Monday, January 7, 2013

"There Are Neither Endings Nor Beginnings" - A Retrospective of "The Wheel of Time"

Tomorrow, January 8, is the day that A Memory of Light will be released. This is the last book of The Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan (and was finished by Brandon Sanderson, who is an amazing author in his own right).  And, United States Postal Service willing, I will have my copy in hand tomorrow and will probably have a tough time concentrating on anything else (apologies in advance, anyone who tries to engage me in regular conversation tomorrow - I may be standing in front of you, but I won't be mentally present).

This is kind of a big deal for me.  And, it turns out, for a lot of people, but it was only recently that I discovered how big of a following The Wheel of Time series had.  A few weeks ago, Leigh Butler (she of the Wheel of Time re-read) posted her spoiler-free review of A Memory of Light. In the comments, many of the long-time, hardcore fans went on at length how they’ve been with the Wheel of Time series for over 20 years. My relationship hasn’t been quite that long (hell, I’m only 27 - I was reading “Little House on the Prairie” 20 year ago!), neither did I get into the WoT internet fandom until recently, but Wheel of Time has been substantive in my life. I guess I always kept this one thing to myself - it was something I loved and I didn't want other people messing around with it.  The Wheel of Time is quite special to me, mostly because of the circumstances in which I discovered it.  And when I re-read the series last year in anticipation of the fourteenth and final (holy crap!) installment - a lot of those tender memories came bubbling to the surface.

What is The Wheel of Time, you ask?  Well... heh... um... here - this is an official promotional video that the Tor Books put out that includes a bare-bones summary of the story. Much better than I could, anyway -

The Wheel of Time came to me at an interesting point of my life.  Telling this story involves me admitting something that people who've known me my whole life know, but newer friends and associates don't typically find out about me because I never talk about it.  When I was seventeen, I moved with my family to a new town and a new school. Honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to me, even though I was unsure about it at the time.  My parents gave me the option to stay where I was, but it was my decision to go.  And I'm very glad that I did.  This high school was drastically smaller, but the students were much more accepting and friendly than I had ever believed possible.  I think I made much better friends in that short year than I did in twelve years at my old school.  Also, considering how small West Desert was, they had a school library For The Ages.  As a fantasy nut, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.  I was very familiar with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but West Desert High School’s library had Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Brian Jacques’ Redwall and Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” and, of course, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

So, out in West Desert, there's not a whole lot to do.  There are no movie theaters or shopping malls - hell, we don't even have a gas station.  There's school and church and sports and farm chores and whatever other fun you make for yourself - which is what I did before I moved (we lived on a farm two miles out of town, which may have been my saving grace in my growing-up years).  I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a bunch of farm kids from the sticks were reading books because that's what I always did.  But the concept that these were kids from school doing this was new and quite exciting to me.

At first, I was a little unsure of how much of my geeky side I should show to my new schoolmates.  After all, my geekiness got me into some uncomfortable and downright embarrassing situations before (most of which, I now realize, happened because the people around me were jackasses and looking for any reason to beat me down - there's more to the story than that, but not for this venue).  But imagine my surprise when my fellow seniors were passing around The Eye of the World (which is the first WoT book) and saying "This is awesome, everyone should read this!"

By this time, basketball season was in full swing.  Something you need to know is that West Desert High is really far away from most of the schools in the state (people from Salt Lake think it’s the edge of creation and give me the funniest looks when I tell them where I’m from). As a way of saving the school district gas money, the girls and boys teams would take road trips together and play the same schools the same night.  We’d all be on the bus together and some of our parents would follow the bus to the games.  And those trips were LOOOOOONG.  One school we played was on the other side of the freaking state (West Desert was near the Utah-Nevada line; our farthest opponent was East Carbon, which was closer to Colorado).  Some of the kids got up the usual “making out in the back of the bus” hijinks (typical teenager stuff)  Me? I read. And so did some of my friends.  And the ones who were further along in the story discussed the Wheel of Time (with me pointedly ignoring them because I didn’t want to be spoiled).

The one that really hooked me was The Dragon Reborn, mostly because I’m kind of oblivious to a lot of things and I had no idea that Rand was the Chosen One that everybody went on and on about (I don’t know what I thought, really.  Maybe I figured the Superboys were just supposed to help find the Dragon Reborn and go on Spirited Adventures while doing so.  To be fair, my Powers of Literary Deduction were in their infancy at this stage in life).  THEN - came the Epic and Torturous Waiting for Mike to Finish Reading The Shadow Rising All-Freaking-Ready!!!1!!!ELEVENTY!!  I think I bugged the poor guy so much about it that he stopped reading partway through and let me read it first (sign of a true friend, there).

By this time, track and field season was upon us all.  During one of our track meets (and I can’t even remember where this was), I snuck off to a nearby Barnes and Noble and bought “The Fires of Heaven” because I didn’t want to have to wait for that one.  Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords soon joined my collection.

Then - came the part I hate.  Because I was heading off to college and it was either study and do well in school or read Wheel of Time.  Like any dutiful academic, I chose the former (much to my deep regret).  All during my college years there would be periods where I’d try to pick up the series where I left off, but something else would take me away - school or work, another fandom, social life (blech, social life, I spit in your eye.  Why do I need to date, anyway?  Boys are stupid).  Even so, I remember where I was when I heard the news that Robert Jordan had passed away.  And even though it had been some years since I’d picked up a Wheel of Time book, I still felt a keen attachment to the story and its creator and I was heartbroken by the news.  Even some years later when I finished Knife of Dreams, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief when I realized that was the last volume to be solely written by Mr. Jordan.

A year or so ago, I was finishing up my Master’s Degree and working at the library.  An audiobook copy of The Eye of the World checked in.  I looked at it, realized that I was veeery close to the end of my academic career and I would soon have some extra free time to do what I'd resolved to do since my freshman year of college.  I checked it out and re-read (well, listened to) what I had read all those years ago in high school and finished up what was available.  The series was just as wonderful and brilliant as I remembered (yes, there were some low points, but what series doesn't have those?).  It reminded me of my last year of high school, which was a pure and unadulterated joy.  It seemed fitting that I was getting back into this world - which had been like a warm and comforting friend as my teenage years were coming to a close - just as my adult life was close to taking off.  I later discovered Leigh Butler’s aforementioned Re-read and found all kinds of new ideas and opinions about the series - some I agreed with, some I’d never thought of before, some I didn't care to hear again.  But also, I found that I wasn't the only one who loved this story.

Fandoms come and go.  Book series start and finish.  But I remember all of them with joy and fondness (probably more fondness than the people I’ve lost touch with).  The Wheel of Time is special because I found it just as I was experiencing a new phase of my life, so it will always be associated with that.  I’m excited to find out how things turn out for Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve and the rest (there are so many wonderful characters, but I will always have a love for the original core cast).  I may not have been with the series since the beginning, but it still has made an impression on me. Whether good or bad, joy or tears, it’s been a fantastic ride from start to finish and top to bottom.

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