Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Only Four Million Words Till The Good Stuff!

When I was thirteen, nothing was more important than reading the ending of The Wheel of Time. Yeah. I was one of those thirteen-year-olds.

There is now an ending. I have not read it.

Bear with me. There will be a test. (We're talking about Robert Jordan. I'm gonna have to be verbose.)

Everyone has that author. The one who, for better or for worse, got you when you were twelve, and led you around by the hook of the nose for years and inspired your taste and made you go all dumb and drooly... and who you realized, years later, was not really that good.

Christmas 1993 and The Eye of the World consumed my brain. When I reread it last year, it consumed me again. A dark, harrowing chase story through a rich and dangerous world. The Great Hunt is similarly dark and thrilling. Book 3 is a bit of a dud but 4 and 5 are quite epic, expanding the world while maintaining the thrills.

And I was thirteen, therefore all flaws in entertaining writing could be forgiven.

So I didn't understand at the time that men and women didn't actually interact like this, didn't spend most of their time making maxims about how the other gender was crazy, or that the Aes Sedai could never rule the world while acting like grudge-hoarders on a planning committee at the local Presbyterian church. I didn't understand even some of the skillful parts of his writing, like the fact that Rand al'Thor really was crazy by Book Seven, genuinely, unalterably nuts. He seemed misunderstood. Of course, I didn't understand that because Jordan, after Book Seven, never committed to any subplots, instead throwing out constant new ones.

And of course I didn't understand that the man was ill from 1997 on. (Also an issue with another author who grabbed my imagination, Octavia Butler.) With all the old-guard military upper lip he could muster, Jordan insisted he was fine while his writing struggled. As my good buddy Jay Lake will tell you, even the most prolific, absorbed writer can be deferred by chemo. (Love and writing power to you, Jay.)

Book 7: A Crown of Swords (on of the better titles) came out when I was fifteen. Most people quit around books 6 & 7. I drank it up. At eighteen, I sucked up Book 8, which was particularly bad, considering it lacked any mention of Mat Cauthon, every nerd's favorite scoundrel since Han Solo shot first.

I also had severe acne and no girlfriend and by this time was writing my own massive Jordan imitation. You know.

But folks, this boy joined a punk band, found a social life, and kind of grew up, at least in reading taste. After my Mormon mission, I was pleasantly surprised that Book 9 went somewhere. Then Book 10 undid all that goodwill by having exactly one, one plot twist, and ignoring Rand, our main man, in the same way book 8 ignored Mat. When 11 came out, I more or less enjoyed the book, but it was clear that between sickness and attempts to manage his unwieldy subplots, Jordan's writing had devolved. I could see the cracks. Also, why did it take until book 11 to bring Rand's dad back into the story?

He died and the series went to Brandon Sanderson. I loved Sanderson's debut novel Elantris. I found his recent offering The Way of Kings to be too much of a slog and never finished it. Plus, having lived in Utah, all his characters sound Mormon to me. All shades of Mormon, true. Ex, liberal, mystic, conservative, but they all sound Mormon. Which will be interesting in the Wheel of Time, where all the characters sound like old parishioners in said Presbyterian church.

But. Not there yet. I am determined to reread the entire series one last time before the ending. Closure won't be the same without it. Even if it's a bit of a chore.

I am pleasantly surprised that parts of his writing hold up. His characters act ridiculous, true, snippy and backbiting, and I can't buy any of the plot twists involving Aes Sedai. No one that incompetent could last in politics. But he's really good at some things.

In particular, I really like the Aiel this time around. In younger days, I never knew why Jordan spent so much time with them. They were the veiled desert culture off to the east. A standby for fantasy. They had different humor and different customs and oh man they figure so largely into the story.

Now, speaking as a white guy who works on an Indian reservation, I'm pleasantly surprised by all the consideration Jordan puts into the Aiel. They're a little Bedouin, a little Plains Tribes, a little other thing, but they're not cribbed from one culture. They're defiantly tribal, and of course super-warriors, but at the same time their way of life is just as viable as "civilized" folk.

Their culture is full of foibles and nobility yet degraded by those of Jordan's Western culture. They even have to suffer cultural appropriation from young noble men and women who are looking for meaning to their empty lives, a rather true-to-life twist.

So. There are some things worth studying in the horrible middle of the Wheel of Time series. More as I go along, I hope. I owe this to my thirteen-year-old self, who does not yet understand the sacrifices of adulthood, like reading the crappy parts of a fantasy series for one's thirteen-year-old self's sake. Or going to work, which I should probably do now.


  1. I've never read Jordan's work. When I was a pimply 13-year-old, I read Terry Brooks. Like you, Spencer, I see the cracks now, but I think probably for different reasons. Still, interesting take on the series and more importantly, a 13-year-old's take on writing. It's how we grow as authors.

  2. Word, Matt. Word. I should probably do some of that writing stuff today.