Dork Nostalgia: Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time

"Do you ever miss the days when you used to be nostalgic?" -- Steven Brust, Dzur

Way, way back in October, when I was annoying you all with DonorsChoose fundraining posts, I offered to sell post topics for $30. I've paid off most of these, but I have three left, one of which was for something more regarding Robert Jordan.

As I noted at the time, the Wheel of Time books were ridiculously important in my life-- because of them, I got involved with the Robert Jordan group on Usenet (I take obscure pride in being there from before the founding of, and through that, I met a great many people, a number of whom are still friends, and some of whom are hanging around here leaving the occasional comment. And, of course, I met Kate through r.a.s.w.r-j, so it really had a huge impact on my life.

Of course, I haven't had anything to do with Usenet since late 2001, and I haven't read the books in years. Which makes it a little difficult to pay off the DonorsChoose request from Hohn. Then it occurred to me: I could re-read the first book or so, and comment on how they appear to me now...

So, some weeks later, having re-read the first book (The Eye of the World), and the second (The Great Hunt), and, um, the third (The Dragon Rebordn), and oh, yeah, the fourth (The Shadow Rising), here are some scattered comments. These will contain spoilers, so if you've been held in a secret prison since 1990, and haven't read any of these, you might not want to continue with this post.

First and foremost, the man was no prose stylist. The writing is rarely more than workmanlike, and the storytelling is very straightforward. The one real attempt at literary flair is a two- or three-chapter flashback sequence in the first book, and that was done clumsily enough that generations of nerds on Usenet thought it was either a continuity goof or something sinister and magical going on.

That said, though, there's something compelling about the storytelling. Yeah, it's a farm-boy-with-a-Destiny story, but there's a reason why hoary old plots get to be hoary old plots-- they work, and this one works, at least for me. The first book starts moving pretty quickly, and that carries through to the end. It's really not until book six or so (as I recall) that the momentum starts to fail in a comprehensive way. There are bits in the early books that flag a little, but there's a reason my lark of a re-read kept going through four 800-page books.

The first four are what I remember as the very best part of the series, and they still work well on a plot level. The third book is probably the best constructed of the lot, with three different plot lines all converging on Tear, and a minimal number of scenes from Rand's POV. The fourth book contains my favorite sub-plot of the whole thing, Perrin's return to the Two Rivers, which still works as well as it did back in the day, at least for me. I hadn't remembered how abrupt the endings to the other two plot lines are (Elayne/ Nynaeve in Tanchico and Rand/ Mat/etc. going to Rhuidean)-- those feel rushed at the end, but the Perrin story is still terrific.

The one bad thing about re-reading these years later is that all the flaws of the later books are really there from the beginning. The first book isn't too bad, because it doesn't really contain any sections from the POV of any of the female characters, but those start showing up in the second book, and they're annoying right from the start. Any scene set in Castle Anthrax the White Tower is excruciating, with the werid fixation on spaking and nudity.

The most unfortunate thing about the books is that they feature a fairly obnoxious view of relations between the sexes, and this is never clearer than in the female POV sections. There are occasional attempts at nuance, but they never really touch the female leads, and that makes those sections really annoying. This is one of the reasons why the Perrin sections of The Shaodw Rising are so good-- it's the one time in the books that he presents a non-toxic male-female relationship (and, unfortunately, I know that he screws it up again in book six or seven, which lessens my enjoyment somewhat)

It doesn't help that the women's sections of the plot are so lame. The same bad relationship stuff is there in most of the male POV sections, as well, but there's enough action in most of those to carry them past the worst of it. The women's sections, on the other hand, involve a lot of drudgery and corporal punishment, and long rants about how stupid all the men around them are, which wears thin really quickly (again, knowledge of the plots of books 7 and 8 only makes this worse).

In the end, on re-reading, I can still see the virtues that I found captivating back in the day. I can also see where the books eventually go wrong. I suspect they hold up better for me than David Eddings did for Kate. On balance, they were still a fun read, and still managed to get me to stay up later than I should a few nights in the past couple of weeks. It's a pity, though, that the later books don't deliver on the promise of the first four.

(Though my recollection is that there were finally some good bits again in the last one (Crossroads of Twilight), after a book or two that flirted with self-parody. I may have to leaf through that again...)

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Good review! In general, I agree with you about the books. I really enjoyed the first few but by the 6th or 7th one, my interest waned. I felt like the story got away from him in the sense that he was covering far too many POVs at once. He separated all of the main characters and then tried to keep going with each of them individually. This meant that, in the later books, each storyline only progressed very slowly.

The female characters do leave a lot to be desired in some ways, particularly how they think all of the men are idiots. I admit that women often do think that, but not to the degree represented in the book. That said, I didn't mind the Tower sections, too much. I also didn't like the obviously male-chauvinist kinds of things. Like the men with two wives.

I did end up reading all the way through the last book published which I enjoyed a lot (though there's a lot more from the Tower, so you might not care for it). I was really looking forward to the final book, but he died a couple of months ago with the book only partially written, so I'm not sure what, if anything, will be published.

Nice review. I liked the first four books or so the best, too. After that, things went rapidly downhill. Dedicated geek that I am, I managed to trudge through the mess until around book nine, when I just gave up halfway through the book.

I tend to agree that the story seemed to have gotten away from Jordan. After book four, things meandered about so much that I honestly got the impression that the story had no real direction and that Jordan really didn't know how it was all going to turn out.

My very first "home page" was mostly links to Robert Jordan fan sites.

What was the flashback sequence in tEotW about?

I recall the part at Rhuidean where the whole Aiel backstory was revealed was some of the best writing of the series.

The first few books were really good at weaving all those plotlines together. I must agree with the consensus so far that everything just started to drag a few books later (especially when the Forsaken started coming back to life).

Is there any news on how the series will be wrapped up?

I tried reading the first volume of that series when I was in my forties. I concluded that I was too old for such vacuous fantasy -- I probably would have loved the series when I was in my teens, back when prose style didn't matter to me as much as it does now.

I was a Tolkien fan when I was young, and although I've tried a couple of times to re-read the series in my later years I've just not been able to muster much enthusiasm.

I've come to the conclusion that certain books and authors are suited to certain stages of life and fail miserably with readers who are either too young or too old.

Of course there are certain "universal" writers -- Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, and Mervyn Peake come to mind -- whose appeal transcends age differences. Then there are those writers whose appeal is lost on most younger readers -- but I suggest trying them again after the travails of life have left a few scars, authors such as Dickens, Hardy, Austen, and Conrad.

I was a Tolkien fan when I was young, and although I've tried a couple of times to re-read the series in my later years I've just not been able to muster much enthusiasm.

Probably true, but even in my 40's I still love LotR. I first read it when I was around 13, and I've routinely reread it every few years since then to the point where I've lost count of how many times I've read the entire trilogy. And that doesn't even count the number of times I've picked up the books and reread just my favorite chapters, which I find myself doing at least once a year or more.

I see you, Dr. Oilcan.

My WoT site, The Dragon's Scepter, doesn't get as many hits as my booklog does, but it still gets several hundred a month, and the Age of Illusions Netbook gets lots of downloads. That's not bad for a web supplement to a game that's been out of print for several years, based on a series whose heights were reached over a decade ago. I'm pretty proud of it.

Great review, I pretty much felt the same way. It got to the point (beyond book seven, IIRC) where reading them almost became a chore. I stopped rushing out to buy them in hardcover and just waited for the paperbacks.

But TSR (book 4) was one of my favorite fantasy books, and still is up there pretty high in my estimation. And the newsgroup was a big part of what made it all so fun.

There was actually a WoT RPG that came out, it looked great but after delving into it a bit, it wasn't all that good. Which is kind of how I felt about the later parts of the series, as I think about it.

I should clarify that I have, in fact, read all the books. Even though I mis-stated the last book to date-- Crossroads of Twilight is the last one we have here, but I have, in fact, read Knife of Dreams, which is the most recent published volume. I don't know where our copy is-- maybe at my parents' house?

As for the conclusion of the series, in a nice bit of synchronicity, Publishers Weekly today says that Brandon Sanderson will be completing the final volume from drafts and notes. So, there you go.

Just saw that myself. I liked The Well of Ascension a whole lot, actually. Here's a link of Sanderson's announcement.

Nice review Chad, and like other posters, I agree that the first four are the best. Since RJ's death, I've been debating going back and re-reading, but was hesitant for fear that they wouldn't match my memory. I'll be more likely to do that now.

Wow, it's like RASWR-J Old Home Day...

I should also mention that, having noticed that we don't actually have a copy of the most recent published book here, it was really difficult not to stop at Barnes and Noble or the library when I was out running errands today and pick one up. I may yet end up skimming through highlights of the six other volumes that we do have...

I hate to admit it ... OK, I actually don't mind at all ... but I'm a lot more optimistic about the finishing volume now that someone else is writing it.

And I gave all my WoT books away to the library years ago (except "Knife of Dreams," which I returned to the bookstore a couple of days after purchasing, under the pretense that someone else had bought it for me on Amazon ...).

By Kurt Montandon (not verified) on 10 Dec 2007 #permalink

I actually just re-read EotW last month. In some ways, for me, it's the earlier books that have the more glaring flaws and the later books that hold up better.

I think it's mainly that the first book does wallow in the 'farm boy of DESTINY' theme. That's pretty hardpacked ground and it suffers a bit from the comparison. The prose is functional but the repetitive stylistic elements just grate. ("Rand didn't know how to deal with girls. Not like Perrin, or Mat. They would know what to say.")

The whole plot fast-forward (magical travel across a thousand miles) is a bit jarring. I think though that's because of one of RJ's biggest strengths, making a world feel like it has economics and people with real lives and a whole functional society. The world feels like a big place, like it has more than three farmboys in it. That's a good thing but then a little handwaving means we can skip it all.

The first books hint a bit at the complicated world that RJ is building, but taken in isolation the details feel a bit sketchy. It's only after a few books that you start to notice the tossed-off details and believe that maybe they'll be eventually filled out with more detail.

In the early books, and particularly EotW, the boys are very explicitly led around by the nose. In the larger story that fits into place, but taking EotW in isolation it feels like they fell into the plot machine. The later books bring in a whole series of hard choices, real sacrifices, and strategic dilemmas that make for real uncertainty about the plot. You wonder more what people will choose to do than what's going to happen to them. And characters change because of the choices they make. Some of that is rather heavy-handed but even so it feels more real as a result.

That's all a big part of why I've continued to enjoy the later books. I see the flaws too (one whole book of armies marching, more or less) but for me the flaws have been forgivable and the entertainment value still solid.

Sorry for the wall of text. I used to lurk a lot on RASWR-J, and later on Wotmania... which must have left me with a pent-up case of logorrhea. :)

In the early books, and particularly EotW, the boys are very explicitly led around by the nose. In the larger story that fits into place, but taking EotW in isolation it feels like they fell into the plot machine. The later books bring in a whole series of hard choices, real sacrifices, and strategic dilemmas that make for real uncertainty about the plot.

I don't really disagree with this. Another interesting thing to notice on the re-read was how much more worn books three and four were than books one and two. This is partly because I got the hardcovers of the first two relatively late, but it also reflects the fact that I re-read them a lot less often than three and four.

You're right about the greater agency of the characters as the series goes along, but I think that's overwhelmed by the serious plot issues that develop. Most notably, the plots involving Elayne, Egwene, and Nynaeve become surpassingly awful, with only Faile coming close to matching them for sheer annoyingness. The three-ish books in which they're mired in Ebou Dar are just terrible, and they even pull Mat into their world of suck.

The most recent book did rebound signficantly, but it's almost too little, too late.

I suppose I should join the reunion as well. I read and own all of the books, agree that #3 is the best, and think that RJ was getting ticked off that many people were correctly interpreting his foreshadowing, so he was making the later books more and more obscure in efforts to cloud the issues. In doing so he bloated the plot beyond hope of saving. Okay, now that I've relived my days of procrastinating during grad school, I can stop procrastinating about writing a final exam.

Yeah, all of Ebou Dar and Faile's willful mistrust are two serious low points. I suppose I tend to interpret those sections as damaged plot and mentally route around them.

It really sucked having Mat go AWOL for a whole book, too, as he's probably the most interesting character.

On the other hand, I love sections like the climatic battle at the end of Winter's Heart. I can distinctly remember closing the book, taking a deep breath, and saying 'wow'. Having moments like those give me a lot of patience for wading through the bad times.

It's a series that had problems, especially in the later books, but something about it was indefinably special. For me, at least. It had a combination of elements that really worked in a way that was different that most of the other fantasy out there.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink