I first picked up The Eye of the World a long, long time ago it seems, and just as the Wheel gives birth to the Ages to repeat ad infinitum, I picked it up again to begin the sagacious journey I had previously abandoned after 5,403 pages (or 5 books). I can think of no logical reason for this because, frankly, I hated it the first time round.
This time was no different.
The story follows Rand Al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara, as they leave their small village lives behind in order to save the world with the company of a mysterious Aes Sedai witch, Moiraine, her warder, Lan, and two of the village women: a young girl betrothed to Rand, Egwene Al’Vere, and the village healer Nynaeve Al’Meara. This mission takes them away from The Two Rivers and on an adventure of a lifetime (that is, if we take lifetime to mean how much time you lose by reading every novel).
Needless to say, there’ll be spoilers abounds in this post as well as diatribes, rants, and raves against this series. There’s also a shocking lack of images, as I’m not devoting any more of my time to this infuriating series. If you have already heard all you need to convince you not to read the series, stop here.
For me to explain why I despised these books so much I’ll first take you back to a conversation I had in a jacuzzi with some jumped up hack who proclaimed that all fantasy is “children’s stories used to convince American’s of an imperial history”. Now, I don’t agree with this man, least of all because I love fantasy. However, he did make a point that’s stuck with me throughout the years. He claimed that often fantasy authors fail to establish a mythology and sound underlying culture for their brand new world, resulting in a blending of present ideologies with incongruous structures.
In The Wheel of Time (WoT), this is undoubtedly the case. First up I will have to point to the strange and disjointed development of mechanics in the world. There are endless things people use and see every single day such as fountains, wagons, farming equipment (because the world and his brother are “humble farmers”), upon which there hasn’t been much innovation for many years mostly because… no one in this whole universe is at all curious about bettering themselves. I mean, they have relics of times gone by and other “Ages” and yet not one single person decided to make any inroads into innovation until Rand “The Dragon Reborn” turns up and starts some kind of school. Excuse me while I roll my eyes, I promise it won’t take more than one turning of the Wheel, however long that happens to be.
Another major problem I have with the mythology or ideology of the world is that the ruling systems are utterly unmanageable in the long term. The fact that these kingdoms have lasted even 10 years let alone however many vague thousands they have supposedly endured, simply astounds. First up we have Andor, which is termed a “kingdom” in spite of never having had a king. It’s ruled by queens exclusively meaning that surely, surely, surely, at least one queen would have thought to herself “Hold up, I’m not even married to a king, why in the name of the Light isn’t Andor a QUEENdom?”. Say what you might about kingdom being an easy word for the reader to access, Jordan has zero trouble making up words elsewhere in the novels and yet can’t add a word for the realm of Andor. Another burning issue in Andor is that the “Great Houses” are almost all lead by men, even during the succession. Now, in a realm ruled by women surely a house led by a woman would be the best choice, and the house name should travel on the female line along with the responsibilities (more on the implications of this later). Other realms and dominions also have problems I don’t have time nor word count to recount but (dis)honourable shout out to Mayene and Altara where there’s almost no control under the monarchy and yet there has been no uprising against the rulers. Spare me.
Then there’s the issue of borders, dominions, laws, customs etc. that only arise at convenient plot points (or when we need to hear about how differently the women dress to show off “ample bosoms”), yet many of these kingdoms have very close ties through trade which helps keep the peace. Why has the fashion not travelled? Looking back in our own fashion histories, we can almost always see the influence of countries linked by trade have on each others’ fashion and customs. Now and then, we do get some mention of some woman or other’s bosom heaving in a dress of a style from somewhere else, I have to hand that to Jordan and Sanderson, but there’s no blurring of lines as one might expect. Again though, no one in this world is curious or open to change until Al’Thor rocks up with the seemingly unheard of idea of changing with the times. What an innovator.
Adding to the above issues of incomprehensible societal structure is the literal LEGION of women who can “channel” (or do magic) having their own city-state of Tar Valon who influence the whole world through their eyes and ears all over the place. This White Tower is the epitome of what is nonsensical about the underlying mythology of the books. I can see an analogy to the Catholic Church during the fall of the Roman Empire and basically ever since, but did I mention these women can do REAL magic. Even if they abide by the Three Oaths:
- To speak no word that is not true
- To make no weapon with which one man may kill another
- Never to use the One Power as a weapon except against Darkfriends or Shadowspawn, or in the last extreme defense of her life, the life of her Warder, or another Aes Sedai
There is literally no reason any ruler would accept that this group can come into their kingdom given that these oaths mean almost nothing as Aes Sedai are notoriously adept at sidestepping them. The only reasonable reaction comes from the erstwhile anti-heroes of the piece: The Seanchan, who imprison women who can channel and train them for the good of the Empire of Seandar (or Seanchan depending on how the author is feeling each time he refers to this mysterious place across the sea). Time and time again Jordan (and later Sanderson) seem to invent convenient structures to make life more difficult for our heroes, who needed no more obstacles apart from their already infuriating inability to communicate with each other.
While we’re on the topic of communication, I must ask why on earth don’t these people speak to one another like human beings? There is not one single person in this whole series who says anything straightforward. There’s always a hidden motive, some smoke and mirrors nonsense in their words, or an ulterior and nefarious message. I’ve read a lot of books in my time, I do understand it as a literary technique that the author won’t tell us what each person is going to do, heck, that’s just how you drive a plot. However, in WoT often there’s no necessity for the lies, subterfuge, or manipulation, it seems Jordan only included it as a kind of red herring to throw the reader off the scent, or he never had social skills. If in the early books, Moiraine had been honest with Rand, Mat, and Perrin, things would have been much simpler, but alas Moiraine was Aes Sedai and those women can’t speak in a straightforward manner according to Jordan. If I wanted to get even higher on my feminist high-horse reading of this I would use this as a metaphor for women in general, but I don’t need to, the authors make this opinion clear in all chapters from the point of view of Rand, Mat, Perrin, and basically every other man.
Which finally brings me onto a glaring problem with the series: sexism. Holy implicit attitudes Batman, this saga is RIFE with male gaze and objectification of women at altogether inappropriate times (see above comments on crossing arms under bosoms, or how frequently the Aiel women seem to be in the sweat tent compared to the men), the aforementioned governing issues in Andor and elsewhere, the lack of problem with rape until it’s committed against a man, and the fact that not one single woman in the whole novel went more than 4 chapters without finding a love interest to cloud her judgement. Does it pass the Bechdel test? I don’t know the dialogue was too instantly forgettable to say.
This is a major problem in the fantasy genre as a whole and cannot be laid entirely at Jordan’s feet, we see it in today’s society and that of past societies upon which most fantasy stories are loosely based. However, as a close friend once pointed out: fantasy authors tear apart reality by introducing magic, dragons, fantastical cities etc. and yet can’t seem to picture a world in which women aren’t objects of lust. That seems the most far-fetched when you really think about it. I will admit that there is a tendency toward finding a mate in every human being, but in a series of books focused on destroying evil, one would assume that at least one woman and hopefully one man would focus on the task at hand. Sadly not in the WoT, men and women are enemies and can only work together if they are married to other people a la Nynaeve and Moiraine helping Rand in the last battle.
So Moz why keep reading? This was more than just determination, the battle between good and evil Jordan created may have been extremely poorly executed, but there was something redeeming in it: the world was a little bit fascinating: the things that might be unearthed next, which continent Rand will up and leave for (he doesn’t but the tantalizing possibility is there), how does realm X work, and so on. Obviously, I didn’t often like the answers to the questions and my curiousity often resulted in frustration but it was there to begin with. Which is something, I suppose. Overall, I’m not actually happy to have read the books to the end as I normally would be at having persevered so long with something. These books took up a full reading year with sparse time for good books in between. It’s a fat no from Moz.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go find a book with some rippling muscles and flexing biceps to make up for the lack of them in the WoT. Take that!
PS If you’ve made it this far you may just have to dedication to read the actual series!