Text: Vyara Tsvetkova
Intentional. Vast. Surprising. Frustrating. Those are the words I would use to describe the extraordinary world that The Wheel of Time creates. I put the last book down a few hours ago, and I am still fully immersed in all of the emotions that the series brought me. I can’t even begin to explain what those books are: there are hundreds and hundreds of named characters that the reader follows; there are dozens of different cultures explored; there are decades worth of history and stories within the book series. The books are many and the dedication required to finish and understand them is huge, so I realize that The Wheel of Time is not for everybody. However, if the length of the series and the thought-provoking plot don’t scare you and if you love high fantasy book series that feature a lot of characters and many of the typical tropes in the genre, I firmly believe that you will fall in love with these novels.
I started the series in early January when I had just finished watching the new TV series adaptation of the books. I found the TV series intriguing, yet flawed and far from concluded, so I looked up to see the books that the show was based on. The length of the series scared me at first, but I soon realized that if I didn’t read it now, I probably wouldn’t have the time to do so for a long time. After all, one of the reasons I am currently taking a gap year is to have some time for myself and for doing the things I love before delving into university life. And so, I picked up the first book.
One of the first things I have to mention that impressed me is the fascinatingly rich and vast world that the books series focuses on. It uses a lot of religious beliefs (especially the idea of reincarnation from Hinduism and Buddhism), myths (like the Arthurian legends, Nordic mythology, etc.), and established fantasy tropes (with a big influence from Tolkien) to build a very real world that you can believe people could actually live in. There are different continents explored, but the main focus is on a specific part of one of them. To give you a general idea of how the world of this book series works, I will try to summarize it briefly here.
The whole world and the Wheel of Time have been created by a single creator that all cultures believe in. This Wheel moves the Ages that come and go, creating the Pattern, where the lives of all people that exist are the threads that make it, and the Wheel is moved by the One Power. This power can be accessed by some people, giving them magical abilities. There are different kingdoms on this part of the continent, each of them with different laws and forms of government. The timing of the book series is right at the end of the Third Age and the birth of the Forth one. The transition between the Ages is not to come without problems though: the prison of the Dark One, an entity that exists outside the Wheel but can influence it, is loosening, and only the Dragon Reborn can seal him again during the Last Battle, saving the Wheel of Time.
(the famous quote from the books that explains the world at the beginning of each book) - "The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again."
Because this is a high fantasy series that is heavily influenced by Tolkien, there is a lot of moving throughout the continent, especially in the first books. I personally loved how they take their time to explore the world, its history, and people. Of course, this means that the pacing of the books is a bit weird and there are sometimes moments when you think: “Why are they telling me this?” Trust me, it is probably relevant and you should be paying attention.
The books are not only taking their time with the world though; they are also heavily focused on the characters. I don’t think I have ever read something with that many named characters in it, which made me struggle a bit as I am not a person that remembers names easily. I also want to say that the word “frustrating” from the description of the series at the beginning of the review comes from the characters: the author himself has stated that his intention when writing the books was for them to be filled with real, flawed characters. And I think that he has done a phenomenal job with that. Every single one of them has flaws and makes you react to their thoughts and actions as if they were real people in front of you, doing stupid, frustrating, and brave things (and I would honestly stress the word frustrating as that is my opinion on most of them). The brilliance in the characters is exactly in this engaging reaction on your part that makes you connect with them.
The absolute main character in the series is the Dragon Reborn of course. However, what I love about The Wheel of Time is that although the Dragon is the central figure in all of the prophecies and in people’s expectations, he is not alone; this book series is NOT his personal story. There are so many other protagonists in the series that if I start discussing every single one of them, it would probably take me a whole book of my own. But I do want to discuss some of them.
Perrin, one of the central protagonists of the series, is a really interesting character in how annoyingly slow his character arc is. He is my absolute favorite personage in the first several books because he brings this stability and calmness to the rest of the characters and the plotlines. The problem I had with him was that his development took a lot longer than that of all the others around him, and in book 12 he is basically the same as he was in book 6 for example. His storyline in the middle books I feel like was a big part of the ‘slog’: a term used by fans to describe the slow and sometimes unnecessarily long sequence of events in books 7 to 10. Perrin’s calmness in the beginning was what drew me to him, but as time went by his characteristic slowness made it hard for me to read and enjoy his scenes. It was all worth it though: his actions defined much of the last books for me, and he was in some of the strongest moments the books have to offer (especially the forging of a certain hammer near the ending).
Mat is another one of the central characters in the series. I personally have some very conflicting feelings about him. On the one hand, he is a dead weight in the first few books before becoming one of the coolest characters in the middle ones. He falls into the trope of the unwilling hero that tries to escape his responsibilities and to hide away from the battles, but his moral code doesn’t allow him to. He is utterly devoted to his friends (I think that he is best defined through his relationships with the people around him as that is when he shines the most) to the point where most of his character arc is connected to saving and helping others. On the other hand, though, he is an utter brat. He is constantly complaining, drinking, gambling, and flirting, which is hilarious, yet frustrating in the context of the books. Mat is the silly character that can disappoint you with the way he sees the world, but the good thing about him is that he truly cares, however much he pretends that he doesn’t. I find all of his romantic relationships toxic and problematic, which is a big part of the reason he is far from being my favorite. But I do think that he is a spectacularly well-written character that gets real emotional responses from you as a reader and who is one of the most brilliant surprises during the Last Battle.
Rand is probably my favorite character, and my heart hurt so much for him throughout the books. Starting the books I was worried that he would be one of those characters that are defined by their strength and importance alone (which usually makes them rather boring and blunt). However, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw him changing, evolving, and being a really flawed character that has been through so much and has turned out to be one of the most interesting, deep, and vulnerable characters I have read about in a really long time. If I have to be honest, the biggest emotion I feel towards him is pity because I realize how much stuff depends on him and how much pressure he is facing, which, combined with the fact that I am aware of how imperfect and humane he is, just makes me sad about him and all the judging he gets from the others. The surprising thing about him was that although he was changing throughout the books, in most of them that change was degrading him and making him less and less the person he was and the person he needed to be. It was so interesting watching the main protagonist make some very questionable decisions and turn away from his morality. He found the balance in the end, but for me, his emotional journey alone is enough of a reason for everybody to read The Wheel of Time.
Egwene was a tough character to like if I have to be honest. She was trapped in the role of a love interest for a while, which in my eyes prevented her from stepping up and really becoming a full, stand-alone character. Her arc was also so slow at times that it made it boring for me to read some of her POVs. What I failed to see until the last several books was how steadily she was growing; while I thought that she was circling back and forth between the same problems, she was changing and growing her wisdom and strength. Once I saw her for the person she had become and not for the naive girl she had been, I fell in love with her. Don’t get me wrong, she is still too stubborn at times (a common personality trait for the characters from Andor I guess), but it was still spectacular to see her grow into one of the most powerful characters in the book world.
I can’t not talk about Moiraine here. She is the mentor to most of the characters who brings them out of their closed-off world and teaches them how to navigate their new reality. It’s frustrating how ungrateful some of the characters are for her, but I do understand their wariness: she is the stranger that made them face all of those challenges and who is a symbol of change and fear for them. Reading the prequel book focused on her made me really understand her motivations and her relationships with some other characters. She is an Aes Sedai, which means that she has magical abilities. She has a Warder too – a person who protects her and is connected to her through a really intimate bond - called Lan.
And honestly, Lan is just the best. He doesn’t get a lot of pages and lines, but he owns every scene he is in. The last book was in many ways his book as it is when we finally see him in his true form, becoming the person he wanted and needed to be. There are a lot of parallels between him and Rand, and I just think that he is a spectacularly well-written character. Honestly, I think that one of the best things the TV series did is the portrayal of Lan and Moiraine's relationship. Because the TV series is made in a way to make you question who the Dragon Reborn is (while the books aren’t), the series has put forward Moiraine as the central character until the Dragon realizes his destiny and strength. This means that the show allows Moiraine and Lan’s relationship to shine and to be put to the front, and the actors that play the characters have just done an amazing job with that.
Nynaeve is the last character I want to discuss here. She is so easy to hate, but I feel like her motivations were the easiest for me to connect to, however much she was trying to make me hate her. Of course, there was a lot of frustration on my part for her, yet she has always been the character with the strongest personality. Her realizing what she wants from life and her priorities was the most satisfying thing to read as everyone was trying to put her down. And sure, she needed to control herself a bit, but forcing her to become an emotionless and always controlled person would be to take away any personality and values from her. So I was indescribably happy to witness her finding the balance between her social status and her true self, while at the same time showing respect for the people she needed to respect and making everybody know what her life priorities were.
Not so great things about the series
Now, I can praise the books for pages and pages, but I also feel the need to address some of the biggest flaws I find in the series. Firstly, I can’t ignore some of the very problematic things. For one, slavery exists in this world, and although most characters are against it and are trying to find a way to convince the country that practices it to stop, one of the main characters is the one with the power to end slavery and is of the firm belief that this kind of slavery is absolutely normal. And I guess I understand that the author is trying to portray a realistic world inspired by the history of our world. But I don’t think it is reasonable to expect me to like a character that advocates for slavery. There is also a whole storyline around Mat that revolves around the violation of sexual consent, which the books try to portray as something funny and normal, which I don’t believe it is. The toxic feminism throughout the book series is also pretty annoying and bad. Again, I understand that the author was trying to make the women in the series more central and empowered, challenging the norm in earlier high fantasy books. However, the execution is just bad. Making women the oppressors does not make the world better, only equality will. The thing I noticed about this topic though is that it could also turn into a social comment on the hypocrisy of the world: yes, the women here are very self-entitled and dismissive of the men (and honestly sometimes they are straight-up bullies), but why does this behavior by the women gets such a bad response and people are so harsh on them when in most books men are acting this same way and it is considered normal?
Secondly, there is the problem with the romantic relationships in the books. I love Robert Jordan and his writing style, especially during battle scenes. However, I really don’t think that he has done a good job writing the beginnings of the romantic relationships. Most of them come out of nowhere and seem very random, which prevents me from believing the emotions the characters are feeling. That being said, once the romantic relationships have been established, most of them quickly won me over.
The third flaw in the books I want to point out, one that I have already kind of mentioned, is the ‘slog.’ Those middle books are so slow and on more than one occasion – boring, that they can make people put down the book series without reading further. I personally didn’t have much of a problem continuing with the rest, but I think it is mostly because I read fast and as I am used to reading some…not so interesting books (thank you, English literature classes, for helping me with that!). Almost all of the characters seem lost and circling back and forth in those middle books, which is a bit boring to read, but I also understand how important it is for these characters to have the time to grow.
Now, I don’t want to end this review on a low note as the books don’t deserve that. So, let’s talk about the ending. Before everything else, I want to say that I believe Brandon Sanderson has done a spectacular job finishing the book series after the sad passing of Robert Jordan. He has managed to stay true to the characters and the story, which is a really hard thing to do. The last four books in the series are just phenomenal. A Memory of Light, the last book of the series, is a really satisfying ending to everything as it manages to beautifully close all of the characters’ arcs, create the best battle sequence I have ever read, and find the balance between giving us an idea of what the world would look like after the Last Battle and the pinch of mystery that leaves you the space to imagine and wonder about the characters that survived the ending. I think that this is one of the best high fantasy book series ever and that the right people will appreciate it and love it as I do.