So, over the holiday weekend, I finally finished The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan. I’d mentioned some time ago that when I finish this book, I’d do a review of the series up to this point. My reasoning for doing a review of the series, and not of just this book, is that by this point fans of the series are likely to know whether or not they want to read the next book, whereas people who’ve never read these books are more likely to want to start from the beginning. So, a review is of little worth to the former (especially some ten months after the book’s release) and the latter will be more interested to know if the series as a whole is worth investing in. So, here’s my review: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
(I will try to keep this review spoiler-light, as it is intended for those who’ve never read the books, but I can’t promise I won’t mistakenly slip one in here or there.)
The Wheel of Time begins with a bang – almost literally – in the opening pages of The Eye of the World, as we glimpse some of the facts surrounding one of the foundational myths of the world of the Wheel of Time, this being the aftermath of a battle between a group of wizards (called Aes Sedai in this series, which we are informed means “Servant of All”) and the evil overlord of this series (named, of course, the Dark One). The aftermath drove the leader (and all those who fought alongside him) insane, and this leads to what the series calls “The Breaking” when mad wizards almost destroyed the world.
The opening scene there is intense, and from there the story takes us to the idyllic setting of the Two Rivers, where our heros, thousands of years removed from the events of the Breaking, expect nothing of the adventure that waits before them. The first half of the first novel, it has been reported, was deliberately modeled on Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and the effect is to lend the early part of the book a familiar flavor that is sure to appeal to and please fans of classic fantasy literature. But the story soon takes its own deviating twists and turns, going to its own epic destination.
The frenetic pace this books sets roars through the first three books, and that energy will sustain you through the next several books, as the pace starts to slow. And this is where you will find most of the criticism on the Wheel of Time. By about the time of the seventh book in the series, some of the original fans began to experience a certain fatigue with the story, so far. Obviously, as one who has made it to the twelfth and semi-penultimate book of the series, I don’t 100% agree with the vitriol some of these critics have hurled at the series, but there is a kernel of truth in some of the charges. “It’s too long.” “There are too many characters.” “It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.” “There is no end in sight.” Well. That last one is no longer true: we know that following The Gathering Storm that there will be exactly two more books: The Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light. But for a long time, this was a real question hanging over the series: would this series ever find its way to a satisfying conclusion? And with the death of Robert Jordan midway through writing what he promised was the last book of the series (it wasn’t, because it was so big it had to be split into three books; an ironic end to a series that began by following the formula of The Lord of the Rings, which also was so big it had to be split into three volumes) the final fate of the series was truly called into question. My personal low point came in the tenth book of the series, The Crossroads of Twilight, which failed to provide a coherent narrative, and the climax of which had nothing to do with the plot and character to which the greater portion of the book was given over – a sideplot that had stretched across three books but which was probably the least compelling of the various plots, and one which ought to have been resolved in a single book. (The sideplot to which I refer, not to give too much away, concerns one of the three main male characters around which the series centers and his quest to rescue his kidnapped love interest. It’s a plot that isn’t resolved until the eleventh book, despite having been introduced in the ninth, and which, so far, has had nothing whatever to do with advancing the greater plot of the series as a whole.)
Additionally, there are a multiplicity of characters: far more than most readers will be able to keep track of without artificial aids. (I count three main male protagonists and four main female protagonists, a little over a dozen primary antagonists, dozens of secondary characters and hundreds of supporting and tertiary characters – most of them, even the tertiary and supporting cast, named.) Luckily, a number of artificial aids exist (such as Encyclopaedia WOT, the Wheel of Time FAQ, Dragonmount, and Theoryland, to name a few). Perhaps it can be said that a book shouldn’t need such online repositories of knowledge in order to understand what’s going on – and in general I’d argue that this series doesn’t need these sources in order to understand the plot and what’s happening. Most of the behind-the-scenes stuff is eventually revealed (whether you figure it out in advance or not) and most of the supporting characters whose names and nationalities you can never remember are also typically not important enough to the overall plot to remember such details. Any of them could be walk-ons who appear, fulfill their role, and disappear again – the difference being that in the Wheel of Time, when they do reappear we’ll know that even if we don’t remember them, they are people with names and histories who have done things before. But if we forget the names of some of those less-important characters, regardless of how many times they walk back on the stage, we don’t feel too lost, because what they do is generally less important than what the protagonists are doing. And, more often than not, these characters are filling archetypal roles, and in that way are more memorable than the specifics of “I’m [insert name] from [insert place] and [insert relationship to one of the protagonists]”.
In general, I’m a fan of the complexity, breadth, and depth in novels of the sort we see here in the Wheel of Time. As a whole the books have an epic breadth and scope that few works of modern literature ever achieve. The closest recent contemporary that I can think of, ironically, would be the Harry Potter books – ironic because they were begun after the Wheel of Time was begun and were concluded well before the Wheel of Time will have concluded – which was fairly epic in scope at a Young Adult scale, and was similarly populated by a fairly large cast of characters and complex exchanges between plot and theme. That they cover similar thematic ground is also worth pointing out: a young hero is informed that the salvation of the world from forces of evil that would rend it asunder lies upon his shoulders – thanks to a peculiar set of circumstances surrounding his birth – and he must cope with the incredible mental stress that this burden creates, and must face with and ultimately vanquish the dark forces that are raging within his own soul. The departure point between the two is whether our hero will rely more or less on his friends to help him carry this burden. In Harry Potter, we definitely find that the hero comes to rely more on his friends, even though he is reluctant to do so because he fears for their safety. This is one of the main themes of the Harry Potter books. In the Wheel of Time, we find the hero coming to rely less and less on his friends, despite the fact that they are destined to help him fight his battle. And because of this, we see the hero descending into darker and darker depths as he loses all perspective.
The great achievement of The Gathering Storm is that we finally see a break in the gloomy cloud-cover that’s been gathering in the series thus far, and we get to experience the thrill of triumph – not the triumph, but a triumph (or a few triumphs, more to the point) – and these triumphs are exciting, and let us breathe a sigh of relief. The interesting thing about this series so far is that even though at a meta-level we know the good guys will win, it’s written in such a way that we find it plausible that in fact they will not. It works on the level of the personal: if the main character must be become a monster, a thing barely recognizable as human, in order to achieve “victory” over the story’s physical monsters, then have the good guys really won? And that’s one of the two primary plot points of this twelfth book of the series: will our hero continue his slow descent into totalitarianism, or will he see the light of the goodness of others? Meanwhile, the book’s other main plot asks other questions about totalitarian regimes, and the structures which keep them in power. But as huge as the scope of these conflicts may be, ultimately they are personal in nature, and that’s what makes them powerful. The struggles that matter most are the personal struggles, and these personal struggles become all the more powerful for being writ large across this vast landscape.
So, my final analysis is this: I loved The Gathering Storm. I feel this book really pushed the series ahead, upped the ante, and reinstated the incredible pacing that made the first several books of the series so exciting, bringing a resounding end to the glacial pace that was setting in around the seventh book. And, though the series’ author and originator, Robert Jordan, has now sadly passed away, it has a powerful heir in Brandon Sanderson. Brandon has given those who are fans of the Wheel of Time hope, and this book has given the readers hope of a real and final victory of good over evil in the climax of this series.
If you are contemplating whether to read these books or not, given all that has been said about them, you must ask yourself this: can say you are interested in a tale that will fascinate and delight, that will take you through a full range of human emotions and introduce you to characters you will alternately love and hate, set in a world that will always intrigue you with its philosophies both foreign and familiar and its history that tantalizingly hints at a world we know well as filtered through the colored glass of the touch of magic. If such things as these appeal to you, then the Wheel of Time might be for you. And, knowing that you will face a story that is epic in scope and detail and that, between books seven and ten, you will find yourself in a trough of slow pacing and few major developments, I believe you will still come out the better for having read these books. They are big, they are epic, they are challenging – but for all their flaws, they are good books.