Review: The Wheel of Time, Books 1-5

3.5 out of 5 stars

Just in time for Amazon’s series adaptation: Why The Wheel of Time show could never be true to these impressive, fun, and astonishingly PG-rated books.

Goodreads.com: The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time #1); The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time #2); The Dragon Reborn, by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time #3); The Shadow Rising, by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time #4); The Fires of Heaven, by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time #5)

My high school history teacher, Mr. Graham, was so desperate for us all to read The Wheel of Time that he bought hardcover books and doled them out to students. I, a voracious reader even then, read everything he ever gave me except The Wheel of Time. I think it was the cover art. They looked like long (reaaalllllyyyy long) versions of the world’s dullest comic strip, Prince Valiant.

What kind of 14-year old girl wants to be carrying these around? I already had a unibrow, I couldn’t risk it.

Alas, Mr. Graham was right and The Wheel of Time is pretty good.

It’s a standard premise: Young heroes chosen by fate to save the world. They’re always salt-of-the-Earth types from the sticks, equal parts scared and excited to leave their thatched roofs and see the world. Thus we meet Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve, just as a mysterious pair roll into their town of the Two Rivers – a fancy lady and a deadly-looking man. Then the town is attacked by monsters.

In short: the fancy lady is Moiraine, one of a famed and feared order of magic-wielding women called Aes Sedai. Lan is her warder, a man bound to her by oath and magic. They came in search of Rand, Mat, and Perrin, who Moiraine believes to be ta’veren – those crucial to destiny, around whom the universal power, known as The Wheel, weaves the fate of the world.

Moiraine’s goal is to bring the boys to Aes Sedai HQ (the White Tower) to be… trained? Helped? Stripped of power? Killed? I never doubted her intentions, but everyone else spends 4,000 pages doing so. She knows the one of the boys is The Dragon Reborn, a controversial hero of a past age prophesied to be the only one who can defeat The Dark One and keep him from destroying the world (again).

The Wheel of Time gives the reader surprisingly easy access to a hugely extensive world. The writing is plain and easy, though so many details abound. It’s epic fantasy via 1990 – you hadn’t seen the wonders CGI could produce, you still had to imagine them. Jordan paints his world LOTR-level gorgeous in your mind.

The story is also huge, but layered in so that when you step into WOT, you are welcome rather than overwhelmed. (Unlike, say, Dune, which seems to want readers to fail.) With five main characters, we get five new worlds unfolding uniquely. Each of the kids have completely different experiences with the story, whether together or apart. It allows Jordan to cover an incredible amount of ground. We get to know each character so well – love them (Egwene), hate them (Mat), change your mind a hundred times (Rand). It also means Jordan can focus on them independently, so much so that we hardly see some characters for entire books.

The overall arc of WOT – defeating the Dark One – is set up like a war. Each book is a battle in that war, a chapter in the larger story. I really appreciated these digestible pieces, with closure and cliffhangers, rather than being expected to consume the whole thing at once. (I did not finish all 14 books. Maybe someday.)

The most fascinating thing to me is how extraordinarily PG these books are. There is fear, but very little horror. Battle, but very little violence. Even the wars, monsters, and deaths are all kept at arm’s length. And there is zero – I mean none at all – sexy stuff of any kind until book five and even then, you could read it out loud in church. The love connections that do arise are so dry as to seem like requirements met, not romances born. (You know: Girl walks past guy twice, falls desperately in love, is riven with angst about it for thousands of pages. Trope city.) So while WOT keeps pace with every other big name in fantasy in the inevitable comparisons of scope and story, it reads like a very tame young adult series. Not that it derails the story; rather, the focus stays on the adventure. But it’s noticeably absent, and feels juvenile. Giant colossal story, itty bitty sex & death factor. (Also, I’ve read too much Sarah J. Maas.) It was a completely appropriate series for a high school teacher to give students! Just don’t go in expecting Game of Thrones or The Sword of Truth. Go in expecting different.

[Amazon chose to age up the characters for the show to avoid this pitfall. Rafe Judkins Tweeted, “We aged up… because sometimes TV shows with a bunch of 17-year-olds as leads feel more like YA and Wheel of Time isn’t YA.” In my opinion, WOT is 100% YA. But it’s YA now, not the YA of the early 90s. If it were released today, as written, it would be on the YA shelf. But I doubt it would be released at all today. Jordan would almost certainly have to add what the Amazon folks have just to sell it to a publisher. So I don’t fault the show, even if it’s not exactly what’s on the page. You can’t sell a no-sex fantasy series. Now Rand and co. are early 20s and, well, enjoy the first episode. More on this topic here.]

The audiobook narrators are great, and I never would have guessed the pronunciation of Tel’aran’rhiod. But the very descriptive prose bogs down the listening experience – I’d have skimmed a bit on paper. The first five books clock in at an inefficient 159 total hours. I enjoyed it, but I doubt Jordan ever read these out loud to himself, Or he did, and really likes rhyming. Egwene/Elaine/Moiraine, Perrin/Verin, Faile/Aiel – it grates over time. As does the very limited, kid-friendly vocabulary of curses. I could not stand another hundred hours of “blood and bloody ashes!”

Overall, I definitely enjoyed books 1-5 of The Wheel of Time. They’re fun and exciting, with an oddly quaint vibe, incredible scope, and flashes of true awesomeoness. I’m very glad I read them before the series, so I can be up on my high Aldieb (who are we kidding, I ride Bella) about all the non-canon changes. I can’t wait to sink my opinions into Amazon’s hundred million dollar steak.

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