By Tom Anderson
One of the stereotypes of the fantasy genre from the 1970s onwards is that everything turns into an ever-expanding series of enormous tomes filling an entire bookshelf, often an example of ‘trilogy creep’ from a planned three-book series. As I described in my earlier article “Lord of the Reams”, the tendency for fantasy authors to fixate on trilogies is itself an artificial, cargo-cult emulation of a purely arbitrary division of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings which they all take inspiration from—but regardless, this expansion is a recognisable trope. It usually comes together with a sense that even as the books grow longer and longer, less and less plot progress seems to happen in them, and the distantly glimpsed resolution of the overarching plot seems no closer at the end of the latest book than it did at the beginning.
This stereotype is a more or less accurate reflection of a number of fantasy series, but one which it fits better than most is Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series. Debuting in 1990 with “The Eye of the World”, it was originally planned as a six-book series; 27 years later, Jordan passed away whilst writing the twelfth book, which he had promised would be the final conclusion and wrap up the plot threads. In the end the series was passed on to up-and-coming fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who ultimately had to turn the last book into three (thus the final product has 14 volumes) but did succeed in wrapping up the plot using the notes Jordan had prepared against this eventuality.
The pacing of the series also evokes the bloated fantasy stereotype. “Crossroads of Twilight”, the tenth book and the penultimate one written by Jordan, was near-universally panned by fans as ‘the book in which nothing happens’. The plot synopsis on Wikipedia uses the word ‘continues’ after the name of each viewpoint character, which says it all. Oddly, as well as being too slow towards the end, the series is arguably too fast near the beginning; the second book, “The Great Hunt” already introduces the fantasy trope of ‘the world is invaded by the culturally different lost western continent’ (see also “Shadow of a Dark Queen” by Raymond E. Feist for another example). This is normally what an author does to shake things up once a setting has been established, not something leapt into while he’s still doing the establishing. And the Seanchan, the western invaders, then proceed to not appear very much for a number of books before becoming important again. Some character prophecies made in the first book aren’t even mentioned again till the last when they are finally fulfilled. It’s an odd decision to say the least.
As it happens, I read almost the entire series (except the last Sanderson-penned novel as it hadn’t come out yet) in 2011 on my Kindle all in one go, which I still can’t quite believe I did. This did mean I didn’t have the organic fan experience of impatiently waiting for years for books to come out (and therefore didn’t find the inaction of “Crossroads of Twilight” to be quite as frustrating as those longtime fans did). My main take-home message from the books, especially the earlier ones, is that no matter what level of preconceptions one may take into a late 20th century fantasy novel about how much the authors blatantly steal from Tolkien, it’s always worse than you think. The recipe for the Wheel of Time series consists of about two parts Lord of the Rings to (slightly less expectedly) one part Dune, mix thoroughly and top off with a frisson of weird BDSM stuff.
The first book opens in ‘the Third Age’ in the Two Rivers, which is the Shire and whose people are culturally if not genetically Hobbits, with the visit of Moiraine Damodred, who is a female Gandalf from an all-female magic order, the Aes Sedai, who are the Bene Gesserit from Dune. During an attack by Trollocs, which are Trolls combined with Orcs, our main protagonist Rand al’Thor’s father is wounded and he discovers that he is adopted, found on a battlefield which bears a suspicious resemblance to the Battle of Five Armies from The Hobbit, a battle fought against the desert warrior Aiel people who are the Fremen from Dune. Moiraine has worked out that Rand or one of his two friends, Mat or Perrin (no relation to Peregrin/Pippin, clearly) is the prophesised Dragon Reborn (basically the Kwisatz Haderach from Dune), and takes them on a daring quest through many lands, assisted by the warrior ranger and exiled king of a vanished kingdom Al’Lan Mandragoran, who is Aragorn (take a look at that last name again). On the way they are pursued by the Myrddraal, agents of the Dark who have no eyes but can ‘see’ with perfect clarity, sometimes wear cloaks and ride horses, instil a sense of fear in their vicinity, and whom carry black blades for which the slightest touch is corrupting. No, I’m sorry, that’s a Nazgûl. There are movies from The Asylum that try harder than this to disguise what they’re ripping off.
I trust one can therefore understand that I spent most of my first reading of the first book pausing every few paragraphs and mumbling “…Really?” at the ceiling. This is not to say that there are not original ideas in the Wheel of Time series, but frustratingly, despite having all those books to play with, they never get satisfyingly explored. It’s implied that this is a cyclic history with our own time (hence the name Wheel of Time) and that as a result of this, these characters birthed our myths and our world will birth theirs. This really interesting concept is brought up in a couple of very obscure hints in the first couple of books and then barely ever mentioned again: a minstrel telling stories of ‘Lenn, who flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle made of fire, and his daughter Salya’ (corrupted accounts of John Glenn and Sally Ride); the battered remnant of a Mercedes logo appears in a museum. Conversely, many of the contemporary characters’ names and actions are meant to hint at figures from our own legends, such as ‘al’Thor’ sounding like ‘Arthur’ and Rand’s onetime fiancée Egwene al’Vere sounding like ‘Guinevere’, or some of what happens to Mat bearing parallels to Odin from Norse mythology. While this suffers the common American fantasy author fallacy of assuming references to Arthurian mythos are automatically more profound than they are, it’s still a reasonably interesting idea. But it never goes beyond the vaguest of background hints that it would be easy to miss. The Forsaken, the immortal servants of the Dark, also have names evoking antagonistic beings such as Grendel and Belial, but these connections are vague and again it’s not clear if there is meant to be a connection or not. There is also the interesting idea that ‘Dragon’ to these people is purely a title of a prophesised male ‘channeller’ (see later), and when the Aiel have a ‘Dragon’ flag with a mysterious flying reptile on it, nobody knows what that is. This intriguing mystery is never explained, either.
There is a level of frustration a reader cannot truly understand until one has read all the books in one go and realised this amazing potential is never, ever acted upon. It’s one thing to critique authors who are more interested in worldbuilding than storytelling, and to suggest that less is more, but this is ridiculous. A lesser example of the same effect is with Jordan’s ideas about the nature of the One Power that the Aes Sedai wield through ‘channelling’, which is said to have elemental associations and the equivalent of magic spells are cast by ‘weaving threads’ in the world. The forbidden (but oft-used) balefire spell is said to burn the thread of the person it strikes out of the tapestry of history altogether. This is fairly original and interesting concepts and terminology, but we never get enough detail in how it works (in my opinion), leaving its ultimate effects to too often just feel like generic Dungeons & Dragons magic.
With all this criticism I have made, a reasonable question is why these books are successful and have obtained a substantial and enduring fandom. I would attribute this to two main things: firstly, Jordan was good at writing action and drama (drawing on his real life military experience); tactically things usually feel like they’re happening in his books even if strategically little plot progress is being made (such as a multi-book arc of exciting adventures to rescue a kidnapped character to get us back to where we started). Secondly, he tended to write memorable characters, even if they may often have started out as derivative. In particular the nature of the world, where all the permitted channellers are female and many of the societies are matriarchal, tended to favour a lot of strong female characters that helped build a diverse fanbase. The Forsaken are interesting villains, and their tendency to infiltrate positions of power in magical disguise lends an air of intrigue and paranoia to the setting. One particularly impressive aspect of the worldbuilding is that, as there’s a big prophecy everyone knows about a coming Dragon Reborn man who can channel who will change the world, and because the Aes Sedai hunt down and ‘gentle’ men who can channel because their side of the One Power is corrupted, history is full of a succession of ‘False Dragons’; men who can channel routinely claim to be the Dragon Reborn so they can become local warlords and fight off the Aes Sedai, at least temporarily. There are literally two of the latest False Dragons Reborn mentioned in the background (and occasionally appearing) in the first book alone, even as the prophecy is finally being fulfilled—this does feel much more realistic than a lot of fantasy works.
Finally, I will admit to feeling a certain sympathy for Jordan in that one thing he coined probably looks like plagiarism to the casual reader: the aristocratic land of Cairhien has squabbling Borgia-like nobles seeing everything as a move in their intrigue, which they call ‘the Game of Houses’. An obvious ripoff of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, right? …Well, it would be, except the book in which Jordan used the phrase came out first. Irony can be a terrible thing.
Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that this article series is called ‘Prequel Problems’ and I haven’t mentioned a prequel yet. But worry ye not! In the late 90s, Jordan published a short prequel novella titled “New Spring”, which appeared in the “Legends” collection along with short stories and novellas by other fantasy authors. By the way, it is worth looking up the different covers to see how different the same collection can be presented in different countries: the UK version put Terry Pratchett prominently in first place and used Josh Kirby Discworld cover art, while the US version doesn’t even mention Pratchett at all on the cover! The marketers knew what they were doing in the former case, as the only reason I learned about many other fantasy authors was because I had to have Pratchett’s story, “The Sea and Little Fishes”, and read the others out of curiosity. Anyway; in 2004, in between the much-panned “Crossroads of Twilight” and the final Jordan-penned book “Knife of Dreams”, he released an expanded version of this novella under the same title. Though still substantially shorter than the average Wheel of Time book, this version of “New Spring” was more novel than novella.
Jordan had originally planned a prequel trilogy, abandoning the idea after a cold reception of “New Spring”—which might have less to do with the book’s quality and more to do with an impatient fanbase who wanted plot progress after “Crossroads of Twilight”, not another digression. While some of the issues with “New Spring” might therefore be related to the idea that Jordan originally envisaged more stories filling the twenty-year gap between it and “The Eye of the World”, I don’t think this is primarily the case. I also want to be clear that these issues are actually relatively minor and mostly relate to that same timescale. This prequel avoids most of the really major Prequel Problems, and for that it is to be commended. Characters and settings feel consistent, we don’t see outright plot or backstory contradictions, and so on.
“New Spring” is mostly set around Moiraine and Siuan Sanche (who starts out the later books as Amyrlin, head of the Aes Sedai) when they are young apprentices (or ‘Accepted’). By chance these two youths are the only other Aes Sedai present, other than the Amyrlin of the day, when another Aes Sedai has a prophetic vision that the Dragon has been reborn. On the same day, Rand al’Thor is being born and rescued on the battlefield by his father. The rest of the book explores a lot of the background of the young Aes Sedai in the White Tower being trained, names we recognise from the chronologically later books – including some whom we now know to be Darkfriend traitors in the secret Black Ajah. There is therefore a lot of fun second-level hints for fans to spot, while the story still more or less makes sense for a first reader unfamiliar with the rest of the series. The reviewer Leigh Butler commented that the story feels rather like fanfiction written by the original author, not intended as a criticism, but rather focusing on the same character backstory fleshing-out that fanfiction often does.
There are a few issues with the friendship between Moiraine and Siuan, which seemed much more distant in Siuan’s first published appearance—but it feels as though this was retconned in later books anyway, so it is consistent with those. As I said, the biggest problem with “New Spring” is the timescale, and more broadly how Moiraine’s backstory is interpreted. In “The Eye of the World”, she arrives in the Two Rivers with Lan in tow and a mission to find the Dragon Reborn, an experienced and fully qualified Aes Sedai. This book has her fleeing the Tower as a young Accepted, already with this mission in mind and meeting Lan at the end of it, and (as Butler also noted in part 7 of her review) seems to suggest that she never went back to the Tower between then and when she first does in the main series. Which is certainly not the impression one gets from those scenes in “The Great Hunt”.
This kind of timescale prequel problem can also be seen at the end of the Star Wars film “Revenge of the Sith”, set a similar time length before “A New Hope” as “New Spring” is before “The Eye of the World”, yet we already have to see Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin watching the Death Star being built to try to establish a link. Again, I want to emphasise that I’m not aware of any outright contradiction created by “New Spring” in relation to the previous hints of Moiraine’s backstory, it just doesn’t feel thematically fitting.
Basically the problem is that “New Spring” portrays Moiraine’s entire life mission as being searching for the Dragon Reborn from a young age, while in “The Eye of the World” she comes across as more of a Gandalf archetype, as I said. Compare this conservation with how Tolkien has Bilbo Baggins describe the character of Gandalf in The Hobbit:
“Gandalf! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone until ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? … Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves – or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores!”
This description (which I have truncated for space reasons) nicely evokes the idea that Gandalf has had a long and storied life, and Bilbo Baggins is only the latest unwary would-be adventurer to cross paths with him—even though what happens to Bilbo and his nephew will eventually become the centrepiece of Gandalf’s life’s work. The description therefore conditions the reader to accept that Gandalf is a fount of wisdom and experience, justifies him getting annoyed when he sees others making the same mistakes he has seen before, and makes it carry more weight when Gandalf himself is stumped by something. Or consider the introduction of Elrond Halfelven in the same book:
He was as noble and fair in face as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer. He comes into many tales, but his part in the story of Bilbo’s great adventure is only a small one, though important, as you will see, if we ever get to the end of it. His house was perfect whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.
Again, this primes us to accept that Elrond will be able to help Bilbo’s company solve a problem involving the interpretation of obscure runes. But by truncating Moiraine’s backstory through “New Spring”, Jordan runs into the problem that the enigmatic, seen-it-all Aes Sedai of “The Eye of the World”, with her order’s characteristic ‘ageless face’ that hides a lifetime that might have run to over a century, is reduced to being an inexperienced young woman whose level of life experience does not fit her character archetype.
In part this is emblematic of the Wheel of Time series, of how everything revolves around the central prophecy and the wider world is more of a setting, sometimes at the expense of it feeling like an organic adventure in a wider world (certainly in Rand’s chapters). And certainly it may seem churlish to make a criticism that Jordan made Moiraine’s character more distinct from the ‘this is just one more adventure in my long life’ wizardly fantasy archetypes he initially ripped off. But this inconsistency speaks of a wider problem with the nature of “New Spring”. Essentially, “New Spring” is what you get if you take the backstory everyone already knew, and then used it as the skeleton for a workmanlike piece of prose. It doesn’t commit most of the prequel cardinal sins, which is good; but it also doesn’t feel like it justifies its own existence. The backstory stuff with the young Aes Sedai in the Tower, and some details about their training, is about the only part that the book adds to the series. Otherwise, it essentially feels like reading a story after already having read a terse plot summary. There aren’t really any significant surprises. So one can perhaps understand the fan annoyance that Jordan had sunk time and effort into this rather than progressing the plot in the main series.
Nonetheless, I will say that “New Spring” is a good example of what we might call the Cautious Prequel, a solid expansion of established backstory into prose with a few interesting additions. It is not necessary to read it to understand anything else in the series, and perhaps that is also a point in its favour.
More Prequel Problems to come!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.