My history with Robert Jordan’s huge 14 book saga started just over 20 years ago when I first cracked open the “Wheel of Time. ” Here I was introduced to Lews Therin and the madness through ‘channelling’ the ‘one power’ that would destroy him and kill his wife, and crumble his castle. I remember key events in the book. I remember working my way through the series, I think it was Book 5 that accompanied me to my honeymoon. And it was Book 6, this one, Lord of Chaos, that finally defeated me a quarter of the way through. Other than a few abortive attempts to pick up where I left off, I laid the series to rest for 20 years. Then, I decided to download the audio-book and defeat it this way.
Why did I initially leave the series? This was down to both what some variously describe as the series greatest strength, and also its greatest flaw; the detail, the sheer, remorseless detail, the piling of chapter upon chapter from a multitude of locations and perspectives. It’s a flaw because it is at times ill disciplined. Each book will leave a number of plot strands dangling and I am sure they are picked up in later instalments, but it makes that particular novel more unsatisfying. Then there is the minutiae of the descriptive prose, a lot which a charitable editor would have moved their red pen swiftly through. The good side of this is that, if you surrender yourself to it, a bit like the characters in the series surrender themselves to the Source or the Power, chances are you’ll be thoroughly immersed in this fantasy world, and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams.
The series describes of a band of young people who are “Taveren” i.e. focal points of destiny, and how they form around a farm-boy called Rand-Al-Thor who has mysterious parentage and is in fact a prophesied Messianic figure who will destroy the Dark Lord of the series called, unsurprisingly, the Dark One. This is in fact an epic cycle that must link and repeat through the ages, the titular Wheel of Time.
The Dark One has an army of monstrous figures assisting him; the Forsaken, a bickering, competing group of figures who step in and out of history and cause chaos, Half men, like Tolkien’s Wraiths, Trollocs, human-animal hybrids reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ors, and more. There are figures who surpass evil itself like the monstrous Padan Fain, a former Tinker who has gone beyond life and death. There are also ‘dark-friends,’ human allies to the evil power.
There is a wizard caste in the series, Aes Sadai, but here it’s wholly female, because the one power, think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, can be channelled safely only by women.The female half is called Saidar. If a male channels the male half of the power, Saidan, it will drive them mad with spectacularly destructive results. Hence the Aes Sadai see it as part of their mission to ‘gentle’ ie neuter from the one power any man who can channel. This causes Rand a few difficulties.
Lord of Chaos, then, takes up the story with Rand consolidating his grip on a number of cities and provinces, whilst laying stratagems against the Forsaken, with the focus of his plans at this point being a dude called Sammael who is at that point marshalling his forces against Rand. Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai have been fractured into two camps; an aggressive clan (the ‘official’ Aes Sedai) who want to gentle Rand and eliminate any male channelling the One Power (they seized power in a bloody coup in a previous book) and a renegade group, where most of our Aes Sedai heroines (including heroines we have known from the first book) are, including Elayne (also ‘Daughter heir of Andor), Nynavae and Egwene. This group are more holistic in their approach. Some of our heroines in this group get involved in hunting down powerful artefacts, ‘Ter’Angreal,’ that they have come across whilst dream-walking in the Land of Dreams, ‘Tel Ar Anrihod’ (these spellings are from memory so please bear with me) whilst others work out how they may help Rand (not all the good Aes Sedai believe they should).
Meanwhile two of the other Taveren (see above), Matt and Perrin, move with their armies to assist Rand. Matt is roguish gambler with a talent for luck, and Perrin has wolf like abilities, he can link with wolves to experience the world through them and call to them, and he can see and hear like a Wolf. He’s your fantasy novel character with the big axe.
So a lot of these main themes are unresolved in the book, its greatest frustration. The last few chapters pages or so instead deal with a threat to Rand that whilst not wholly unexpected, was not the one we expected to close the book. I won’t spoil it further, but these last chapters do generate some threat and tension.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of detail in this book that will at time have you shaking your head either in befuddled resignation, or just sighing and going with it. There are lots of descriptions of clothes. The politicking of the Aes Sedai and the sheer profusion of characters is head spinning at times. The bad guys aren’t in it enough, when they are it does get a lot more interesting. The gender politics of the book (and of Jordan’s works as a whole) is straight off a heavy metal album covers of the 70’s, women hardly dressed in various submissive poses, whilst being towered over by aggressive muscle clad male figures (or monsters). There may be a chain collar on the woman (optional). Yes there are elements in Jordan’s writings that seem to refute this (the Aes Sedai clan are the most powerful in this world and the dominant power, strong women are as prevalent if not more so than male counterparts) but it all seems a bit disingenuous when you have scenes such as in this book, where a key Aes Sedai ritual involves all women showing their breasts and stating “I am a woman.”
In the final analysis though, the books remain great fun and will keep you company for ages. And when you look at Jordan’s CV (highly decorated Vietnam Vet, physics arts and games enthusiast) you can see the life experience and intelligence that informs his writings. Start from Book One, and if you can, keep going.
The audio-book is a good and clear presentation read by Michael Kramer whose reads with a good measured pace, just the right amount of gravitas and nuanced for the different roles, and Kate Reading, who also does a splendid job coping with wide range of female voices.