liked the ending of MSaT more than I did WoT.

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