January 2013:  Wheel of Time – a modern masterpiece?
Wot?  W.O.T. is finally finished?  Thank the Light!  The completion of this epic series of books marks a distinct phase of my life.  I’ll have to find something else to take its place, I suppose...
The first book in the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Fantasy series was published in January 1990 although I was not aware of it then.  Alister bought it for me in 1999, nearly a decade after the series had first appeared.  Thanks, Al...  I read that and was then hooked from that point on.  There were several books available at that time, so I spent an enjoyable year or so catching up, then had to wait for new titles to appear, like other fans worldwide.  I don’t like waiting!  However, there was no alternative, and I have been waiting a very l—o—n—g time for the series to be completed ( although not as long as some ), and there have even been times when I worried that I would not live long enough to read this whole saga.
The first few books were released about a year apart, then it slowed to about 18 months apart, and finally, shortly after I caught up with other series readers, it blew out to much longer delays between releases.  With books #8–10 especially, Robert Jordan seemed to go through an introspective, philosophical stage, adding incredible minute detail that painted a very complete and engaging picture of the W.O.T. world and the principal cast of characters, but barely contributing to the overall development of the saga at all.  Internationally, W.O.T. fans started grumbling that the series had bogged down...  and finally we discovered the reason: Jordan was dying of an incurable disease.  By that stage the story was still far from complete, and Jordan, now very ill, struggled to finish book #11 – his last – which at least took a wider view, so the saga finally progressed again.
WOT CoversReacting to both public and Publisher pressure, Jordan’s wife Harriet, who had always been his Editor, appointed young Fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, to complete the series ( click pic to enlarge ) from notes that Jordan had accumulated while writing the saga, plus scraps of draft for the long-anticipated ending.  Sanderson actually met Robert Jordan only once – for an extended data-exchange session – before Jordan died in late 2007.  But he was able to write books #12 ( 2009 ), #13 ( 2010 ), and now #14 to finish the epic series, fairly true to Jordan’s original vision and style.

The Style Thing:  Although Brandon Sanderson plainly made quite an effort to write in the same style as Jordan, his first contribution with book #12 was not quite as successful as I am sure he would have wished.  On the positive side, he showed his ruthless ‘New Broom’ hand...  a few fairly major characters all bit the dust in the first couple of chapters!  Aha!  Here we go – he’s clearing the decks!  But on the negative side, a few personal grammatical terms surfaced, and contrasted somewhat with Jordan’s earlier, very measured style.  Sanderson is fully a generation younger than Jordan, so his repeated use of the modern, but very clumsy “She took the shirt off of the drying line” grated a bit ( Yecch! ), because Jordan would certainly not have used that.  The older, simpler off or from would have been more his style.  This must have been discussed thoroughly with the Publishing team after book #12 had been released, though, because book #13 was much better, as Sanderson got more used to the style, and book #14 was better again – it seemed quite Jordanesque.
Jordan obviously modeled his entire ‘Wheel of Time’ upon the Buddhist concept of cyclic salvation and reincarnation, all within millenia-long ‘Ages’ separated by cataclysmic events.  Perhaps that is why the saga progressed so slowly, so gently, but Sanderson followed a slightly more worldly, matter-of-fact path, and I personally enjoyed this...  the storyline advanced steadily.  I also liked the way that Sanderson continued Jordan’s ‘gender-neutral’ approach.  But I did not enjoy his preference for visual melodrama that will probably perfectly suit a movie version of the saga but seems a bit contrived in a book, and I believe that Jordan would have preferred a more bookish, less visually-oriented approach.  It might suit a movie to have dark, brooding weather suddenly clear to sunshine just as a ‘good’ event occurs in an apparent cause-&-effect manner, and offer no further explanation, but that’s a visual story-telling device, not a literary one.  It seems very corny and unconvincing in print – I want to know why it happened; some sort of rationale!  To complete my personal nit-picking, Sanderson fairly frequently ‘crossed the line’ in his point-of-view depictions – something that Jordan meticulously avoided.  Jordan’s chapter episodes were always completely from the point of view of only one character at a time, which greatly aided reader ‘immersion’.  What other characters might be thinking or planning was often the subject of P.O.V. speculation, of course, but was otherwise a mystery.  Particularly in the final book, Sanderson frequently wrote from a more inclusive two-character perspective, which I personally found disagreeable.  Others might find it acceptable... it’s another style thing.

The Final Book:  Book #14 – A Memory of Light – was released this month and I have just finished reading it.  It’s a huge book!  900 bloody pages that took me three whole days to read.  Sanderson actually finished writing it over a year ago.  But the Publisher wanted Harriet ( and other Editors ) to thoroughly double-check everything to avoid nit-picking backlash from detail-obsessed fans worldwide.  With over 40 million books sold there are a lot of fans, plus several independent fan websites with long, very active discussions about character, back-story and plot details, plus speculation about how the saga will be wound up – it would have been impossible to miss even the smallest plot resolution without fans baying for blood!  I confess that I am grateful to those fans – I would have been very disappointed had I found any plot details hanging, unresolved.  Brandon Sanderson, most likely ably assisted by that team of Editors, did a thorough job tying up all those loose ends, because the whole saga has a satisfying finality about it.
Of course, it was always inevitable that the last book in the series would be mostly about the ‘Last Battle’...  the long-anticipated end of the current 3rd Age and the turbulent dawn of a new one – everyone knows that it’s coming.  The whole series has been leading up to that, so the major part of the last book revolves around this climactic event ( the Bard Thom Merrilin calls it an ‘exquisite’ event! ).  The 2nd Age had ended, thousands of years ago, with a human-induced geological upheaval and a continent-wide ‘Breaking’ triggered by the man known as ‘The Dragon’, who was barking mad at the end of that Age.  The Dragon is the most feared of all men, upon whom the destruction of the entire 2nd Age was blamed – nobody wants the 3rd Age to end that way!  All of the advanced technology of that ancient Age was lost in the complete collapse of civilization following the Breaking, and all fear a similar collapse now, because the man now known as the ‘Dragon Reborn’ walks the land again.  He is not the exact same man, but his arrival in ‘reborn’ form has been long prophesied, and the belief in reincarnation and the cyclic nature of historical events is an intrinsic part of this world, so he is seen as the ‘reborn’ Dragon in all but appearance.  Most believe that he must herald the end of the Age.  Some of the wonders of the past are arising again in unexpected ways...  and all in the wake of this hated, feared, yet grudgingly-respected man who knows things – things that surely only the Dragon would know.  Gradual rediscovery of forgotten technology or invention of new techniques has allowed people from different lands, different beliefs, to dream of perhaps returning to some of the legendary ‘marvels’ of the 2nd Age, but that has also raised serious conflicts and moral dilemmas resulting in the widespread collapse of order.
A multi-national military clash centers on one almost-mythical location – Shayol Ghul – because the ‘Wheel of Time’ is believed to revolve around it.  It is both the perceived worldly anchor-point for the ‘Pattern’ – the complex interrelationship between all living things – and has, over time, also become the center of all worldly ‘Evil’, a poisoned, corrupted, lifeless place.  Nobody likes the idea of the Pattern being corrupted and exploited, but it plainly is.  This battle will determine which political, spiritual, technical and social standards will apply in the expected new 4th Age...  with all sides doggedly advancing their own interests, fearing another Breaking.  The Dragon Reborn is also drawn to Shayol Ghul.  Everyone expected that, and everyone knows that when the original Dragon went there, he was directly exposed to dark, primal forces that sent him completely and violently insane.  Although that awful battle had been narrowly won, he was later remembered as ‘Kinslayer’ because he did nothing to help heal the ravages of war in its aftermath, instead going on mad military rampages that killed hundreds of his own people...  and finally caused the Breaking that killed millions more, destroyed civilization at that time, and ended the 2nd Age.
Descriptions of war preparations, skirmishes, attacks, betrayals, sieges and battles make for exciting reading... but only for a short while!  I found it all a bit too much, jumping from one crisis to another with few opportunities for relief...  okay for a few dozen pages, perhaps, but not hundreds!  Perhaps it will seem more acceptable on second reading, or if reading at less than my usual shut-out-the-world speed.  I also found too much reliance on frequent visual cliff-hanger situations ( is this symbolism obvious enough? ) and suspect that the saga has been completed with a keen eye on movie possibilites.  The series teeters on becoming a ‘movie property’, able to be expanded in any direction that the smell of money dictates...  sequels look especially likely.  Perhaps Sanderson found it impossible to reach a satisfactory conclusion otherwise, or perhaps the Publisher specified that Sanderson should write in visually episodic form, deliberately suited to film-script adaptation?  The ending itself was apparently taken directly from drafts written by Jordan, and that‘s easy to believe – the ‘twist in the tail’ is excellent – I didn’t see it coming.
I guess we all just have to accept these idiosyncracies, anyway, since it took more than twenty years and two authors to complete the series.  At least it’s done – finito!  I was just disappointed that all the saga elements concluded properly, but too much like a Hollywood film-script rather than a literary saga towards the end.  I kept half-expecting to read of a car-chase ( a new-fangled steam-wagon chase? ) or exploding helicopter sequence!

Conclusion:  Don’t be surprised to see a movie trilogy of W.O.T. in the next few years, and if you have never read any of the Wheel of Time books, now is the sensible time to start.  You can at least expect to read the whole thing within your lifetime... you won’t need to be reincarnated a few times to fnish the series!  But do the decent thing, please: buy the e-book versions ( even though they are all terribly scanned and poorly proof-read! ).  Leave p-books to illustrated ‘coffee table’ productions and specialist reference works.  Fiction books – mostly just text – should be paper-free.  Especially very big books like these ones!  The average book length was about 300,000 words – about twice the length of a ‘normal’ novel.  Book #14 was bigger again, perhaps closer to 400,000 words!

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