Monday, March 9, 2015

Wheel of Time Read Along: Some Final Thoughts

Hello, my name is Sue and I am addicted to Read Alongs.

The Wheel of Time Read Along was certainly massive, but it was not my first venture into this form of extreme reading. I was enticed into the seedy world of shared book dissection by a reTweet advertizing a Read Along of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch that began in March 2012. At the time I was new to book blogging and excited to throw myself into the full experience of book discussion over the ether because I was already an enthusiastic participant in a local book group. If only I had known that this seemingly innocent decision would have such a profound impact upon my life . . .

At first it was just supposed to be a five-week commitment. But soon I was introduced to a world full of interesting people reading and writing and discussing, and it was simply too tempting to ignore. Ten titles later, I had been exposed to some amazing authors and was ready to commit to something seriously silly. So, on December 16, 2012 I posted my discussion for the first week of this epic journey through the entire Wheel of Time series. At first I tried to continue with my normal blogging regime, and even signed up to do multiple Read Alongs at a time. I think four in one week was the craziest that it got before real life put an abrupt stop to my madness. What, you might ask, could possibly shake me of this never-ending desire for discussing books? Quite simply, I found employment. It is strange how suddenly having to NOT read and write about books all the time cuts into your ability to run a book blog. A quick look at my archive will show that I tried to continue at first, but soon realized that I had a simple choice to make: continue my normal blogging routine or drop The Wheel of Time Read Along unless I could somehow stop sleeping.

Whilst I was tempted to drop out of the massive Read Along, I have always been the type of person who tries to live up to my responsibilities and fulfill my commitments. I had said that I would do this, and so I was going to do my utmost to try. If this meant that my other blogging had to fall by the wayside, then I would be sad but would stick to the schedule and keep going for as long as possible. Also, by the time that I had to make this decision I had become completely engaged by Mr Jordan’s series and really wanted to continue with it. I can proudly state that I have managed to post every week, even whilst travelling in Europe, and now that I have reached the end of the series I am very glad that I stayed with it.

How massive is massive?

Without wishing to be overdramatic, I can safely say that this series is the longest that I have ever read. At the beginning I had an intellectual understanding of its size, but that did not really translate into an understanding of the actual task involved. Perhaps I never really thought that we would finish, or perhaps I was simply delusional about what was involved.

The original plan was for a twelve volume series, but then Mr Jordan added New Spring, which is a prologue, and the final volume had to be split into three in order to tie up all the story lines. It could be argued that there was enough material left unaddressed at the end of Volume 11: Knife of Dreams to fill four or even five massive tomes, but Mr Sanderson felt that he could do the job in three, though each of them is ginormous.

To give you a feel for the enormity of this series, here are a few interesting statistics. The 15 paperback volumes stack to a height of 26 inches and weigh in at a total of 13.5 pounds. They include 4,410,036 words spread over 11,916 pages and divided into 684 chapters. The extensive cast list includes 2,782 named characters, of which 145 provide their unique point of view. We read approximately 100 pages each week, and the total experience took us 114 weeks.

Why choose this particular series?

My original encounter with the series occurred back in the 1990s when it was first published. I read The Eye of the World and then the next two or three in quick succession, but then I had to wait for Mr Jordan to actually write some more. I distinctly remember having to reread the earlier books several times when the new volumes were published so that I could get back into the world and reconnect with the characters. Eventually I decided to wait until he had finished the whole thing before restarting it yet again. Then he went and died, and I rather gave up on idea of ever reading it: why bother if we would never know what happened in the end?

The excitement about Brandon Sanderson writing the final ‘volume’ was rather lost on me because I had not yet been exposed to the epic awesomeness that is his writing, and I rather assumed that it would provide a second class ending to a first class series. However, once I was introduced to the Mistborn series (through a Read Along, of course) I immediately saw that Mr Sanderson was the perfect person to complete the series and I vowed to get around to reading it once the final, final volume was published.

Would I have enjoyed it as much as a solo read?

I have always been terrible at identifying the motivations behind characters’ actions when I read fiction. I simply do not think on that level and so my experience of epic literature can often be a little confusing and even frustrating as I try to understand why people are behaving in irrational and stupid ways. The great advantages of a Read Along are the slower reading pace and the ability to discuss and speculate as you go along. Knowing that I will be answering questions about a section of reading makes me concentrate on it slightly more than normal. It also gives me the time to review and digest what I have read so that I can spot connections and hints much more easily. Then there are the wonderful group discussions, which will almost inevitably produce ideas and theories that had never occurred to me. Every person who reads a book takes different things from it, so sharing those thoughts enriches the experience for everyone. I find this in my physical book group meetings, but it is greatly magnified in Read Alongs, which are more frequent and concentrate on shorter sections of reading.

So, it is an exciting story, but as it really affected your life?

Whilst many might dismiss this series as simple escapism, I have found it to be a thought provoking and often profound read. It does follow in the tradition of the epic battle between Good and Evil, and we certainly see history unfolding at a world-changing level, but the characters are firmly grounded in everyday reality and show a degree of three-dimensionality that is refreshing in a genre that can rely on cliché to a woeful extent.

Our heroes are flawed, reluctant or unexpected and my only real criticism is that too many of the ‘bad’ characters are similar in their personal ambition and blindness to reality. Whilst a few of our heroes show little personal development, for example Gawyn, most have truly impressive character arcs that transform them utterly by the end of the series. This is most true for the young people that we meet right at the beginning of the first book, being particularly startling in the development of Egwene, the youngest of group. However, we see similar reversals in even the most stubborn individuals, such as Galad, who finally emerges as a decent and wise human being after spending most of the series as a pedantic do-gooder. This ability to take characters in unexpected directions, that do not feel forced or contrived, is one of the things that sets this series apart from other, lesser, offerings in the field.

Not only are our characters growing and changing in response to the massive challenges that they face, but they are most definitely not perfect. They make poor decisions, often for very good reasons, and ignore things that they expect will be difficult to face. This makes them very frustrating to read, as you find yourself shouting at them whilst reading, but it also makes them so much more human and appealing. We can see ourselves making the same mistakes or at least identify behavior that we recognize in other people. This helps us to bond with our heroes, some of whom we grow to love over an amazingly short time frame: I am thinking particularly of Androl and Ituralde at this point, two characters that appear close to the end of the series and yet are wonderfully engaging.

However, I think that the thing that I found most impactful about the series is that it truly made me think about the human condition. By presenting a variety of societies and cultures, I have been placed within the mindset of a wide variety of belief systems. Some of these have been very alien to me and I have struggled to be non-judgmental of certain characters. Perhaps the most difficult for me was the pacifism of certain groups. Whilst the Ogier live a mostly peaceful life, they will take up arms in order to protect themselves if pushed to the extreme, whereas the Tinkers refuse to fight even when faced with their imminent demise. Perhaps it is a sad indictment of my world experience that I find their attitude to violence so much more difficult to understand than any other belief system presented in the series, even the acceptance of slavery by those held in chains.

Throughout the series I have been forced to consider the relationship between Good and Evil, and their impact upon Free Will. Again and again we have seen characters doing what they believe to be the right thing and yet ultimately they have been serving Evil with their actions. Especially in The Memory of Light, the necessity of Evil to provide an incentive for Goodness is a recurrent theme that has placed the emphasis upon the actions of humans with Free Will. By the end of the series it seems as if the Creator could have stepped in at any point and simply removed Evil with a flick of His finger, but this would have removed Man’s need to choose a side. Ultimately, the series is about those who make the hard choice and willingly risk death for what they believe to be in the greater good. Those who act out of self-interest and baser emotions are baffled by the concept of self-sacrifice and are, therefore, defeated.

In the end, the final chapters of the final volume are indicative of the whole series. Horrible things happen to perfectly nice, brave people because the world is full of evil and individuals who are more than happy to do the Wrong Thing. This does not diminish their sacrifice but, in fact, elevates it because they act without certain knowledge that they can be victorious. Their hope and belief in the fundamental goodness of humankind is a wonderful message to take away from any book and this series shouts it loud and clear.

Do I have any criticisms of the series?

Obviously I would like to know much more about many of the characters and the history that is not explored in detail within the series itself. But that merely shows how addictive and immersive the experience has been. As with Tolkien, Martin, Sanderson and a few other Fantasy authors, I want to learn everything about their universe . . . and I do mean everything!

I would also argue that the final fate of our hero, Rand, is unsatisfying. I have great respect for authors who refuse to provide a Happy Ever After for all of their characters, even though it can be upsetting to read the death of someone that you have grown to care about. However, this shows an acknowledgment that facing the ultimate Evil in a battle to the death is a life-changing experience that may not leave a character unscathed. As we see at the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo survives, but is no longer able to live a normal, happy life. Whilst I find this deeply upsetting, I can accept that it is a realistic outcome after all that he has suffered. I do not want to be more specific over my criticism of Rand’s fate, because it is more than a little spoilery, so I will just say that it left me feeling a little cheated.

However, I think that these are relatively minor criticisms considering how much I have enjoyed this experience and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading Fantasy. If you can get someone else to read along with you: even better!

1 comment:

  1. Very nice wrap up. I was amazed that we all stuck through the read along to the end. It is interesting to hear after the fact what all every one gave up to participate in this crazy, 2+ year long event.

    And I totally agree with about the series being addictive and I feel that I will reread it every few years, even if the ending wasn't totally 100% satisfying.


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