The first book in the Wheel of Time (The Eye of the World) was published in 1990, the 14th and last book (A Memory of Light) was published in 2013. Close to a full 23 years between the two books (it was 22 years, 11 months and 24 days). If you include the short story / prequel ‘New Spring’, then there are 15 books, totalling 4.4 million words, and almost 12,000 paperback pages (all data from Wikipedia).
I can’t really remember when I read the first book. I guess I might be able to find out if I dredged enough Internet history or e-mail, but if I had to take a stab, it would likely be between 1993 and 1995. That feels right, and puts me around Fires of Heaven or Lord of Chaos as the last one published at the time I was reading them. I probably had to wait therefore for either A Crown of Swords or The Path of Daggers, maybe both.
Waiting for new books isn’t anything new, and anyone who’s read a ‘live’ series will know the experience. Waiting for a Wheel of Time book though, became a lottery. It killed a lot of fans, because the ‘middle’ books were so slow, and made so little progress. Some people didn’t mind, and obviously, it didn’t kill the series, but many, many people were put off and couldn’t go on.
I was one of them.
Waiting a few years to find out what your favourite characters were up to, only to find out they weren’t in the book because there wasn’t room, despite the 300,000 words, and you had to wait another two years was hard. Finding out the main plot didn’t advance, but new characters and threads and complexity turned up, was hard. Finding out that you didn’t find anything out was hard. So I stopped reading them. My wife still bought them, but even she gave up in the end. I read some on-line summaries for one or two of the books and then put them out of my mind.
Sadly, Robert Jordan fell ill and passed away in 2007. At that stage, I pretty much gave up hope of finding out how the story ended, which against the loss of another person’s life is a tiny inconvenience.
Eventually, news started to circulate that Robert and his wife Harriet had picked someone to continue and in fact complete the series after he passed away – Brandon Sanderson. I’d never read anything of his, and I wondered honestly, how much of my problem with The Wheel of Time was Jordan and how much was just the source material.
Then more news – the single book was going to be three, the first one due in 2009 and the last one, well, sometime after that. I refused to end up waiting to read another Wheel of Time book and I pretty much forgot all about them (or pretended to).
I made the occasional blog post, threatening to go back and read them all, and be ready for the new ones, or go back and read them all when the new ones were out, but I wasn’t reading fantasy really. Or much at all. So those plans never came to fruition.
Then, a few months into 2014, a friend on Facebook mentioned having just finishing listening to the series on audio-book and that the boring stretches weren’t as bad as he remembered. Either audio book made them better, or the pain had eased with time. I resolved then to re-read the whole series. The final book was out, it had come out in 2013, so there was nothing stopping me reading them end-to-end and finally getting some answers.
It started out okay, like greeting old friends. The Jordanisms weren’t too bad, and the first three books were enjoyable. Then the rot set in. Oh, not straight away, there are still some good moments after book 3, and in fact, some very good books by Jordan after book 3. Knife of Dreams, the last he completed on his own is excellent in fact. Sadly though, many of the middle books are dire in parts or their totality.
This is obviously my personal opinion, and different people will have different views about the books. For me however, Jordan was too interested in telling us how the world looked, smelled, sounded and felt, and not interested enough in telling us what was going on and making progress. Major plot threads stalled and vanished for entire books, we spent a lot of time being told what people were wearing and why it was or wasn’t appropriate, how men and women just couldn’t get along, with all men being stupid selfish children and all women being bitchy hags at heart.
It grated and it dragged.
But I knew there was some light ahead, because I knew no matter what happened, there would be a final battle and the good guys would win. As I said in the review for A Memory of Light, the truth of epic fantasy is that the good guys always win, the only question is the cost. So I knew Rand would beat the Dark One, somehow, and that the Wheel would continue to turn. What I wanted to learn along the way, were the answers to questions Jordan had posed early on, and the cost of that victory.
All I had to do, was to keep reading.
Then something odd happened. Book eleven, Knife of Dreams, was really quite good. Jordan had recaptured the magic. He drove the story forward, he wrote emotional character pieces. He answered some questions, sure he posed a bunch more, as normal, but he actually answered a few. I really enjoyed Knife of Dreams, and that made me even more angry. Robert Jordan can write superb fantasy. He can put down complex and detailed plot threads, weave lots of ideas together, deliver complex political and military situations, and make us feel like we know people through limited PoV writing.
He proved it in book eleven. So where the hell was he in book 10, or the other dire books?
Anyway, with book eleven behind me, I read the first of the Brandon Sanderson books, and it was also excellent. Book thirteen was good, and the finale, book fourteen, A Memory of Light is as good as you can expect given the constraints.
Books 12 and 14 were particularly emotional in parts. Book 13 slightly less so for me, due to the nature of what is going on, but none-the-less it was very enjoyable.
I’d done it, in just over a month I managed to read all fourteen books, I’d pushed through the hard times and got my reward at the end.
Was it worth it? Is it worth it? I’ve you’ve tried before, or never read them, should you pick them up from book one and give them a shot?
My answer is, maybe.
They’re very long books. They’re very, very slow in places, even the good ones, and they have a lot of characters. Despite his best efforts, Sanderson can’t close down every thread properly, and some are left hanging. There’s no grand epilogue telling you how everything works out at the end (something I felt I might have enjoyed), and so you’re going to need to fill in some blanks if you get there. Some of the characters are irritating beyond recognition, your gender may affect which you find more irritating.
Sometimes the characters are stupid. Sometimes you wish they’d just sit down and tell each other what they were thinking or doing and everything would be a lot easier. Sometimes you wish they would just jump off a cliff and let the Dark One win.
You can’t deny the genius of Jordan at times. The complexity of some of the plot threads, the groundwork laid down in early books come to fruition in later ones. The complexity of the world, the colour, the depth of vision, and the varying political landscapes. Despite their annoyances, the characters are often engaging and interesting. Some are just superb, Lan for example. It’s fantasy on a truly epic scale. Sure, it draws on a lot of sources, but it blends them into a unique and ultimately engaging story.
I’m happier for having finished them, and if I had never read them at all, I’d be poorer for it.
The Wheel of Time is epic fantasy like no other. It divides opinion, and it’s hugely variable in quality as the series progresses. It is though, one of the great pieces of art of our generation and it would be a shame not to at least give it a shot. There is an end in sight, you just have to keep your head above the water during the choppy bits and keep going. I did it, you can too.
My reviews of the books (reviews are spoiler free, but the sections below the reviews are not, reviews for later books may spoil books before them).