Friday, April 1, 2011

How to Read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series

In 1990, I unhesitatingly bought  an original trade paperback by one of my favorite post-REH Conan writers, Robert Jordan. It wasn't an impulse buy: Jordan's Conan books were among my favorite pastiches, so I expected good things. I was not at all disappointed. The Eye of the World, the first novel in the Wheel of Time series, followed the classic formula high fantasy had been treading since Tolkien wrote of Sam and Frodo leaving the Shire with Nazgul in pursuit. Unlike Terry Brooks' Shea and Flick Ohmsford, the young adventurers fleeing their village were neither diminutive in stature nor all-male. And the differences didn't end there.

Getting to the end of the book and realizing it was the first in the series was icing on the cake of any thrilling, fast-paced fantasy read. And while the sequel, The Great Hunt didn't live up to the expectations set by Eye of the World, I couldn't wait for what I presumed would be the conclusion, the third book. After all, there seemed to be an unspoken law of the trilogy in '80s high fantasy.

Alas, The Dragon Reborn did not wrap up the story, and by the time book six, The Lord of Chaos, was published, I despaired of ever seeing an ending. My expectations were predicated on Terry Brooks' Shannara trilogies, which had the good sense to wrap individual books up while continuing the story in a larger arc. Frustrated, I stalled at book seven, A Crown of Swords. Although I no longer intended to read them, I kept buying the series. I thought long and hard about selling all but the first book: I'd read it three times in the course of reading up to book seven, finding I needed to re-read the whole series in each attempt, as I couldn't remember who the hell half the characters were.

I started reading the series again at the encouragement of a good friend, who had persevered, and remained a loyal enthusiast of the series. I day I started reading, but the truth is, I started listening. The way I got past the spiny obstacle of A Crown of Swords was Audible.com. While doing yard work, home renovations, driving, and cycling, I listened, sure the unabridged audiobook would simply augment my actual reading of the book.

I haven't picked up a Jordan novel since, but I own every unabridged audiobook in the series to date. And when the final posthumous collaboration between Jordan with Brandon Sanderson is released in Spring of 2012, I'll own that one too. So, to all those who have given up on Jordan, and wished they hadn't, or to those who are thinking about starting but have heard too many negative reviews, here's how I recommend reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.

First, a few words to Jordan's detractors:

1.  Jordan loves detail. He will describe clothing in so much detail, that if "Wheel of Time" ever gets optioned for film (it needs to be a television series, but more about that in a moment), the costume designers will be able to go for many coffee breaks. He is fond of  elaborately detailed descriptions for each character, even the minor ones. If you can't handle that, shut up and stop reading the series.

2. Jordan loves detailed repetition. The repetition of previously established plot elements in subsequent books is for people who started the series when they picked up book five in an airport. The repetition allows new readers to comprehend the story enough to limp through the read. It's a device publishing companies use with bestselling series like this one to ensure the series remain a bestseller. While I have never started any series mid-way through, some people apparently do, and these passages are for them.They're also for those of us who can't remember who all the characters are without the Dragonmount website. If you can't handle that, shut up and stop reading the series.

3. Jordan loves detailed repetition describing a massive cast of characters. He likes weaving intricate plots with a cast of characters so large it necessitated a glossary at the end of each book. Many of the books are entirely character based, and seem to have "no action" taking place. This is because the fantasy reader's horizon of expectations includes someone storming a tower, engaging in a climactic battle, or throwing a ring into a fiery pit. Jordan is too busy marrying characters off or introducing a new plot thread to bother with such things. And while he may not talk about a character for one book, he almost always returns to them later on. If you don't like this style of character development, shut up and stop reading the series.

4. If you don't love 1, 2, or 3, you need to stop reading. Bottom line: There are already enough posts all over Internet chat rooms, Amazon, and Indigo (or the other online bookseller of your choice) telling us about why the naysayers quit The Wheel of Time to sink the Titanic again. If you gave up on the series, just write "ditto to so-and-so's review, I gave up too" and get on with your life. In short, shut up and stop reading the series.

So, now that I've announced that I know why people generally give up on the series (which were reasons I shared), let me tell you how I the Wheel wove me back into the pattern.

1. I started thinking about Wheel of Time" as a television series. It's long enough to sustain several seasons, the iron is hot for the striking insofar as fantasy media goes, and the cast is basically One Tree Hill (or whatever teen drama is currently hip - sue me, I'm old) meets Lord of the Rings. But it's too damn long for a single film installment, so a television series makes the most sense. I got to thinking about how we watch television series, one episode at a time. I began to view the chapters in each chapter as "episodes" of a Wheel of Time television series, and each book as a "season." I don't like every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but some of my favorite episodes are in my least favorite seasons. Even when I'm hating an episode, I love the characters, and want to see what happens to them: so I tune in. I love Rand, Mat, Perrin, and many of the characters in Wheel of Time. I want to see what happens to them. So I keep tuning in.

2. As I said already, I listen to them on audiobook. This is an extension of the Wheel of Time as television series concept, since it takes about 40 minutes or so to listen to a chapter. Some people aren't that patient, but if you listened on your work commute or as part of housework, yardwork, or some other activity simple enough to listen without sawing your hand off, then you could easily get through a "season" of Wheel of Time before you know it. And Jordan's prose actually lends itself better to audio than to regular reading. The repetition of how Aes Sedai do this or that is less annoying, because your brain is also thinking about washing the dishes, or avoiding cutting your hand off with a power tool.

3. I remember that Robert Jordan used to be a Dungeon Master for his kids. Accordingly, much of "Wheel of Time" reads like a long-form role-playing campaign. I've got this nagging, but unconfirmed suspicion as a DM myself that many of the vignettes in Wheel of Time are narratively tightened versions of gaming moments. They feel that way. I find that thinking about "Wheel of Time" as a gaming campaign gives me ideas for my own gaming, especially in areas of character development. And it challenged me to run a campaign involving three different groups of players all playing in the same world and time period, but in different places, with their actions having major ramifications for the other groups.

4. I got over the reasons I quit. Simply put, they were my reasons. I had expectations of Jordan he never intended to fulfill. I expected him to wrap it up in a trilogy: he didn't. I expected him to snap Rand out of his sullen funk: he didn't. I expected him to stop telling me about the embroidery on coats or dresses: he didn't. I expected him to bring a certain major character back from the dead: he didn't. And finally, I expected him to finish before he passed away, and he didn't.

It was that last one that really galvanized me. When I heard he had terminal cancer, it got me thinking about the legacy the man would leave behind: an epic bestselling fantasy series. I realized, to quote Elvis and Sinatra, he did it his way. I might not like some of the choices Jordan made, but I love the world he created and the people walking through it. And I wanted to know how they fared in the end.

So that's my journey back into Jordan's world, and I wanted to share it with everyone who visits my blog or reads my reviews at Amazon and Indigo, because I've enjoyed the journey. I want new readers to know what to expect, but also how to let go of those expectations, and to know that the journey is one worth taking. Especially if you want to be there when the final novel is released next year.


NOTE: One final word. I'd like to add that while "Wheel of Time" is one of my top fantasy series of all time, I pray to the publishing gods at Tor to re-release the whole bloody series with new covers. I'm exceedingly thankful for the new ebook covers, but I want new slipcases, dammit. Each time a new book comes out, I am further convinced that Darrell Sweet is not only the worst possible choice for cover illustrator for this series, but also that he has never read any of the books, or in the case of the first one, not even a description of the major characters. Judging from this post, I am not alone. In a perfect world, Keith Parkinson would have been the illustrator before he passed away. Since he is no longer an option, I'm suggesting Seamas Gallagher, who has done what I consider to be the best renditions of the characters from the series, with the exception of the interior art of the Wheel of Time roleplaying rules from Wizards of the Coast. Barring that, I'm ordering the whole series from the UK, where the covers, while a bit boring, are at the very least, not annoyingly inaccurate.