I read the first Wheel of Time book over 20 years ago. At around 12:30 am on Tuesday, August 6, I finished the last one, with the ending every bit as epic and awe-inspiring as any that transpired in the previous 13 books (and one prequel).
Sadly, the author of these books did not live to see their completion. While Robert Jordan left sketches and fully written sections for the last book of the series, he died soon after finishing Book Eleven. His wife then chose Brandon Sanderson to complete the final book for him, which was so large that Sanderson split it into three, still large books.
What follows is my remembrance of the series. This isn’t a review — for that, I’d have to dig my Wheel of Time books out of storage in my parents’ house — a difficult thing to do, since I live on the West Coast, and they on the East. Instead, it’s a recollection of a series that I started reading the summer between eighth and ninth grade, and finished well into adulthood.
(Note: all links to book titles include complete plot synopses, including major spoilers. My remembrances also contain some spoilers. On a side note, if you want to look at the cover art for each book in the series, go here.)
The Lord of the Rings was the first fantasy series I ever read. In fact, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may have been the first fantasy books I ever read. Because I read the books while transitioning from children’s literature to adult, it remains the most moving and powerful experience of my reading career.
Having finished The Return of the King in the summer of ’92, I went out to Royal Discount Bookstore (which no longer exists) in the summer of ’93, with my mom, on a quest to find another fantasy book to read. Notice I wrote “fantasy book.” I was not looking for another series, but merely another foray in the world of fantasy.
It was my mom who found The Eye of the World. She pointed out that, on the back cover, the blurbs compared it to Tolkien (so yes, I guess those blurbs do work sometimes). It was good enough for me. I’m not sure if I cracked it open in the store to read a sample passage or waited until I got home. All I know is that I started reading it that day.
As a stand alone book, The Eye of the World is excellent. I got caught up in the story of the three young men from the Two Rivers — Rand, Mat, and Perrin — as they traveled with the Aes Sedai Moiraine and her Warder, Lan, pursued by the forces of darkness. As they explored the larger world they lived in and came in contact with its wonders and horrors, so did I. The land of elves and hobbits and orcs was replaced with one of men and Ogier and Trollocs. Whitecloaks and Aes Sedai added religion and magic to the series. This is also the book in which Perrin discovers his wolf nature with the help of Elyas, Padan Fain becomes more than a Darkfriend when infected by the evil that lurks in Shadar Logoth, and Mat is infected by that same evil due to a dagger he steals from that city. And the ending, in which Rand fights with Ba’alzamon and discovers that he can channel, and is therefore destined to go mad, is the first of many great endings to these books. I still remember the chills I got when Moiraine, eavesdropping on Rand and Egwene, says, “The prophecies will be fulfilled. The Dragon is reborn.” More importantly, the book ends with the information that this is book one in a series. If only I knew then how long that series would take to read, I may never have started reading that first book.
I believe I bought The Great Hunt on my own (from that same bookstore), and received The Dragon Reborn and The Shadow Rising for Christmas. While The Eye of the World introduced most of the main characters and some important details about the world they lived in, The Great Hunt adds a few more important characters, such as the Seachan, who are defeated at the end of the book (by the heroes called by the Horn of Valere, which was found in the Eye of the World and stolen near the beginning of this book), but will return in later books. The most horrid thing about the Seachan is that they have collars that can control females who can channel. Other notable characters include Siuan Sanche (The Amyrlin Seat) and Selene, who is later revealed to be Lanfear, the strongest of the female Forsaken.
While I did not enjoy this book as much as the first one (despite a scene in which Rand defeats a blademaster, and we start to sense the feelings Min has for him), it still has its moments. Perhaps, for me, I was annoyed that the ending featured yet another battle between Rand and Ba’alzamon.
Still, it wasn’t as bad as The Dragon Reborn, which I find the weakest of the first five books. Perhaps the main reason for this is that Rand, despite being the main character, is absent for much of the book, even if all the other chapters deal with the other characters trying to find him. Still, this is the book in which Mat is healed from the effects of the dagger; Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne are entrusted with hunting down the Black Ajah by the Amyrlin Seat; and the first Prophecy of the Dragon is fulfilled, with the Stone of Tear falling to Rand, Mat, fireworks from the Illuminators, and the Aiel, who will play a prominent role in the next book, as well as in the series as a whole. Plus, Ba’alzamon is finally killed and revealed to be Ishamael, the strongest of the Forsaken. We also learn the existence of other Forsaken in the world, and Faile Bashere, the woman who will become Perrin’s wife, appears for the first time, as a Hunter for the Horn.
The Shadow Rising is my favorite of the original five Wheel of Time books. With the possible exception of the last book, it is my favorite overall. It also is one of the most detailed books in the series, with repercussions of what happens in this book traveling all the way down through Book 13, mainly dealing with Mat Cauthon and the Aelfinn and Eelfinn that he encounters after walking through two different ter’angreal, the latter of which leave him with other men’s memories, his ashandarei, and a Foxhead medallion that prevents the One Power from being used on him.
In addition, there are battles between Shadowspawn, Whitecloaks, and a group of Two Rivers folk led by Perrin Aybara; Nynaeve’s and Elayne’s first battle with Moghedien; the overthrow of the Amyrlin Seat; and the raising of Elaida to that position. Finally, we have Rand’s journey with the Aiel, in which he proves he is the Car’a’carn, battles with Asmodean, and makes that member of the Forsaken (with some help from Lanfear) his teacher.
The Fires of Heaven is the last great single digit book in the series (Books 11-14 return the series to its former glory) and the first book I bought in hardcover, having now caught up to publishing dates (and watching my poorly put-together TOR paperback editions fall apart). It introduces bubbles of evil and the first major death in the series. When it occurred, it shocked me more than any other event that had occurred so far (I wouldn’t experience another shock like that until The Gathering Storm). And yet, by removing Moiraine from the series (at least until Book 13, when Mat attempts to rescue her from the Tower of Ghenji), it loses something. Moiraine was a steadying force on Rand, and she was one of the few women in the series who never became bitchy or shrill as a character. It was the equivalent of losing Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, except that we, as readers, had more time to know Moiraine. But that wasn’t the only problem that this series had to deal with.
Lord of Chaos includes the Battle at Dumai’s Wells, which is one of the most important events in the series. Another major occurrence is the formation of the Black Tower, where men who can channel are taught how to use the One Power. Still, the rest of the novel is lacking the magic that the first five books had. In other words, it’s missing Moiraine. Plus, this is when Rand starts to get a bit surly.
To counter the absence of Moiraine, Cadsuane appears in A Crown of Swords as a “replacement,” but her methods are much more abrasive than Moiraine’s, and so I never really warmed to her. Another problem starts to creep into the series with this book. Out of 41 chapters, Rand only appears in 4 1/2 of them (A Crown of Swords, Encyclopaedia WoT). He is injured by Padan Fain at the beginning with the dagger from Shadar Logoth, and then appears at the end to battle Sammael in Shadar Logoth. Most of the other chapters focus on Elayne, Nynaeve, Avienda, and Mat’s search for The Bowl of the Winds, which will battle the unseasonable heat that the Dark One’s touch has brought to the world. Also, the Seachan return, invading Ebou Dar.
Rand likewise doesn’t appear much in The Path of Daggers. Out of 30 chapters, he shares five chapters and appears in three by himself (The Path of Daggers, Encyclopaedia WoT). At the end of the book, he is attacked by Asha’man from the Black Tower. In addition, many minor characters start to appear, increasing the number of plot threads. Eventually, these minor plots begin to take over the larger ones, which lead to larger and larger prologues, dealing with fewer and fewer main characters. In fact, Mat doesn’t appear in this book at all, just as Perrin didn’t appear in The Fires of Heaven.
In between A Crown of Swords and The Path of Daggers, Robert Jordan and Teresa Patterson published The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, which includes information on the series, including cover art and drawings of some of the main characters. Since each book in the series has a glossary (minus the final one), this was more of a chance to have all the information in one place, though it did flesh out places and history only hinted at in the books written up to that point, such as the Seachan’s homeland. I wish I could remember the title of the chapter that included all of the cover art through A Crown of Swords. It was a wink and a nod to the not always accurate drawings done for these covers.
This is when the series really lost its focus. Less Rand and more superfluous plot strands meets two books that could have been condensed into one book. Many of the events that start in Winter’s Heart won’t resolve themselves until Knife of Dreams. There is one major event that occurs in Winter’s Heart — Rand’s quest to remove the taint from saidin, the male half of the One Power — but every event that happens between him declaring it and attempting to do it continue to be unresolved at the end of Crossroads of Twilight. For example, the Shaido kidnap Faile in Winter’s Heart: Perrin doesn’t rescue her until Knife of Dreams. Mat Cauthon meets Tuon, the Daughter of the Nine Moons, in Winter’s Heart: he doesn’t fulfill the Aelfinn’s prophecy that he’ll marry her until Knife of Dreams. In other words, Crossroads of Twilight is a whole lot of filler.
Jordan’s prequel to the Wheel of Time, published after Crossroads of Twilight, is based on a story he originally wrote for the Legends anthology, in between The Path of Daggers and Winter’s Heart. It is much shorter than the other books in the series, and some of the information included in it is referenced in later Wheel of Time books. According to Wikipedia, it was actually the first of three planned prequels. The novel takes place at the close of the Aiel War and deals mostly with Moiraine and Siuan as young Aes Sedai. They hear the current Amyrlin declare that the Dragon has been reborn and go out searching for him. Elaida, Lan, and Cadsuane are also introduced for the first time, and one first hears whispers of the Black Ajah.
Though not as epic as the other books in the series (particularly the ending), it signaled a return by Jordan to the more simplistic storylines and smaller casts that make the first five books so enjoyable.
And now I must pause and tell you a story:
While Crossroads of Twilight sat unread on my shelf, New Spring had yet to be purchased, and Knife of Dreams had been released months prior, I was talking to my brother online. Or maybe it was on the phone. In either case, it wasn’t in person, as I was in Japan, and he was in the U.S.
He asked me, “What have Robert Jordan fans feared since he began the series?”
Me: “That he won’t finish the series?”
Him: “That he will die before he finishes it.”
(Actually, I doubt this was our actual conversation, but it’s close.)
And then he shared with me the contents of this article, in which Jordan tells the world that he has a rare blood disease called amyloidosis. A year and a half later, he would be dead. Even then, fans knew that he had passed along all significant plot points of the final novel to his wife, Harriet, who also edited all of his books. This was a man who cared deeply about his fans, so much so that he planned to have his series finished, even if he weren’t around to finish it himself.
Jordan died in 2007; I returned home in 2008. I don’t remember if I read Winter’s Heart before I left for Japan (I think I did), but I know that Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams, and New Spring (in that order) weren’t read until I returned. In fact, I waited so long to get Knife of Dreams that I’m pretty sure I own the paperback.
As the last book that Jordan wrote on his own, I’ve always wondered if he knew the end was coming and so realized that he had to start resolving loose plot points that stretched back to the beginning of the series. The saddest thing about Knife of Dreams is that the formula for the books I had read when a high school student was back. All of the loose threads begun in Winter’s Heart were resolved. There was less “plot fat” than there had been in the last few books. The stories moved, instead of being mired in unimportant details. Jordan finally seemed to remember where the original series was heading, before he became caught up in the minutiae of its world. And then, he died.
Any hesitation I had about Brandon Sanderson completing Jordan’s vision vanished when I started reading The Gathering Storm. The first thing I noticed is that Rand is once again the main character. He appeared a lot in Knife of Dreams, but he appears even more in The Gathering Storm, and the main plot revolves around him — not Perrin rescuing Faile or Mat fighting the Seanchan, as in the previous book. And The Gathering Storm references plot points and objects that were last mentioned in the first five books!
Plus, there’s another shocking revelation. A character we have come to know very well over the course of the series is revealed to be of the Black Ajah, though we get the sense that she had no choice in the matter, and dies giving Egwene important information about the Black Ajah in the Tower.
Sanderson’s style is lighter than Jordan’s and less reliant on superfluous details. Plus, he’s a bit better when it comes to character development, since the female characters in the last three books aren’t as whiny as they had become under Jordan. I mean, Jordan’s descriptions could lead to a drinking game: “Every time Nynaeve pulls her braid, drink!” “Every time Mat says he doesn’t understand women, drink!”
But besides the fact that this novel is not mired in details, what makes it the best one in the series since The Fires of Heaven (and I would argue since The Shadow Rising) is the ending, where Rand learns to laugh again. No battle sequence this time, except for the most important one: the battle within Rand’s soul. On the other hand, this book has what is quite possibly the worst cover art in the entire series (but oh how we fans love to make fun of the Wheel of Time cover art!).
Towers of Midnight centers around Mat, Thom, and “one other” attempting to rescue Moiraine from the Aelfinn and Eelfinn, though that event doesn’t happen till the end of the book (and aren’t even the Towers of Midnight mentioned in the title). Again, events from early in the series are reintroduced (like Perrin’s killing of Whitecloaks in The Eye of the World and the murder of his family) and things actually happen. Still, it didn’t have as amazing an ending as The Gathering Storm, perhaps because the battle for one’s soul is always more satisfying than an actual battle, but so much happens in these three final novels that one wishes Jordan had cut half the content out of Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight, combined them, and then finished this series before he died. Then again, so much happens because he left so much unresolved.
And now we come to A Memory of Light, the original title for the last book of the series, which had to be split into three separate volumes. The land is dying as the Dark One’s touch grows stronger, The Black Tower has fractured as Taim becomes one of the Forsaken, and the Last Battle is about to occur on four fronts, with the four great generals each commanding a front. The whole book is a climax, but the main points I will remember from it are two:
1.) It contains the longest chapter of any book in the series. Titled “The Last Battle” (and followed by some of the shortest chapters in the series), it starts on page 617 and ends on page 806. Multiple threads are followed, most of them focusing on the battle between Demandred’s forces and the forces of Light under Mat. This is, by far, one of the tensest sequences I have read in any novel, and certainly the tensest one in The Wheel of Time. Allies fall in battle, including some major characters, and Jordan shows just how thinly stretched the forces of Light are, with Demandred’s superior numbers and channelers of his own (unlike other parts of the book, this section is in Jordan’s voice. In fact, Sanderson assured fans that the climax of the novel was written by Jordan himself).
2.) One of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a series. People disappointed with the epilogue in Harry Potter will not be disappointed here (note: I was not one of those people). The climax presents moments of danger which, unlike other moments in the series, feels dangerous. This is the end. People die. Also, the ending manages to combine a large scale battle without with a battle within, both of which lead to satisfying conclusions.
To think, the books took place over two years in the characters’ lives, and yet it took over twenty in the lives of its readers. I will never have an experience like that again. It’s fortunate that Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson made sure that the series wouldn’t end prematurely. Based on the ending, I’m glad it didn’t. Based on the ending, I’m glad I kept reading.