A long time ago I read the Wheel of Time series. Correction: I read the first 11 or so books in the series before getting completely exhausted.
If by some strange circumstance you’ve never come across this series, here’s some background: Robert Jordan first published The Eye of the World in 1990, and continued producing the epic-sized tomes every few years. I probably started reading them around 2000, so I was able to read the bulk of the series back to back. This is essential when tackling this series because there are so many fucking characters and Jordan insists on telling the story from each of their perspectives in turn. By the time you get to book three or four (or the end of book one) you can’t remember who is who or why you’re being forced to hear their side of things. When you factored in the wait times between publications it became impossible to keep track, and I found myself so thoroughly confused that I gave up, along with the rest of the world (it seemed).
Now there are 15 books, including the prequel, though only the first 11 were written by Jordan, who passed away in 2007. The final three in the series were completed from Jordan’s notes by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.
I recently decided to listen to the audiobooks of the series, though I still own all of the actual books. For one, it has been almost 15 years since I first read the series, and I seem to remember enjoying it. There must have been some reason I kept reading a series of books where the shortest is 675 pages, after all (the longest is 987). I wanted to see if I could get past the bad memories of a jumble of characters I neither liked or gave a shit about that plagued the end of the series. Secondly, I listen to books for 12 to 16 hours a day, and prefer longer books as I find it jarring to listen to several unrelated books over the course of the day. In this series there would be no problems—the entire series totals 461 hours and 25 minutes of listening time (or 19 days), which even at my pace would take several months to finish.
I have to say this about the first book in the series. It kept me listening, often far past my bedtime, just to hear what happened next. But if you’re looking for something unique, or surprising, or in any way out of the ordinary for fantasy, this is not the series for you. I was actually shocked to realize how derivative it was—shocked because I don’t remember it that way.
Are we incapable of leaving the path Tolkien laid out for us?
Maybe it took 15 years of reading fantasy to realize it, but I couldn’t stop thinking that I had read the same story in different books on more than one occasion. To be fair, I’m sure a lot of the late 90s fantasy that I grew up reading borrowed liberally from this series, and not the other way around. But it so happened that I had just finished rereading Dune (which I do love as much as I remember) just before I read The Eye of the World, and it struck me that there is an alarming amount of fantasy that features a race of mysterious warriors that live in a desert. It then struck me that this also might be somewhat racist. Can’t there be a band of mysterious warriors living, I don’t know, by the sea? Without turning them into pirates? Which, incidentally, there are plenty of in the Wheel of Time—rendered in the audiobook, very unfortunately, with the most terrible pirate accents ever.
It was for this reason I felt the need to review a book that most readers of fantasy have probably already read, even if it’s been a few decades. Why do we feel the need to populate our fantasy novels with racial and cultural stereotypes? I would say this is typical only of older fantasy, but I’ve also read Game of Thrones. Are we, in general, incapable of inventing new cultures for our fantasy worlds? Or are we destined to repeat the same cultures, as one dimensionally as possible, ad nauseum (all while dressing them as if headed for the renaissance festival)?
See how many of these you can recognize: desert dwelling race of mysterious warriors that don’t like outsiders? Seafaring (or river faring) people who inhabit a city with lots of canals, where everyone is a merchant or pirate, and there seems to be an excess of taverns? Wagon-dwelling traveling folk who love music and wear bright colors? Meditative herbal medicine and sage wisdom dealing people from the east? And the main characters: white, Western European-esque people who live in castles and villages and farms?
Jordan has credited Tolkien for influence—most fantasy writers do—and obviously writers of the English language draw heavily on their own mythology. But the succession of nearly indistinguishable cultural tropes has escalated to the point that even the books satirizing the one-dimensional tropes (see: Terry Pratchett) are aging and ready for satire. Not that I don’t still love Terry Pratchett—but are we incapable of leaving the path Tolkien laid out for us? Aren’t there other stories to be told, from anything other than a Western European perspective?
One of the true downsides of audiobooks is that repetition becomes unbearable.
Additional irritations included most of the female characters, who are all fairly flat—though I have memories of really liking them and idolizing them, especially Moraine. But if I had to hear one more of the female characters talk about how annoying and stupid all men are, while also getting idiotically romantic about them (and getting mad at themselves for having romantic feelings), I might have stopped listening entirely. One of the true downsides of audiobooks is that repetition becomes unbearable. And the sad reality is that almost every single female character in The Eye of the World is identical. Every one seems to share the opinion that men are really just big children who can’t look after themselves. An opinion that I also shared…in high school.
To conclude: I enjoyed myself enough to take a stab at the second book in the series, but was then immediately reminded of the reasons I gave up over a decade ago. There are too many goddamn characters, and the books are just too long for their own good. Jordan switches point of view so many times, between so many people, that half the time you can’t remember who the hell you’re hearing from. Or why you should care.
Where I got it: Audible