The Wheel of Time – A Review of Sorts for Books 12 & 13

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When an author of a long-running book series passes away and someone else picks up the mantle to complete the series, there is understandably some concern from the fan base. Here you are, committed and eager to see the conclusion of some epic story, and someone else who had no hand in shaping that story, takes over.

For the Wheel of Time series though, Robert Jordan took great pains to document and outline how he saw the conclusion to the series shaping out. He left detailed notes and ideas for that next author to use, and it’s obvious, when reading the last three books in the series, Jordan really worked hard to make make sure the story flowed continuously.

I’ve written before about my long journey with The Wheel of Time series and how I picked it back up after a long hiatus. My main form of WoT consumption these days is through audio books since it’s easier to get through them at work or while plodding around the apartment doing chores. With books 12 and 13 it was no different. And considering that it was read by the same actors as the other audio books, it didn’t feel off or vastly different. It felt comfortable and familiar which was exactly what I was looking for when I started it.

Book 12 really revitalized the series for me. I enjoyed books ten and eleven and was looking forward to Sanderson’s twist on Jordan’s plotting but it really exceeded my cautious expectations. We had some good twists, and a call-back to the earlier books that I hadn’t been expecting but that was much appreciated as a means of tying together plots. It’s nice to see all the books in a series this long tying together, which makes the long trip through them seem worth it. Book 12 felt like the start of something new and exciting, a good beginning to a concluding trilogy of books that need to perform and end what has been a very long and extensive story. Book 13 only continued that sense of continuity.

As a reader of the series, seeing the growth of the main characters has been awesome. To get through as long a series as this, you have to become truly invested in their stories and in their development. It’s not enough to be fascinated by them, you have to care. Comparing where our rag-tag group of world savers has started to where they are now is like looking at a high-speed video of someone’s life. Frame one is them as a small child, you blink, and here they are as adults showing a maturity and strength of character that had previously only been hinted at.

As much a series about fantasy, politics and war, I am finding that the Wheel of Time series is, at its core, a coming of age story. Yeah, I know how that sounds but really. Our main six characters (Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Elayne & Nynaeve) are forced to grow in such drastic ways with literally the fate of the world thrust upon them. We read about their struggles, their triumphs, their pain and smiles. We follow them through mistakes and the lessons learned. I found it to be more than just a great fantasy story with magic and strange creatures roaming about. More than the solid mythology and world-building that Jordan had spent so much time creating. It’s a story about people, and how those people adapt and mature. Even the dumb way our Six talk about the opposite sex is, in its own way, endearing. Men are “wool-heads” and woman are manipulators. Their silly viewpoints only emphasize the fact that these are the same kids who so many books ago were tending sheep and stressing over the concerns of a small town. As much as they’ve changed, they are still our characters. The ones we’ve known for eleven books before. (Though I will say that the sexist way men and women think of each other is one of the only lazy feeling tropes the books have.)

I’m not really one for retelling a plot in a review like this. If you want to know details, you can find one of the many wiki pages devoted to it. I for one relied on the WoT Encyclopedia site while listening to the books as a means of keeping track of all the comings and goings. What I am interested in is, why people should read this series at all. Why I found it so compelling that I’ve spent the better part of two years reading it. For all the slow parts, the books that seemed to crawl through their plots, I think the main redeeming quality to the series is that it was all worth it. It all ties together. Events in one book affect events in another and that sort of consistency and forethought is awesome. Especially to someone who aspires to write his own novels and stories.

I’m well into the last book, as I write this, and it is engaging and dramatic. It’s going to be kind of sad to reach the end, I may just go back and skim through book one for the hell of it.

 

The Wheel of Time – An Update From Dan

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I last wrote about the Wheel of Time series in August of 2012. I was so young then, just an idealistic youth, naïve to the struggles of the real world with nary a worry for me to write about. Well, no. Not really. I just wasn’t a father then so that’s what it felt like. Now, two years later, with an almost-2 year old running around, I look back at that Danny from August 2012 and think “Wasn’t it so much simpler then? When you could sit and read a book for two hours straight and not feel like you were wasting precious child-bonding time?” (Or sleep. Like you were wasting even more precious catch-up-on-sleep time but….you know, go parents!) Anyway, here I am now, June of 2014, older and wiser, busy and seemingly always tired. In those two years, even with the added responsibilities, I did make it through a pretty steady rotation of books. While fitting in a healthy dose of non-Robert Jordan written books, I made it from Jordan’s second Wheel of Time book, “The Great Hunt”, to book eight of the series (come on, book eight. That’s a lot!). Then my mind shut off, outside distractions took over, and I had to put it down. Not just the book, but the whole series. And I remember that moment very well. I was reading in bed after a long day and I found myself in that place of having re-read the same page four times, and retaining nothing. Names blurred, sentences ran into each other and I just didn’t care anymore. I admit, it was a both a sad and liberating feeling.

Now at this point, you are probably thinking, “What a terrible book review. Who cares about your life. Get to Rand.” (If you don’t know who Rand is, then the rest of this will just be really terrible for you. Sorry.) And in some ways, you’re right. This isn’t going to be a good book review. Because, well it isn’t a book review. It’s an update of sorts. I wanted to write about my progress with a series spanning fourteen books (suck it Hunger Games trilogy!) and for me, two years.  Things change in two years. People change. Locations change. I started this journey with Rand, Perrin and Mat while they were living in Emond’s Field, and I was living in Brooklyn, NY. Now they are spread all over the lands west of the Spine of the World, and I live in Phoenix.

So why now. Why am I writing this, if I seemingly gave up on the series and forgot about all our ta’veren friends? (Again, if you are unfamiliar with ta’veren then either check out the Wheel of Time encyclopedia page at http://encyclopaedia-wot.org/main/wot.html or just stop reading. Or keep reading, its you’re life.) Because I eventually picked up book eight again. Because I find myself now, one chapter into book twelve, engaged and invested. I realize now that part of the reason I stopped in the first place was because, and this is probably inevitable in such a long series, some of the books seemed to muddle through their plots. They felt like place-holders for larger things to come, and less like worthy stories in and of themselves. While the story did move, and characters evolved, it was slow and monotonous. To put this in a little perspective, books eight through eleven take place over the course of a year. Four books, one year. And one of those books covers just a few weeks. If I hadn’t been genuinely interested in the collective fates of our protagonists (or committed with an OCD-fueled fervor to finish what I started) I may have just quit all together. And trust me, I thought about it.

But I didn’t quit. And now here I am, on the other side of the slow plotting and all the better for it. I sit here now, the audio book for book 12 “The Gathering Storm” waiting patiently for me on my phone, actually excited to see what happens next. The slow pace of the earlier books worked for me because now I have a real feel of what is at stake. There was an urgency to book eleven that has carried over into book twelve. And with Brandon Sanderson (who wrote the Mistborn series which I thoroughly enjoyed) taking over the helm for the last three books, after Robert Jordan’s passing, I am even more excited to see how he puts his own mark on what has, in its entirety thus far, been a fun and you know what? Satisfying experience. Yeah I said it. Even with the kinda boring parts and the hundred names that crop up every chapter so that I have to listen to the audio books with that encyclopedia page open.

Many times in life, we are forced to live through the boring parts. To just make it to the other side of some long endeavor, wishing the journey were more exciting. There are times when quitting and moving on to something else makes so much sense in that moment. It really does. We think we could be spending our time more productively. And I felt this way about school for a long time. Why suffer through Intro classes and full schedules, when I already knew what I wanted to do and just wanted to go ahead and do it? It’s tough sometimes to stay motivated and push yourself past those moments of monotony and tiredness. But we do it. And often we come out the other side so much better for it. I’m not saying reading this series is some grand life achievement that I expect will enrich my existence the way school might. What I am saying though is that there is a lesson in there somewhere. That sometimes if we just keep moving forward with something, complete it and judge it as a whole, we might realize we enjoyed it. And this is how I feel about this series. I want to see it as a whole, and judge it as a complete package.

So, if you know how it all ends, don’t tell me. I’ve been vague in this post so that I wouldn’t spoil anything for you. This two year journey so far with Rand, Perrin, Mat (and Elayne, Nynaeve, Egwene, Min, and Aviendha), has been fun, and I appreciate the experience of having grown alongside those crazy kids. No regrets. No judgment.

I’ll be posting reviews of the next three books as I read them, just as an FYI kind of thing. So look for them on the site. And I’m curious to know what you think about the series if you’ve read it, or are reading it, or are thinking of reading it. It’s an investment, but most things are. I say go for it. Or don’t. It’s your life. 🙂

 

The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan

   I picked up the first book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time  series, excited and anxious at the same time. Excited for the breathe of story, and epic adventures I knew were still to come; anxious for how long it might take for a fourteen book series to really delve into the meat and potatoes of the ever larger plot. I ended up really enjoying the first book, The Eye of the World, finding it a very good introduction to both this new fantasy setting, and new characters who (one would imagine) would need to be interesting and yet initially shallow enough to really grow and develop as the series progressed. When I finished the first book, and, taking no break, moved right on to book two, I again started to feel that excited/anxious feeling. Excited to continue the stories introduced in book one. Anxious that the build up and action would now continue its momentum into this next part.

I was very happy to have been  wrong on that last point.

The Great Hunt, book two in The Wheel of Time series, continues on the same path, narratively and plot wise, as its predecessor, creating an easy and appropriate lead into a continued story regarding our main characters; Rand, Perrin, Mat, Egween, Elyane, Nynaeve, Moraine, and Lan. The flow and connection between the two is nearly flawless, continuing the deliberate pacing of book one, without losing the flow and momentum of the action. Many familiar themes, much like I mentioned of my review of book one, remain, yet have really taken on a life of their own. Still remaining are familiar archetypes and settings, though with characters who are alive, and evolving, and very different then perhaps pre-conceived notions of how these archetypes should act. Our rouge still acts like a rouge (living and gambling always with his own skin in mind), yet has the heart of gold, and is loyal to a fault. Our warrior/bruiser is a soft spoken, reluctant fighter. Slow to action yet quick to contemplative thought. Our characters aren’t only the clichés they may represent on the surface, making it continuously exciting and rewarding to read and see the skins of the onion slowly peeling off each of them.

One other aspect, specifically about The Great Hunt, that was appealing to me was the way the action is handled both in the narrative, and how in how it is written. Jordan offers no real advance hints or foreshadowed predictions to action that may very well happen at any moment; the writing remains the same, all the way through the point that our characters are being attacked by enemies. It makes the action seem spontaneous and gives the reader the same “danger behind every corner” mindset that the our protagonists are feeling. There isn’t any frivolous writing either; descriptions merely for the sake of describing. The action is quick, and meaningful, and goes on long enough where, as a reader, we too feel the quickness and urgency of the situation.

If I were to list my favorite things about this book, and the reasons I feel someone else may also enjoy it, that list might look something like this:

  • The pacing has increased from the deliberate pacing of the first (introductory) novel, yet doesn’t speed along leaving the reader feel as if he/she’s missed anything.
  • We’re continuously learning more and more about our main protagonist, as they grow from young adolescence, to young teens, to teens, and beyond. I’ve yet to feel that any one of them has grown stale, or that I would rather follow one in the story, then the other. Each member, and taking one step further, each separate plot arc is interesting, and fits well with the other plot arcs framing the overall story.
  • Jordan’s writing style. While not the linguistic aficionado that Tolkein was, very rarely is there something written that seems placed there for no reason. There is a clear sense of purpose in his prose; the way he phrases his scenes and his utmost consistency regarding how he writes and differentiates between his characters.

Conversely, if I had to write a list of aspects I didn’t like about book two, the list would look like this, albeit much shorter:

  • On a totally superficial level, it’s a bit overwhelming to know that I’ve only but tipped a toe into the ocean of story, plot, and intrigue that I imagine awaits me as I progress through the series.
  • And that’s about it!

Throughout reading the story, I continually felt enthralled, and eager to read the next page for either some sort of internal resolution, or for one of Jordan’s surprise action sequences, which again, can seemingly come out of no where. Unlike the first book, where as a reader one can excuse some slow moments, since I felt they worked to make the faster moments that much more urgent and interesting, book two doesn’t have many of these slow moments; because the plot moves along at a good pace, giving the reader what we all want – a sense of progression and resolution. While I may not know what will happen to Rand (if he makes it that far) in book fourteen, at least I can feel comfortable knowing that his exploits in book three will, at least, be resolved.

One more thing to mention is that unlike that other long fantasy series, Martins’ “Song of Ice and Fire”, there doesn’t seem to be a tidal wave of new and somewhat arbitrary characters filling pages and random story arcs with simple ‘filler-characters’. With fourteen books total, I hope this is a trend Jordan continues.

This series continues to cause me anxiety. But the good, I-can’t-wait-to-see-what’s-around-the-corner type anxiety. A coworker of mine is on book eight, FIVE whole books ahead of me (to think what may happen in those five books gives me a great headache), yet I know she is only about HALF WAY done with the entire series. Daunting. But also, so invigorating to know this world I’ve entered will continue on, and continue to grow. And if book three (of which I am half way through at this point) is any consideration, Jordan’s momentum and skill at story telling, and suspense, continues strongly and efficiently. And while I’ve read two other books between finishing book two, The Great Hunt, and starting book three, The Dragon Reborn, my mind is still wrapped about the exploits of our young heroes. And that’s not bad thing, not in the least.

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan

It was with some trepidation that I picked up Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Not that it hadn’t come with great reviews from friends. The copy I read was borrowed from a coworker after he fervently recommended that I read it. I was nervous because of those recommendations. Nervous that I might be let down. And, oh yeah, there was also the fact that this was book one in a fourteen book series. Yeah. Fourteen books. Now, I’ve survived other long series like King’s DarkTower (well most of them anyway),  the eleven books in the Ender’s Game/Bean series, Harry Potter’s seven book adventure, all (most) of the Dune’s… So I knew I could (most likely) invest myself in something and make it to the end of a long, epic story. But then again, this was fourteen books! …I took a deep breathe, told those other books I had waiting on the shelf ‘goodbye, I’ll be back one-day’, and dived into Jordan’s lively world.

The Wheel of Time is a fantasy series by Robert Jordan, following the adventures of Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon and Perrin Aybara (amongst countless others). The first book, The Eye of the World, introduces us to our three main protagonists, as well as to this rich and extremely well thought-out land they get to adventure in. It has a very comfortable and recognizable fantasy feel to it, one that calls back to Tolkein and brushes broad strokes of familiar fantasy themes and character archetypes: the boy who is more than what he seems, the wise guide, and quiet warrior, and rouge, the brute, the quiet but powerful young woman and her angry but hurting counterpart. The mystic order pulling strings behind the scenes.

As familiar though as the story might be, there remains so much that is fresh and exciting about the story and how Jordan writes. I tend to pay close attention to writing styles when I read, despite how engrossed in the plot I might get, trying to pick out why what I’m reading works or why it doesn’t. The art and skill of good writing is such an amazing thing. And while at times the narrative might seem repetitive, or slowed, it’s in that deliberate pacing where Jordan creates the tension and the bonding that occurs between reader and character. Jordan’s introduction of his main characters is done so naturally and smoothly, that by the time danger arrives, and their destinies begin to unfold, you are genuinely invested in the lives of these young men (and two very strong female protagonist as well) as they begin what I can only imagine is an epic journey through time. Fourteen books!

The book worked for me on major two levels. On the surface, the action was well written and dramatic. And sudden! It was normal to have our characters hanging in an inn one minute, then running for their lives from a Darkfriend the next. That worked well with that deliberate pacing and kept the story moving; the action relevant and not just there as filler. The second level was the play between characters and Jordan’s slow unfolding of this new fantasy setting, where magic takes its own form and a whole new mythology is created. Jordan, while drawing on so many familiar inspirations, takes the common and makes it uncommon, and thereby his own. From Trollocs, the Orc-like grunt soldiers of the Dark One; to Warders, the quiet and deadly warrior-servants of the mystical Aes Sedaii (that mystic order I mention above). The whole book feels it might be something you’ve read before, while being new and refreshing at the same time.

I went into this book expecting to be thrilled, with high expectations well above anything I should have expected. I wasn’t ‘WOWed’ in any way, but I was left very much satisfied, and just as eager to keep reading to find out what happens to Rand and the bunch.

And while I may have to put some other books aside for the time being, though I already broke my pledge to read one “normal” book between every Wheel of Time book just to keep things fresh, I’m looking forward to taking my own journey along with those characters. Lets see how far down fourteen I can make it.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus By, Orson Scott Card

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I came to Orson Scott Card through his extensive “Enderverse”. Ten books total; five centered on his boy hero Ender Wiggin, from Ender’s Game fame; five more centered around Bean, and the other battle-school children dealing with life back on a post-bugger war – Earth. If all that means nothing to you, then I would strongly suggest reading either series of books, or better yet, all ten. The writing is smart, treats the reader with a certain respect of understanding, and simply put, the plots, stories and characters are great!

So it was with that background in Card’s work, that when a friend suggested I read Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, my first thoughts were, “Is Ender in it?” And when the answer came back, “Sorry. No.” my interest waned. It would be hard to read words written by an author I was so attached to, but about a subject that was strange to what I knew. Orson Scott Card has tons of books, but he was always just the creator of my favorite Sci-fi book of all. I’m glad I branched out.

Pastwatch is a science fiction story, with strong characters whose motivations and moralities are clearly defined. They are relatable. Reachable. Yet, somehow, as with most of Card’s characters, even those so like us that we feel the interaction between character and reader stronger then ever, even then, they can somehow rise to occasions and do actions that make us wonder at their strength and courage.

In a world where war, famine and human cruelty have won the day; where the scattered pockets of growing human society scratch and claw and attempt to use their collected efforts to restore the Earth to the lush provider it had once been, we have the people of Pastwatch. They can look back through time and have the ability to record the mistakes as well as the miracles, that made their reality what it is when the story starts. How better to rebuild the wonders and cultures of a world where humans are on the brink of cultural extinction, than with a technology that can literally look back and capture those moments as they happened.

But when one researcher, consistently disgusted with what she sees as the worst of human nature shapes our history, decides that she’s found the moment of historical significance where human-kind began its slow decent into anarchy, conquest, slavery and destruction, she decides she has to try and stop it. Even if it means that everyone and everything she knows now would cease to exist.

And that moment? Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World and his consequent return to Spain.

The mix of history and fiction is seamless, and makes for a view of Columbus and of his time that I for one had never considered. There are realities that don’t often come to light when romanticizing our favorite story of adventure and new discovery. And while this book was totally a work of fiction, it makes you want to read more about Central America and early Mesoamerican cultures. The bibliography at the end is a GREAT help for that.