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An honest assessment of WOT?


Jon Fossaway

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You can expect lengthy, vociferous responses both for and against the series, some accusations of the late author being a "sellout", and perhaps some wistful memories of OsRavan's disdain for spell check ;)

But generally, most will agree that the first 5-6 books were good to very good, then the action began to creep to a crawl by books 8-10, with some claiming some improvement for the last book.

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The fact that the story/characters/writing is compelling enough to have the majority of fans stick it out through the nothingness that was books 7-10 says a lot, I think.

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I think it's worth reading provided you understand a few things before diving in. Namely:

1. The male/female interactions are pretty much defined by a quality of adolescent naivete. Sometimes this style compliments the story, while at other times it's hard to avoid the feeling that Jordan is relying too heavily on a gimmick.

2. Jordan is descriptive writer. Very descriptive, and all too often in a very mundane manner. He can spend half a page describing some random character's facial features, or devote two pages to a room and its specific furniture content, etc.

3. There's a dark lord in the story. And a country boy-turned-savior. There is Evil and Good (in their capitalized forms). Right off the bat you have to realize you're not getting the constant ambiguity presented in Martin's world. That said, WoT is not something like Forgotten Realms where the heroes simply hack and slash their way to victory. There is a sense that even battles where Good prevail come at great cost on a personal and societal level. And in later books especially, you might be surprised how little action there is in favor of Jordan's brand of courtly day to day life.

If you understand and accept those points, there's a chance it could work for you.

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My opinion, having begun by loving it and currently having no interest in it, is that it depends what you're looking for. WoT has some genuine good and unusual elements. This is what attracted me to it at first (despite book one being rubbish).

It has:

- a continent to play with, with multiple cultures to describe and interact

- a cast of thousands (and a dozen or so major ones)

- lots of 'background' - at least at first, there's lots of people and places that are mentioned but not seen directly (though later he did go into a collect-all-the-cities approach to plotting), which can help immerse

- a complicated and very slowly developing plot

- many, many, many subplots

- a rich tapestry of prophecies and visions and foreshadowings

- lengthy and sometimes vivid descriptions

- main characters that are vaguely sympathetic

- most unusually, a heavy, heavy mixture of whodunnit - there's dozens of questions that have been debated for years on the internet of "who killed X?" and "what side is Y on?" and "is Z really A in disguise?" and "what was B up to in that scene?" and "who told C about D and was it intentional?" and "is E really dead or not?" and so on.

This, when I was younger, was quite a shock compared to the other fantasy series I knew. It's epic on an entirely new scale of confusing, mysterious epicity.

What it never had:

- great imagination: there's very few things that are really inventive or original in it

- great depth of characters: some are sympathetic, some are vivid, some are both, but few if any of the characters have any real depth to them at all*

- great depth of worldbuilding: lots of cultures, very little real thought put into them. None of the cultures felt particularly real to me, more like caricatures.

- great prose: some of his sentences worked well, but mostly because there were ten thousand of them to decribe each teacup. Large sections seemed cut-and-pasted repeatedly. Most famous is the endless braid-tugging, but the 7000-or-so instances of "she folded her arms beneath her breasts" really got to me. I know that that's always going to be one of the problems of epic writing - but it's not one he overcame

- great coherence: at first, the books seemed to not really fit together. Then, they went together but they went... nowhere fast. Finally, they went nowhere. OVerall there's a great dearth of structural craft. The worst example is the several-chapter-long flashback in book one, that many of us didn't realise was a flashback, and that has a weird repetition of material in it. He never had any idea about how to pace his plot - some bits too sudden, other bits glacial, lots of it confused, rarely any good rhythm to it

I think the books can be divided thusly:

1: rubbish; derivative; doesn't fit with the others; clearly inexperienced; feels as though the original plan was very, very different from what he eventually did with the series

2: surprisingly good, really; still seems to follow a different plan; feels as though the series is going to end in book 3

3: still disjointed with the others, but by itelf quite good

4/5(/6?): ok, not as attractive as 2 and 3, but hey, it looks like he's going somewhere with this, this is the slow middle section of the series which will be gradually built up. Look at all that foreshadowing!

(6?/)7/8: where am I going? I was going somewhere, wasn't I? Er... ok, let's slow down a bit, have a look around, while I figure out why I brought us here

9: OK, there wasn't any reason to bring us here. Oh, go have a break doing some irrelevent stuff. Oh, wait! End of the world! That's where we're going! Let's do this big important thing, that's definite progress! (could we have done this in book 4? yes, probably we could have done, but never mind, we're on the right track now)

10: er... ok, forget that happened, I'm not really sure what to do with it. Let's go back about and... no... don't know what to dow ith any of those characters...

11: never bothered reading.

In essence, the series always had major flaws, but we were enjoined to forgive him those flaws because it would all work out in the end. All the things that were being hinted at (characters, cultures, prophecies, obvious plot devices, seemingly unimportant subplots etc) would eventually be filled in in depth, and end up having some great importance in the ultimate progression of the cunning plot. It was all just him setting up the finale...

As the finale was delayed longer and longer, some of those flaws became more obvious - the repetitions of certain habits, for instance. But most importantly, two realisations gradually set in: he's not going to fill in any more details, and he doesn't actually know where he's going with any of this. For me, book 9 was the book that convinced me that an awful lot of the series had been a waste of time. I gave CoT a halfchance (read a bootlegged ebook) because WH ended on a big progressive high note - I thought maybe RJ had realised he had gone wrong and had decided to change his ways. Obviously, he hadn't, and I've not read KoD. I probably won't. I'll probably just read a summary of the final book.

Some say the early books are still good, but I'm not sure they are. I thought they were at the time, but a lot of that was under false pretences. A lot of the series seemed to be saying "trust me, this is going to be cool" - and it didn't turn out like that. So all those cool prophecies... are pointless. I looked at Perrin and thought "hmm, potential interesting character development" - no? then what's the point with him all along? Siuan - "hmm, cool background character" - but then we see her in more detail and no, she's not, she's just the same as all the others. Lan - we're going to find out more about how cool he is, like with Aragorn - no, we're not. Luc - great idea! Sorry, he's never really explained and is barely used. Seanchan: genuinely exotic society! Well maybe, but they're not going to get much screentime. Well, they killed some cool villains! No, sorry, they're not really dead, and actually they're not that cool either.

An analogy: you know how the Matrix is a brilliant film, if you refuse to admit that the other films exist? Well, imagine if the Matrix wasn't that well-made, but still had the same great ideas - but then imagine that the film had no actual ending and you had to watch the sequals to find out what was going on. That's like books 3-5/6 of WoT. They aren't good - but if someone went back and wrote an entirely different book 1, and made book 2 fit more neatly, and finished the series in new books 6-9, then books 3-5/6 could fit in it and be good.

That was a longer opinion than I intended to give. Clearly it all still galls me. That, by the way, is the distinctive flavour of dislike for WoT: betrayal and disappointment. Not because it was good but got bad (imo) but because he made you think it was good, and it all turned out to be made of paper with nothing behind it.

*One of the annoying things is that several characters could have been good. In particular, the Forsaken are given backstories in the World book that make them sound interesting. Aringar and Asmodean in particular could have had fascinating (if cliched) tragic arcs told in hindsight - the scientist who sells his soul for knowledge, and the composer who sells his soul for musical talent. But we see only glimpses of both characters, and very little of their backstory.

[Asmodean above all - not only because he has the least convincing, and hence most interesting, reason for his betrayal, but also: you're a musician; you've sold your soul; you find out that not only do you serve the devil but you also have to serve him in an army of evil dominated by evil generals and madmen and torturers and scientists. What the hell do you do in that circumstance? Yet Asmodean clearly did something well, since he ended up as one of the thirteen most powerful and evil people around. I'd have liked to have heard about that - both the mechanics of how he was successfull and the thought processes he used to justify it all (as it's clearly hinted that he's fairly conflicted). But THERE IS NO DEPTH PROVIDED. So many subplots, so little character development!)

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I've only read the first and second books.

The first book felt like something I've read a thousand times before. A farmer lad finds out that his father isn't really his father and goes on a quest to defeat the Dark One.

The second one was less of a cliche, but I still didn't think it was great.

I'll read the third one if I get the chance, but I'm not going to actively look for it, as I am for many other books.

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3. There's a dark lord in the story. And a country boy-turned-savior. There is Evil and Good (in their capitalized forms). Right off the bat you have to realize you're not getting the constant ambiguity presented in Martin's world. That said, WoT is not something like Forgotten Realms where the heroes simply hack and slash their way to victory. There is a sense that even battles where Good prevail come at great cost on a personal and societal level. And in later books especially, you might be surprised how little action there is in favor of Jordan's brand of courtly day to day life.

If you understand and accept those points, there's a chance it could work for you.

Ahh, we're TOLD that victory can come at a great cost. And we're constantly told that victory is GOING to come at a great cost. So we expect that all these subplots are going to scar our heroes, mentally and physically. But they never seem to. They all seem to lumber through in relative comfort without really having to pay any price for their continuous victories in quests we increasingly don't care about. Except Rand, who does, admittedly, become a little more angsty and erratic - but when he does, we start to see less of him anyway.

And yes, we see his brand of courtly day to day life, and that would be fine by me if he had any idea of what to do in courtly day to day life - but he doesn't, so we have a chapter of "having a bath" and a chapter of "making some tea" and so forth. And that could work well if he gave a sense of some alien culture he was showing us, but as it's default thought-free genre cliche culture, it's really quite difficult to care about it!

I love good worldbuilding. Jordan writes in the style of a worldbuilder, and keeps hinting that he is a good worldbuilder, but at heart isn't a worldbuilder at all, making the style rather pointless.

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Ahh, we're TOLD that victory can come at a great cost. And we're constantly told that victory is GOING to come at a great cost. So we expect that all these subplots are going to scar our heroes, mentally and physically. But they never seem to. They all seem to lumber through in relative comfort without really having to pay any price for their continuous victories in quests we increasingly don't care about.

Well, you're certainly right that characters aren't blatantly scarred or put through physical or psychological hell in the manner that you get with something like a Stover or Mieville, for instance, but I'd say there is still some degree to the WoT showing the consequences to the questing and campaigning. My point wasn't that the WoT exhibits a great depth of theme and characterization, but rather that it isn't something like a Forgotten Realms novel where the emphasis is solely on hack and slash victories. I've read up to book ten, and I think you do get a sense of burden through stuff like Rand's striving to distance himself from emotion, Perrin's questioning of "what he's become", and the general reoccurring idea throughout the series of portions of the general populace considering Rand and his followers as just another aspect of the Dark One's evil that is tearing civilization apart. Again, WoT isn't a series that goes into great, poetic depth, but I think the fact that its surface story contains stuff like a murderous "prophet" waving Rand's banner sets it apart from the completely caricatured farmboy fantasy that the series often gets associated with.

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It depends on your age and reading experience. I was 17 when I'd picked up the first book and only read Tolkien, Pratchett, Brooks, Eddings and I think Feist in the epic fantasy genre before it. Tolkien and Pratchett were very different, but compared to the other three, WoT was operating on an altogether higher plane of writing and the imagination. It became my favourite epic fantasy series for many years, until Book 8's utter lameness and simultaneously picking up ASoIaF knocked it off that perch for me.

I think if you come to WoT having read other writers like GRRM, Bakker, Erikson first, you may still enjoy it, but you may not be prepared to be as patient with it as other, less experienced readers are. There is an enormous amount to like about the series, but its problems are pretty substantial as well.

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Very magic based books, or more realistic would you say? I much prefer David Anthony Durham's Acacia, to anything with wizards doing battle with fireballs.

These are extremely magic intensive books. Almost every major character is a magic user of some sort, and magic is central to the overall plot.

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WoT is highly divisive, probably justifiably so.

It has LOADS and loads of characters. This means that they often seem samey, especially his women (people say they're ALL, the same but there's arguably at least two or three types) but to a lesser degree his male characters too. They tend to flow together a lot.

Jordan's prose is pretty unspectacular, and he often spends a lot of time with descriptions. This is often bad (describing dresses) but sometimes incredibly cool (Dumai's Wells)

He often leaves a lot of interesting ideas behind, or simply ignores them: As mentioned the Forsaken could have been interesting characters, but by and large are not. (To SOME degree I think that's deliberate, the idea is that those who serve the Devil are in some sense, losers)

The world is actually reasonably well-crafted, I think. Apart from the standard genré stuff there's still a big sense of the fact that Jordan has genuinly thought about stuff like customs, manners (oddly enough he handwaves language, which is a bit of a sore point) sewage systems and trade routes: Some of the cultures are unbelievable, but they are in a lot of ways *distinct*. And they by and large avoid being medieval England by another name. (even when elements are clearly "stolen" they tend to be combined enough to make a distinct flavour)

I've re-read the series recently and I have got to say that it flows A LOT better together when read back-to-back than when you wait two years between volumes: There's still a noticeable drop in quality by the later books, but it still works a lot better when read as a single novel.

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in the law, we have occasional "restatements" of accumulated and disparate common law principles, like the restatement (second) of contracts or the restatement (third) of the law of agency. they're important, but not typically earth-shattering or inventive or thrilling, but always good reading for the interested practitioner, like a catalog of familiar things distilled and brought together for ease of access.

the wheel of time is more or less the restatement (third) of generic fantasy. (tolkien is the first, D&D is the second.)

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Jordan's strength is world-building. If you want to truly immerse yourself in a fictional world, then you can do a lot worse than WoT. But if you're looking for an original plot and are tired of fantasy clichés, then you might want to stay away. The diminishing quality of the books should also be kept in mind when deciding whether to start EotW.

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in the law, we have occasional "restatements" of accumulated and disparate common law principles, like the restatement (second) of contracts or the restatement (third) of the law of agency. they're important, but not typically earth-shattering or inventive or thrilling, but always good reading for the interested practitioner, like a catalog of familiar things distilled and brought together for ease of access.

the wheel of time is more or less the restatement (third) of generic fantasy. (tolkien is the first, D&D is the second.)

And following the concept that certain principles are applicable to different fields, I predict this thread as fourteen pages and rename and reinterpret the utility of the principle as flogging a dead horse.

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These are extremely magic intensive books. Almost every major character is a magic user of some sort, and magic is central to the overall plot.

One of Jordan's greatest triumphs in the series is that I rarely think of the One Power as 'magic'. It obviously is, but Jordan never calls it that and describes its usage more as a type of physics, and the Power itself is treated as a science that can be studied, examined and experimented with rather than some awe-inspiring display of fireballs (although that happens as well). I know people who are generally averse to high magic (and can't stand Erikson, for example) but have enjoyed WoT.

oddly enough he handwaves language, which is a bit of a sore point

Not really. The entire world spoke the same language for what, ten thousand years? Longer? The modern language evolved out of it on just one landmass which has been bound tightly together by trade and travel and every single character in the books is from that landmass or descended from colonists who departed from it to settle other lands (and in those cases have very strong language and dialect drift). Nevertheless, there is still a wide range of dialect and accents across the continent.

Admittedly, given the timespan involved (3,400 years, give or take a few decades) compared to the time it took for Latin to splinter into many different languages (less than a thousand years) it's a bit of a stretch, and the fact that the Aiel and Taraboners (who live 4,000 miles apart from one another) can understand one another better than Illianers and Altarans (who live next door to each other) is rather nonsensical, but this isn't the total collapse of logic that some claim :P

And they by and large avoid being medieval England by another name.

Apart from Andor, but I think that is deliberate (as is the Two Rivers = The Shire).

I've re-read the series recently and I have got to say that it flows A LOT better together when read back-to-back than when you wait two years between volumes: There's still a noticeable drop in quality by the later books, but it still works a lot better when read as a single novel.

Agreed.

Crossroads of Twilight is still shit though. I only made it through the reread by drinking tons of caffeine and occasionally screaming, "You...will...not...BEST...me!!!" to the consternation of my housemates and neighbours.

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Is it fair to say that the first book will tell me by and large how I'll feel about most of the rest? I can read a novel in a day if I don't enjoy it enough to take my time, so that's not much of a commitment.

Eh, probably not. Myself, I think the first three books are more juvenile fare, and it's the middle books that are the "classic" Wheel of Time. But most people seem to think the first book, and the first 200 or so pages in particular, are some of the weakest parts of the series. The tone definitely changes later on. I'd say the second book is probably a better showcase of the good and bad things about the series.

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Good luck, objectivity seems impossible when it comes to the WOT if one has read it/ some of it.

As for me personally. I started WOT read the first 100 pages of The Eye of the World. Got bored. Stoped. Re-picked it up. Read 300 pages. Got bored. Stopped. Picked it up again. Read another 100 pages. Got really bored. stopped for good.

I'll pick it up again in the future, but I honestly, in good faith, cannot not right now suggest this series. Specially because there is so much good stuff out there.

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