A Complete Series Review of
Robert Jordan’s: The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time is one of the best-selling fantasy novel series of all time. It introduced a wealth of fresh new ideas into the fantasy genre and expanded on others in truly creative ways. However, if one delves into reviews of the series it will not take long to discover it also has a fairly large number of detractors. This series review will go into four positive and four negative aspects of the novels to highlight some of the reasons why it is almost equally touted as the best and the worst of the fantasy genre.
Below is both my video and full written analysis.
Con: Change in Thematic Scope
Pacing is one of the major criticisms of The Wheel of Time and the origin of this problem can arguably be traced back to the shift in thematic scope around the fifth book. It must be stated that for some readers, or even perhaps the majority, what will be argued here can be construed as one of the strengths of the series. Still, this shift brought with it a dramatic expansion in theme and much slower pacing that has sparked considerable criticism.
It is obvious from the outset of the first novel that Robert Jordan was heavily influenced by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (as well as Arthurian legend to a smaller extent), and Jordan himself admitted as much before his untimely passing. As such, the first three novels in the series were quest driven journeys with titles that informed readers of the end goal. For example, The Eye of the World began with introducing the main cast of characters, who soon discover that the Eye of the World is in peril, and the end of the book has them fighting to defend it. The same in many ways can be said of the two novels that follow (The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn). The titles themselves tell you the quest, and the characters accomplish it, in one way or another, by books end. By the time the fourth novel comes around the thematic scope begins to shift away from self-contained prophecy fulfilling journeys toward a much grander exploration of all the minutia involved in rallying a discordant land toward facing off with a world ending threat.
This shift in scope was welcomed by most readers, as many wanted to see grander themes addressed in fantasy, and they also craved a deeper dive into the masterfully crafted world Jordan devised. However, there are many that felt exactly the opposite. Many readers got into the series specifically for the quest driven journeys and cared nothing for the catty politicking involved in rallying a land of increasingly dishonest and generally unsavory people. Nor did some readers appreciate the reality that this grand scope also brought with a much slower narrative pace, an increase in books ending with little to no plot development, or that many characters or themes would be completely abandoned for whole books.
The first three books in the series are excellent, arguably 8.5-10-star books. What complicates matters is that the shift happens four books into the series. Thus, the readers who did not care for the shift in thematic scope justifiably feel betrayed in many respects, but now they are invested. Once you are that deep into a series and it starts to shift, many feel their only recourse it to rage. It could also be argued that this series, by changing thematic scope, effectively accomplished the opposite of the Harry Potter series. When Harry Potter shifted to darker, more adult themes in the third book many feel that it broadened its potential audience while only alienating a select few. The Wheel of Time, on the other hand, may have effectively narrowed its audience around the fifth book by broadening its thematic scope and drastically slowing its narrative pacing.
Pro: Magic System
Magic is a staple of the fantasy genre, though many authors struggle with presenting the means, method, and basic rules of their magic systems with any kind of consistency. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is the great exception to this rule. The magic system in The Wheel of Time is very well thought out while being equally complex and easily grasped by the reader. The magic system contains aspects of the overall theme of balance, which will be touched on later, and that balance – whether between men and women, or even between different elemental aspects of the power itself – make for a deeply intriguing magical system with clearly defined limitations.
Each magic user, or channeler, in this series has a varied level of strength in the power, as well as varied skill in different uses of the power. For example, not all channelers can heal and some can only channel to accomplish one specific spell (or weave). Furthermore, there is a difference in what each life element (fire, earth, air, water, and spirit) does to channeling, and men and women have different levels of strength in each element. As all powerful as this may make the channelers seem however, they still require a guardian, or warder, because all it takes is an arrow in the back to fell them. Thus, their magic is not so incredible as to make them impervious to danger.
The series also introduced a vast number of magic amplifying artifacts that varied in strength and purpose. This adds another level of depth to this system in that simply finding an artifact does not increase the users magic ability in a blanket way, but that each has its own specific purpose and the user must know not only what the purpose is, but also what aspect of the power need be utilized to make the object do what it is meant to. Failing to know either of these and attempting to use the object usually ended in death or being cut off from the power permanently. This makes for an incredibly intricate system with well establish checks and balances. The magic system in The Wheel of Time is quite possibly the best in the fantasy genre, and it can easily be recognized from many novels that come after it how this system is used throughout the genre and beyond as a benchmark of greatness to be drawn from.
Con: Portrayal of Women
The portrayal of women in The Wheel of Time has been the cause of quite a bit of commentary both for and against the series. For some it is argued that the series, first published in 1990, was groundbreaking in presenting so many “strong female characters” who champion the series as often, if not more so, than the male characters. There is an interesting statistical analysis of the series that can be found HERE which points out how perspective wise women dominated the series as often, if not more so, than men as the series progressed. However, there is another contingent that sees Robert Jordan’s portrayal of women as all too often catty, condescending, and arrogant without cause. This may be caused by two factors: first, that the series seemed to take the brash, arrogant bravado of the stereotypical hero and implant it into nearly all female characters in the series, and second, that the series mistakes the idea of ‘being strong’ as a character with being overbearing.
What makes this more difficult is that the series often told readers how incredibly wise or crafty these women were, only to show them making arrogant mistake after mistake. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Aes Sedai, the main group of female channelers. At the close of the fourth book there is a break in this sect of magic users that lasts well into the 13th book. Up until this point the Aes Sedai were portrayed in the narrative as serene women with the expansive knowledge of one who had lived an incredibly long life – some well past the century mark. Once this rift happens their entire storyline could be summed up as nine books worth of catty political backbiting. These women, and the drama surrounding them, is the worst kind of soap opera trash. Nearly everyone is two-faced in one form or another, they all jump to the first available conclusion, and they rarely even entertain the idea that they could be making a mistake – regardless of how many times this is consecutively proved wrong.
If this were limited to the channelers, one may be able to accept this as a factor brought on by having incredible power. One could almost understand that. However, most female characters in the Wheel of Time behave this way. In nearly every book you can find instances of women learning some new fact or power and then immediately lording it over others or making wild assumptions that lead them right back into nearly getting themselves killed. Then there is the tendency of women in this series to belittle a man so thoroughly that the man somehow realizes he loves said woman. This is toxic and a poor way to present romance in a novel. Finally, they also spend incredible amounts of time finding the fault in anything someone says, but even more so when a male character says it. To be fair, there is a deep seeded trust issue between men and women due to the breaking in this series, but this does not justify every word coming out a man’s mouth being summarily ignored while basically calling the man an idiot. Does this happen in real life at times with some women? Of course. However, the women who treat other human beings this way are not the type one wants to read about.
Someone once said that Robert Jordan learned how to write women’s interaction by watching a gathering of housewives at a women-only party. Whether or not this is true, one can see where this story arose from. All too often in this series the female characters, in an attempt to be a strong character, come off as arrogant and patronizing to the point of being unsympathetic. One almost wishes the bad things that befall them if only to temper their pride.
Pro: Theme of Balance
Robert Jordan drew from several eastern philosophies in creating the world of The Wheel of Time. The wheel itself comes from the Hindu belief in time as an ever-turning wheel, and the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai is easily recognized as the Yin and Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy. In both ideologies, balance plays a primary role and Jordan attempted to capture that essence in his novels. Using this as a basis worked wonders for creating tension as well as harmony within the story. Just as in the dualism of Yin/Yang, the two opposing forces collide and contradict, but that contradiction can create complimentary relationships as they interact. Reading these novels with an understanding of this philosophy, particularly in how the Aes Sedai interact with the Asha’man, one begins to see a wealth of meaning hidden within the crafting of the story.
The tension between men and women, particularly channelers, takes on a different meaning in some instances when one sees their contradictory forces clashing to create a form of stability. Male channelers in this series are represented by black, or the Yang, and their eventual place of power is named the Black Tower to represent this. Female channelers are then represented by a white symbol and their place of power is the White Tower. Yang in Chinese philosophy is meant to represent the ‘active’ half and even, at times, ‘disorder’, while Yin is ‘receptive’ and ‘orderly’. In the way Jordan describes use of the power this can easily be seen where Saidar is surrendered to and Saidin must be forcefully taken hold of. There are a wealth of references to this philosophy and how it is meant to create balance peppered throughout the novels that helps it create a stabilizing theme of a universe out of balance and struggling to regain it. Robert Jordan was masterfully creative in incorporating these concepts into his work and presenting them in a way that was faithfully representative of their origins while also adding interesting elements that fit his own narrative.
Both the wheel and Yin/Yang concepts are also primarily focused on balance, and this story uses this theme as a foundation throughout. For each weave of the True Source/One Power (the magic of Wheel of Time) there must be a counterbalance. Furthermore, it become increasingly obvious as the novel goes on that the process of removing men who could channel from the equation severely weakened the world and had essentially thrown it out of balance without those doing it fully realizing the consequences of their actions. Finally, the ultimate resolution of the books also taps into this theme to investigate in a new way what ‘evil’ represents for human nature, and ultimately dealt with the idea of the ‘adversary’ in a unique manner that was impressively faithful to the theme of balance.
Many of the main characters in The Wheel of Time, and quite of the few of the tertiaries, have notable idiosyncrasies. That in and of itself is not damning. What is, however, is the incredible frequency that readers are forced to read about the same action or description being detailed ad nauseum for fourteen books. Whether it is the dice rattling in Mat Cauthon’s head, or the various emotional scents that Perrin Aybara picks out, or the slime like characteristic of Saidin when Rand tries to grab hold of it, this series has a virtual plethora of banal descriptive repetition. Though perhaps the most notable tick is Nyaneve’s sadistic self-castigating tendency to yank violently at her own hair when she is angry. However, this only covers some of the primary characters. There is also the knuckling of mustaches, fingering of blades, bonds carrying emotions, people being described as something completely with “… down to their toenails”, and the ever-incessant fussing with clothing – skirt smoothing or shawl adjusting. The amount of repetition brings many readers to a point where they can sense the repetition coming and will voluntarily skip over entire paragraphs in the book to avoid it. In many ways it begins to feel like Robert Jordan did not know how to pause and let a moment simply lie without filling it somehow. Sadly, he then tended to fill it with the same things over and over, which become very tedious to read.
Beyond character idiosyncrasies, there is also the case of excessively addressing women’s breasts throughout this series. Sadly, this is not unusual in the fantasy genre, but the incredible frequency in which breasts are the first point of focus in describing clothing – particularly in a series that loves redundant and unnecessary detail when dealing with clothing – makes this to stand out. Furthermore, the breasts are usually described as ample or impressive, bursting forth from the clothing in some manner. So, the series pushed forth the idea of strong female characters, yet still tended to hypersexualize them. While it is possible to have both, it felt incongruous in many ways. Then there is the ceremony to become the Amyrlin Seat, the highest seat amongst the female channelers, where a room full of women must bare their breasts to prove they are women, two women have to lay their heads on the bare breasts of another to complete a ceremony to become sisters, and an entire race of seafarers take their tops off (women included) when out to sea. Though perhaps the most egregious case of unnecessary repetition regarding breasts is that every time a woman crosses her arms it must be pointed out that this is accomplished, of course, but crossing them under her breasts. One can safely assume readers have no need of this added detail. All it truly adds to the series is an increase of the word “breasts” by no less than thirty occurrences per book. Time and again the writing returns to this part of the female anatomy to a point where it almost feels a fetish of the writer, and it grows tiresome.
One final repetitive element in the series is the archaic and almost juvenile methods used to enforce rules or to punish wrongdoing. Often this was accomplished by spanking, birching, paddling, or smacking someone with a shoe or sandal. When one takes into consideration that Robert Jordan was a professed country boy from South Carolina who grew up in the 60’ and 70’s, this can almost be understood. Nevertheless, one would assume that a magic wielding race of women with members near a century old and with seemingly limitless knowledge could devise a more effective method of breaking someone than putting them over their knee and spanking them. While being spanked is humiliating, and part of reprograming someone is to humiliate them, this simply comes off as a juvenile tactic that these women should not have fallen to. Further, in a latter book when Mat takes a grown woman over his knee and spanks her mercilessly, it comes off far more ridiculous in a perverted way rather than a comical one. He’s a twenty-year-old man spanking a woman at least twice his age. If one simply pictures a twenty-year-old man spanking a forty or fifty-year-old woman, regardless of what her face looks like, it can be nothing but disturbing. Perhaps it should be pointed out for those whose minds live in the gutter, as my mother would say, that this scene was not meant to be sexual. In latter books Cadsuane also finally breaks one of the forsaken, a sadist no less, by spanking her in front of other people. This is the straw that breaks her. One would assume people who have given their soul over to evil would all enjoy a bit of spanking, but apparently that is not true in Robert Jordan’s world.
Pro: The “Adversary”
While the Wheel of Time began with the story of a world being consumed by “the shadow” and our heroes setting off in preparation for a battle against the dark one to save it, how ‘evil’ is ultimately portrayed in this book is perhaps one of the better representations of this theme in fantasy. All too often the ultimate evil has little ambition beyond destroying everything for the sake of destruction. The fault for this can easily be laid at the feet of the age old tale of ‘creator’ versus ‘destroyer’ where an omnipotent yet ambivalent creator leaves his creation to fend for itself while a seemingly equally powerful destroyer is trapped in the creation with the inhabitants and is bent on ripping the creation to shreds to spite the creator. One need look no further than the Holy Bible, the best-selling book throughout all human history, to see where his story originated.
However, Robert Jordan’s “adversary” was ultimately different when the time came to finally confront it. The series attempted to address what ‘evil’ means in the overall balance of human nature. Therefore, this was more than a battle of good guys versus bad guys. This was a story of how and why this evil was able to rise, what caused it to ebb previously, and why it cannot simply be disposed of. In many ways this series also attempted to frame evil in a manner consistent with human history: all eyes turn toward the representation of the ultimate evil, but in truth it is the evil festering in the man standing next to you that presents the greatest danger. The ‘big bad’ often blinds us to who and what we are really fighting. In this, The Wheel of Time put a great twist on a tired trope.
Con: Overabundance of Characters
According to THIS Wikipedia entry, Wheel of Time has 2,782 named characters. Even for a fourteen-book series, that is an incredible number of characters. Thus, one of the problems in the series is uneven character development. Even primary characters are abandoned for entire books. However, the greater issue is progression of the vast number of tertiary characters.
Some characters introduced in the opening half of the series are shelved for large swaths of time only to be re-introduced later, making it difficult to reengage with the characters motivations. Gawyn Trakand is an excellent example of this. He plays a solid tertiary role in the first several books, but from book seven to eleven you read next to nothing about him. He then reemerges in book 12 and readers are expected to feel invested in his motivations. However, when an author disregards a character for that long it says something about his importance both to the author and to the narrative.
Non-primary character arcs also suffer from this abundance. Some arcs are far too long only to be dealt with haphazardly, while others are neglected for long swaths despite their potential. With so many characters fighting for page time there are several arcs that could have been flushed out and made into a larger plot only to be put on the back burner to bring in new characters. This series thus seemed to suffer from ‘new shiny’ syndrome, opting to flood the narrative with more and more characters without finishing what they started, or to kill off more interesting characters to replace them with banal new characters in an attempt to liven things up. At times this worked, but more often it did not.
Pro: Power Creep
All too often in fantasy writing characters go from being a talentless nobody at the outset of the first story to being an all-powerful, unstoppable force in the span of a single book. However, The Wheel of Time is one of the great outliers and is perhaps the standard bearer in how a power creep can be done well. The main characters begin the series with massive potential, but fully realizing that potential takes all fourteen books. This allows them to avoid, for the most part, the pitfall many other fantasy series fall into of adding stronger and stronger adversaries to up the ante, which necessitates the heroes power to continue escalating to a point of becoming ridiculous and repetitive. The Two Rivers Gang (Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nyaneve) slowly gain in experience, confidence, and power as each book moves along. This is done so well that each step in their progression feels natural with the movement of the story, rather than a spike in power just to address the current situation. Furthermore, the power progression falls in line with the character progression, synchronizing the narrative in a positive way.
The Wheel of Time was a ground-breaking series for the fantasy genre. The masterfully imagined magic system, thematic portrayal of balance, steady power creep, and the subversion of the standard adversary trope are but a few of the areas where this series shines. However, the thematic shift around the fifth book that slowed the pacing, the portrayal of women in an arguably antagonistic manner, overuse of repetition, and excess of named characters represent some of the points that detractors of the series have rightfully pointed out as weaknesses. Ultimately this series has quite a lot to offer fans of high fantasy, but it must be entered into with the understanding that the quality is inconsistent. Further, that the pacing and thematic scope of the series will shift in a way that some will not appreciate. In sum, while The Wheel of Time has rightfully earned its high place in the annals of the fantasy genre in many ways, it has equally earned a large number of reproofs making it a series with nearly as much downside as up.
Individual Book Ratings
- The Eye of the World: 9/10
- The Great Hunt: 5/10
- The Dragon Reborn 5/10
- The Shadow Rising: 9/10
- The Fires of Heaven: 5/10
- Lord of Chaos: 4/10
- A Crown of Swords: 1/10
- The Path of Daggers: 1/10
- Winter’s Heart: 2/10
- Crossroads of Twilight 1/10
- Knife of Dreams: 7/10
- The Gathering Storm: 9/10
- Towers of Midnight: 8/10
- A Memory of Light: 6/10
Series Total: 5.6/10