So yesterday I rushed home to intercept the UPS guy so I could get my copy of the latest Wheel of Time novel by Robert Jordan. I’m not altogether sure why I did this -- even going so far as to run when I saw the UPS van parked in front of my building. The book now sits on my pile of books to be read, and I’m not quite certain where it lies in the priority chain. I’m still creeping my way through Michael Chabon’s Summerland -- do I really want the next book I take on to be another unmotivated read?

When I first ordered the book from Amazon, I was emailed a “free” sample chapter to read. Excited, I printed it out at work and took it to lunch. After only a few pages of Matrim Cauthon’s rambling on about nothing, I found my mind wandering. I started concentrating on my food and ignoring the excerpt. Eventually I forgot all about it, only later remembering it and wondering why I ordered the book in the first place. Habit? Hope for something better than what’s come recently? Maybe, I thought, this chapter was chosen so readers won’t be spoiled. Maybe the actual book itself will be more interesting?

I first discovered the Wheel of Time about ten years ago. The early books were quite refreshing as far as fantasy goes -- complex, well written for what they are (in that exciting, “pulp” kind of way), and above and beyond superior to most of the crap churned out in the genre. Ultimately Robert Jordan rips off Tolkien and Frank Herbert, but unlike his contemporaries in the early 1990’s, he doesn’t do a bad job of “borrowing” some ideas and making them seem new. Early on, Jordan used copious helpings of foreshadowing and prophecy to keep readers hooked for the next book. The action was enjoyable, the cliffhangers stressful, the world he created complex with intriguing politics, religion, cultures, etc. I’m not saying that the early books in the series were literary masterpieces, but they were a good way to spend an evening.

The series peaked with The Shadow Rising and has been in decline ever since. By A Crown of Swords, the pacing slowed to a snail’s pace. Hundreds of pages would go by without a single thing happening. Character mannerisms that once seemed fresh and interesting turned into cliché (how many times can Nynaeve tug her braid, or Perrin try to keep his wife out of harm’s way). I’ve only read most of the books once, but I remember details from the WoT books I read in 1997 a lot clearer than some of the details in the last few volumes in the series. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what happened in Path of Daggers, and all I remember from Winter’s Heart is the end of the book, which was the first time in years that something actually happened.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Robert Jordan is pumping out an 800-page volume in the series once every two years for the sole purpose of padding his bank account. Pages and pages are filled with the happenings of incidental characters that are all but indistinguishable from each other. Attention is given to dinner, bathing, dressing and the finest fashion details without anything actually occurring plot wise. Do I really care what Rand al’Thor had for breakfast this morning? Or the color of the lace around Mat’s collar? Not really. It won’t be long before Jordan starts sending his characters to the privy to describe that other much-ignored (in literature) bodily function. That might gain him a few more pages.

It’s my belief now that the Wheel of Time will never end. But like Star Trek, it will continue to be published in the hopes of milking a few more cents out of it. Even with competitors like George R.R. Martin’s far superior (at least at the moment -- it’s only on its third book right now, with book four forthcoming) A Song of Ice and Fire, the Wheel of Time continues to be immensely popular. But I can’t help thinking that other people out there must be sick of it -- they too must see that it’s practically dead, rotted away and bloated.

Years ago, I thought that the key to a good genre series was length and complexity. I couldn’t imagine a universe as big and interesting as Jordan’s outliving its welcome. But like with other serialized work -- ranging from endless comic book series to television -- if there’s no hint of forthcoming closure, there’s really no reason to keep on reading. Filled with pointless details and zero action, the Wheel of Time has finally worn me down. I might give The Crossroads of Twilight a chance, but only after I’ve finished the other books in my stack, not to mention all the other books I want to read, but haven’t yet acquired. By then, maybe, the final volume of the series will be out. Not that I'll still care by that point.

Cross-Eyed at Midnight, 2079, Volume 53 in the Squeal of Whine series

Ages come and ages go, but the squeal never ends. What has been wasn't worth reading, and what's to come is even worse, because the author was sick of this crap before the end of volume two.

Bland steps forward! Then he changes his mind and steps back.

Ahyes Myeye: serene and ageless wonder women, or petulant squabbling brats? Ninny tugs a braid; really really hard this time! Really. Cudswannee schemes. Egwhite tells Albumen, Spitter for the Mauve, to piss off. An AieAieAie Wise One acts superior.

Something rattles in Smat's head as he fingers his medallion and wonders if all that laughing and pointing means the women are making fun of him again. Meanwhile Spoorin's beard is growing faster than kudzu in a Georgia pine patch-- will Smaile want him back now that he has to shave his eyelids? Then the Dark One suddenly appears and bites someone's head off, like an eight-year-old with a chocolate bunny!

The inexplicable hiatus in the unstoppable SwinesChance invasion continues for another eight hundred pages. An AieAieAie Wise One acts superior.

Tune in next year for volume 54!

The most commonly seen criticism of the Wheel of Time is that it is verbose. This criticism is manifested in several ways.

Verbosity of Detail

Many readers complain that Robert Jordan spends unnecessary words on minutiae, insignificant events (such as characters' clothing or personal habits) that do not affect the plot. There are three typical responses to this criticism. The first is that Jordan's high level of detail makes the setting and characters far more "real" than those of less verbose authors. In The Lord of the Rings, minor details are glossed over, but whether this is to the benefit or the detriment of the story is a matter of personal taste. The second is that even minor details often become important, and to mention only details that would become important at a later date works against suspension of disbelief – how do the characters know in advance what details will become significant?. The third is that this is simply Jordan's writing style and, as has been noted, a matter of preference. Jordan's tone has not changed significantly since the first book, so those who disliked the first book for verbosity of detail would probably feel similarly about the rest.

Verbosity of Plot

Another complaint is that as the series has progressed, the books have "bogged down". In the early books, the characters wander about seemingly at will, unfettered by (or flouting) other responsibilities. While the results are "exciting", they are unsustainable for obvious reasons. As the plot and characters develop, less time is spent on explosions and more on the real consequences of the characters' actions.

Much of this is attributable to the scope of the setting. Tolkien's world consists of few divisions. In the South, where most of the action takes place, there are basically two "good" nations (Rohan and Gondor) and one "evil" nation (Mordor), all of them essentially stagnant but for the events directly related to the story. The world of The Wheel of Time is far more complex, with over a dozen important nations and more minor players, each with its own culture, traditions, history, and politics, none of them "good" or "evil", and all tossed in disarray by the Seanchan Return. This makes their interaction significantly more complex than 'good nations unite to fight empire of darkness'.

Verbosity of Story

Many people complain that the story is simply too long. This is basically the effect of a long, complex plot compounded by the two previous points. Different people have different tolerances for long stories, and many people's max out at well under ten thousand pages. These critics often point out characters, events, or plot threads that they believe could be dropped. The claim that Robert Jordan intends to keep the series going forever is, in addition to being unfounded and rather insulting, disproved in light of the imminent end of the series. Robert Jordan has sworn that the twelfth book will be the last, although some suspect that a thirteenth will be necessary.

Critics comparing The Wheel of Time to shorter works like The Lord of the Rings might compare them both to Mozart's and Wagner's operas. Both are highly regarded, but their forms are much different. Mozart's La nozze di Figaro is, like all of Mozart's work, marked by his trademark economy. It is not excessively short, but nor is it particularly long. One gets a clear sense that not a single note is wasted. Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, on the other hand, is so long that it cannot be played in a single sitting but is subdivided into four sections. The orchestration is dense, the motifs frequently repeating. Unlike the small orchestras of the early classical, Wagner calls for a huge orchestra containing both common and obscure instruments, including one he invented himself. One can be certain that if a few notes were omitted, few in the audience would be any the wiser. An attendee not a fan of Wagner would almost certainly be clawing at his seat in boredom within a few hours. Given this, is Wagner's work somehow inferior? Certainly not.

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