Long-time readers know I keep things pretty positive on this blog. Several months ago, I stopped spelling out negative qualities in the “not for you” section of book reviews because if the positive description doesn’t grab you, you don’t need me to tell you why. Behind the scenes, if I don’t like a book (which happens once every twenty titles or so), it doesn’t make the blog. When I discussed books I couldn’t finish in January, I avoided naming titles.
However, I have been carrying a literary demon I feel compelled to exercise in blog form. Let’s talk about the Wheel of Time.
Like any card-carrying nerd, I have known about the WOT for a while. I have a handful of friends who swear by it. According to them, these 14 books are the greatest works of western literature, and it’s not close. They praise them to the heavens, and over several years practically demanded I read these books. About a year ago, I caved and started listening to the audiobooks.
Right from the start, they set the bar extremely high.
I spent over a year listening to this series, and I ultimately stopped just over halfway. They just don’t work for me.
First, The Good News:
Any series with such a devoted following has its merits. WOT is a true masterwork of worldbuilding. Every nation and faction is detailed and nuanced. If a deep-dive into a many-layered setting is your thing, then you will probably love this series.
The WOT is the definitive work on the classic Chosen One. Other writers can pack up and go home; there is nothing else to be written about the inner angst, psychology, or trials of the hero from humble origins who is singularly blessed/cursed with the responsibility and power to save the world. Jordan and Sanderson covered it from every angle. They do an excellent job of rejecting the cliché where the Chosen One rides into town and is accepted as the savior within a chapter or two. Rand goes through a roller-coaster wrestling with his calling, and no two characters or nations respond alike.
This last point is very generic, but some really cool stuff happens in this series. There are exciting wizard duels, devious eons-long machinations, and epic battles that give you tingles. I can imagine fans fixating on these high points and viewing the WOT in a very rosy light.
A Gift For The Other Side:
Before I tell you why the series didn’t work for me, I’m going to give WOT fans a gift. If you love the WOT and your fingers are itching to comment all the reasons I’m wrong, here is all the ammunition you need to dismiss my opinion and continue enjoying the things you love:
My expectations were set too high by my superfan friends. No book could clear that bar.
I am not the target audience. I am 32 years old as of this writing. My friends read these books in high school. Given the abundance of teenagers saving the world, I would argue that WOT is young-adult fiction.
I should not have listened to the books. They’re dense tomes with hundreds of named characters and locations. It is a scientific fact that we retain auditory information far worse than visual. My engagement peaked in book 3 and steadily declined as I increasingly dug for context clues to understand the characters and their motives. If you’re on the fence about starting WOT and stumble across this blog, consider biting the bullet and reading it rather than listening.
Last, as always, my opinion has no effect on your life. Each is free to enjoy any legal, harmless entertainment they please.
The Bad Stuff:
I found the writing itself clunky. Passive voice fills Jordan’s sentence construction (“He was running” instead of “he ran.”) He often chooses to both show and tell, as in “Rand crossed his arms and grew sullen. (show). He was mad. (tell)”. With only these two changes and nothing else, I am convinced the books could each cut 50 – 100 pages. But, writing style only comprises 20% of my enjoyment of any given book. The real deal-breakers are yet to come.
Consider the length of other famous, well-loved, longer fantasy series:
- Chronicles of Narnia: 7 books, 345,535 words. [ Extrapolated: 14 = 691,070]
- Lord of the Rings: 3 books, 576,459 words. [Ext: 14 = 2,648,142]
- Harry Potter: 7 books, 1,084,625 words [Ext.: 14 = 2,169,250]
- A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones): 5 books, 1,770,000 words (so far) [Ext.: 14 = 4,956,000]
- The Wheel of Time: 14 books, 4,410,036 words
An avid reader could easily enjoy other long books and stall out reading the WOT.
In my opinion, their sheer length undoes them. They are burdened by their own weight in several ways. The heft ruins the pacing. Each book spends the first 150 – 200 pages (10-12 hours listening) re-establishing the characters’ locations and touching every plot thread before finally setting up the novel at hand. Each book spends about an hour scattered throughout re-explaining the setting. They likewise spend a good chunk of the final act introducing plot threads that will not resolve for a book… or two… or three. A typical WOT book might include 10 threads: one skipping across the series, three introduced in past books to be resolved in the first half, two introduced and resolved in the same book, and another four introduced in the second half to be resolved in a later book.
That’s too many plates spinning. They are written for series sustainability at the expense of each individual book’s coherence.
Despite the criticism above, I see why the glut of exposition is necessary. About half the time, I needed the reminder myself, but I blame the series for setting up a situation where the reader needs a refresher every few chapters in the first place.
The characters grow in position and power, but never personally. Even as they gain new titles or spectacular abilities, the way they interact with the world and one another remains snarky and confrontational. These people are ostensibly friends, yet their default mode of communication is to threaten some terrible torture – usually involving boiling or flaying – at every perceived slight. I found it exhausting. Interpersonal conflict should stir the pot, but it cannot be the entire soup.
Last, but far from least, there’s rampant sexism. This factor undid my wife’s read-through four and a half books before I finally walked away. Yes, the women of WOT are positionally powerful. They lead nations, armies, and schools of magic. Likewise, the women are extremely capable – they are learned mages, skilled warriors, and cunning tacticians. Despite this potential for depth, they are objectified at every opportunity. It does not matter which POV we are in, words will be spilled telling the reader exactly how clinging or low-cut each gown is. Every culture seems to have a different oversexualized tradition that shocks and appalls our sheltered main characters, but is nevertheless described in great detail by the narrator. The only difference is the POV characters’ reactions to these traditions – some lust, some are jealous, some try (and usually fail) to ignore them – but, regardless, they are pervasive.
I imagine counter-arguments to this last point. It’s not a big deal, you may think. Don’t be such a prude. You’re a man, you have no right to have an opinion (that’s an ad-hominem argument…). They’re sex-positive. It’s realistic.
Perhaps. I won’t argue with you if that’s your worldview. But, for me, I don’t see how filtering 4 million words through the male gaze and reducing some portion of so many interesting female characters’ personalities to their measurements is empowering to women.
Life is Short:
I should have taken my own advice months ago and stopped. By the end, my only motive to read was the social pressure I put on myself because I knew my superfan friends would check in to see what I thought of their favorite series. That’s a terrible reason to spend hours on any pursuit.
Why say anything at all? Why not let it go? This article was an itch I needed to scratch. I spent so many hours wanting to enjoy this series because of my friends and the hours already invested. I hoped the writing would improve, the characters would grow, and the early 2000s would excise some of the early 90’s sexism. I hoped plot threads would whittle away, leading to a tighter narrative. Never happened. I felt so frustrated and exhausted after finally walking away three chapters into the 8th book, I had to do what writers do, and put my feelings on the page.
Heresy of heresies for a book blog, but perhaps the TV show will be better.