The Wheel of Time

The Greatest Fantasy Series Since The Lord of the Rings?

The Wheel of Time is a 14-book series of high fantasy novels written by Robert Jordan. The first book was published in 1990 and it would take more than 20 years for the entire series to be written. It has sold over 90 million copies worldwide, making it the best selling epic fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings.

The series first came to my attention when I saw the paperback edition of the second book, The Great Hunt, in a branch of WHSmith when I was a university student in 1991. The blurb sounded interesting and so I looked for a copy of the first book, The Eye of the World. Like the rest of the novels in the series, The Eye of the World was a lengthy book (782 pages) but I finished reading it within a few days. It hooked me from the first page and I went straight on to The Great Hunt afterwards. I devoured the pages of  the second volume just as quickly. I remember not doing any studying at all that week because every night was a Robert Jordan night. Unfortunately, I had to wait a few months before the paperback edition of the third book, The Dragon Reborn, was released. I thought it was going to be the last book because I thought the Wheel of Time was a trilogy but it wasn’t. The books kept coming, each book seemingly thicker than the previous one.

The series

Here’s a list of the fourteen titles in the series:

  1. The Eye of the World (1990)
  2. The Great Hunt (1990)
  3. The Dragon Reborn (1991)
  4. The Shadow Rising (1992)
  5. The Fires of Heaven (1993)
  6. Lord of Chaos (1994)
  7. A Crown of Swords (1996)
  8. The Path of Daggers (1998)
  9. Winter’s Heart (2000)
  10. Crossroads of Twilight (2003)
  11. Knife of Dreams (2005)
  12. The Gathering Storm (2009)
  13. Towers of Midnight (2010)
  14. A Memory of Light (2013)

A prequel novel, New Spring, was published in 2004. It was set 20 years before the events of the first novel. A companion volume, The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, was released in 1997.

The setting

Unlike other fantasy books, Jordan’s series takes place both in the past and in the future. The protagonist is Rand, a reincarnated saviour against the Dark One, who serves as the pure essence of evil. Rand has the capacity to save the world but risks destroying it in the process. The novels centre around not only the struggles of the protagonist himself, but also the struggles of the peoples around him and how they handle their fate and the consequences of Rand’s actions.

The series draws on numerous elements of both European and Asian mythology, most notably the cyclical nature of time found in Buddhism and Hinduism, the metaphysical concepts of balance and duality, and a respect for nature found in Daoism. There are Christian elements too. Most notably, Jordan calls the god of the series the Creator who creates the entire universe. But in this universe there exists the titular Wheel of Time which controls all lives. The Wheel comprises two halves that bring balance to the world.

In the dawn of the series, the Creator’s opposing force of evil, the Dark One, is imprisoned to prevent him having influence over the Wheel of Time. Over time, however, the Dark One is accidentally given influence in the universe, which leads to his release and ability to spread his influence amongst the people. As a reaction to this, Wheel creates the Dragon who serves as the force of good opposite the Dark One. The events of the first book begins twenty years later in the Two Rivers, a district of Andor. An Aes Sedai, Moiraine, and her Warder Lan, arrive in the village of Emond’s Field, aware that servants of the Dark One are searching for a young man living in the area. Moiraine is unsure which of three youths (Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, or Perrin Aybara) is the Dragon Reborn, and leads all three of them from the Two Rivers, along with their friend Egwene al’Vere. Nynaeve al’Meara, the village wise-woman, later joins them. Gleeman Thom Merrilin also travels with the group. We see them fly from various agents of the Dark One to reach the Aes Sedai city of Tar Valon. As the series progresses,  the protagonists frequently split into different groups to pursue different missions toward the cause of the Dragon Reborn.

My thoughts

On the surface, The Wheel of Time is your typical fantasy series, with all the usual tropes. But comparisons to other series stop very quickly as by the end of the first book it becomes clear that Jordan’s epic is much more complex, intricate and grander in scale than the average series.

I consider the first three books in the series as three of the finest fantasy novels I have ever read, at times on par with The Lord of the Rings in terms of world building, characterisation and readability. Jordan’s writing flowed and compelled – I found myself reading well into the night, not wanting to sleep so that I could read what happened next.The next three books were also an enjoyable read, though I felt that Lord of Chaos, coming in with almost 1000 pages, was needlessly long and I found myself checking how many pages were left to read on a few occasions – something I never did with the previous books. There was a lot of padding and too much description of what people were wearing, resulting in the story stalling. The fluidity of Jordan’s writing was disappearing, in favour of unnecessary details, characters and sub-plots.

The seventh, eighth and ninth books were a struggle to get through, progressively declining in quality. The rot had started. At best, the Wheel kept turning and turning but without direction, and at worst the Wheel had got stuck. Jordan had forgotten about the story because he was so busy creating new characters that added nothing to the plot.

I finally gave up on the series with Book 10, Crossroads of Twilight. I could not read beyond the first few chapters.

The sheer number of minor characters is the biggest problem with the series. Jordan introduces new characters and new situations in almost every chapter, so much so that the character list reaches into the thousands, each with a specific background and unique description. Very soon the reader finds it a challenge to remember every character and what their roles are in the story. And eventually, all but the most dedicated readers will find themselves not caring.

The series was taking so long to conclude that I remember thinking what would happen if Jordan died before he had time to write the last book. In 2007, my question was answered.

Jordan had intended to finish the series with the twelfth book but passed away in 2007 before he could write it. Brandon Sanderson was chosen by Jordan’s wife to finish the series, using notes dictated by Jordan before he died. Sanderson split what was originally going to be the final book into three books.

Sadly, by that stage, I had lost interest in the series that at one point I had considered to be a worthy successor to The Lord of the Rings as the greatest epic fantasy of all time.

But, as Jordan was so keen to write, “the wheel turns and ages come and pass”. About five years ago, I started thinking about the series again. Because I had given away my copies of the books I decided to buy a new set. The books are now proudly displayed on my bookshelf but books 10 to 14 remain unread. One day I hope to remedy this, and find the time to finish reading the series.

When I think of The Wheel of Time now, I only remember the greatness of the first three books. I only remember the pure joy and pleasure of being part of another world that I had not felt since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Jordan’s world is as rich and real as Middle Earth. I think it deserves to be revisited.