There are very few things that manage to entertain me. One of these is fantasy literature. Literary fiction succeeds only in boring the living hell out of me, no matter what the genre. (Was anyone else subjected to The Joy Luck Club in high school? Is it any wonder why so few teenagers have an interest in books when they’re forced to read that crap? And The Great Gatsby…does it really take an unbearably dull, 200-page soap opera about a collection of worthless and empty human beings to teach us that greed and materialism are bad things? Maybe back in the 1920’s when it was first published that was a unique idea…no longer.) About a month ago I finished the 13-volume, 10,508-page Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (pen name of James Rigney)…a notable accomplishment in my mind, especially since I read the entire series in about three months. The story is a heroic epic about the Dragon Reborn, a young man named Rand al’Thor – the reincarnation of an infamous ancient hero – who is prophesized to save the world from the Dark One in the Last Battle. The catch is that the prophesies also say that he will go insane, destroy most of humanity, and die in the process. I felt like sharing some thoughts about the series. I don’t plan on giving away anything critical to the plot, but just to be safe, and to absolve myself of any responsibility if I do, I hereby invoke that ubiquitous cliche of internet fandom……SPOILER ALERT!!! First off, reading this series immediately after George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was quite refreshing. The Wheel of Time is classic epic fantasy, whereas Martin’s series is another one of these “dark and gritty” fantasy works that have become popular in recent years. For some reason, many people are willing to praise Martin’s books on that point alone. Why? When fantasy literature becomes that dark, it loses its value as escapism. If I want a bleak world filled with misery, death, and despair, I’ll do what I normally do (get up in the morning) and read what I normally read (the news, history, strategy, etcetera). Martin’s prose is excellent, but his characters are relatively flat, his universe – modeled on feudal Europe – is uninteresting, and his central plot about warring noble houses is not very captivating. Most of the time Martin’s books don’t even feel like fantasy. That said, The Wheel of Time is not some hunky-dory children’s fantasy; in fact, I was quite struck by the dramatic change in tone beginning with book three, after which some of the themes became dark indeed, but without the unremitting sense of bleakness that characterizes Martin’s work. There is a major drawback to the series, however: I have a visceral hatred for the protagonist. The Rand character is a stupid, egomaniacal, and sociopathic malignant narcissist (a few redundancies in that description, but accurate nonetheless). From what I’ve read in some of the fan discussion, many readers have come to dislike the character as the series has progressed, but I feel prescient because I’ve hated his guts from the moment he was introduced in chapter 1 of The Eye of the World, the first book in the series. Back then he was just a farm boy, but unlike other fans I recognized him immediately to be a dangerous and unstable lunatic, completely unsuited for the burdens of fulfilling prophesy. It turns out that I was correct. His inner monologue (a common narrative device in fantasy literature) reveals no sense of philosophy or education that would guide his actions and help him cope with his burdens; only seething vitriol and resentment for everything around him, including his friends and allies. For all his power he suffers from an enormous inferiority complex, obsessed with the possibility that others might be manipulating him, and he interprets the proffering of advice to be “manipulation.” He despises sycophants, but he threatens to execute those who don’t obey him. He keeps telling himself how “hard” he must become…evidently, he interprets “hard” to mean indifference to cruelty and suffering, but he offer no explanation as to why this is necessary. He has no sense of temperance or moderation. For example, his only coherent moral principle is that he refuses to kill women (he has no problem confining them to dungeons, however)…but any virtue, when conjoined with stupidity, becomes a fault. In one instance, he applies this prohibition to a female antagonist who is basically demonic, and of course she escapes to wreak all kinds of havoc, killing others in the process. In the aftermath of this fiasco, Rand is now willing to kill any woman whatsoever, for any reason he can think of. Great moral development! Nor does Rand have any sense of duty or obligation. Indeed, he hates the very world that he is supposed to save. At one point, a close relation visits him and tries to impart a sense of soldierly duty to change his perspective and get him back on the right track. Big mistake. Rand considers that to be “manipulation,” flies into yet another rage, and nearly kills the man. Rand al’Thor is the perfect example of what happens when a spiteful peasant is given absolute power: he becomes the type of leader that any self-respecting polity should string up from the nearest lamp post at the first opportunity. It’s been frustrating for me because there’s always a number of subplots that involve conspiracies to kill Rand, but all have failed thus far. Whenever one of the more likable characters is near Rand, I find myself mentally screaming to them, “kill him…Kill Him…KILL HIM!!! Take your chances with the Dark One and KILL HIM!!!” Of course, Jordan’s intent with the character was probably to explore how such an awesome burden of responsibility can drive anyone insane to evoke sympathy for his plight. Meh…I’m not impressed. If Rand is willing to kill and demand that others die for him, then he should be able to handle dying to save the world without becoming a nightmare version of Frodo.
I read the series because I like most of the other characters, especially Moiraine, who is the literary equivalent of a female Gandalf. Unfortunately, the traditional role of a Gandalf-esque character is to die off or otherwise disappear early in the series, leaving the young heroes to find their own way. And so it was with Moiraine. The indications are that she will be returning (also Gandalf-esque) in the next book, but her absence for most of the series was disappointing. Robert Jordan died in 2007 before completing the final book. His passing was a major loss to the genre, because Jordan was unique as an author: a decorated Vietnam veteran, graduate of The Citadel, and later a nuclear engineer in the Navy, Jordan brought a perspective to fantasy that more conventional authors lack. But there’s a silver lining to everything. The pacing of Jordan’s later books slowed to a crawl as hundreds upon hundreds of pages were devoted to intricate descriptions of clothing, furnishings, facial expressions, body language, etc. Book ten, Crossroads of Twilight, has the dubious honor of being Amazon’s worst rated product. Ever. And having read it, I can say that it deserves worse. After Jordan died, Brandon Sanderson was selected to finish the series, working from the notes that Jordan had left behind, and he managed to do the impossible by rescuing The Wheel of Time from its own author. With Sanderson writing the final books, the series has been revitalized and appears poised for a conclusion that will redeem it from the drudgerous legacy given it by Jordan’s later work. For my next epic, I am considering either Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (who would have thought Vikings to be such prolific fantasy authors). I hesitate to start either series, however, because I understand the title character of the former to be another tiresome antihero, and the universe of the latter to be even bleaker than Martin’s work. So in the meantime I thought I would try a few standalones. First up is Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, which I selected pretty much at random. After that, I thought I would try Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, which has received rave reviews. The chances of me bothering to write about either of them are quite slim.