Read from ~08/20/2021 - 11/18/2021
In my review of the fourth book in Robert Jordan's extraordinarily-long The Wheel of Time series, I said that the next entry, Fires of Heaven, would essentially make or break my interest in continuing this series.
Almost a year later, I'm here to say that, unfortunately, it's broken it.
I won't mince words here: I straight-up hated reading this.
That said, I find it hard to write off The Fires of Heaven as “objectively” terrible. Its flaws aren't huge, but they end up feeling that way — The Fires of Heaven isn’t a wrecking ball, it's the straw that broke the camel's back. The problem is that when you force the camel to walk with a broken back, every step is excruciating. What are those flaws that broke the camel's back, you ask?
The name of the game is repetition.
Of course, repetition itself isn't a bad thing. It can be a useful tool. There's certainly an argument to be made that Jordan repeats certain concepts and attitudes because he finds them important and doesn't want readers to forget them. But there can be too much of a good thing — even drinking water can be fatal. At a certain point, probably about a book ago, Jordan's repetition stopped being helpful. "Men and women don't get along," he told me. I got the memo. "Men and women don't get along," he said again. And again. And again. And soon, reading became maddening because the same attitudes that rubbed me the wrong way during the second book persisted three books later. The attitudes are annoying enough, but if Jordan wants to use them to make a point, fine. The problem however is that he feels the need to constantly bludgeon readers with the same point again and again as if they had the memories of goldfish.
Spoiler alert: men and women (mostly Nynaeve) still hate each other and it's really frustrating to have to read over and over again about how women (mostly Nyaneve) think men are idiots who are only good for their looks or how a man thinks women are so confusing. Normally, this would just make me kind of sad but it's enraging and annoying in just how stupidly frequent it is. Nynaeve cannot go half a goddamn page without insulting a man and after thirty subsequent pages of her POV, I wanted to throw the doorstopper of a book against a wall. I lost count of how many times I yelled at characters to shut up because I was frustrated with them and their tired lines.
It’s hard for me to argue that Jordan's repetition is artful because it starts to contradict his characterization. Fires of Heaven features one of the worst sex scenes I have read — not because Jordan doesn't commit to eroticism but because I honest-to-God can't imagine women and men actually wanting to have sex with each other in this story. It doesn’t seem realistic that likely men and women in Wheel of Time would make love with one another. Hatefucking seems more believable.
Even the little things wore me down — it's like how the quietest of faucet drips can drive you crazy after hearing it for long enough. Jordan writing about characters "sniffing disapprovingly," smoothing skirts, knuckling mustaches, and tugging braids were humorous quirks at first. Then they got used so frequently that they go from funny to distracting. What was once endearing became insufferably annoying.
Robert Jordan is a very idiosyncratic writer. You either love all the traits that make him so distinct or you loathe them. Guess which one I fell under!
The repetition of Jordan's writing is annoying, but it ideally would be drowned out by the larger narrative. Unfortunately, The Fires of Heaven is far from an ideal book. I found myself becoming extremely acclimated with the pitfalls of Jordan's narration because, more often than not, that's all there is to The Fires of Heaven. It's a very dull, plodding read. The wonder and excitement of Eye of the World and The Great Hunt have largely been replaced with monotony. I decided against adding a plot synopsis because there isn't a strong hook to be found in the book. The characters certainly have goals, but the writing falls short of their desires, rendering them languid in their narrative movement. There are many chapters where nothing of note is accomplished.
All this is to say that Robert Jordan has another damning quality to his writing — bloat. He'll take an event that could be conveyed in one page and stretch it to ten, he'll take what could be described in narration and make a scene out of it. I wasn’t even that annoyed that Perrin, one of my favorite characters, didn’t show up because I know Jordan would have found a way to make his sections tedious. Hell, Mat, another favorite, is here but he often isn’t very entertaining.
This isn't to say that there's no fun to be had in this book, that Jordan can't excite. He absolutely can, and it makes the reading experience all the more frustrating. There are some genuinely good cliffhangers at the end of chapters; maybe a character has bumped into an adversary, maybe they're preparing for a big battle. Like any good book, they encouraged me to read on. But thanks to the bloat, reading more didn't feel rewarding. Individual reading sessions, no matter how long, barely made a dent in the monstrous word count. There's a certain rhythm to reading that's lost when you're reading a ~1,000-page entry in a 14-book behemoth. Bloat doesn't only make the book boring, but it sucks out the fun of the genuinely good parts and makes reading oppressive.
And I wish I was being hyperbolic. To get past Jordan's fluff and irritating character rants, I regularly had to skim over several paragraphs, which is a very draining feeling for me. The Fires of Heaven took a leisure activity and sucked the joy out of it, turning it into a chore. Reading became something I dreaded, something I forced myself to do in an enclosed area with no distractions because, if given the opportunity, I'd rather do literally anything other than read this book.
Part of the problem is, of course, me. Every sign pointed to me having a bad time. I could have given up the ghost after finishing The Shadow Rising when I noticed that my score had fallen two books in a row. But I told myself maybe the books were just in a slump. I should have walked away after reading about 100 pages and realizing that I wasn't enjoying myself at all. But like the stubborn mule that I am, I kept reading since I never abandon books partway. And as I did so, I became more and more bitter. I not only struggle to call the book terrible because its mistakes aren’t that damning in-and-of-themselves, but because the biggest reason those mistakes were so infuriating was because of my own refusal to let Wheel of Time go sooner. Part of me feels bad giving this book such a low score, such a scathing review, since I should have just recognized this book wasn't for me and walked away accordingly. Like a lousy ex, I can only offer The Fires of Heaven a cliche line - "it's not you, it's me." And like the line, while blame can be shifted, the hurt remains and the result is ultimately the same — it's over.
But it's hard saying goodbye.
And that's the rub, because while I've made up my mind to walk away, I'm not happy about it. While I hated The Fires of Heaven, I didn’t hate all of it. As I said before, there are some genuinely great parts — the final battle of the book, the apparent sacrifice of Moiraine, the divided White Tower arc that continued from the previous book, Nyaneve's rivalry with Moghedien. These are just a few of the highlights, but they only serve to make the book more frustrating for me. They show that Jordan can have good ideas, that he can deliver exciting scenes, but they're ultimately drowned out by the drudgery. There was a moment towards the end that I considered, against my better judgment, to continue with the series. It was at the end of the most exciting chapter in the book and it concludes with Mat and Rand saying "let's roll the dice," before going into battle. It's such a small thing, but it's so cool. It reminded me that, when Jordan delivers, he delivers the whole meal. But the adrenaline faded, the euphoria ended. Jordan does deliver the whole meal, albeit, under a mountain of napkins you have to remove, piece by piece, before digging in.
The best thing I can say about Robert Jordan is that he has an interesting story to tell, but he's a poor storyteller. Many can look past this, take the good from the bad. I wish I was one of those people.
The reason I'm not as bitter as I could be is because I've had a contingency plan for a while now: the Wheel of Time adaption by Amazon. Amazon apparently greenlit production in hopes that it would become a "Game of Thrones-killer." My hope for the show isn’t as grandiose, yet it holds more personal importance — I hope that it will allow me to see this story to its conclusion. While I can't bring myself to finish the books, I know I can bring myself to finish the show.
Fortunately, the first three episodes have been great. Not amazing, and they've certainly been bumpy, but they struck a chord with me, made me remember what I loved about this series. There have certainly been changes, some for the better, some I'm iffy on, but I'll ultimately accept them it means seeing this story unfold.
Because, as it much as it pains me to say it, The Fires of Heaven burned any desire to finish this journey in book form, incinerating the strands before the wheel could weave them.