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Winding Up The Wheel of Time

The Dragon Reborn (cover)I was 13 years old in October 1991. That was when a book called The Dragon Reborn, by a guy called Robert Jordan changed my life. I saw it. I bought it (and the two prior volumes) and thus began my love affair with The Wheel of Time.

Fast-forward almost 22 years. Last week, I finished a complete re-read of the first 13 books in the series via the excellent audiobooks read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading. And then I began A Memory of Light, the 14th and final book of Robert Jordan’s epic masterwork. The Wheel of Time may have no beginning and no ending, but I can’t help but feel like an important chapter of my life is finally coming to a close.

Back to October ‘91. By that point, I had been riding my bike to the local bookshop for at least a couple years. Left out of the driveway, right through a hole in a school fence, left across a field, through another hole, and straight across the deserted back lot of an old shopping center. It took about five minutes. I’d spend what felt like hours in the fantasy section. Looking back on those solo excursions—often with nary a dime in my pocket, but with plenty of time on my hands—I can appreciate how they altered the arc of my life. I already loved reading, true. But the time spent huddled in the back corner of that garish white outbuilding in the middle of a dying suburban shopping center cemented my love of three things: books, writing, and fantasy.

The Eye of the World (cover)The fantasy/sci-fi section of a bookstore was an amazing place in the early 1990s. TSR was at its zenith. There were more Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels than you could count. D&D manuals were everywhere. Eddings was my guy, along with Weis, Hickman and Richard A. Knaak. Larry Elmore’s art was, as far as I was concerned, the only art. Anne McCaffery was there on the shelf, but her dragons looked too safe for my tastes. Tad Williams wrote a trilogy about a chair made of dragon bones, swords forged from the nails of a crucified messiah, and a redheaded oaf with destiny. Classics by Tolkien, Adams, Pratchett and Herbert filled the shelves, packaged and repackaged for any and all tastes. A leather-bound Lord of the Rings omnibus with beautiful gold inlay? Yours for $99.99. A Dune Chronicles paperback box set? $39.95, young man, but don’t waste your money—just read the first three. And looming over it all were trade paperbacks of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, peering down from the ‘employee recommendation’ end caps, murmuring, “you’re not ready…yet,” in a seductive whisper.

There was plenty to choose from. And to this day, I’m not sure if I chose Jordan or if Jordan chose me. I devoured those first three books in a matter of days. And then, when I finished, I waited. And time passed.

For the next three years, Jordan released a new volume every fall. I’d re-read the whole thing before every new book came out. It is an honor I’ve bestowed upon exactly two series—The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice And Fire. Much like Martin’s epic, The Wheel of Time demands to be read as a whole. It was an investment of time, even then, when time was plentiful. As later volumes were released—through college, law school and into my nascent adulthood, the re-reads became tougher to complete. But as my reading slowed, so did Jordan’s writing. Gaps between books became longer. The books themselves covered less ground. But the Wheel kept turning.

The series and I evolved together over the years. As I aged, my perspective shifted, as perspectives do. And it seemed to me Jordan’s writing changed as well. How could it not? The series matured in tone, in content. But the changes weren’t jarring. They were a natural progression. It isn’t often that one literally grows up with a set of characters, but that is what happened with Rand, Perrin and Mat.

Knife of Dreams (cover)Robert Jordan passed away on my birthday in 2007, nearly two years after the release of Knife of Dreams, the 11th volume in the series. A story moving toward an epic conclusion ground to a halt when the tragedy struck. Would we see it finished? Did anyone know the ending? How horrible, I thought, to devote your life’s work to something and not see it finished. With the advent of the World Wide Web, there were numerous places to discuss, rant, theorize and gnash teeth over the uncertainty of it all. For the fans, The Wheel of Time—and its author—was more than a bunch of books. This community of people—often of wildly divergent viewpoints—was united in its devotion to this series and its creator.

When the announcements came from Harriet and Brandon Sanderson, I breathed a sigh of relief. The wheel would continue to turn. Bittersweet, sure, but evidence of the respect Jordan had for his fans. He knew, even at the end, that the books were as much ours as his. And as much as he wanted it finished, he wanted us to have an ending. He wanted to leave us with something whole. Jordan bequeathed his life’s work to the people that made it possible. It was an act of grace, kindness and respect that spoke to the intimate relationship Jordan had with his fans.

And so the end began. The storm gathered. The Last Battle loomed. Sanderson was able to achieve Jordan’s tone while wisely eschewing mimicry. The story progressed, both on and off the page.

Between that fateful day in 1991 and today, things have changed. The world is a darker place. Scarier. More complicated. Childhood frustrations have given way to adult concerns. Marriage, babies, houses, losing jobs and finding new ones. Births, deaths, illness and injury. These things happened in life and they happened in the books. And through it all, this wonderful series consistently brought me back to being 13 years old, with nothing more important to do than hole up with a book to find out what would happen next.

A Memory of Light (cover)Twenty-two years is a long time. And in every one of those twenty-two years, I’ve read at least one or two books from The Wheel of Time. During a period when so much changed—both personally and in the larger world—The Wheel of Time was a constant. Knowing that it will soon be over is difficult. How do you come to terms with the end of something that has been with you for so long? The answer, I think, is that you don’t.

Jordan’s books are timeless. New generations will continue to discover The Wheel of Time. They’ll find them in dusty boxes in their parents’ basements. They’ll read them on ereaders and tablets and things still unimagined. They’ll have fresh eyes and no expectations. They’ll have the opportunity to experience fourteen books filled with love, war, heartbreak, honor and redemption. But they won’t have that singular experience that defined the series for me. As it grew, I grew. And that, I think, is why these books are so important.

I’m still not sure how it all ends, but there’s one thing I know for sure—though I’ll soon finish The Wheel of Time, I don’t think it will ever be finished with me.

Check back soon for Zachary’s review of A Memory of Light.

Title image by TheWoollyOne.

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Finishing a series that you, as a reader, put so much time and emotion into is a very unique experience. You captured that feeling perfectly. 🙂 Great article!

  2. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Very well written Zach, you put your soul in there!
    Best,
    Davieboy

    PS Bale transfer saga almost as epic as WoT…..

    • Thanks D! Yeah, the Bale thing is starting to get to me. As much as I love the guy, I think that if he truly wants out and they’re offering the amounts being reported, Levy has to let him go. I’m pretty happy with the moves we made in the window thus far. Losing him will hurt, but In Levy We Trust. That being said, if a new bill of wages outside our normal structure will keep him around for the next three years, pay him his money. Only a couple more weeks ’til first kick! COYS!

      • Avatar Davieboy says:

        Hey, we love fantasy and magic right? Only a select few can provide that – Bale is a magi on par with Hoddle & Waddle, Ronaldo & Messi.
        I’d love him to stay obviously, but a part of me wants him to go to Real and reveal his True Identity…..

        • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

          I get it, and I agree with you. There’s only one Gareth Bale. His left foot is on loan from God. Here’s hoping Levy’s Kung Fu is stronger than the Spaniard’s. Or that Bale’s wife refuses to move house!

  3. Avatar Juan Dougnac says:

    After reading your incredible article, I’m not sure if I should feel ashamed for my inadequacy in writing articles for Fantasy Faction, or if I should see it as a goal to aim for.

    Either way, Your article has given me much to think about. Thank you.

  4. Avatar May says:

    I love this review! It perfectly summed up what growing up along with the series was like. I started reading WoT to escape some difficult times in my life and got immediately sucked in. I grew as the characters did – and I almost didn’t want to read the last book because then I knew it would be over. I wont say anything about the ending of the books, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it after you finish!

    Ty for the awesome review! Did you ever play games based on the series? I played WoTmud for years.

  5. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    I came across this series in high school, and for a time was utterly obsessed with it. I was lucky in that I had a small group of friends who were equally obsessed, so we talked about it plenty.

    But for all that, haven’t finished the series. I stopped reading after the 7th book, because the plot felt like it was starting to drag and I was getting kind of bored with it. And I haven’t yet sat down and read the rest, or reread the earlier ones that I even KNOW will bring back that wonderful sense of nostalgia.

    I will eventually, I think. And even if it’s a while before I do, and I’m missing out on a ton of plot points and events and character development, I still know enough to know that it’s an iconic series that got so many people into and deeper into the genre.

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