Friday, July 5, 2013

The Wheel of Time OR My Long National Nightmare is Over

"The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long pass, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning."

I just returned from a family vacation, and something fairly momentous happened: I finished reading "The Wheel of Time".

The year is 1997. The month is December. The gift-giving holiday is Christmas. I was 15 years old, and a sophomore in high school. I got two presents that Christmas that changed my life forever. One was a video-game: Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII is still  my favorite game ever and if I had never played it, I never would have realized how much I like RPGs, and I probably would have stopped playing video games when I was 15.

The other present was "The Eye of the World" which is the first book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time", a series of epic fantasy novels.

Now, I had read fantasy novels before the "Wheel of Time". If we wanted to talk about the origin of my fantasy fandom, you could go back to when I was in the fifth grade and I read Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain", or even further back in time to when I was in kindergarten and my Dad would read me stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood. But the day I went crazy for fantasy books? The day I walked down that path and never looked back?

That was the day I cracked open "Eye of the World".

In many ways, "Eye of the World" is a fairly typical, mostly unremarkable fantasy novel. In typical fantasy-fashion, the protagonist, Rand al'Thor, finds his small farm town under attack by monsters called Trollocs. Rand (and his friends Mat, Perrin, Egwene and the village wise-woman Nynaeve) is saved by Moraine who is a sorceress and her bodyguard Lan. Rand learns that he is the chosen one who is promised to save the world from the Dark One, an evil monster who was bound under a mountain thousands of years beforehand. Rand, Egwene, and Nynaeve all learn that they are wizards. Mat learns he has super-luck powers, and is a military genius. Perrin learns that he can communicate with wolves. I know this sounds alot like Lord of the Rings/Shannara/Prydain/EveryEpicFantasySeriesEver. I loved it. I read the whole 685 page book in about 3 days. Not only did I love these books- they took an iron grip on my teenage imagination and did not let go.

Then I bought the next six books in the series and finished them all in about a month. This is no small feat. A few of these books clocked in at over 1000 pages. I started drawing the characters in my notebooks in school. I wanted to be Rand al'Thor, even if he was kind of a dick most of the time. When I read book 7 ("A Crown of Swords"), and found out that the next book in the series wasn't due to be released for awhile, I was crestfallen.

Then a funny thing happened. Book 8, "The Path of Daggers" came out, and I read it and thought it was just okay. Then book 9, "Winter's Heart" came out, and I actually hated it. Not only did I hate it, it actually made me realize some big issues with some of the previous books. Specifically, I realized that after the first few books in the series, less and less actually happened in each subsequent novel. It seemed that Robert Jordan's epic series had gotten away from him. After 9 books, he'd introduced too many characters, too many plot elements, and too many events. There were books where the series' protagonist, Rand al'Thor, only showed up for one chapter while new characters (Faile, Cadsuane, about a million other characters) had whole sections devoted to them. Many of the characters would spend an entire book just going from one place to another place. Sometimes they wouldn't get to that place by the end of the book (Perrin). Reading started to feel like a chore. Also, I was getting older, and my tastes were changing. I went to college. I read many other books. I started to realize how books worked, what made them work. I started to realize that Robert Jordan was maybe not the best writer in the world. Like, he was kind of sexist, and even after writing thousands of pages, many of his characters didn't grow, and oh yeah, he was really bad at moving the plot forward.

But, I had invested many, many hours in "the Wheel of Time", and I was determined to finish it.  In 2003, when I moved to Chicago, I read book 11, "Crossroads of Twilight", on the cross-country train ride I took to the city. In 2005, I read "Knife of Dreams" on my commute to and from my first job. I was reading not for fun, not to learn, not to expand my horizons, but out of a sense of duty and obligation to the 15 year old boy who had loved these books so much, to whom they mattered more than almost anything in the world, to whom they were a life-raft of adventure and joy when he was wallowing in teenage depression. I felt like I owed that Sean.

Then Robert Jordan died before he finished the writing the series.

In some ways I thought this was an out. Now I could stop reading these damned things because no one would write them! But then, it turned out that Jordan had made preparations in case he passed away, and Brandon Sanderson took over.

And you know what? When the next book, "The Gathering Storm", came out? It was kind-of, sort-of good again. Stuff happened. Some of that stuff was fun to read about. I remembered, a little, why I had loved the books so much as a kid.

And now I've finished the last book "A Memory of Light". It isn't a great book. It won't change your life. But it was fun. It tied up all of the loose ends of the series, and as I read the epilogue, I started to tear up. I've been reading these books for a long time, and even though I was grudge-reading them for awhile, they all MATTERED to me. "Eye of the World" changed me. It was my rabbit-hole into Wonderland. If I'd never read it, I might never have read "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell", or "A Song of Ice and Fire", or anything by Joe Abercrombie, or anything by NK Jemisin, or anything by China Mieville. "A Wheel of Time" was my primer, my base, my foundation for years, and years of reading- joyous, amazing reading. Roughly 50 percent of the books in the series were bad, but it started well, and it ended well, and it made my life better.

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