Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Hello, and welcome to the official Femspec watch-along for Amazon’s new epic fantasy television series The Wheel of Time! I’m Newsletter Editor Nolan Boyd, and I will be publishing blog posts here on the Femspec blog to correspond with each of the eight episodes of the show’s first season. The first three episodes of the series will be released on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, November 19th, with weekly episodes released on subsequent Fridays until the final episode is released on December 24th. Join me here on the blog as I break down and analyze each episode after it airs – rather than focusing on pure plot summary, I’ll be sharing my analytical perspective as an academic who studies film and television and as someone who deeply loves and is familiar with the original source material.
Speaking of the source material, allow me to provide a brief introduction to those of you who are unfamiliar. The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy book series written by Robert Jordan and spanning 14 volumes, as well as one prequel novel; the first volume, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990, while the final book, A Memory of Light, released in 2013. The importance of The Wheel of Time to the fantasy genre as a whole cannot be overstated. If modern fantasy literature as we know it began with the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, it entered its second act in the 90s, during which time the genre began to develop a much greater emphasis on psychological nuance and character development. The publication of The Eye of the World in 1990 laid the foundation for the work that would continue throughout the decade in the fantasy genre by authors such as George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and Steven Erikson, and the series as a whole set the template for unendingly long multi-volume fantasy epics stretching for thousands upon thousands of pages. As a further testament to the series’ influence, The Wheel of Time has the distinction of being the second-best selling fantasy series of all time, behind only The Lord of the Rings (although enough copies of A Song of Ice and Fire may have been sold since the debut of Game of Thrones to eclipse that record; one hopes that the new Amazon show will generate a similar torrent of book sales for The Wheel of Time).
Of particular note, given Femspec’s thematic interests, is the influence that The Wheel of Time had on issues of gender and representation of women within the fantasy genre. Prior to 1990, the fantasy genre had largely relegated female characters to the sidelines as supporting players in male-dominated stories. The Wheel of Time, by contrast, features a sprawling ensemble cast with a number of nuanced, complex, powerful, and important female characters, both heroes and villains, who lie often at the very center of the story. Jordan’s unique gift for character development meant that these female characters – as well as the story’s male characters – evinced a far richer interiority and force of personality than had been commonly seen in the genre up until that point. Egwene al’Vere, Nynaeve al’Meara, Moiraine Damodred, Elayne Trakand – the principal female characters of The Wheel of Time stand as some of the most nuanced, well-written women in all of literature, easily holding their own alongside the series’ male characters (who, in my opinion, often come off as less interesting by comparison). It will truly be a phenomenal experience to see these dynamic characters brought to life in the television series; and I, as a book reader who got to spend so much time getting to know them, can’t wait for them to be introduced to the world.
Beyond simply introducing well-developed female characters to the genre, Jordan also put issues of gender politics front and center in his series, sometimes in ways that might feel dated from a contemporary perspective but that were revolutionary at the time. The world of The Wheel of Time is a world in which women hold great power, and the all-female organization known as the Aes Sedai – women who are able to use magic by channeling the force known as the One Power – are the world’s greatest source of knowledge, power, and influence. In writing The Wheel of Time, Jordan sought to imagine a world in which the power binaries that structure our real-world society were frequently inverted, in which the power and agency wielded by women was not silenced, but amplified, not sidelined, but centered. Although the series may read as gender-essentialist to a post-Queer Studies intellectual milieu that has rightly criticized the rigid social divide between “man” and “woman” that permeates our cisheteronormative society, the series nevertheless sought to carve out a place for women within its secondary world that could provide them with an agency often denied to women in both the real world and in fantasy literature. By creating a collection of incredible female characters and exploring their journeys through an oft-matriarchal world, Jordan asked his readers to validate the knowledge and experiences of women as being every bit as valuable as that of their male counterparts, a message that perhaps resonated more strongly in the 90s than it does today. If that’s the case, however, it serves as a testament to the extent to which our literary culture has developed in the intervening decades as a result of authors such as Jordan advocating for the literary representation of the female experience, which is now almost de rigueur in speculative fiction ranging from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy to Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Fantasy is certainly not just a boys’ club any longer.
Before I bring this introduction to a close, I would like to share a bit about my own personal experience with The Wheel of Time. In 2002, when I was in 7th grade, my mother one day handed me a copy of The Eye of the World and said, “I found this book, and it looks like something you would like.” I started reading and immediately became hooked. Coincidentally, a couple of other boys in my grade at school also began reading the series at the same time, and we all came together to discuss the series whenever we had a chance. From 7th to 9th grade, I read the first 10 books in the series, stopping after the 10th book because it was the final book in the series at that time to have been published (from this experience springs my steadfast personal conviction to NEVER start reading a book series again unless it has been completely published). Little did I know then that the series would not publish its final volume until I was 23 years old! I remember hearing of the publication of the final volume in 2013, and at that point I resolved that, at some point, I would read the entire series from start to finish, an endeavor which I began in (I think) 2017. I had gotten into audiobooks big-time by then, so I listened to the entire series on audiobook beginning with the prequel novel, New Spring, and ending with A Memory of Light – as a side note, I HIGHLY recommend the audiobooks for The Wheel of Time, as they are narrated by the INCREDIBLE Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, whose voices brought the books to life in a way that simply reading the books physically never could have for me.
When the TV series released its first trailer, I made it a personal mission to watch as many trailer reaction videos on YouTube as I could possibly find. In one video, a man who was probably around 40 years old began watching the trailer and, by the end, was weeping so profoundly that he couldn’t even speak. To those uninitiated to the series, such a reaction might seem hyperbolic, but I fully understood why he was so moved. There aren’t many book series in all of literature that match the length of The Wheel of Time. When you have thousands and thousands of pages to spend immersing yourself in a complex and detailed world alongside characters in whose journeys you become incredibly invested, that world begins to feel like home to you, and those characters to feel like family. That man began to cry while watching the trailer because he knew that, very shortly, on November 19th, he would be coming home – and so will I. To those of you who have never read the books – welcome! I hope that you come to love this world and the characters within it just as much as I do. To those who have read the books, I have only one word – tai’shar.
Dr. Nolan Boyd is currently Visiting Instructor of English at the University of South Florida. He graduated with a PhD in English Literature and a Graduate Certificate in Women's Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Miami University in 2020. His scholarship analyzes the cultural work performed by cinema and contemporary literature, and particularly by representations of queerness and disability. He also serves as a peer reviewer for the journal.