November 18, 2010

Wheel of Time - Me and my Obsession

Recently, book 13 of The Wheel of Time was released by Robert Jordan + Brandon Sanderson. This is a photo of me waiting in line for the event dressed up as one of the main characters Mat Cauthon.
Me as a fatter Mat Cauthon

I should have prefaced this post: I am a HCFF or "Hard Core Fan Freak" Wheel of Time (WoT) fan. I love this book series mightily. I have been reading and re-reading the series for the past 13 years (I think). In my awkward middle school days I even wrote poems and song re-wordings that were WoT themed for my favorite WoT fan site of the time Wotmania.com (which no longer exists). That photo of me was taken a full 36 hours before the book was released... that's right, I camped out too.

Now that I've relayed my inner nerdiness to the masses, I want to talk about my history with WoT and my opinions, joys, and also criticisms about the series. Then later, I plan on writing reviews of each of the books in order. Let it be known, for those of you that have read, are reading, or plan on reading the series in the future, I am always up to date on the latest WoT news, theories, etc. So sufficient to say, there will be SPOILERS.



A Beginning...

Once upon a time I lived in a little place called Sandy, Utah. I had a good friend named Dustin Brown that lived a few doors down from me. Now, Dustin was unique among my friends in that he was a good year or two older than me. Being as I was in middle school, that was a lot at the time. But we hung out all the same, played basketball, he whopped me at Madden on Sega, I whopped him at Goldeneye on N64, we made 40 lb. water balloons, set things on fire, made weird homemade videos involving my dogs squeaky toys, got stuck for hours trying to beat Myst and Riven, you know, the normal stuff middle schoolers do...

Anyway, at some point he lent me a copy of The Eye of the World, the first book of the Wheel of Time series. It then sat on my dresser for months not being touched again. I wasn't a huge reader at the time, I was a Nintendo player, besides the book was huge, like 800 pages or something CRAZY. I'd never read anything so long before. Well, in my english class in school we were required to write a book report on something over 500 pages, a book of our choosing. I know at least 5 kids in my class did reports on Lord of the Rings.  And here is some perspective for you... in word counts...


Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring: 177k
The Two Towers: 143k
The Return of the King: 134k
Total: 454k
Wheel of Time - Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
The Eye of the World: 305k
The Great Hunt: 267k
The Dragon Reborn: 251k
The Shadow Rising: 393k
The Fires of Heaven: 354k
Lord of Chaos: 389k
A Crown of Swords: 295k
The Path of Daggers: 226k
Winter's Heart: 238k
Crossroads of Twilight: 271k
Knife of Dreams: 315k
The Gathering Storm: 303k
Towers of Midnight: 328k
A Memory of Light: ~300k +
Total: ~4M 300k 

Yeah...

Well, I procrastinated this report for far too long. When there were just 3 days left before the report, I came out of my Nintendo trance and realized, "Crap, I better do my homework!"

Well, I needed a book to read. The only book nearby was The Eye of the World, which had collected quite a bit of dust on my shelf. I grabbed it and began on a marathon all-nighter non stop read for the sake of a book report. I will reserve my reactions of TEotW specifically for another post, but sufficient to say that I liked it a lot.

I continued reading WoT... and continued reading... and continued reading, until at Book 9 "Winter's Heart," I had no more to read. :( So I joined the online communities that were dedicated to WoT. In the years since then, if you know me well, you know I like WoT. I've gotten my sister and a friend completely engaged in the series and I have other friends who have multiple books in the series based on my advice, yet strangely haven't read them yet... someday I'll get you too Tyler...

The Good
So why do I like it so much? Well, here it goes... Jordan would absolutely surprise me... often. There are epic war battles, tender romances, heartbreaking redemption, world changing-mind blowing events nobody thought possible, tragedy and much more. There were many times when reading when I'd literally need to set down the book, walk away, look at my book and point to it and say "No! No, that did not just happen!" I'd literally cheer in excitement, laugh out loud, and even teared up a few times...

This book series is the only series where I have actually felt like a fictional world was fleshed out to the point of possibly being real. Sure LotR was fleshed out, but only in terms of what was important to the plot. Harry Potter is a cop out in world building because it takes place in our real world mimicking Soccer (Futbol) in it's sports, and just making up whatever crazy magic stuff it wants to be cool. The Wheel of Time felt real. When you first look at the WoT map, you see a bunch of random nations that don't matter. By the end of the series, some significant action has taken place in almost all of these areas, and a few others that are off the map too.
The Mainland of Wheel of Time, affectionately called Randland after the main character Rand al'Thor

But the real trick is, even before ever visiting these places, the reader can feel that each of them is unique. The clothing and fashion of each nation is different, the accents and way people speak are unique to some areas, popular foods, where good horses are bred, even people's names feel unique to certain areas ,etc. We know these things about the world.


Robert Jordan's idea for this world was that time is circular (Wheel of Time) and that the Age that is occurring, the Third Age called by some, is both in our future and past. Therefore, he takes myth and legend from all around the world, mashes it up, and plays it out. He also amusingly makes references to our time as their myth and legend, such as when the giants Mosk and Merk fought with flaming spears (or America and Moscow threating each other with Nukes), or Elsbet, Queen of the World...that one should seem obvious... and Lenn who traveled to the Moon in the belly of a fiery eagle (John Glenn).   There are many others like this... but then we have the story of the The Sword in the Stone played out before our eyes as a major plot point of the series. I didn't even make the connection the first time because the Stone, which the sword is in, is a fortress that has never been defeated, not some anvil or stone in the ground the sword is stuck. In fact the sword is so unique in its own right that the Sword in the Stone legend isn't important at all... just kinda neat.

Most of the cultures are kind of remixes of ones we already know. Tall Aryan white folk that have pale eyes and generally only have blond or red hair, but they live in a treacherous environment (Southern Utah redrock country type of environment) that has made them adapt to a weird mix of Native American culture with tribes, but more ninja warrior style... kinda hard to explain. You will see fashions that are very reminiscent of what French Conquistadors would wear, or Japanese soldiers, or middle eastern fashions with veils. But they are almost unrecognizable at times until you take a step back and think about it.

Despite this huge world building, the plot is very much character focused. Each character feels unique and special despite how big or small a role they play. Even though we only see old Cenn Buie in a couple of chapters through out the whole series, nearly every WoT fan can tell you who he is and what his personality is like. It is quite an expansive story. Let me list off the people as I see being the primary main characters: Rand, Perrin, Mat, Nyneave, Egwene, Elayne, Min, Thom, Moiraine, Lan. Other main characters that are still crucial to the plot but not THE main people: Tam, Padan Fain, Queen Morgase, Faile, Bashere, Galad, Gawyn, Lews Therin, Jain Farstrider, Mazrim Taim, Logain, Cadsuane, Tuon, Talmanes, Siuan, Alviarin, Elaida, Verin, Alanna, most all the 13 Forsaken, Loial, Elyas, Olver, Mesema, Sevanna, Aram, Amys, Aviendha, Gaul... trust me there are plenty more, that's just off the top of my head. And by the end of first book, you know of, or have at least heard the names of, half of the people listed above. Then there are a multitude of other very important characters as well, but we won't even get into it...

The crazy part, each of those people feel genuinely unique, important, and necessary to the plot in one way or another at some point. Another unique thing, the people don't exist simply as a means to the story, you feel like each of these characters has a life and lives in a world outside of what is happening in the story...

The story is the epic battle between the people of the world and The Dark One. There are prophecies abound of the man who destroyed the world basically after going mad when trying to stop the Dark One (earning the title of the Dragon) being reborn as "The Dragon Reborn" who must save the world and stop the Dark One again. He will use the One Power, a force split evenly between men and women, to do so. Not everyone can use this force, it is usually an inborn ability (possibly genetic, but it's never made explicit). The hitch, when the Dragon tried to defeat the Dark One previously the male half of the One Power became tainted causing men who use it to go mad... that's what happened thousands of years before. Now, women seem to have a higher ruling position in society since they are still able to use the Power safely, leading to a general consensus that politically women seem to have more power. This series is about Rand al'Thor, the would be Dragon Reborn from his humble farm beginnings, to dealing with the idea of who he will become and who he really is, growing to power as a leader of men and as King, the politics involved in leading these nations and tying them together before it is too late, and his slow decent into madness and possibly darkness from the use of the Power, to the Final Battle (Tarmon Gaidon) with the Dark One itself. Epic.

The Bad
So it can't all be awesomeness. Jordan's rich storytelling and world building can put people off as detail to scenes can sometimes be seem overwhelming. His vast array of characters are often difficult to keep track of, especially when many characters can go many books without being mentioned then all of sudden be important again. This can be confusing at times.

There is a change in style of storytelling that hits somewhere in the middle which starts to kick into gear around book 4 that takes the book from a focused narrative to an entire world narrative which can come as a unpleasant surprise to some readers, but to many book 4-6 are their favorites.

Books 7-10 get a little bit mired in the expansive narrative that Jordan created. The web has gotten so massive that some books only take place over the course of 10 days of time. Most of what is written is important, but it can get easy to feel lost at times in the politics of the nations and the many, many layers of scheming that is going on. Don't get me wrong, it is all interesting, just not as intense and focused as before. Jordan realized this after book 10 in which a large portion of the book was simply people's reactions to the huge ending of book 9 and that the movement of the series had slowed dramatically. He took a few years off, wrote a prequel to get his head out of the mire of the story he had written, and wrote book 11 which was one of the best in the series to date.

Jordan passed away before finishing the series and the torch was passed to Brandon Sanderson. Jordan had written many important scenes, left copious notes, and outlined the remaining timeline of events for the books to be finished. I won't go into the details of that, you can find it elsewhere, but Sanderson has done a tremendous job in finishing Jordan's work with books 12, 13, and 14 which will be released in early 2012. With this, there have been some stylistic changes accordingly. The large sense of the world and the world building, as well as many of the subtle details that Jordan was perfect at, are now gone. Luckily, this far into the story, pretty much all of the world building has been done though. Sanderson has the task of rounding up many big things that still need to happen then give everyone the big ending we've all been waiting 20+ years for. He does well at moving the plot quickly through what is left without it feeling too rushed. His sense of style is quicker paced than Jordan's for better or for worse.

I digress...

I really need to wrap this up. I'm rambling as I tend to do when I talk of WoT. To anyone who has read this far, congrats... now get a copy of The Eye of the World today.