DeFlip Side #72: A Memory of Might

DS72.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.

I read to you now the opening passage of The Eye of the World, the first book in author Robert Jordan’s fantasy series, The Wheel of Time:

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come to 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.”

And thus were the words that marked my beginning down the road of what has turned out to be the longest literary journey of my life—a road that has unfortunately led straight into a cul-de-sac. Despite Jordan’s assertions that there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time, it has most certainly stopped turning. Robert Jordan died earlier this month from cardiac amyloidosis, sometimes referred to as stiff heart syndrome.

But some of you will undoubtedly feel that I am the one with the stiff heart, because the news of Jordan’s passing didn’t upset me. In fact, I wondered why I found myself caring so very little. And I’ve realized that it’s because I have been mourning the death of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for years now. The death of Jordan himself is largely academic at this point.

Let me temper these cold words with some perspective. I wasn’t kidding when I said The Wheel of Time marks my longest literary journey to date; it literally spans two centuries. I was 18 years old when I chanced upon The Eye of the World at a B. Daltons in Smithhaven Mall, way back in 1988. I was in the mood for a sprawling fantasy that I could really sink my teeth into, and Jordan’s world sucked me right in. Sure, it had all the tropes of formulaic epic fantasy writ large. But they were merely the building blocks for as creative and richly-imagined a Fantasy world as you’d ever hope to find, with colorful settings, an extensive back story and a keen attention to detail. Little wonder that many reviewers called Jordan a worthy successor to Tolkien.

The adventures of Rand, Egwene, Elayne, Mat, Nynaeve and Perrin soon became my favorite. It got to the point where everything else I read seemed like filler to hold me until the next Jordan book came out. I would eagerly reread the previous volume on the eve of a new release, so I could resume the story uninterrupted. I still get a warm feeling when I think of those heady, promising days, so many years ago.

Now let’s fast forward. I’m 37. There have been 11, count ’em, 11, additional books in The Wheel of Time series, including ten sequels and one prequel. And as of book ten, the last volume I read, there was no end in sight.

That in itself wouldn’t necessarily have been cause for alarm, except for one salient fact: the books had really started sucking. I mean sucking hard. Gone was the wonder and discovery that was the hallmark of the first few volumes. The lavish attention to detail and back story—originally the series’ greatest strengths—had become its greatest weakness, as Jordan would introduce yet another plot thread and/or character that had seemingly nothing to do with the main story, and then just as quickly forget about them for a book or two before reintroducing them, with no refresher or marker to help you bring it all together into a cohesive reading experience.

Now I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’m a pretty close reader, and I’m capable of following complex plots over the course of many books—in fact, it’s one of the things I love best about diving into a Fantasy series. But with countless loose ends, an ever-lengthening parade of irrelevant characters and the wait between books stretching to years, you can understand my reluctance to believe Jordan when he told readers that it would all come together in the end, especially considering that the writing was becoming lazier by the page, and the core characters that I had once had such affection for had become cardboard parodies of their former selves, with a seeming inability to do anything to move the story forward. Only one thing seemed certain with the arrival of each new book: The Wheel of Time was grinding to an excruciatingly painful halt.

The fan rancor abounded. If you look at the Amazon reviews for Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in the series, the average rating from more than 2,400 reviewers is a star and a half; I can’t say I disagree. In fact I now realize that it was with book ten that I reached the last of the famous five stages of death for The Wheel of Time series as a whole. You know: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Denial started around the end of book seven. Okay, so that one wasn’t so good. But the next one. That’ll make up for it. But the next one didn’t. Nor the next. Enter anger. “How can Jordan do this to me?” I’d fume. “I’ve been a loyal fan since the beginning. How dare he milk the story in an obvious attempt to take more of my money!” Next came the bargaining. I made a pact with myself to never to buy a hardcover at full price again. I had waited this long. I could wait another year for the $5 remainder copies to hit the shelves at Borders. I never experienced the depression stage. I just didn’t care any longer. And that brings me to the here and now, with total ambivalence toward The Wheel of Time, which I suppose is a kind of acceptance. So now do you see why I said Jordan’s actual death is academic at this point?

The big question now is where does the series go from here? Jordan worked right up until the end on the 13th and final installment of the series, titled A Memory of Light. This “final installment” talk comes as a real surprise to me, because in the most recent interviews I had read, Jordan said that he foresaw at least three more main volumes and two more prequels before the story ended. Perhaps it was his impending demise that changed these plans, or remorse for having treated his fans so poorly for the last several volumes. Or maybe he had gotten sick of the series himself. Whatever the case, Jordan vowed to end it with A Memory of Light, even if it was 2,000 pages long and Tor had to invent a new type of binding to accommodate the book.

Unfortunately, his illness got the best of him before he could finish. But those closest to him have said that he spent his final days writing and recording the outline for the end of the book and the series. So perhaps his vision will be fully realized after all in A Memory of Light, albeit posthumously.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Jordan’s literary legacy will evoke many memories of light. Not to say that it will be all darkness either. I still get a rush whenever I think about favorite passages and plot twists, character moments and good old kick-ass battle scenes. But these highs make the lows seem that much lower. Here at the end of my long literary journey, I ultimately find myself thinking of The Wheel of Time series as a memory of might—as in what it might have been, had its author remained true to his initial dazzling vision.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jordan.

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