On October 27, thousands of rabid fantasy fans will clamor into bookstores across the country, grasping for copies of a book years in the making and much-anticipated. I will be among them.
Praise or censure, as well as the author’s name, will undoubtedly be on our lips for weeks following the book’s release. After all, fans have been discussing The Wheel of Time series with nerdy savor since Robert Jordan wrote The Eye of the World in 1990. The new arrival to the series? Book 12, The Gathering Storm. The author? Not Robert Jordan, but Brandon Sanderson.
The late Robert Jordan, whom some hail as the storytelling progeny of J.R.R. Tolkien, was not only a beloved author, but a Vietnam veteran, a nuclear engineer and a devoted husband. His many talents and experiences unfold into beautiful high fantasy writing in the New York Times bestsellers comprising The Wheel of Time. As he worked to complete the epic, Jordan died of a rare blood disease in 2007.
His, wife, Harriet, then opted for American writer Brandon Sanderson to conclude the series that has spellbound readers for almost two decades.
Trust this reformed skeptic when I say that The Wheel of Time is almost occult in its charm. After reading some very bad, very hackneyed modern fantasy novels, I steeled myself not to be hoodwinked by the hype surrounding The Wheel of Time, and to form an objective opinion. I was stunned. I found that The Wheel of Time is filled with originality and brilliant style, setting and characters that rank him with the best of the fantasy authors.
I admit that as I perused the first novel, Jordan’s writing style confused me. He introduces a number of complex characters, alongside young protagonists Rand, Mat and Perrin, from the get-go, and makes zero effort to mute their complexity. Sudden turns of mood and incoherent thoughts spilling from the characters before I had a chance to get to know them disoriented me. Sometimes, it distracted me from the thrust of the book. I found myself often frustrated as I muddled through the streams of consciousness.
However, I discovered that Jordan’s approach is not only necessary, but well-executed. As I read on through the series, the characters took on life and breath that would not have been possible without the very human emotions — mood swings and flights of fancy and all — set up from the beginning.
Jordan also employs a high volume of dialogue and banter, which he favors over straightforward description. This continuous method wields the power of revelation: a world as complicated as its inhabitants must unfold little by little so as not to overwhelm the reader. Details that seem simple, such as greetings, curse words and various titles of folk songs and stories, reveal a culture unique to both individuals and regions.
Good stylistic concepts are nothing without good writing, though. Jordan’s imagery is the best I’ve read, bar none. All the readers’ senses are engaged at all times during the series, whether the author is setting up for a big event or winding down from a chaotic occurrence. He’s one of those that can evoke tears and riotous laughter in the same chapter…without being cheesy. Furthermore, Jordan is consistent: the hallmark of a talented author.
Jordan’s setting also lends great credibility to his storytelling. Jordan, unlike Tolkien, is not creating myth through The Wheel of Time series. Instead of using broad and sweeping themes and impressions, he ties readers to the Wheel of Time world in a scrupulous manner, making direct connections with our modern existence. (The readers’ era is theoretically part of the “Wheel of Time.”) In this case, he uses setting to do so.
The author builds connections well. Instead of showing sharp divisions between lifestyles in different cities and countries, Jordan’s world shows realistic bleed-over from one culture to another. Through this tactic, the reader has an automatic understanding of how the world might work: though fantastical, everything from economics to manners carries familiar, human elements.
The characters, however, are what create the crazy fans. As I mentioned before, they are as complex as any person walking on the face of this planet, from hard-headed and self-righteous Egwene al’Vere to skittish, yet roguish, Juilin Sandar to jaded softie Thom Merrilin. Each has faults that often overwhelm their virtues, moments of both ingenuity and utter stupidity, and inexplicable desires for heroism and darkness and romance and power and goodwill. Each hooks readers with some kind of emotion, whether positive or negative, leaving them with vested interested in the character’s outcome.
In addition, character dynamics resonate with readers’ struggles outside the story. For example, conflicts between sexes in The Wheel of Time reflect power games in today’s feminist culture. Poignant reactions to war and destruction raise questions about violence and the danger of us-versus-them mentality. Some scenes birth a debate on the value of human life. Opinions on architecture, trade, art and other realities punctuate every chapter. There is nothing in The Wheel of Time that suggests Jordan was out of touch the reality of humanity — pleasures and pains.
All that to say: the hype is legitimate. The series only improves with time, and, by all accounts, Sanderson will do a good job taking over where Jordan left off. If the surrogate infuses The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light with the elements that make the rest of the series so winsome and addictive, the series will conclude — to contradict Eliot — not with a whimper, but a bang. Nothing but a bang could do such an elegant, engaging story as The Wheel of Time justice.