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.