Finally got around to watching the first season of The Wheel of Time, the 2021 Amazon production based on the fantasy book series by the late Robert Jordan. The first book was published in 1990 and last, number 14, in 2013, finished by author Brandon Sanderson with the approval of Jordan’s widow (who really deserved co-writing credit on the whole thing.) As a young’un I had made it up to book six before pooping out. Unlike the Dune series, which spanned centuries, The Wheel of Time chronicles only a few years, but there was a LOT going on in those few years.
Thinking about it gave me a Mandela Moment. I was so sure I had read it in the 1980s, in college, when I was going to SF conventions with my cousin and sewing costumes for them; but no, the first book came out two years after I’d moved to the West Coast to make a life on my own. My confusion came about because it’s such a prototypical 1980s fantasy. Fantasy series published then tended to be of the Tolkien mold: quests with wizards, elves, goggle-eyed farmboys, and a mysterious, incorporeal baddie. The Sword of Shannara (1977) was the first of these; another influential one was David Eddings’ Belgariad series, the first book of which was published in 1982, followed by the first Discworld book in 1983. The Dragonlance books, darker, cheesier, and more baroque, continued the trend in 1984. There were other types of fantasy around, of course. But while series like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were critically lauded, it’s the lighter, sillier ones that today’s adult fans remember and have affection for.
The Wheel of Time, when it began, had just the right recipe: immersive, character-driven fantasy that was new, but not too new. Jordan’s world was a mix of European settings with Asian philosophies, with a Dune-like hunt for a Kwisatz Haderach in the person of The Dragon, an all-powerful warrior who will either save the world, or end it. The story begins when Orc-analogues called Trollocs attack the village of the three main protagonists and their love interests, causing them to flee with Moiraine, a member of the Aes Sedai (a Bene Gesserit-like society of women) who knows the three are important to “the weaving of the pattern” – that is, major players in whatever conflict to follow – and must protect them, because one might be The Dragon.
On the journey to the city of the Aes Sedai things go wrong, then wronger, as the friends are broken up, reunited, and break apart again; one of the main pleasures of the plot, as with any good soap opera, is seeing who winds up with who, romantically. Jordan began his writing career by doing Conan novels, and those lessons show in WoT: an episodic structure; elements that are novel, yet familiar; a European fantasy world full of past glories, now pulling itself back together.
This was huge project to adapt, more so than anything by Tolkien, just because of the many characters and wandering plotlines, which is likely why it appealed to Amazon programmers looking around for the next Game of Thrones. Its popularity couldn’t have hurt, either.
I enjoyed it. I enjoyed as well revisiting parts of the books that I’d forgotten over the years, like the Ogier system of Waygates, the Whitecloaks, and The People of the Leaf. If you’re a fan, though, be aware changes have been made.
For example, the main trio have been expanded to a quintet with the addition of Egwene and Nynaeve, Moiraine not being sure which gender The Dragon has chosen for reincarnation this time around. There is also the hint of a lesbian relationship between Moiraine and Siuan Sanche, leader of the Aes Sedai, which certainly wasn’t in the books. The series overall has been aged up and streamlined, and it was nice to see some real discipline applied to the wandering tendencies of the plot. On the other hand, seeing it handled this way made me realize how weak the plot really was: things happen, most of them caused by the quintet themselves because they are still in shock over having their village destroyed, while the question of who is the Dragon, how will they rise, and what side will they choose, good or evil, remains in the distance as a boogeyman.
The cast is multiracial, which gives the effect of this world being some far-future version of humanity where all peoples and cultures have become blended together. This was also a theme of the book, the blending of Eastern and Western philosophies, the arguments of fate and karma vs. free will. When I first read it I thought it was just an excuse by the author to draw out the plot, but in watching the series, I think he was on to something. The design too recalls East and West, with a touch of North Africa in places or Moorish Spain. It’s pleasant, but not different from The Witcher or The Rings of Power. (I’ve read a lot of these fantasy series look tend to alike because certain equipment and production methods are mandated by whatever entity commissions them, and of course they are all heavily CGI’d … which means that they end up looking like a high-end video game. I am not complaining about this, exactly, but for the next fantasy series down the pike, I’d sure like to see some handheld camera work and looser, non-drone cinematography.)
I liked all the characters and what the producers did with them. I guess I am at the magic point where my memories from the books are dim enough that I am able to accept these versions of them without discomfort, if that makes sense. My special favorites are Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) just because he reminds me of a co-worker, and Nynaeve (Zoe Robins) for her sharp skepticism about this whole endeavor she’s become involved in, and the – SPOILER! – little fling she has with Lan (Daniel Henney), Moiraine’s warden. Who is perfect for the role, as is Moiraine herself (played by Rosamund Pike) who is less fiery and passionate than she was in the books, and more of a weary woman trying to keep it all together. Of the minor characters, Abdul Salis did a terrifying turn as an inquisitor of the Whitecloaks, an anti-Aes Sedai group of warriors, who happily tortures his captives as he dines on fine food.
One thing that was missing is the series’ light-heartedness. I know Jordan has been criticized for the 1950s battle-of-the-sexes approach he took to the young peoples’ relationships, but that levity, though old-fashioned, is what made the series stand out. Thankfully though – and I can’t say how thankfully – there is no Game of Thrones misogynistic brutality in here. Not a whiff. There is gore, though not on the level of The Witcher where it became excessive in parts. The Trollocs, which were something of a joke in the books, have become actual terrors here, minotaur-like creatures with boar’s tusks covered with dirty slime. There is some tasteful nudity, not a lot, and a few truncated whoopie scenes.
Recommended. If you’re got teen kids this is a good show for all of you to watch together.