Aes Sedai. The Dragon Reborn. A whole bunch of names with seemingly randomly placed apostrophes. This is The Wheel of Time. Well, it’s scratching the tiniest mark on the surface of The Wheel of Time.
Kicking off in 1990, the high fantasy book series introduced a rich world with complex characters, magic, danger around every corner, and a cyclical battle between light and darkness. Author Robert Jordan loosed this epic story from his mind into our world, though he didn’t get to finish it himself. Jordan passed as he worked on the final installment of the series, and using Jordan’s exhaustive notes and working with his widow Harriet McDougal, Brandon Sanderson picked up the torch and completed that installment with three novels. The final tome arrived in 2013.
With the upcoming Amazon Prime Video TV adaptation on the horizon, you might be looking for a spoiler-free overview to understand the essence of The Wheel of Time. It’s a sprawling world with more intricacies than even Game of Thrones, so we’ll stick to the basics.
There Are How Many Books?!
Look, I’m not going to tiptoe around this. The Wheel of Time series includes 14 books, plus one prequel. The paperbacks for the series average 826 pages each. You’re committing to details about meals in taverns, characters with “blunt fingers the sizes of sausages” (you’d be surprised how much this phrase appears), and clothing. I’m for all of that, to be clear, but the worldbuilding does occasionally get in the way of driving the main story arc forward.
The complete list of titles in the series is *takes a deep breath*: The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven, Lord of Chaos, A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams, The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light. The prequel’s titled New Spring.
Do you have to read all of the books to get the plot? Yeah, kinda. Jordan shares pivotal information throughout, but it’s sometimes buried in all the meandering. I don’t recommend skipping any. But if you must, you can pass by Crossroads of Twilight and read a summary. If you find yourself feeling like any particular character’s point of view is a slog, you could skim those chapters.
Give Me the Plot Basics
To frame it in an oversimplified way, The Wheel of Time is a high-stakes story about good vs. evil with a heavy sprinkling of hero’s journey stages and archetypes. It’s a Chosen One tale. The Dark One, a formidable force of evil, wants to influence the universe and twist minds and ultimately make it his world. A character in the book describes him as “the embodiment of paradox and evil, destroyer of reason and logic, breaker of balance, the unmaker of order.”
The Dark One and his many minions contend with our heroes at every turn, sometimes even in the world of dreams. The Dragon, the leader of the Light, is the champion who must face the Dark One. A reincarnation of a single soul, the Dragon has battled the Dark One again and again. The Dragon has allies perhaps equal in number to the Dark One. The Wheel of Time explores the players in this battle, who has been reborn as the Dragon, and what role various lands of the world have. It’s a big place with intricate politics, which leads us to…
What’s the World Like?
The Wheel of Time tells a story that has happened over and over. The first words in the series explain: “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”
The Prophecies of the Dragon predict the events of the current Age and indicate who the reincarnation of the Dragon is. If you thought overanalyzing the prophecies in Game of Thrones was a hoot, just you wait. The characters uncover pieces of these prophecies as they progress on their journeys, so do not skip ahead and look them up, because spoilers.
And what would a fantastical world like this be without magic? Here, it’s the One Power drawn from something called the True Source; it’s wielded by channelers who have strengths tied to the elements, a.k.a. the Five Powers. They weave the flows of elements sort of like spells. And the One Power is key in Dark One vs. the Dragon business.
Two halves comprise the One Power: the female half called saidar and the male half called saidin. The latter, saidin, is tainted at the time of the story (it didn’t used to be). Male channelers are rare, often going mad if they try to draw the One Power. Many, but not all, female channelers belong to an organization called the Aes Sedai. Explaining the hierarchy and tenets of the Aes Sedai is a whole other article, so for now, think of them as a ladies-only Jedi Order split into different Ajahs. Most Aes Sedai bond a Warder, kind of like a bodyguard of sorts.
And an important note: The Wheel of Time‘s world doesn’t have a name a la Middle-earth.
Who Are the Main Players?
The Wheel of Time has approximately 100,000 characters. Use the glossaries in the back of the books if you need help keeping track of everyone and how their names are pronounced. Naming the main characters can be subjective, but I’m going to go with the five protagonists who are pulled out of their small village, Emond’s Field, into a world that is positively bananas compared to their previously quiet lives: Rand al’Thor, Egwene al’Vere, Perrin Aybara, Matrim “Mat” Cauthon, and Nynaeve al’Meara. Each character has an arc that sometimes pulls others of this group in and sometimes splits off in a solitary direction. Going from their first appearances to their last… you won’t believe how far they go.
I’d be remiss not to name Moiraine Damodred too. She’s an Aes Sedai looking for the Dragon Reborn. She comes to Emond’s Field with Lan just as the Dark One’s minions do. It’s her that leads the group out of their home and into the wide world. And that’s the premise of the Amazon Prime Video adaptation too: Moiraine takes these youths out into the world and… so, so much happens.