Nostalgia Street, Wheel of Time stop

December is my month for nostalgia, and this year I want to post about the Wheel of Time series: past, present, and future.

When I was fourteen, I went on a three-week trip to Costa Rica, staying in field stations and carrying my belongings in a pack on my (very scrawny) back. Since I could not possibly carry enough reading material for three weeks, I searched bookstore shelves for something nice and fat and dense that would at least occupy me for a good long while.

I walked out with The Eye of the World.

The cover art had put me off for a long time; Darrell K. Sweet is one of my least favorite artists working in fantasy. And I wasn’t too wild about the book as I read it, either. Since I was spending most of my days tramping around Costa Rican rainforests, I read only in short bursts, which is not conducive to remembering lots of names and locations and made-up terms — and when I glanced at the back to see if there was a glossary, I saw only narrative text, which made me conclude there wasn’t one. Rather frustrating, then, to turn the last page and discover there was a glossary, and what I had seen was the first chapter to The Great Hunt.

(True story: due to the fact that I didn’t successfully read The Lord of the Rings until 1999, I am also probably the only person in the world who read the beginning of TEoTW and thought, “hey, this is a lot like Sword of Shannara!” Yeah. Philistine. I know.)

I was fourteen and scrawny, and the book was heavy. It stayed behind in Costa Rica when I left, a gift to the last field station’s tiny shelf of fiction. I had no intention of reading on.

But friends of mine in high school turned out to be Wheelheads, and they convinced me to give it another shot. I picked up The Great Hunt something like six months later, and the combination of the intervening time and my failure to really follow the first book meant my recollection of previous events was about on the level of: “Rand . . . he’s somebody important, right?” Despite that, I liked TGH rather better than its predecessor, and so I read on — just in time for A Crown of Swords to come out in 1996.

This is a moderately important point in the narrative, that I didn’t start reading until (effectively) Book 7. My “clock” for when I ran out of patience with the series started ticking then; I probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did, otherwise.

Because by this point, of course, Jordan had slowed down. Two years went by between books, sometimes more, and the plot had ballooned so far out of control that the amount of Stuff Happening in each book seemed to get smaller and smaller. I eagerly awaited The Path of Daggers, was interested in picking up Winter’s Heart when it came out, got Crossroads of Twilight out of habit, and still haven’t read Knife of Dreams. I was a dedicated fan in 1996, but by 2006 I’d moved on to other things — ones I liked better.

Of course I have problems with the series. Who doesn’t? The pacing, as mentioned before, is made out of molasses, and winter set in the further the story went along. Numerous characters suffer from the Robert Jordan Complex, defined as a tendency to whine about their Big Angst until you want to beat them over the head. (I’m not the Dragon Reborn! I can’t talk to wolves! Etc.) The characterization of women . . . better if we just don’t talk about that.

On the other hand, there were — and still are — things I like about it. The setting is a goldmine of little geekeries for a mind like mine, crammed full of homages to bits of real-world history and mythology. (Year of Four Amyrlins? The ravens on Mat’s spear? Algode?) It lends credence to the cosmology of the Wheel itself, the notion that these things echo again and again at different points in its turning. And Jordan is, in my opinion, the best I have yet seen at handling prophecy and foreshadowing: he provides many different strands of information that, taken individually, don’t give much of anything away. But if you piece them together, you can foresee just enough plot to be interested, not enough to spoil everything for yourself.

(Another true story: I firmly believe the WoT books are where I learned close reading. The two big things I was engaged in, during my high school WoT forum-haunting days, were a “Melting Pot” series of posts tracking the aforementioned real-world references, and an update to someone else’s concordance of the prophecies in the series. I learned to scrutinize a text for details, then assemble information in support of my argument, much better from this than I ever did in high school classes.)

The other thing I liked, and still believe I like now, is the central idea of the series. Lots of books have Prophecied Heroes who will face the Dark One, but this one engaged me because this particular Prophecied Hero is only slightly better than the enemy he’s supposed to defeat: he will break the world in the course of saving it. That’s an interesting twist, and I still, after all this time, want to know how it will end.

Which is why I’ve decided to come back to the series, for one final farewell.

But I don’t remember the story well enough to believe I’d get any enjoyment out of picking up the last few books cold. So instead we’re going with another plan. Tor put out The Gathering Storm in October; if the schedule goes as it should — I know; a big “if” — the last volume will be coming out in late 2011. This works out nicely for me: at a rate of one book every two months, I would finish a re-read of the series in March of 2012. (May if I decide to read New Spring.) And that’s what I’m going to try to do.

I freely admit I may fail at this; after all, we’re talking about a two-year project, here. That’s a lot of time in which to forget or fall behind. And I may decide partway through that I have other things I’d rather do with my time; it depends on how much my critical brain insists on kicking into gear. But I want to give it a shot, at least. Because this series was important to me, back in the day, and I think I could learn a lot from re-reading it professional eyes. (Even if some of what I learn is “note to self, never do that.”)

I will of course blog this project. So starting next month, look for the occasional post as I journey down Nostalgia Street.

0 Responses to “Nostalgia Street, Wheel of Time stop”

  1. thespisgeoff

    You weren’t the only one who jumped to Shannarra instead of Middle-Earth; I didn’t pick up Tolkien until 2000, when I read it in preparation for the movie. Reading everyone he’d ever influenced beforehand made him feel somehow derivative – of himself – so I’d never made it more than one or two hundred pages in on prior attempts.

    My only prayer for the WoT series was that it had taught other fantasy writers a valuable lesson – but given the current George R.R. Martin mess and my decreasing hope for a coherent plot in Steven Erickson, I’ve given up.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve definitely learned valuable lessons from it, that I’ll do my best to apply should I ever write a long series of this type. Being able to see the pitfalls doesn’t necessarily mean you can avoid them — the more threads in your story, for example, the more your pacing risks going to hell — but I think it could be done, if you plan well enough.

      • thespisgeoff

        Oh, I certainly agree – sometimes the story you’re telling takes 20,000 pages to tell. And as long as I’m getting something new and interesting, I’ll follow you ’till the ends of time – each Erikson novel gives me something great. Each WoT novel after, say, ACoS, makes me wonder if he’s done spinning threads and is ready to weave them back into a main story. When reading the WoT FAQ is more fun than reading the books themselves, there’s a serious issue. (And reading the FAQ is a heck of a lotta fun)

        • Marie Brennan

          As I say below, I think the spinning of new threads was the problem. I suspect writing a long series like this, and having it turn out well, requires rigorous planning, and the discipline to stick to that planning. Jordan’s plot just kept complexifying, growing like kudzu, until there was no way he could finish it in one more book. (And lo, it’s turned into three.)

  2. pentane

    I remember reading the 6th book and saying, “ok, if he doesn’t DO SOMETHING in the next hundred pages, I’m done,” have something worthwhile happen on page 99 and read on for another 50 pages or so before repeating the cycle.

    I made it to the end of the book and realized I had spent pretty much all of the book about to put it down because it was just endless stupid nothing packed for page upon page.

    The first 6 Wheel of Time books are the only books I have ever given away in my life.

    • green_knight

      I read book 1 and quite liked it, read 2 and found it more of the same, made it through 3/4 of book 3 when I looked up, said ‘why am I even reading on?’ and put it down cold turkey. And never looked back 😉

      As it says on the tin: the plot goes round and round and round…

    • Marie Brennan

      At this point I have no recollection of anything except the endings of most of the books. And #6 had a pretty kickass ending, at least. But in the preceding 900 pages . . . I have no idea. 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    I got to book 3 (The Dragon Reborn) before I put it down, having been warned by others that it was the last book that was coherent. I was getting annoyed with it anyway, and I’ve never been tempted to go back. I tried to read through the Tor’s WoT Recap, which is detailed enough to substitute for reading the actual book, but even the recaps started to get on my nerves. So… sorry Jordan, you’re not on my list.

    • Marie Brennan

      If I fail at re-reading the series, I’ll go to the recap. Because I do want to know how it ends, but I know I’ll need a refresher course of some kind beforehand.

  4. kernezelda

    I’m waiting until the last book is out to re-read & read the entire series. After that, the whole lot will be chucked into a used books bin.

    • Marie Brennan

      I was going to do that, too, before I remembered what happened to a friend of mine who re-read the first six in quick succession before #7 came out. It melted his brain; he started swearing like the characters do. So I decided a more leisurely approach would be better, hence the current (extremely leisurely) plan.

  5. wldhrsjen3

    *g* I got the first book in 1994-ish as a gift and devoured it… At the time, I was starving for epic fantasy and was more than willing to flounder around in Jordan’s world. I read eagerly until Book Six and then got bogged down, but I’ve collected every new volume and was *just* talking to my brother about reading the series over again. I’m going to start in January, so I look forward to your posts.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d love it if the posts sparked some discussion with fellow readers. Not sure how detailed my commentary will be; we’ll have to see.

  6. shadowkindrd

    Jordan is everything you described. However, Sanderson’s take on Jordan is vastly better. Sanderson knows how to write and actually has excellent pacing, which are things Jordan struggled with.

    That, and I am still of the firm belief that Jordan was deliberately stretching the series to 12 books to form a classic-style epic series.

    Jordan was a storyteller. Sanderson is both a storyteller and a writer. Makes a difference.

    • Anonymous

      There is something about the sheer length and molasses-like indulgence of the series that appeals to me. I have only read TEotW, twice and enjoyed it even more the second time round (in the wake of the announcement of his untimely death). Seems the late Mr. Jordan got his feet and fingers all sticky with the indulgence of that inordinate length. (Even die-hard Erikson fans readily write off hundreds of pages in his series, while Martin got lost in his own labyrinth with AFFC, it seems). It comes to this: although a number cannot be put on it, a narrative can only be sustained for so long and – like a bridge – what arc it contains eventually begins to collapse under its own length. And there is inevitable repetition along the way to compound it. But I too want to read this series all the way through.

      • Marie Brennan

        It comes to this: although a number cannot be put on it, a narrative can only be sustained for so long and – like a bridge – what arc it contains eventually begins to collapse under its own length.

        You just need to engineer a really good structure to hold it up. But that pretty much requires an outline, and discipline in sticking to it; Jordan definitely, and Martin apparently, made the mistake of letting themselves pursue too many interesting side threads, with detrimental effects to the structure as a whole. (Haven’t read Erikson myself, so I can’t judge that instance.)

    • Marie Brennan

      My own money was on 13 books, given the recurrence of that number in the series. It stretching to 14 is just one of many examples of the work missing its chance to be a little better constructed. 🙂

      Sanderson’s involvement encourages me, too. I wasn’t wild about Mistborn, but I kind of trust him more on the pacing front, yeah.

  7. missxtravesty

    The first book or two of the WoT series gave me a similar reaction to yours – but then, the absorption of entire new worlds in book series has always been a bit of a problem for me in the past. Once I’ve soaked in all there is to learn about the new series – the rulers, the type(s) of magic or power and who uses it, the ways of the world – I absolutely love it.

    Of course, as you said, the dilemmas and angst of the characters coming into themselves didn’t make it any easier, nor did the blatant characterization of how men and women “should” act. But I stuck with it, and I came out pleased in the end. The storyline does have it’s drags, which is a reason why an uncle of mind isn’t very interested in it anymore, but I was happy with it.

    Although I haven’t had a chance to reread the series, I have read all but the new book. I definitely recommend New Spring, especially if you’d like an interesting inside look on being an Accepted and getting raised in the White Tower, as well as the back story of Moiraine.


    • Marie Brennan

      I’ll probably read New Spring. I mean, really, if I’m going to re-read ten books and four new ones, what’s one short addition?

  8. findabair

    I started reading the series about when Crown of Swords came out as well, and I’ve read each subsequent book as it was published out of, in the end, sheer stubbornness – I’ve read this series for so long that I want to see the end of it! I decided to re-read the whole thing before the first posthumous book… Got stuck in Winter’s Heart for the longest time, have got to Crossroads of Twilight now, which is heavy going as well. Fortunately I seem to remember that things improve a bit in a Knife of Dreams. I’m eager to get to The Gathering Storm, though – I hear nothing but good things about it.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on your re-read!

    • Marie Brennan

      Winter’s Heart felt better to me, but Crossroads of Twilight was an enormous let-down — REALLY nothing happened in it, especially with the characters I actually like.

  9. Anonymous

    With all our foreign transactions, Dad would like to know if we can get one – after all, _we_ paid for that education that makes you an alum. But he also wants AA miles with it!

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