Peter Jackson’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” chronicles the dark forces bearing down on the fragile “last stand” of humanity in present-day San Francisco. His “Hobbit” films depict a time when global society has shored up some order after the traumatic events of the mid-aughts. And Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” trilogy is celebrated as a revitalization of a declining genre (that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fine yet flawed prose) in the wake of an era that saw the collapse of New Economy ideology and the precipitous decline of the U.S. military industrial complex.
It is hard to imagine another author covering the same topic — societal collapse, resulting in a mass human migration — with as much poignancy and clarity. But on May 9th, the fourth-year student of the world’s most famous fantasy series of all time, DC Comics, will open a series of events with the creator of the series, author Robert Jordan, in Alexandria, Virginia. The occasion is the retrospective publication of a new hardcover “Wheel of Time: The Complete Works” (HC: Image, $150, 864 pages). In introducing the collection, an ebullient Jordan praised the Library of Congress for its preservation of his most accomplished works, concluding, “It is in the Libraries that books are read — and the Library is my book.”
The “Wheel of Time” series, based on ancient Greek myths, first appeared in 1985 in a hardcover collection titled “The Wheel of Time,” and has since spawned dozens of installments. To date, it has sold about 30 million copies and been translated into 29 languages. The first book in the series, “The Fall of Giv” (1985), set a virtual world of realm-crossing stabbings, ruined cities and mangled bodies on a distant planet. The media and culture commentary are accessible, silly and sometimes transgressive — without being completely outrageous. The dramatic narratives, with characters chock full of power, are first-rate. There’s plenty of incest and fantasy of being possessed by evil. But the animals aren’t pushovers, either.
But while the series appeals to readers who are too young to remember the golden age of literary fantasy of Percy Jackson and Natalie Portman, the books can also be difficult to read for readers who come late to fantasy. The tropes of fantasy are reliably familiar and linear. This book cycle, littered with war, famines, famines and creatures who can talk to dragons and rob someone of everything without warning, is not particularly absorbing. Even the very plot is repetitive. Characters have long and often fraught quests: as a result of their failures in adulthood, they are forced into unpredictable destinies.
Transplanted from its intended setting, the planet “Eternia,” it is now on a planet called Uriel, ruled by Morgana, the princess of the Wheel of Time. She conscripts several underlings to found a brave new era to combat Natarus, the last dragon ruler of Eternia. Oftentimes, both, these scheming women are shown as one-dimensional, with little redeeming human qualities. Natarus, similarly, is unsatisfyingly knotted up with underlings and snakes. His ambition and one-way motives do not have the flexibility of the earthbound characters, which frequently manage to save him or herself from dire situations.
You will meet adorable troll-like creatures called Séance-Christians. They are here as support for Natarus in battle. But do not expect any charisma: The people who perform the Séance are young and are so well-behaved that they become bland. There is the demon Séance-Mary, a spiritual guide who speaks at seemingly random times, though she provides no commentary or explanation. She is as easy to ignore as the countless others on the planet who want to get one over on the people of Eternia or the wicked Varda or the menacing Gentleman. There is no “gray zone” here. The series is a straightjacket.
Most, if not all, of the information that might have been useful in devising a more engaging alternative to the “wheel” is included in “The Complete Works,” which is more of a kibble than a thick stew. It is simply a means for collecting the most important stories, and Jordan was extraordinarily good at this task.