There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
March 10, 2012 5:09 PM   Subscribe

"It all started with wondering what it was really like to be tapped on the shoulder and told that you are the savior of mankind. Ten years of thinking about that, and I began writing." He was James Oliver Rigney, Jr., a Vietnam vet who went on to get a degree in physics from The Citadel, and was then a nuclear engineer for the US Navy. He put all that behind him and started writing a variety of fantasy novels under various aliases. As Reagan O'Neal, he wrote the Fallon trilogy of historical fantasy in the early 1980s, which he followed up with a quick series of Conan novels as Robert Jordan. Under this pen name, he spent a decade planning and four years writing The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time, an epic storyline in a fantasy world. Jordan had planned out the broad story arc from the beginning to the "final scene in the final book," but he died before his epic tale could be completed. A young author, Brandon Sanderson, was chosen by Rigney's wife and editor, Harriet McDougal, to complete the portions of the tale left as a loose collection of notes. One last book became three, and just last month, the release date of the final book was set: January 8, 2013, in the final month of the Year of the Dragon. Now that the end is in sight, you might feel the pull of nostalgia to finish the series, or maybe you're interested to see what all this fuss is about. With around 11,000 pages, 635 chapters, and more than four million words, it's a complex, daunting world to (re)enter. Fear not, the internet is here to help.

Rigney is almost universally referred to as Robert Jordan, based on the success of the Wheel of Time. Rigney's plan was to have a new pen name for every genre, to avoid his Louis L'Amour experience. Rigney was a fan of L'Amour's western novels and was disappointed to pick up a new novel by the author, only to find a mystery instead of a western. Because of that, Rigney made lists of names using his real initials, using a different pen name for each distinct style of writing. The first was Reagan O'Neal, then Robert Jordan for his Conan novels. In 1982, he wrote Cheyenne Raiders as Jackson O' Reilly, and later wrote science fiction reviews as Chang Lung. But Oliver Rigney has become Robert Jordan, to a degree, all due to the success of The Wheel of Time series. The series started out as a single book,
"But it's hard to find space for an 18-inch thick book on your shelf. I took the outline to the publisher, saying what I had here was more like four or five or six books. What can I tell you? I signed a six-book contract."
That was Robert Jordan, in 1991. Two years later and five books into the series, the number stretched to "7 or 8". In 2002, the plan was for two more books beyond the 10 already published. That number got a bit fuzzy, as in 2004, Jordan was talking about 3 prequels, after New Spring was published as an expanded version of the first prequel novella. And it got fuzzier still, after Jordan got sick and died, leaving his fandom with notes and dictations taken by his family.
The notes range in how detailed they are. In some places, he finished complete scenes, which is great. He finished several complete scenes, which will be scattered through the three books, including the ending itself.

In a number of places he gave dictations. Over his last few months, he spent a lot of time dictating to the family things that should happen. These are very interesting scenes in that they read kind of like a screenplay, because they transcribe the dictations. It's a lot of the dialogue, but it's him saying what should happen instead of actually writing it out. "And then, Egwene says this, and then he says this, and then this happens." And so the description isn't there, but the dialogue and the blocking all are. As I said, like a screenplay.
That was Brandon Sanderson, talking about his work on the final three books. Yes, the details to be contained in the final book of The Wheel of Time were too vast to be contained in a single volume. Sanderson was selected in part for his Eulogy to Robert Jordan, and for his own fantasy novels, which were darker than WOT to date.

While there are brief descriptions on the last two prequel novellas, there is, as of yet, no official word on these being completed by Sanderson.

But this is all side-stepping the content of books themselves. The problem with a broad series-wide review for the uninitiated is that there are ton of spoilers. If you stick to the promotional language, it'll be skewed to favor the series. Many book jackets and promoters, and fans proclaim Jordan as the next best thing to Tolkien, but as Edward Rothstein says in his New York Times write-up on the series in 1996,
It may be unfair to Mr. Jordan to push the Tolkien comparison too far. Tolkien loved the sound and texture of language and invented one for his epic; he wanted the books to read like a translation from a lost Nordic tongue. His characters' bardic poems sound as if they had been passed on through generations, coding lost memories in song. And when he hits his truest notes, as he does when marking the passing of a glorious past, Tolkien can be heartbreaking. Mr. Jordan, though, is all dispatch; the narrative drive stops only to engage in minute description of a street, a battle, the feel of wielding the Power. There is a practical quality to these books -- their job is to tell a story -- and if sometimes the wheels of destiny turn a bit too noisily, and pasteboard romances become too overbearing, the pages still keep turning.
Abby Goldsmith, a reviewer and fan wrote an article titled Robert Jordan: Genius or Hack? that discusses some of the minute descriptions involved with Jordan's world creation:
The Wheel of Time series is more than escapist brain candy. It is a fractal; an infinitely complex structure so tight that it seems to teeter on the ledge which separates fantasy from reality. That world as intricately detailed as our own. Its creator is either a genius or a madman; possibly both. When I picture Robert Jordan’s house, I can only imagine room after room full of papers, push-pinned to every wall, outlining a million details, keeping track of the shifting population of an entire world.
And she's not too far off. Jordan kept a file for each character, and some of his collection of notes went into The World of Robert Jordan's the Wheel of Time (Google books preview), commonly referred to as The Guide. This should be a good indication of how detailed reviews or summaries for the books can get. If you'd like a glimpse of the series, or a refresher on what you might have read a decade ago, there are plenty of sources. In increasing levels of detail:
  • WOT Summary is an interactive overview of the series to date, limited to a few sentences per chapter, plus the option to only display certain characters at a time.
  • Thonky's Wheel of Time Chapter Summaries features "spoiler settings," which allows you to set how far in the series you've read, and only display information from the books that won't spoil your future reading.
  • Brandon Sanderson's re-read of the series, which will provide some spoilers. The brief summaries of the books include Sanderson's own thoughts and memories of reading the books, with discussions on how his views of the books have chanced from reading them as a teen-ager to an author in his early 30s.
  • The Wikipedia entry on The Wheel of Time is fairly detailed, including good summaries of each book, but these are full of spoilers.
  • Tar Valon Library is a moderately detailed wiki for the world of WOT, as well as detail the social fansite,
  • A Wheel of Time Wiki is a wiki site, with a decent amount of detail on the world of Randland, the fan-given name for the world of The Wheel of Time.
  • Encyclopaedia WOT is a nearly exhaustive source for the novels.
Perhaps these sources still aren't enough for you. You can read through Robert Jordan's old blogs on Dragonmount, one of the biggest social WOT fansites. If you want to really read between the lines, jump into Theoryland, home to the fantastic WoT interview archive search, where you can dig through summaries and verbatim transcripts from Robert Jordan's comments at book signings, discussions at question and answer sessions, interviews of all forms, and even see what Brandon Sanderson has said and written in similar situations. And if this is all gibberish, check out the Dragmonount WOTFAQ, including the very necessary list of acronyms and abbreviations used in the FAQ, and by fansites at large.

If this still hasn't quenched your fever WOT, Geekology has a brief article on a possible movie, and other tie-ins, like stand-alone video games and an MMO.
posted by filthy light thief (66 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
If you're looking for a glimpse of Jordan, here are two interviews with Fast Forward: 2003, part 1 and part 2; 2005, part 1 and part 2.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:12 PM on March 10, 2012

11,000 words, 635 chapters, and more than four million words, it's a complex
I assume you mean 11,000 pages...

I wonder, do these super epics usually end up being good? I mean, harry potter was a long series of books, but it had a planned out arc from the beginning. I wonder if you have a series of books where people just keep writing way past their initial plan, are they essentially just writing fanfic of their own universe? Where they keep writing about the same characters because they like them, rather then because they have a specific story that they want to tell?
posted by delmoi at 5:25 PM on March 10, 2012

There is something about the man that compels verbosity. One summer about ten years I was crashing with friends for a few weeks, and I was bored and hot and sticky and looking for something to read, and one of them palmed off the first Wheel of Time book on me. Fantasy for the most part ain't my bag, but after slogging through the beginning I picked up speed and devoured's the most plot driven thing I know; reading them feels like entering into a eating contest, you've got to keep moving like a shark, tasting nothing, just consuming this tottering pile of text as quickly as possible....

For anyone who's intimidated by the above, the best analogy I can come up with for what the books are like is: Imagine the history of WWII told as a novel, with all the major players characters, so you've not only got whole chapters told from the perspective of FDR and Churchill and Stalin and Hitler, but even another couple layers deep, from Rommel and Eisenhower and Goebbels and Augie March and Tokyo Rose....that's about the level of complexity the guy was working with, and from that perspetive it's terribly impressive.

The writing itself, however, is largely awful. Wooden'd be generous; cardboard might be better. As I said, I went through my phase with them almost 10 years ago --- I think the last one I read was the 9th book. Haven't read the new guy. Is it worth it?
posted by Diablevert at 5:30 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Regarding delmoi's question: Yes, and I'm not sure with this series. To be honest, I ran out of steam around book 10 or 11, but I started re-reading the series earlier this month. I'm only in the first book, but I'm really into the book. Sure, the writing isn't great, and at times I stop and re-read a line to make sure I really read what I thought I read, but I'm excited to read more. I may slow down back towards the end of Jordan's writing, but I'm excited to see what Sanderson does with it. I've read his books, and I really, really liked them.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:37 PM on March 10, 2012

A few years back, there was a thread on the Straight Dope about the series (and I mean probably five or six years back).

There was plenty of discussion about the amount of detail Jordan put into his worlds, and lots of criticism for the amount of pages he devoted to characters travelling from Plot Point A to Plot Point B. What I found fascinating was the broad range of opinion. All agreed that Jordan had some great stuff, but like a death march, many dropped off at certain places, and rarely at the same place. A few quit after vol. 2 or 3, many about 6 or 7, and those who were sticking it out.

For a writer, it was interesting to understand that readers are going to have varying views on your work, and even the ones who complained the most about the long descriptions were willing to try "one more book," to see if it got better. Don't economists say something about opportunity costs? It's here.
posted by Bill Peschel at 5:38 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Great post! I love this series, have read the various chunks of it so many times. Every time a new one would come out, I would re-read all the preceding volumes. Really excited to re-read them again, and finish the series. Gawd. This is like, 15 years in the making for me personally.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:42 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nice post. The startling thing about RJ's worldbuilding is that it is very wide and very shallow. Hundreds of characters, but every one is different in name only; they will behave in one of only four different ways. Dozens of countries, but beside from different accents they don't really capture any kind of cultural variance.

Sanderson's Wheel of Time books are a huge improvement over RJ's later works. Overblown and overdramatic, sure, but there seem to be a few subtle digs at the idiosyncrasies of the books that came before, and they actually move the plot forward.
posted by Paragon at 5:50 PM on March 10, 2012

I gave up on The Wheel of Time series around book 8 or 9; I don't remember which. I ultimately gave away all of the hard-cover books I had, convinced that I'd never attempt to finish the series.

I'm still pretty much convinced of that. The books became extremely plodding and meandering, even as their releases became further and further apart. At the time that I finally relented, I remember being pretty bitter about it. The first few books were engrossing, even for their length.

I find it hard to believe that Jordan had anything more than a cursory idea of where the storyline would ultimately end up. Either that, or he couldn't stick to plan, or organize his material properly, or something. He was undoubtedly lost in the wilderness for a number of books in this series, and I never came back to see if he had started to find his way out.

Nice post, filthy light thief. Perhaps perusing the links more thoroughly will give me the conviction to return to the fold.
posted by Brak at 5:51 PM on March 10, 2012

I read the first book and ended up deciding it wasn't for me. I do appreciate world-building, but as others have noted the writing (sentence to sentence) just isn't very good. If I can't enjoy a story word by word, it's hard for me to like it chapter by chapter and book by book.

Great post, though, definitely filing it away. I think maybe one day I'll just spoil the whole thing for myself and take a look at this monster world the guy has created. A few sentences of summary for each chapter probably results in something of short book length, so perhaps I will just read that.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:52 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

That would be awesome Black Leotard, or else someone could just cut half of the meandering, hair tugging personal struggles and put out a WOT political history. I'd read that.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:05 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Brian Jacques : heaven
Robert Jordan : hell
posted by serif at 6:14 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Excellent post. I love the series, the characters and the world. I started it just before book 11 was released and have re-read it in preparation for the release of each subsequent book.

I don't know if it was on purpose but the post is very Jordan-esque. Long, epic, very detailed, gets a little bogged down in the middle but starts to hit it's stride at the end.

I think the middle books start to get kind of rough because, with the success of the series, it started to get hard for his editor (who was also his wife) to keep him in check. At first, it was easy for others to make Jordan heed their input since it was still very possible that they would kill the series. Once it was obvious that the thing was taking off, it got harder to tell him, "No." When Sanderson took over, Jordan's widow got a lot more clout as editor and was more easily able to give direction to Sanderson.

I'm really excited for the last book.
posted by VTX at 6:31 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Haven't read the new guy. Is it worth it?"

Sanderson is a much better writer than Jordan. But you'd have to read the novels which immediately precede Sanderson's involvement, if you haven't, and those are not very good.

The best thing about these, besides that Sanderson is a better writer, is that Moirane returns, finally.

"The startling thing about RJ's worldbuilding is that it is very wide and very shallow. Hundreds of characters, but every one is different in name only; they will behave in one of only four different ways. Dozens of countries, but beside from different accents they don't really capture any kind of cultural variance."

This is very true. What Diablevert says about the virtue being all in the plot is also very true. If Jordan's skills at characterization (such as GRRM has) and culture-building (such as SE has) were even remotely near his plotting and commitment to scope, these would be much, much better books. Alas, they're not.

Even so, while I tired of the series as it seemed to approach the ending asymptotically, with Sanderon's involvement it seems to be ending at a level of quality that it desperately needed to, given the commitment the fans have made in reading all those pages.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:32 PM on March 10, 2012

I couldn't get through the WoT series because they are bad books written badly by a bad author.
posted by Sternmeyer at 6:33 PM on March 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

"...with the success of the series, it started to get hard for his editor (who was also his wife) to keep him in check."

Yeah, I think that was his biggest problem.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:33 PM on March 10, 2012

I'm under the impression that the fate of WoT makes many fans of GRR(AR) Martin toss and turn in their sleep. Let's see if the spell 'HBO series" helps.
posted by ersatz at 6:33 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I tired of the series as it seemed to approach the ending asymptotically

That sounds so much nicer than "milked his cash cow until its teat bled".
posted by Trurl at 6:40 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I'm under the impression that the fate of WoT makes many fans of GRR(AR) Martin toss and turn in their sleep. Let's see if the spell 'HBO series" helps."

An ex-SO of mine and myself read all the extent WoT novels together over a few weeks back in the spring 1998 when we first met and fell in love. Years later, after we broke-up and she moved away, she ended up in Santa Fe. She (jokingly) told me that when Jordan died, she was tempted to cut out his obituary and nail it to Martin's door.

ASoIaF are much, much better books than WoT and I'm far more invested in Martin's characters than I ever was in Jordan's. And Martin isn't young. I do think people worry.

However, that Harriet McDougal (Jordan's widow) very carefully selected a talented young writer to finish the WoT books came as a complete surprise to most everyone, I think. Certainly me. I figured the series was simply orphaned and would remain incomplete. And even though Sanderson is a good writer, there was no guarantee that he'd be able to write these final books and produce something any good. Just because he's a better writer than Jordan and he was a fan of the WoT books doesn't mean that he was going to be able to finish the series in a way that worked. But these two of the three books that have been published have been good. And not just that, they are true to Jordan, even in a way that includes some of Jordan's vices. That is to say, they're good books that actually "fit", which is an accomplishment.

So, this sort of relieves some of my fear about ASoIaF. If someone else can finish WoT after the author's premature death, so too could someone else finish ASoIaF. But let's hope it doesn't come to that.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:43 PM on March 10, 2012

Robert Jordan's death was the best thing to ever happen to the Wheel of Time series. And I mean that with all that it implies.
posted by sciurus at 6:46 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Braid tugging and skirt adjusting at its finest. I remember some really cool parts in book 4, but by book 6 I was done. No regrets.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:57 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Brian Jacques : heaven
Robert Jordan : hell

I love Brian Jacquest, but I'd put GRRM or Guy Gavriel Kay as the equivalent opposite.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:59 PM on March 10, 2012

Guy Kay is an amazingly great writer but he uses foreshadowing like a battering ram. Better than Monty Python quotes in GRRM books though.
posted by sciurus at 7:05 PM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I couldn't get through the WoT series because they are bad books written badly by a bad author.

Somehow this needs to be in this thread again. :)

It took three tries to get me into book 1, then I got up to 4 or so before giving up in disgust. Several years later, I thought "maybe I didn't give them a fair chance"...nope, didn't make it through book 1.

Obviously he has a lot of fans. If you are wondering if you would like it, I'm guessing you will either be hooked or repelled after the first book. (Especially now that you can fully comprehend what the cost will be to find out what happens...) For me, it was the characterizations, the meandering plot, the vastly varying power levels (the characters go from "can barely fight a grunt" to one-hit kills halfway through book 1), and probably some other stuff I'm forgetting.
posted by Sand at 7:07 PM on March 10, 2012

BlackLeotardFront: If I can't enjoy a story word by word, it's hard for me to like it chapter by chapter and book by book.

When I started re-reading the first book, I was thinking about this. I braced myself for awful writing, and started out by focusing on the wording of phrases. "The sky was filled with ravens and the cries of ravens" or something like that caught my eye, and I groaned was sure this would be another thing that was clouded by the warm glow of nostalgia. But I kept reading, and the story pulled me in, which made me think of a recent study on how much video quality detail people noticed, as compared to the video content. In short, the more the content pulled someone in, the less they noticed the video quality. I think the same parallel can be seen in many things: the (series of or continuous appearances of) small flaws don't stand out if you're engrossed in the bigger story.

I'm not saying these are stories for everyone, or that Robert Jordan is some writing god, but if you get into them, it's easier to overlook the short-comings.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:10 PM on March 10, 2012

If you are wondering if you would like it, I'm guessing you will either be hooked or repelled after the first book.

Or if you are like high school to late college me, hooked after the first book, repelled after the seventh book.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:23 PM on March 10, 2012

I've been a die-hard fan for two decades now, and I think this is one of those things that I've stuck with out of sheer nostalgia. I love the world and the history that he's created, and it has a magical system that really caught my imagination right from the beginning.

YES, it has flaws, and quite glaring ones, but I can enjoy the series nonetheless, probably for reasons similar to what filthy light thief mentioned - the bad minutiae gets lost in the overall world and conceptual framework, so I don't mind the braid-tugging quite as much.

Having said that, I'm ever-so-happy that the series is coming to an end. It improved dramatically when Sanderson took over, probably because he had a very clear goal in mind. I love the series, but it has taken up so very much mental real estate for so very long, it'll be nice to see it finished.
posted by MShades at 7:25 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm only in the first book, but I'm really into the book.

so was i - but after book 3, believe me, it really starts wearing thin - sheer greed and verbosity wrecked what probably would have been a classic fantasy trilogy
posted by pyramid termite at 7:33 PM on March 10, 2012

I can't wait for Topher Grace to come out with a lean, solid two-book version of WoT.
posted by Etrigan at 7:38 PM on March 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

reading them feels like entering into a eating contest,

I once read three of them in one weekend, and the sensation was very much like having eaten too much over the holidays. And my head hurt, too.
posted by Slothrup at 7:40 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

He knew he had a fatal illness, knew it would kill him sooner rather than later.

The prolongation of WOT became identified with the prolongation of his life.

When I realized that, I forgave him for his recursive and infuriating temporizing, but I also stopped reading the books.
posted by jamjam at 7:44 PM on March 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is The Wheel of Time the greatest series ever? Hell no. Am I looking forward to the last book? Hell YES!

I have a gigantic pile of memories tied up in that series and things associated with it. I read the first two books while I was pregnant with Elder Monster. After he was born, I'd read subsequent books aloud to him so I could get my own reading in.

I joined rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan to pick these books apart with others, contributed to (and host a copy of) The Wheel of Time FAQ, and met my dearest friends there. There's a group of us that hang together, a sprawling, crazy, wonderful family known collectively as the Darkfriends, brought together by this sprawling, crazy series. We visit each others' homes, our kids hang out together, some of us spend holidays together, you'd think we've all been together for millenia. We toast RJ at every gathering, and shake our heads at the Darkfriend children crazy enough to start the books. They can't help it, they get curious about what it is that gave them all of these weird Aunts and Uncles and Cousins, and why they've ended up at parties in Ohio and Michigan and other places. We laugh when they figure it out - misery loves company! We've all been collectively tearing our hair out over these books for longer than some of the kids have been alive!

Elder Monster will be 20 in June of this year, and the damned last book still won't be out yet. And that's...strangely OK with me. I got more from Robert Jordan than he intended to give me. He was just looking to tell a story, and in the process, he gave me this huge family that I can no longer imagine life without.

So, thanks, RJ. And thank you, filthy light thief, for this post.
posted by MissySedai at 8:09 PM on March 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

As some above have said, the WoT series is weakest in the middle, where events/traveling/things happening that were aptly covered in the length of one book at the start of the series, suddenly exploded into multiple books being required to do the same. Near the end, perhaps inspired by the specter of death, the same material was more concisely written back into single book length. It might make for an interesting project someday for an author/editor to sit down and attempt to condense about four to five of the middle books into two or so. It's the first few books which get you, though. That's where the hooks are sunk deep into your imagination and you care about the characters. It's that affection which carries you over the bad times, and is rewarded here at the end.
posted by Atreides at 8:11 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I couldn't get through the fourth book, and I can't remember much of the story now, but one line about sampling a pie man's greasy wares will always stick with me.
posted by Joe Chip at 8:27 PM on March 10, 2012

I think Jordan realized that WOT had a big stable base and the longer he could stretch it out, the more money he could make. He got a six book contract. After the series took off he needed to make it go longer than 6 books. Figure the 6 book deal at 30-50k in advance for each book. So his advance was $150k-$200k. Good money but it takes a whole even with a best seller to earn that back. Therefore after book 3 he starts sand bagging the readers so he can sign a bigger contract for books 7 and beyond. Tor would pay more for an existing series that whatever he comes up with after WOT.
posted by humanfont at 8:58 PM on March 10, 2012

Mod note: fixed the "11,000 words"
posted by taz (staff) at 9:03 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Jordan realized that WOT had a big stable base and the longer he could stretch it out, the more money he could make.

And I think that imputing the least charitable motivations to the behavior of others without anything even resembling cause, much less proof, says much more about the imputor than the imputee.

I loved the heck out of the early books. I was debating reading the whole series before the last book, but I'm glad to see that there are chapter by chapter summaries out there. I'll probably just read those.
posted by pseudonick at 9:26 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

humanfont: Tor would pay more for an existing series that whatever he comes up with after WOT.

That's some pretty heavy speculation. Cheyenne Raiders was re-published with ROBERT JORDAN being pretty prominent on the cover, as was Fallon Blood, though they were originally published as under different James Oliver Rigney, Jr. pen names, which indicates that someone thinks the Robert Jordan name has enough recognition to sell even works outside of the fantasy category.

My wild guess is that Rigney wanted to be a world-builder, and found that he was given the space to expand his reach into more minutia and plot elaborations with each book and his wife/editor didn't have (the heart) to force him to edit much out, but that's just my wild guess.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:45 PM on March 10, 2012

I have two unique character traits which allow me to enjoy Robert Jordan's books.

1) I'm a historian. In temperament and in training, I greatly admire a well-constructed universe, and find the gradual exploration of such a world really enjoyable. Jordan's universe is wonderful, and everytime we get a snippet of detail from the Age of Legends or the days before Artur Hawkwing, I get a little thrill.

2) I have absolutely no spatial perception whatsoever. This translates into an inability to understand descriptions of pretty much anything I'm not already familiar with. As a result, my brain has developed the unconscious ability to automatically skip descriptive paragraphs (which might as well be in Bulgarian unless I focus on them really hard and then think about them for a while).

So, I get to see the world (lots of fun), move through the plot (mostly fun) and dialogue (so-so), and skip the dress smoothing and whatnot (probably agonizing) without ever noticing. This still leaves me frustrated with the absolutely idiotic interpersonal relations in the books, but overall ahead. Even so, books 8-10 are still well-nigh unreadable.

I describe most people who read Jordan today as the sort of people who have been waiting for a bus that's now an hour overdue, and instead of getting the fuck out of there they say, "by god, I've spent this long waiting - I'm not quitting now."

The "they could have walked there by now" in this analogy is, I dunno, reading Robert E. Howard or something. I haven't though it through that far.
posted by Palindromedary at 10:47 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

For those who want a critical look at the series, not clouded by nostalgia or undue sympathy, Adam Roberts' read of the series is great. Hint: he doesn't like it.

For me personally, I agree with the majority of Roberts' criticism but that didn't stop me from enjoying them anyway. The Eye of the World was my first taste of real epic fantasy and it hooked me immediately with its first scene, in which our hero Rand Al'Thor is traveling with his father through the woods form their farm to the village and he senses something is following him. That was when only the first two books were available and I had to wait endlessly long for the next books.

I reread them back when Robert Jordan died and found that after almost a decade of not having read them, when before that I must've read the first couple of books at least a dozen times, they still held up as stories. I can see the flaws Roberts points out, but they don't matter too much to me.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:49 AM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I failed at book 5. There are some brilliant, memorable scenes such as the Ter’angreal, Perrin and Faile defending the Two Rivers, and the journey into the Blight that I remember vividly. The names and words are spectacular "saidar, Aes Sedai", I can still remember who every character was.

However the following things made me stop:
- There were fewer happy scenes, everyone was miserable all the time
- The characters grew up too fast and became exceedingly dull, especially Rand and Elayne
- The stories became so widespread, I would have preferred to read separate books about each character than to have the constant context switching
- The stories became less mysterious

I think the first three books would make a fantastic movie.
posted by niccolo at 1:50 AM on March 11, 2012

Thanks MartinWisse, I was just thinking of Roberts' reviews. They're amusingly harsh. From his review of the tenth book:
I was warned. Many people warned me. Jordan writes. He doesn’t revise what he has written, and nobody edits what he has written. He writes a great fog of fretfully realised detail, very loosely bunched into clusters of pointless character interactions. Nothing else happens.

Jordan writes: ‘the odour of horse dung seemed strong.’ [286] Well, quite.
I used to love WoT - I started reading when I was 12 years old or so, and I still have fond memories of Nynaeve tugging her braid. The complexity of the world-building seemed amazing to me at the time. (Though my standards weren't very high - I used to like David Eddings books...)

The plot started to sputter around book 5 or 6, and was quickly grinding to a halt. I eventually gave up around book 9. But I'm glad to hear Brandon Sanderson seems to be doing a good job carrying the torch.

I don't know why Jordan did what he did with the plot... I don't think we should assume he dragged it out to make more money. I have no idea what it's like to write a 15-year fantasy epic, but as a software developer I wonder if it's anything like dealing with a 15-year-old legacy system. It's a success and the users love it, but you have to keep track of an insane number of details, and you really wish you could just start again from scratch...
posted by problemspace at 3:06 AM on March 11, 2012

Yeah, the Adam Roberts reviews are worth looking at. I found the reviews riveting reading, as he tracks the WoT journey from interesting fantasy to bad word borsch.

Incidentally, most people posting here seem to have given up around book 9. Was that book especially awful?
posted by The River Ivel at 5:20 AM on March 11, 2012

Discovered Jordan in high school (1990). Still waiting for the last book. Really like what Sanderson has done on his own, and happy that I have thus found a new author to follow.

For all his faults, Jordan created one of the most fun characters I've ever read in a fantasy series. Mat Cauthon is his best creation, and a lot more interesting than the lead. Would have liked to read more about him, and the teasers from Jordan about maybe writing a Cauthon-centered book after the main series was over... Well, could have, but didn't. Too bad.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:30 AM on March 11, 2012

The alternative is that he had breakdown somewhere around book four or five and could never recover the narrative.
posted by humanfont at 5:44 AM on March 11, 2012

Incidentally, most people posting here seem to have given up around book 9. Was that book especially awful?

From my own experience, it was the last book in the "middle books" which just dragged on and on and on. It could be that it was just the breaking point for some. My memory may be faulty, but Book Ten was where I started to feel the same enjoyment that the first few books had brought me. In part it was because Jordan began to tie up loose plot threads and actually have things happen beyond taking a few steps here and a few steps there.
posted by Atreides at 6:26 AM on March 11, 2012

I gave up on The Wheel of Time series around book 8 or 9; I don't remember which.

... and,

Incidentally, most people posting here seem to have given up around book 9. Was that book especially awful?

If I recall that was when I walked away from it as well. Specifically when one of the lead characters, a primary physical and political force in the Wheel Of Time world, spent the entire book in a bath.

No joke.
posted by mhoye at 6:52 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Jordan realized that WOT had a big stable base and the longer he could stretch it out, the more money he could make.

I can't speak to Jordan's motivations but Sanderson, at least, didn't stretch the last book out to three volumes for money. He was paid for one book but couldn't cram everything that needed to happen into one (at least not one that could be bound cost-effectively).
posted by VTX at 8:25 AM on March 11, 2012

That strangely makes me want to read it more as I'm laughing out loud at the absurdity. But I'll take your word for it.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:26 AM on March 11, 2012

I think filthy light thief's fpp is itself a subtle satire of the length of the series. Though to be completely appropriate he should have died 4/5ths of the way through his post, and had someone else finish it for him.
posted by happyroach at 8:48 AM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I myself stopped after the...6th book, I think it was? It just got so interminably boring. So much nothing going on. This was years ago, at least a decade, and my memories for the specifics have long since faded. It ended up feeling like a very drab chess game.

My brother-in-law, however, powered on through, and we'd talk after he finished each one. As the series wore on he got more and more frustrated with and alienated from the series. After finishing the ninth or tenth one, I can't remember which, he took it outside and burned it in his firepit. He threw the rest of the books away and he is still very angry when the topic of WoT comes up. I can't say that I blame him.

I am nearly done with A Dance with Dragons from ASoIaF, a series that I am enjoying much more than WoT. My brother-in-law has also read them and likes them a great deal as well. However, the friend of mine who originally introduced me to WoT, back in high school, mocks me for reading ASoIaF. "He's gonna die, you know," he says, "just like Jordan. The story won't be finished. You'll spend all this time reading the works of a man who is so in love with his own universe that he can't finish the series, and then he'll die." I really hope he's wrong.

Nice post. It always annoys me (in a good way) when there is a comprehensive post on MeFi about a subject I enjoy and/or am familiar with but I never considered making, because I'd assumed that someone else had to have already done so. But I'm glad you made this, filthy light thief; it brought back a bunch of memories.
posted by m0nm0n at 9:24 AM on March 11, 2012

Incidentally, most people posting here seem to have given up around book 9. Was that book especially awful?

For me, I think I read what was out up to that point over the course of a long hot summer, and maybe one book after that when it came out like a few months later.

But there was a years long gap before the next one. And while normally I have a very good memory for plot, I'd plowed through the books so fast --- truly I think it's the only way to do it --- that I didn't have a very good memory for the detail. Jordan thinks nothing of plunking you down in Chapter 1 right in the midst of a scene among tertiary characters he hasn't talked about or even alluded to for 600 pages, and faced with the prospect of re-reading some of the earlier books to refresh my memory as to what the hell everyone was up to, I simply balked.

I dunno though, now I've a kindle maybe this post will inspire a re-attempt. I find big bulky books go faster on those things, maybe because of the lack of pinky strain from just propping the thing open for hours...
posted by Diablevert at 9:57 AM on March 11, 2012

For books and reader drop off, if I recall correctly from millions of years ago, when usenet ruled the earth:

Book 6 was the first sign of significant grumblings, though very definitely a minority
Book 7 was the first where the consensus is that it wasn't as good as the previous one
Books 8-10 are almost universally frowned upon/reviled; not just a drop-off, but outright bad, with 10 the queen of "ugh"
Book 11 was seen as a return to form to one degree or another (and was the last Jordan did before he died)
posted by Palindromedary at 10:10 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

At my age I don't even want to start reading the first book of a trilogy unless all three books are in print: the thought of dying before the last book of a series is out makes me grouchy. Is this for real? The last book will be out shortly? (I think I'm good for at least a couple of years, so I could start reading the Wheel now.)
posted by francesca too at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2012

"...but as others have noted the writing (sentence to sentence) just isn't very good. If I can't enjoy a story word by word, it's hard for me to like it chapter by chapter and book by book."

If you're sensitive to the quality of writing at this level of detail, then, yeah, Jordan is awful and I'd recommend that people stay away from his books even relative to much of the rest of epic fantasy. Although that brings up the point that epic fantasy, and genre in general, are not very good by this standard.

It's worth mentioning, in case this will be news to anyone reading, that there are at least two (probably more) very different kinds of readers and I strongly suspect that those two groups very much don't understand each other.

This is true for me. I was a precocious and voracious reader from the start and, for better or worse, my home as a child was filled with genre novels and I had essentially no exposure to quality literature until I was a late-teen. So both because my reading style caused me to zoom past individual words and phrases, paying little attention to their construction and subtler implications, also the lack of exposure to high-quality writing gave me no incentive to care much about what I was missing. So my tastes were largely informed by genre, where story comes first, then characterization, and the technical quality of the prose isn't even on the radar.

Later, I began to read a huge amount of quality literature. But, at that point, while I found that I delighted in writing that was a joy to read simply as words and phrases and sentences, as beautifully constructed nuggets of metaphor and allusion and description, all that is still a bonus to me, not the main attraction. Even with great literature, I read for the larger ideas—don't misunderstand me, in great literature the larger ideas are mirrored and supported by things found in individual choices of words and phrases and sentences and what is described and what is not. Still, the most amazing and impressive prose in the world will not keep me reading a book that is all about that prose and not about the story and the characters and the ideas in play in the novel.

But what it took me a long time to understand is that there's another group of people who cannot not see and respond to bad prose. The most interesting story in the world, with the most interesting and deeply realized characters, cannot keep those kinds of readers reading when they have to slog through terrible prose. Now, I'm not saying that there's not a correlation between bad prose and bad writing in the larger sense, because there is. And I'm not saying that "the most interesting story in the world, with the most interesting and deeply realized characters" wouldn't be extraordinarily unlikely to be found written by a writer who writes horrible prose. But, for less extreme cases, the correlation is much more weak.

The lack of understanding by these two sides for the other side's perspective causes quite a bit of snobbery. Basically, I've been inclined to feel that the other side can't see the forest for the trees, while that other side is inclined to feel that I don't even know what a tree (or a forest) actually is.

However, I think that we can each learn something from the other if we loosen our prejudices a little. My best friend is the other kind of reader than myself, and from his long association with me he decided, when bored, to jump into the swamp of genre and to attempt to read the way I do, rather than the way he does. Because he labors over every sentence. (Which explained some differences between us in college, incidentally.) It takes him days to read even the simplest book. This is how he'd attempted to read genre in the past. But, as an experiment, he decided to read these books like I do, just barreling ahead, paying little attention to the detail, the choice of particular words, and read for the story and the characters and the ideas, getting through a book in a day, or less. And, after reading the first three books in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, he reported back to me that "this was fun!" And we had some good conversations about Cherryh's ideas about cultural relativism and language and whatnot.

As I wrote, Jordan is a sub-par writer in the technical sense even within the context of epic fantasy. But he weirdly still does a number of things quite well, enough to retain the interest of many people who otherwise would have given up. It is true, as others have said, that many of us kept reading because of the sunk cost fallacy. But not only for that reason. As irritated as I was, I still very much cared about a few of the characters and how their stories would resolve.

Also, for better or worse, Jordan's ambitions were huge with regard to throwing basically every trope and mythology available to him into the mix. These books are 100% derivative, so much so that it's often annoying. Even the characters' names. But that's clearly intentional. He was obviously influenced by Joseph Campbell and he wanted to create a sort of ur-mythology. This both fails and succeeds, in my opinion.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:54 AM on March 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

I found the Straight Dope thread I was thinking of, and while I'm tempted to post snippets, I won't, except for this post from "Athena":

I curse you to HIGH HEAVEN George R. R. Martin! I picked up your "Fire and Ice" series, thinking "Oh nice, I've heard good things about these, and lesseee, this first one was published in... 1996! Oh good, I can read the whole series at once."

I read the first one. I love love love it! Got the second one here, blew through that as well. OK, I'm on the third, is it going to turn out to be another Jordin, or can Mr. R. R. Martin keep up the quality? OMG YES! I can't wait to see what happens next! Let's go buy the 4th one!

Um, what?

You say... the fourth one isn't out yet?!?

You're taking a FIVE YEAR break between the third and fourth book?

Kill me now, just kill me now.

Note: This post is from 2004.

Oh, Athena, if only you knew back then ...
posted by Bill Peschel at 3:05 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Funny, I can realize that I am a reader who is able to mind-blank past paragraphs of rich horribly written description and only absorb the good parts. I love a good turn of phrase but it better be world shaking, and even the best authors can only produce a few in a book that do it for me. Then again I started reading (and re-reading) these as a 10 year old, so opportunity costs still hold.

The best part about the new Sanderson books, was the pace at which he shotgunned through open plot lines that Jordan exponentially spawned in the later books. I was cheering just for that. *closure.*

An interesting meta fact regarding Jordan's later books, it felt as if the more he was drawn into his own world, the more he could only write for himself in that world,* even temporally: book 6 took place over months, book 7 took place over a week, book 8 took place over about 3 days. Book 9 went back in time (maybe true?). Argh.

And regarding Mat as being Jordan's best character? True, he's also the only character Sanderson is unable to voice correctly, he's just not right. But I'll still take it.

**(for example some plot lines contained insanely intricate mysteries that could only be answered probabilistically: these 8 characters can be suspected in the murder, over the course of 5 books we can pin down the motives and whereabouts of about 5 of them, so we still don't know for sure who killed that guy!)
posted by stratastar at 11:10 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's amazing that it's finally coming to an end. I never got into Jordan, as a 13/14 year old I read Eye of the World, and that was enough for me; I found it almost brazenly derivative and even at that point the writing was very turgid to me. Later Smoke also found the gender politics as olde worlde as the messianic stableboy plot, so I progressed no further on round II, despite many a fan telling me it was worth it and Rand or whatever his name is doesn't become your typical messianic stableboy, not really sexist you learn more about why the women are so stereotypical in their behaviours etc etc.

Sorry, that dog won't hunt.

But, I will say, I have finally started Steven Erikson's books, and - whilst not without many, easily pickable, flaws - I do find his ambition and kind of "go big or go home" mentality, if not captivating, at least admirable. Really lives up to the "epic" name, for once. I'm only on book 4, and I certainly wouldn't die in a ditch defending em, but it's given me an insight, I think, into what people love about Jordan's series.
posted by smoke at 4:01 AM on March 12, 2012

... one of the lead characters, a primary physical and political force in the Wheel Of Time world, spent the entire book in a bath

Obviously, a B-Ark hero.
posted by The River Ivel at 4:59 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sanderson's books are a bit lifeless, but they're substantially better than the latter Jordan books.

I heartily second the recommendation for Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. The scope is breathtaking, and it's the only truly epic series I've read that really pays off in the end. Be forewarned, though, that it takes 3 - 4 books to build a mental model of the Malazan world. It's also an unrelentingly bleak tale.
posted by drklahn at 7:53 AM on March 12, 2012

Yeah, I love Erikson, too. But beyond simply enjoying the books, it makes me ache for more social scientists, especially PhD-level working anthropologists like Erikson, writing SFF. He goes way, way, way beyond any other SFF I've read in creating credible and complex distinct cultures—as opposed to slightly modified versions of Euro-America or rehashes of what Tolkien brought to the table. And he doesn't do this with, say, two or three. Rather, he does this with more than I can recall off-hand. Ten?

And while it's true that Erikson "goes big", his books work best when they achieve that—I say this with many reservations—Tolstoy-esque deep characterization within the context of History Writ Large. For me, the peak of the whole series is reached early on (unfortunately) with the Chain of Dogs in Deadhouse Gates. When all else about those books are forgotten by me, I'll still remember Coltaine's army's march to Aren vividly.

I don't think that WoT and MBotF are comparable, except superficially. They're both nominally epic fantasy, I guess. But Erikson's work is a direct descendant of Cook's Black Company books, and Jordan's is not at all. Which is odd, really, given Jordan's military background and Erikson's academic background. Both are high fantasy with a lot of traditional high magic; but the heart and soul of Erikson's books is the soldier. And Jordan, even with Matt, doesn't even remotely evoke what it means for soldiers to fight horrifying wars. WoT is all about The Hero, of course. Rand has only superficial antihero qualities.

I'm trying to think of anything that is close to a Hero's Journey in Malazan. And perhaps I'm forgetting someone, but I really can't. If anything, the examples that come to mind eventually subvert the whole idea (as it should, because I think Campbell was blinkered and, on balance, his influence has been pernicious). Crokus, I think, comes close. But Erikson both sort of loses interest in his story, and subverts the readers's expectations in telling it.

Jordan is fun, but I think WoT represents in a way the moment when traditional epic fantasy lived out its welcome and died. And I, for one, am very glad of that. GRRM, Abercrombie, Erikson, and others are subverting the genre and putting flesh on its bones, moving it away from what seems to me to be the comic-book sensibilities of the 50s.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:54 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think WoT represents in a way the moment when traditional epic fantasy lived out its welcome and died.

You have put into words its place in my own "reader's journey" exactly. I guess you could call it "naive epic fantasy". I wasn't overly impressed with the half of Gardens of the Moon that I read, but perhaps I should give it another go. As a DM, I appreciate good worldbuilding!
posted by adamdschneider at 2:18 PM on March 12, 2012

Gardens of the Moon is not a bad book, but personally I feel that it's not really representative of the series as a whole. IIRC, it is different in that it was sold as a stand-alone and was intended to be something different than what the series became. I could be overstating this.

But it is in some sense an inversion of the rest of the books. It's virtues are largely missing from the others, and its vices are largely missing from the others, as well. I'd read through it and then through the next one, Deadhouse Gates, to get a much better idea of what the series is about. Although, as I mentioned, I think DG is the best so if you agree, it's to some degree downhill from there. But then, maybe not. Honestly, it's not a very coherent series and so that's both a good and a bad thing. Different books have different virtues. As a series, as a whole, it doesn't quite succeed because of this. But as world-building and depth, I can't think of anything else, really, which approaches it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:44 PM on March 12, 2012

Just to throw in a contradictory note - I've only read 3 so far, but Deadhouse Gates was actually my least favourite - though IF and I are in strong agreement as to the best elements. I nearly gave up on the series at that point.
posted by smoke at 4:53 PM on March 12, 2012

It's been so long, that the Chain of Dogs is pretty much all I remember about DG.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:14 PM on March 12, 2012

Saunderson's books are ridiculously better than the last half of the ones written by Robert Jordan. It seemed like Jordan was trying to stretch a trilogy into two trilogies into three trilogies into four; never tying up a plot thread, but continually adding more and more and more characters to the storyline until the characters you liked rarely came up again.
posted by talldean at 7:15 AM on March 13, 2012

WOT brings back so many great memories that it is pretty impossible for me to regard it as just a series of books.
I started reading it so many years ago, I can still remember repeat visits to the local bookshop waiting for book 3. Read it all through secondary school and loved it. Reread it loads of times.

I do remember being utterly disgusted at when I finished book ten, or was it eleven? Can't remember. I was so annoyed that I'd waited all that time for that book and then nothing had happened in it.

Looking back now I can see that there are a lot of flaws in RJ's writing, but it just doesn't bother me. They are more than just books to me.

Also yes, Mat is awesome, and Sanderson hasn't gotten him right, but I will cope somehow.
posted by Fence at 1:36 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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