My Time on The Wheel of Time

Estimated Reading Time: 21 minutes

Content Warning: Discussions of self-harm.

I recently finished reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson for the last 3 novels). It's literally something that has taken over 26 years. Which is to say that it took me longer to read the series than how long it took the series to be fully published (24 years; 1990-2013). But I finally finished it.  

This might be one of those examples of the sunk cost fallacy or the opposite? Not sure. I know for me the read was worth it not because it was a really great series per se but because of how it fits into my own history of reading, growing, and changing over the past 26 years.

How to Read This Post

What follows is me just sharing about my history of reading it and what I thought about it finally finished.  What then follows is a deeper history of reading and how this series fits in with my own growth and development.  All of that is to say, if you want to stay on the surface level, read "Context on the Wheel of Time", "The basic story of reading the Wheel of Time", and "What Did I Actually Think?".  If you want to learn more about me and my life, then read the additional sections "The more complicated story of reading the Wheel of Time the first time" and "The more complicated story of RE-READING the Wheel of Time this time".

The 14 books of The Wheel of Time are put into 3 stacked so the spines are visible to the viewer.  Behind the middle stack is the head of a my black cat, Bear, who is sticking out her tongue
The Bear of the Wheel of Time

Context on the Wheel of Time

This is an epic fantasy series started by Robert Jordan in 1990 that was completed in 2013 by Brandon Sanderson who wrote the last 3 books. Jordan had a deadly illness and so before he died, worked with Sanderson to complete the books. In total, the series is 14 books (and 1 novella), and the books clock in roughly between 700-1000+ pages each. Each book had a map of the world and a glossary of characters, events, and elements of this particular world.  

The Wheel of Time itself is a world where magic is real and at the time of the story, largely wielded only by women (known as Aes Sedai). When men try to use it, they often go mad because the male side of magic has been tainted. It was tainted years ago as an unfortunate result of The Dragon, a male magic user, wielding it to fight the "Dark One" and imprison him/it. The Dragon has been "reborn" into the present and is a young man from a nowhere village. In this world, legendary and powerful people will be often woven back into the pattern of life known as "the wheel of time." The women magic users are organized into a hierarchy known as Aes Sedai and their role is to find, protect, and prepare the Dragon Reborn for the Last Battle (when the Dark One will break free from his/its imprisonment). The entirety of the story starts when one Aes Sedai arrives at a village in search of and discovers several young men born around the same time and believes one of them is the Dragon Reborn.   

That's the basic elements of the series. It's a hallmark of fantasy both because of its breadth and depth. It has lots of interesting things and also lots of limitations (e.g. despite being a world with matriarchal leadership throughout the world--largely queens, very few kings--the writing from female characters' points of view can be off-putting). I don't know that if I came across it on its own today I would read it given so many other good and better epic fantasy series out there nowadays.  Still, in the late 1990s, it was one that was quite distinct.

The basic story of reading the Wheel of Time

I started reading The Eye of the World in 1996. When I became a lifeguard over the summer that year and began working at pools that were 5 feet deep, I had a lot of time to just literally sit around. I was already a reader at that point and just read a lot. I think that summer I read more than 30 books. I consumed a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. Not all of which was good but that's part of the interesting part of reading, learning to figure out what is good and bad (in general and in your own particular tastes).  

That summer, I started the Wheel of Time series and probably read the first few books. I'm guessing at least the first 4-5. Over the rest of the school year, I would finish the rest. At the time, there were 7 books (up through The Crown of Swords, which had just come out). A few years later, the 8th book had come out, The Path of Daggers (1998).  Now, I had read so much in the interim--these were my heaviest reading days in my life before audiobooks were so easily ubiquitous on my phone--days where I would devour books.  So the interim between these 2 books was probably somewhere between 75-100 books. Much of which was fantasy.   
By the time the next book, Winter's Heart came out in 2000, I tried to read it directly but because it had been several years (including college and all the reading I was doing there) I could not just pick up the book and get into to it. There were too many threads, too many characters, too much to recall. While there was a useful glossary at the back, I needed more and it was before Wikipedia and wikis in general (Shout out to the Wheel of Time wiki that helped me get through it with better understanding this time around!). So I tried it a few times to no available--even the audiobooks (which had different pronunciations than I did in my head, making it harder). So slowly, one book in the series sat on my "To Read" shelf, then the next, and the next.  Eventually, I knew that I would have to restart the series in full and that would have to happen sometime in the future.  

The possibility of that future would show up in the late 2010s. I have been a reader but especially being in a doctoral program and other life demands, it had been quite some time that I was on the same reading kick that I was in my high school and college years. My fiction to-read pile continued to grow and led me to get rid of books regularly. But I kept seeing some titles that I really wanted to read sitting stagnant on my shelves and it bothered me because I knew enjoyment and connection sat inside each one. So, I started a new ritual to (almost) always read before bedtime. Rather than watching a show or playing a game or anything else, the 60-30 minutes before bedtime would be reading of fiction.  

Fiction was intentional because nonfiction wouldn't stick and send me to sleep quicker than I wanted.  In 2017, I started to read The Darkglass Mountain series by Sara Douglass.  Douglass is an essential author who turned me into a reader. I read before her but her books turned reading from something I did to something that was part of my core (more on that below). I had been disappointed in myself that I had not immediately consumed all the books (and there were at least 8) by an author who was so pivotal to my development as a reader (and everything that followed from that). So, I started with The Serpent Bride--a book that wove together many of the key parts of my favorite of her books. And then slowly, 20-60 minutes a night, most nights, I rebuild my reading habit.  

Somewhere around late 2020, I heard about the Wheel of Time TV show coming out and realized also that it was time to return to the series. I would definitely need to start at the beginning. So, over the next 2.5 years, I made my way through all 14 books.  

What Did I Actually Think?

So yes, I definitely enjoyed the journey and the destination was all right.  I found myself so delighted with certain moments--moments I hadn't realized that I had been waiting for decades to see happen such as two characters coming together, certain confrontations, and just moments of catharsis. This time, I was more intrigued with the female characters (certainly than I was as a teenage boy) and who they were or might have been if given more depth. I still gravitated to Perrin and still found Matt annoying. I had less interest in Rand--he felt much more hollow than I remember and wanted to know more about other characters.  I feel robbed for the absence of knowing more about Moraine and then others feel like their characters were too quickly rushed and undeveloped in the final few books.   

The last 3 books (written by Sanderson) are an entirely different pace and it is felt. It makes things feel too fast after the slow tread of the other 11 books.  I appreciate the ending doesn't give us all the answers but am curious to see and know more in a way that feels like full closure has not been achieved (I'm fine with some threads but this left too many questions).  

There's one scene that I was utterly wowed and heartbroken by (e.g. one involving Egwene) and one that rather surprised me (with Perrin) in the final few hundred pages of the last book.  They were the kind of powerful moments that one feels when reading and I was glad to have gotten there.

While I enjoyed the series and am glad I did it, I'm not sure I would recommend the series to others.  I just don't think it carries the same weight in the world today with so much other great epic fantasy.  I think I needed to read it--to finish it because of how it tied into my own growth and development over the decades but I'm doubtful that it would feel as potent to others. 

So if epic fantasy isn't your jam, it's probably not a series to try.  If epic fantasy is your jam, I would say try it if you want, but be warned that it's really slow going.  Books 1-3 seem to have some clear movement, Books 4-11 seem to shuffle along at times with very little happening for 50-100 pages at a time.  Books 12-14 seem to move at a breakneck speed that feels at odds with the first 11 books--too much happening, even though one wants more to happen throughout the earlier books.  

But one thing I do love about being done with the series is that there are lots of books on my To-Be-Read shelf.  And many of them are much smaller than any book of the Wheel of Time, so I look forward to reading some more and different books that I've accumulated over the last 2.5 years of reading.  

The more complicated story of reading the Wheel of Time the first time

Of course, it wasn't just reading a story--is it ever really? To unpack Wheel of Time, I probably also need to unpack Sara Douglass and to unpack her, means I actually have to start this story in Australia, 1995, and where I was at that point in my teenage years.

In my sophomore year, I was lucky and privileged enough to get to participate in People to People Student Ambassador Exchange on a trip to Australia, a place I was absolutely in love with as a youth (for no great reason other than miscellaneous tidbits I knew and how they talked--not the best means of bridging cultural connections). I was elated to go and wanted to enjoy the trip immensely.  But the trip's context was shrouded in a lot of conflict. A lot. 

My sophomore year was one of the hardest years in my life (followed by my junior year).  Between body image issues, ongoing self-harm, and feeling friendless, I was facing one of the hardest moments in my life to that point: confronting my father about playing football. I had spent the previous 6 years playing football because my father required me to. I had no interest in it but he saw it as a means of growth, learning to be a team player, and staying in shape. I saw it as participating in an activity I had less than zero interest in, doing physical activities I hated, being surrounded by people who did not get me, and perpetuating many of the most harmful things about male culture that felt insanely uncomfortable to me. Countless times I would cry after practice because I hated every part of it and couldn't understand how my father could see this happen repeatedly and think this is what I needed. I could spend the entirety of a year writing each day about the different issues, moments, and elements, but basically, it hurt a lot to be there in ways that I still uncover today.

So as I made it through my sophomore year, I knew that I needed to stop. I knew that if I had to play again in the fall of my junior year, I would take my life. Instead, I began an ongoing confrontation with my dad. It started in June before I went to Australia and in true Lance-fashion, I wrote a letter saying that I would not play football in the fall and that if I did, I would be dead by October.  

He did not initially react angrily but said we could talk about it when I returned from Australia (to which I was surprised as I had anticipated him pulling the trip entirely). On the first day or two in Australia, I came upon BattleAxe by Sara Douglass.  It was a best-selling book in Australia and I swear I saw it in every bookshop I stepped into while there. It had an interesting cover and a curious description on the back, so I decided to buy it. It was over 600 pages; a book-length I had never tried before and thought it would take me more than a month to read. It took about 2 weeks (we had a lot of downtime while travelling by bus). It was an amazing and powerful story that I connected with (and in hindsight, it's not that amazing but to the 15-year-old me looking for something to help me, it hit the spot).  

While I didn't realize it at the time, one of the core elements of the book included a father who expected much from his two sons in ways that one was not ready to adhere to and the final part of the story had the protagonist (Axis--subtle, I know) breaking ways with his father and the world his father ruled over. Not so consciously at the time, but the book clearly spoke things I was figuring out.  

But upon returning to the US, I began to seek out fantasy and science-fiction unlike ever before. It led to reading many different authors from Piers Anthony to Isaac Asimov to Marion Zimmer Bradley to Melanie Rawn and Terry Goodkind (though his work would be the first time I realized how something enjoyable can be easily grown out of as the writing and ideas descended). This is what I mean when I say that Douglass made me a reader. In the moment I needed something--an escape and also a mental palace to be or imagine myself differently--BattleAxe provided that and stood as the gateway to other books.  And while I won't say it was books that helped me survive what followed with my father and the following year of turmoil and additional suicide attempts, it played a pivotal part in getting me to the things that helped me to survive.  

So, to me, reading has been that powerful space and being able to follow where books lead me (in thought but in how one finds an organic pathway from one book to another that is rarely prescribed but just happens as one book is more readily able to speak to you than another book might at a given moment) was what I needed. The act of reading also felt powerful--to delve into these worlds, to gain new knowledge or understanding, regardless of the book and to find other ways of being and living in the world. In a word, reading gave me hope. 

Reading served as the help to understand both my context and the world beyond me in ways that grounded me during very unsettling times.  Of course, it's not too surprising that I gravitated to a series about young men trying to find their way in a chaotic and increasingly harmful world that made little sense and asked big things of them.  

I remember coming back from summer vacation into my senior year after spending the summer reading dozens of books and my English teacher giving me shit for not having read any of the books on the "required reading" list. I remember feeling so annoyed at the time.  "I read 30+ books!!!" How does that not count? I read more books that summer than many of my peers would read that year, their entire high school education, or possibly their life.  But I didn't do the "right" reading. This was one of my earlier experiences where I found the dismissal of meaningful work because it didn't fit the form to strike a nerve with me and would lead me to study popular culture.   

The dismissal of those books was a dismissal of my own experience and the space I found to exist and ponder in those books was valuable.  I likely achieved the same goals of those summer reading books, but since the teachers hadn't blessed them, they didn't count.  

The deep connection I felt to those books is evident in hindsight--having read them not once but twice.  Those readings really bookend the darkest time in my youth and a bigger change in myself that happened as I made my way through college (as to how that happened--it's a longer story for another day).  Reading them did not transform my woes and struggles. They did not present wisdom or insights that helped me work through things. Yet, they still helped, they still gave me other things to think about, other challenges to consider, and models (across many characters) of surviving adversity and growing from it (at least some of the characters).  They served as companions in a journey. Places and people I could visit, sit with, and observe while I try to figure out what I could or should do next.  

Perhaps by my second reading and my reason for not finishing it at the time was that I no longer needed them, no longer felt the inner turmoil to which that space touched. That feels right, though it wasn't the conscious reason why. The conscious reasons were more material: no time, too many other new things to read, I want to wait till it's finished to read.  It wasn't just that either, I had changed and I didn't need those books to support the person I had become.  

The more complicated story of RE-READING the Wheel of Time this time

So to return to them in 2020--might imply another darker part of my life to which I needed to rely on them. Let's face it, 2020 was a hard year for so many of us.  

No.  Rather, it was and has been a time of reflection--a time where I can look back at that former version of Lance with curiosity and care, with a goal of better understanding the different threads that created that world he lived in and connecting with him in a more tender way.  

I've long said that I would not change things in my past, even the hardest and most painful parts. They were moments to experience, to learn, to grow, to feel, to become more fully human.  If I love who I am today, and I very much do, the past are all pieces of that.  However, I often looked at my hardest years--years of self harm, near-daily suicide ideation, and several attempts--with a foreignness that I don't think was helpful. A certain detachment and distancing.  And there are lots of good reasons for that--I'm no longer that teenager for sure. So many thoughts, views, and ways I carry myself in the world have fundamentally changed.  But he's still a part of me.  

Rereading was both revisiting the story and the younger version of me.  In the story, I could see its flaws and its limitations. I didn't find as much excitement in the same characters and grew respect for others.  In the younger version of me, I could see the strength and will to survive in the face of what felt like a forgone conclusion in self-destruction.  To be able to read to the end of the story and know that the younger Lance not only survived but thrived was an act of healing.  

This is where I'll get incredibly abstract and deep on levels that might feel a lil extra for some folks--so feel free to skip over.  But I see that Lance as an entirely different person. I know it's me and yet the pain and anguish of those years feel so beyond me that it feels like an entirely different person--someone whom I've read many volumes of but am still at a distance in many ways.  

So, I see that Lance as different from the present Lance.  I see revisiting memories of this time as visiting him with the wisdom of my current age and an ability to say to him that things will not just be ok, but amazing.  It's as if I whisper to the ghost of past Lance and he hears me--mayhaps that is part of what allows him to survive if one believes that time is not necessarily linear.  Still, all that is to say, I feel like to finish the series, I can reach back in time to past Lance and tell him, yes, it does end. Yes, you do enjoy the ride.  Yes, you do go on.  

In that way, the reading was an act of closure, not just of the series but for the need of the series (and the need of the series to be incomplete) for me in that time of my life.  And that's exactly how it felt when I read the final page. I could close it, put it on the shelf and feel a wholeness and completeness that wasn't there.  

Heavy stuff, yes and also why I felt like I needed to write about this series and my experience. I don't think others had this experience with this series but I know that many of us out there have had this experience with some creative work that has been a conduit to change and connecting our past and present.  

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