I have a special love for epic fantasy. It is far from being the only genre I enjoy, but having started at an early age with Greek mythology before moving on to the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I enjoy the stirrings of innocence and nostalgia that follows from simply reading a good fantasy yarn. That being said, there is an over-abundance of poorly written fantasy, suffering from either weak rehashing or the obvious sprinkling of Middle-Age European culture over the story's already watered-down plot as an attempt at world-building. The Lord of the Rings succeeds on both fronts. It was highly original and J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the best world-builders, period. Much of what allows the reader to enter the world of Middle Earth comes from Tolkien's copious notes on the history and culture of Middle Earth and the races that inhabit it. Whole languages were created and over a dozen books have since been published by his son Christopher, from his abundant notes including The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. This documentation of "history" continues to lend realism and gravitas to the Peter Jackson-helmed Rings and Hobbit movies. This level of world-building is so tied to the fantasy genre that to describe a fantasy novel as epic is redundant. Fantasy novels are sprawling by nature. Generally the only short fantasy novels (let us say, less than 400 pages) exist as sequels. This is also a characteristic of fantasy novels. A grand story is played out over multiple volumes of books, possibly ending up at many thousands of pages long.
The longest fantasy epic I have ever discovered to maintain a cohesive, unbroken plot culminates in the 14th volume, A Memory of Light, and still manages to end up at 909 pages in length, hardcover. Of course, with such immense sprawl, the length of the series, named The Wheel of Time, is also usually its single greatest criticism. It has received this criticism since the sixth volume, even though as an avid fan of the whole series I look back on that point of the story as still the beginning to a great deal. Still, there is one volume that I will never read again. Most major plot threads in it are agonizingly slow or stop altogether, and instead we spend an entire novel on a small sub-plot involving kidnapping and court-machinations, and characters we barely know or care about. Of course, this was close to the end of the author Robert Jordan's life. That's right, the author never finished the story and Robert Jordan was just a nom de plume. It died along with the man, James Oliver Rigney, on September 16th, 2007. He had been suffering from terminal heart disease, cardiac amyloidosis.
This was a huge blow to Rigney's fans across the globe. Many of us had grown up reading these novels, eagerly awaiting each new volume for a year or two after devouring the then current volume within days of its release. I have been involved with this story for twenty years, getting others to read and love it as I have. Often it is their first exposure to fantasy. The Wheel of Time FAQ, lovingly maintained by fans, is many hundreds of pages long and contains information about each of the characters, creatures, plot threads, and many theories on what is to happen in the future of the series. But that future is now. The torch was passed to Brandon Sanderson, who was picked by Rigney's wife Harriet McDougal. She also was the editor for the entire series. While of course there was trepidation among fans at this new author's ability to finish the series, he had help in the form of copious written notes, recordings, and sometimes even completely written chapters, as well as Harriet herself. Rigney had often said that he knew what the ending was to be before he had even started to write the beginning. We did not need to worry.
Sanderson finished the series in three more novels, and was wildly successful at completing such a difficult task, though it was also a labor of love for the longtime fan. Books 8 through 14 reached number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, a testament to both men's passion for finishing the story right. I read the final chunk of story riding a sea of emotion. It is said, all good things must come to an end, and as I closed the last book A Memory of Light, Rigney's own words rang true in my head. "There are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time, but it was an ending." And so it was not simply the end of a novel or a story, but an end to a chapter of my life, 20 years long.
Trying to add a plot summary for something like this would be a ridiculous endeavor. Suffice it to say that The Wheel of Time is a traditional good versus evil story, light vs the dark, The Creator versus The Dark One. There are whispers of a messiah figure, the Creator's champion, a man who commands awe and terror. The Dragon is to be reborn. Read from The Eye of the World to A Memory of Light and rediscover what the word epic really means.
And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died. And men cried out to the Creator, saying, O Light of the Heavens, Light of the World, let the Promised One be born of the mountain, according to the prophecies, as he was in ages past and will be in ages to come. Let the Prince of the Morning sing to the land that green things will grow and the valleys give forth lambs. Let the arm of the Lord of the Dawn shelter us from the Dark, and the great sword of justice defend us. Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.
- from Charal Drianaan te Calamon,
The Cycle of the Dragon.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age.