Warning: the following is one of my pop-culture articles (such as my rant about John Carter, or my simplified history of comic books) so if ramblings about these things bore you, feel free to skip this article.
When I was in the sixth grade, I was a voracious reader. I blame the heady mixture of social isolation, book-adoring parents and the absence of video games in our house. I had already plowed through The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and found them deeply engaging, but was unsure of what else there was out there. I had been flying through a young adult series about kids turning into animals to fight alien slugs (yeah, it was the nineties) when a friend of mine recommended a book called “The Eye of the World.” Cracking open the behemoth of a book, I was quickly enveloped in the world of The Wheel of Time.
First published in 1990, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series is a colossal undertaking. It starts as many fantasy series begin, with a handful of farm boys, an invasion of hostile creatures, and the slow creeping influence of an evil one. However, right off the bat, the series veers out of the ordinary. Most of the society is a matriarchy, there are just as many female protagonists as males, and each of the characters represents a whole slew of mythological concepts. As each of the 800+ page books unfold, you find the world a mishmash of cultures that move beyond the crude European stereotypes found in the rest of the fantasy genre.
At the time, the gender dynamics really made these books stand out. In the nineties, much of the fantasy was written by men and aimed at teenage boys. Women were not regarded as potential fantasy readers and female characters were exceedingly rare. If found, they were often side characters or a single female lead among a tableau of male counterparts. Not so with Wheel of Time. Right off the bat there were almost as many women as men and their adventures were given equal time. Within the story, gender balance and imbalance was a reoccurring theme. In this world, the Pope was a woman, the royal line passed from mother to daughter. You found characters who spouted all sorts of sexist tropes . . . about men. Throughout this all, it was never treated as a good or bad thing, but rather something to be examine and explored. You became deeply invested in Egwene’s efforts to become the youngest Pope the world has known, you felt Aviendha’s anguish as she chooses between the way of the warrior (“spearmaiden”) or the way of magic (“wise one”).
As the series progressed, it swelled in size. Originally conceived as a trilogy, the series ballooned to, now, fourteen books, without ever feeling like a commercial expansion. Each book moved the plot toward a grand finale. Little foreshadowed tidbits in the first couple of books paid off in grand reveals in the later novels. Although Robert Jordan passed away in 2007, he handed over his volumes of notes to upcoming fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to finish his masterpiece. Together, they crafted an incredible series that concludes today.
On January 8th, the final book will be released. My wife, as a solstice gift, has reserved a copy for me at Village Books and I will read it with a heavy heart. Before G. R. R. Martin brought incest, smart-alec dwarves, and gritty realism to the fantasy genre, you would have a hard time pointing to an American fantasy writer and crediting them with creating a masterpiece. We tended to import our fantasy, whether it was Tolkien’s hobbits, Nix’s bell-ringing necromancer or Gaiman’s dream lord (although eventually we would import Gaiman himself). Jordan created a fantasy epic that hit the New York Times best-seller list again and again, that refused to talk down to his readers and that inspired them to examine their own myths and legends.
It has been a long twenty-two years with this series. Yes, it does have its flaws, but like any solid epic, it overcomes them with grandeur and character growth. It opened my eyes to concepts of foreshadowing and Chekov Gunmen long before J.K. Rowlings made it her staple. It was a jumping off point for my love of genre fiction and I will be quite sad to leave the world of the Wheel of Time.