I just did, but I'm afraid your review doesn't make me want to read this series myself. I'm getting the impression that it's basically competent, has a few cool things, but also a lot of stupid things, and thus adds up only to mediocre. I don't have time for a mediocre series that long.

Or did I misinterpret your general take? Are you a true fan who takes all the awesomeness for granted, so you don't dwell on it in your review?

Originally posted by Student of Trinity

Okay, fair enough, I'm not portraying the series in the correct light. I admit that I'm writing the reviews for others who have already read the books in question. I view my reviews as a compromise between the positive blog posts by the new author and the ISAM satirical summaries. I feel kinda bad that you as a non-reader read the spoiled review, because in it I'm revealing plot lines that quite literally unfold over the course of a dozen books. So, I guess I should write a non-spoiler review of each book? More writing?


Anyway, I don't want to leave you with false impressions about my feelings for the first two books. I liked them a lot. I really did enjoy them. A lot of the stuff I'm complaining about in my reviews (so far) is, honestly, just nitpicking. And the rest isn't really complaining, more like remarking. I really don't mind that Liandrin is obviously working for Team Dark, or that Seanchan society is more honour-bound than I remember them. I'm just pointing out things that are surprising me on the reread.

The real issue is that I'm reserving my superlatives. The climax for Book Two is really good. But if I spend a lot of time talking about how good it is, what am I going to say about the ending to, say, Book Six? On the other hand, I talk a bit about how I'm irked by the Supergirls in Book Two. They're annoying, sure, but no more than most protagonists at the beginning of a long series. I'm saving my vitriol for the truly annoying characters, like Faile or Gawyn.

To remedy the failings of the above reviews, here's a (not so brief) review of the books (that I've read so far), which is (mostly) free of spoilers. I'm not going to talk about the setting itself; the Wikipedia page is pretty good for that.

What's good about the series? Quite a bit. You start out with what seems like standard fantasy fare. A young hero has to go from Point A to Point B in order to defeat the Big Bad. But complication after complication arises. The cast of characters continually increases from one to several to a true ensemble cast. Soon, as a reader, you discover that this is more than one person's story, or even many people's stories. This is a series about the death of an era, and the birth of a new. We get to see cultures like the Cairhienin expand and adapt to the turmoil over the course of the series. A number of people consider the Wheel of Time to be the War and Peace of fantasy. I've never read Tolstoy, but the series does have an epic feel.

It's very driven by character development. True, most other books are the same way, but this series doesn't use the linear growth model that other books do. It's not like Book A is where the character discovers the Power of Friendship, and Book B is where the character discovers the Power of Love. It's not so clear cut, and being spread over the course of fourteen books, the development isn't a monotonic function. For the more important characters, we also see character development over multiple axes. So for one character, we see her progression from puppet to pawn to figurehead to ruler, until she finally realizes the ideals of servant leadership. At the same time, she's integrating into multiple cultures, and realizing that perhaps none of them will survive the coming events, and works to save what is good and right about them while condemning what is wrong. At the same time, it's slowly revealed to the reader how scarred she is from events earlier in the series, and it's foreshadowed how she'll have to face those demons. And so on.

As an aside, this is what really bothers me about the characters who are usually reviled as the 'annoying' ones. Sure, I don't like annoying characters, but I'll put up with them if I can tell that they are progressing as characters. It's the final redemption that makes the entire arc worthwhile. No, it's the characters who don't receive any development at all (but rather Flanderization) that I dislike. Worse, it's the characters that do 'develop', but seem to promote bad messages. I'll get to those later.

What else is good about the series? World building. It has one of the best developed cosmologies I've ever seen in fantasy literature. It feels like a living, breathing world. On their first introduction, the various cultures look like a Planet of Hats, but they are revealed in more detail as the series progresses (well, except the Sea Folk; they start out "mysterious and exotic", but just turn out to be "Aiel 2 -- The Jerkening"). There's the usual "three thousand years ago..." that you get with a lot of fantasy literature, but at the same time there are a lot of recent events that shape the current day affairs in the series, such as the Aiel or Whitecloak wars.

The series is really big on the cyclical nature of time and the cycle of rebirth (hence the name). Prophecy also plays a big part. The central character knows from nearly the beginning that he's destined to die in a struggle against the Big Bad. Thus, the struggle with inevitability is a major component. There's a lot this series has in common with Dune (I've only read the first book). In both, you have a central character prophesied to be a Messiah figure. They have to intentionally mold themselves into the prophesied figure, and try to minimize the turmoil and destruction that rides in their wakes while still facing their prophesied ends.

Most interesting to me at least is the way the series tries to be a superset of every other legend and myth in existence. It uses the cyclical nature of time aspect to create a universe where all legends are true; the events of one Age fuel the myths of the next. Moreover, the characters of one Age fit the mold of characters in the previous; hence, the central character of the series is "The Dragon Reborn", the rebirth of the maligned Dragon of legend, the madman who ended the previous Age. One thing I forgot to mention in my recap of Book Two is how the central character receives stigma-esque marks; brands on both his palms, and he is dealt a never-healing wound on his side.

Other legends are just as obvious. There's Artur Paendrag Tanreall, the High King who a thousand years ago united all the lands under his rule, a hero of legend who can be called back from the dead to fight when the need arises. The Once and Future King indeed. Others are less obvious. As the series progresses, the central character takes on the qualities of the Fisher King, a maimed ruler, and the weather begins to mirror his moods. The three ta'veren (an in-universe term for people who quite literally have Plot Immunity) begin to mirror the Norse deities Tyr, Thor, and Odin. You've got the Wild Hunt. You've sort-of got the Sidhe (of the Unseelie Court variety). Even the stories and legends -- heck, even the tavern names -- are references that are very easy to miss, from Culann's Hound to The Bells of St Clements to Lord of the Rings. Just, just go ahead and read the WotFAQ.

Finally, and on a completely subjective note, I just like the writing style. Other works like Dune and The Saga of Recluce have a lot of the same feel to them, but I was just turned off by their writing styles.

If the series had all of the above attributes and none of the following faults, I'm sure it would be well-regarded as one of the best high fantasy series ever. The fact that many people hold that opinion despite the following flaws says something about how good the good parts are. So what are these ugly parts of the story?

First off: gender relations. This is the big one. At first glance, the series takes place in one of those idealized "Middle Ages as they should have been" universes. Women aren't viewed as second-class citizens, as they were in reality or in 'realistic' fantasy fiction such as GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire. If anything, there's a bit of a stigma against men. I suppose there's a good reason for this in-universe; magic-users were the effective rulers three thousand years ago, and then every male magic-user went insane and destroyed the entire civilization. One of the mandates of female magic-users of the present day is to track down and deal with male magic-users before they go insane and do the same.

Well, that doesn't seem bad so far, right? Well, there's just one, tiny, teensy problem. Robert Jordan could not write women. Hate to say it, but many of the female characters are jerks. The women in the series can be crabby. Or childish. Or arrogant. Or possessive. Or... you get the picture. And you don't see the unmarked gender getting any of these negative attributes (not that having horrible female and male characters would be the solution). You can really see the distinction in some books. You've got the main male character, burdened with the task of ruling several diverse nations, trying to keep subversive nobles in line, resisting the advice of competing allies who try to make him a tool for their various causes, constantly hounded by enemies of a bygone era who vastly outmatch him in experience, all the while struggling with his increasing insanity and faced with his inevitable death. Now, he ends up emotionally shutting himself away from the world, which isn't a good thing. But it's good reading, and good character development. In the same time period, we've got two female characters who are constantly squabbling because they're escaping town in a traveling circus and it's cramped quarters and they're hot and sweaty and they don't have enough clothes with them. Oh, the humanity. All too often, the female characters are unbearable, and all too often the typical male response is "Oh, women are such mysterious creatures. Who can fathom their ways? Ah well, we love them anyway." I don't.

It gets worse with romantic relationships. In the entire series, I don't recall one healthy romantic relationship. Not one. The main on-screen marriage is one of doubt, jealousy, argument, and a struggle for dominance. What's worse, by the end of the series, it seems that the author(s) goal is to marry off every single character, despite how little compatibility or screen-time shared the couple has. Seriously, it feels like I'm reading a crack pairing thread. I really didn't like the romantic pairing that happens more and more near the end. Actually, romantic stoichiometry would be the better term, because one relationship is polygamous. Never mind that the male character spends far more time with Female B than Female A, and far more time with Female C than Females A and B combined.

The Altaran culture sums it up nicely. A fantasy author who created a society where women were subjected to strict societal norms and men were permitted and expected to stab them with knives if they deviated or went against their wishes would be vilified. But if you flip the genders, it's apparently empowering.

The second major complaint you hear about the series is the pacing. Again, I want to point this out: I enjoyed the pacing of the two books I've reread, and I don't recall any real problems with the next several books. By all means, the books aren't fast-paced, but the early ones don't drag. In the next few books I'll review, a number of characters transition to political roles, and the action drops a bit, but that's not the problem. By around Books Seven or Eight, the cast of characters has exploded, and the action continually shifts around between different points of view and different theatres of operation. Major events do still happen, but things start to drag.

But the biggest problem people have is the infamous Book Ten. Now, Book Nine ends with a bang. The events of its climax have earth-shattering implications. So, apparently, it's appropriate to have Book Ten consist of nothing other than minor characters responding to the events of the previous book. I repeat: Nothing of note happens. Nothing gets resolved. It's horrible, and made a lot of people doubt that the original author had any plans to end the series. I was one of those people. See, I had started reading the series late. Thus, I was able to read one book after the other, all the way up to Book Ten, before I had to wait for the next one to be published. Book Nine was great; hey, look at all this stuff that's happening! The series must be moving to a close, right? Book Ten was like a punch in the gut.

I want to leave off with a silver lining: Book Eleven was the last one written by the original author, and it succeeded in snapping the 'tension line' taut again. It did redeem the author of the previous book. It's made abundantly clear that the series is nearly at its end. Awesome stuff starts happening again. Then the original author died, but not before leaving copious amounts of notes behind. A new author is finishing the last three books, and judging by Book Twelve, it's more or less consistent with the writing of the previous author (it helps when the editor of the series was also the wife of the previous author). Book Twelve is awesome, continues the precedent set by Book Eleven, and lack most of the flaws that are in the previous stretch of books.

In conclusion, your comment about the series "averaging out the mediocre" is dead wrong. It's not like you're drinking a smoothie, made with equal parts fresh fruit and rotten fruit. Instead, you're sipping a delicious glass of Australian Shiraz. A glass of Shiraz that has a number of dead flies floating on the surface. On the one hand, the series is a broad, sweeping epic about the end of an Age that gives every major character the Monomyth treatment. On the other hand, one book has a Rape as Comedy subplot (don't worry, Female on Male is A-OK!). Some of those flies are pretty horrific. But if you're willing to pick them out of the beverage, you'll have a good drink.

Look, the fact that I'm willing to write so much should count for something.