What I’m Reading

What I’m Reading

Fact: I love epic fantasy. Read it all the time. Huge fan. But I’m three-quarters of the way through the prequel to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, New Spring, and I have to get something off my chest.

First, let me be clear–I love these books. I immensely respect Robert Jordan. I think the Wheel of Time is one of the best fantasy series ever written. The world Jordan created is complete, detailed, functional, and consistent. The One Power is perhaps the most original and completely filled-in system of (quote-unquote) magic in the epic fantasy genre. Sure, the series spiraled a bit out of control somewhere around Lord of Chaos, and didn’t really right itself until Brandon Sanderson took over (in book, what, twelve?), but this a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame epic fantasy series. Without a doubt. Rest in peace, Mr. Jordan. You wrote something great.

That said … Jordan had one habit of characterization that is starting to wear on me. Every single character, or group of characters, in these books seems to be locked in a never-ending struggle to dominate everyone else. The personal interactions are a constant tug-o-war of getting the upper hand, and then bending the other characters by force of will. This is just as true among allies as enemies. There is very little cooperation in the books that isn’t forced by the dictates of a contested power structure. There is very little acknowledgment that cooperation is likely to work better than forcibly railroading the other party. The characters, for all their well-rounded attributes and intelligence, seem to have a serial inability to put themselves second. Instead, they spend dozens of pages glowering, burning with resentment, or sulking, because they didn’t get to do what they wanted to do at any given moment. It’s an epidemic of immaturity. How is it that these people are unable to work effectively in groups without resorting to pulling rank, every, single, time? The result is that everyone has to hide everything from everyone else, because they’re constantly refusing to work together effectively. It gets a little maddening.

And so you get Aes Sedai and Sea Folk constantly trying to batter each other into submission, despite being on the same side. People are forever prisoners of tribal and/or organizational hierarchies (the Aiel, the Children of the Light, Aes Sedai, Wise Women, Rand’s various alliances, the Asha’men, the Seanchan, the Forsaken, to name just a few). Indeed, Aes Sedai seem to spend most of their time fighting with each other, with the winner usually determined by who has the strongest ability to tap the One Power, or who, currently, situationally, has the upper hand. Everyone always thinks they are right, and everyone else wrong. This problem is most prevalent when the male and female characters try to work together. Often they seem utterly incapable of hashing out a reasonable plan, assigning roles, and getting it done. Rather, usually, each character thinks that they have the only workable plan, that they should do whatever needs to be done, without interference, and that the others are simply foolish and in the way. So they just go off and do their own thing without working together. Arrrgh.

This problem is front-and-center in New Spring, which spends quite a bit of time rehashing the training system for Accepted at the White Tower. Bottom line, the Aes Sedai treat their young trainees like borderline incompetents, despite the Accepted being in their late teens to twenties. They call them “child.” The training process involves chores, lessons from condescending teachers, and spankings. That’s right, spankings. The girls–learning to use an incredible supernatural power–plan pranks, squabble, and cry a lot. Everyone brags. They arrange themselves by personal power. It’s all disturbingly childish, in my mind. Why is the tone so often belittling? Why is the need to dominate the most prevalent factor in the personality of the Tower? I don’t get why there aren’t more “real talk” scenes, or why the Aes Sedai feel that a forced second childhood is the correct manner to train women who will have unspoken authority in every corner of the world. Because it results in immature, insecure, headstrong inductees, as the actions of the main female character who received that training bear out (Moiraine and Siuan in New Spring, and Elayne, Egwene, and Nynaeve during the whole series).

Don’t get me wrong. I like these characters. I love these books. But at times, I think Jordan strayed too far into harshly competitive interpersonal dynamics. It becomes refreshing to read the scenes where the characters form a plan, accept roles, and execute it without endlessly bickering over who’s in charge. I wish there was more of them. All that said, I’m looking forward to the final book, A Memory of Light, this January. Can’t wait, really. I’ll miss this series when it’s over.

Fantasy dork rant over. For now.

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