Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Sharath's bookshelf - The Wheel of Time series

" The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning."

      For those who don t already know it, I am a huge fantasy fiction fan. I read a lot of fantasy literature; some of it is exquisitely awful, some of it is just tolerable, a relatively small percentage of the published fantasy literature is actually good and an infinitesimally small proportion of it is exceptionally good, the kind which makes sifting through a lot of really bad fiction worthwhile.

     The Wheel of Time presents a unique problem to the discerning fantasy bibliophile. It does not fit neatly into any definition of good or bad; it just is. We read through reams upon reams of really bad writing with character treatment so puerile and a storyline so reminiscent of bad soaps that it often makes us throw our hands up in exasperation. But there are a precious few lines of truly genius writing interspersed throughout the exhaustingly voluminous 14 book series that kept me hooked.

      There are a bewilderingly large number of sources that this series draws its inspiration from. The concept of continuity of time, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth is essentially Hindu. The main villain is called Shai' tan, a name familiar to those who know a little about Islam. The concepts of mind over body and the fighting techniques and stances that have names like boar rushes down the mountain feel like they have been lifted right from a dubbed Kung fu movie. The biblical and Arthur Pendragon references are too numerous to list. But the most important influence seems to be that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Emond's Field could alternatively be called the Shire. Lan and Aragorn seem to be cut from the same cloth, Trollocs and Orcs could be related species.

      What endears this book to a lot of fantasy fiction fans is that it starts off as a story everyone loves to read, the tried and time tested template of innocent farm boy on an adventure. It is the kind of story that most of us identify with, the story that made us lifelong fantasy lovers. One of the problems with this series is the same thing that makes us like it in the first place. It is a good thing for a book to those evoke feelings of nostalgia, to make us feel young again. But that gets old very fast. You realise early on that you have moved on past these kind of stories, you want something more gritty, something less wishy washy and you start getting irritated about the most inconsequential of things.

      There are a lot of problems with this series, not the least of which is the character building - some of the characters are flat and one note while others, especially most of the female characters, are just plain annoying. To be fair though, this series does have an enormous cast of characters and fleshing out all of them would have made this already huge series ( in terms of word count ) much more unwieldy which bring us to perhaps the most often discussed problem with this series - the sheer size of it.

       This is a fourteen book series with a total word count of over four million - that is about 285,000 words per book on average. This wordiness allows the author to be quite inventive with his world building and detailed in its description  and he is. The problem is that he goes overboard and the resulting mess became too unwieldy for the author to adequately deal with. The first few and the last parts of the series are the best of the lot and the intervening books could have used more conscientious editing.

      Before the WoT fans out there start sharpening their knives and finetune their plans to torture me, I should probably point out that I am a fan too. The only difference between us is that though I absolutely love this series, I can also admit, albeit with a great deal of pain, that this series does have its share of problems. And now that I got the painful part of the review over with, I can write about what I like about this series.

     My favourite thing about this series is its familiarity, the sense of deja vu it creates, the warm feeling of it being the home turf. Admittedly, it gets old fast but in small infrequent doses, there is nothing better to lift your spirits at the end of a trying day. It is like an old friend you call to reminisce about the carefree days of time gone by. Though I have written about the characters being poorly constructed, you care about all of them. The books may be tedious reading at times but you get used to it and slowly begin to enjoy reading.

     The first book was published in 1990 and for most of the people who grew up reading it, it has been an integral part of their lives, a much stronger and more binding commitment than the Harry Potter fans have. Robert Jordan, the author of the series, passed away before he could complete the series and Brandon Sanderson wrote the last three books in the series, the last of which was released about a fortnight ago. It was a bittersweet moment, an ineffable unique welter of emotions - of accomplishment, of joy, of loss, of closure, when I finally finished reading " A Memory of Light ". .

      In a nutshell, this series is a lot like the fantasy fiction landscape today or life really: you go through it, step by step, one page or day at a time, with an expectation of finding something worthwhile,you slog through it, you get disillusioned, you get to the point of calling it quits and then in an attempt at a cosmic joke, the powers above deign to throw a crumb your way. You think, 'you can t quit now, its getting better' - but it doesn t; it only seems that way for a very brief but happy period of time. This sequence gets repeated endlessly till you grow numb to it all. The only driving force is a desire to see through to the end that which you have started.

         Only in the end when you get through it all, do you realise that the work was all worth it. Before long you begin to treasure the hardship because it made the moments of joy that much more special - the stark contrast between moments when there seemed no point to it all, when all you could see was endless despair and the moments of unbridled optimism and the feeling of being on top of the world is what makes life or a book seem real.

      Final word - will you like all of it? NO. Should you read it? YES

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