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Part nine, 'Winter's Heart,' is now in bookstores
Robert Jordan's 'The Wheel of Time': Fantasy, epic-style
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- And it came to pass, more than 10 years gone, in a seaside city charged deep with history and Southern charm, that a writer created a primal tale of good and evil, death and rebirth, prophecy and redemption. And thus was born Rand al'Thor, a boy who left the farm and became more than a man. He became a hero of legend, and the legend was biblical in scope and power. And as it grew, it became ever more clear that "The Eye of the World," the first novel of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" fantasy series, now spanning nine books and 5,237 pages, was not the beginning, but it was a beginning.
Jordan, the pen name of 52-year-old Charleston, South Carolina, author James Oliver Rigney Jr., should be forgiven if he feels a tad caught in the whirlwind.
Publisher Tom Doherty Associates (Tor Books) released Book Nine, "Winter's Heart," on November 7. Since then, there have been interviews, promotional appearances and book-signings aplenty. Fans pepper him with questions. The first one nearly always echoes the 1965 film about the painting of the Sistine Chapel, "The Agony and the Ecstasy," as the pope demands of the artist: "When will you make an end?"
"In the beginning, I truly thought it was going to be four or five books," said Jordan, a tall, burly man with a salt-and-pepper beard, a shock of unruly dark curls and a seeming perpetual twinkle in his hazel eyes. "When I finished 'The Eye of the World,' I thought I had a good chance of doing it in six."
By the end of Book Two, "The Great Hunt," also released in 1990, Jordan was no longer sure. "I thought I'd better keep my head down and push on," he said. "Now, I think it will be at least three more books."
Jordan hastens to add, however, "That's not a guarantee it will be done in three books."
A slight pause for the gnashing of teeth. Even so, Jordan's fans will probably wait, if not always patiently.
"The reason I love 'WoT' so much is that it is so intricate," said university student Dan Goulet of Ontario, Canada. "Some consider him the next (J.R.R.) Tolkien; some say he's better because Tolkien was simply a linguist. I put them on equal ground."
Apparently lots of others do, too. By late 1998, more than 10 million hardcover and paperback copies of the books were in print. The series has also been translated into at least 16 languages. When asked for more current sales figures, Tor representatives would only say that sales have increased by 30 percent for each successive volume. Tor shipped 200,000 more copies of "Winter's Heart" than the previous installment of the series. And both "Winter's Heart" and Book Eight, "Path of Daggers," spent several weeks on The New York Times' hardcover bestsellers list.
Good, evil and magic
At its core, the story is as old as time. Young Rand al'Thor and his friends Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon become aware that evil is touching their pastoral village of Emond's Field -- a place so far away from anywhere that no one has seen a royal tax collector for generations. Up until now, their lives have been the same boring routine that made Luke Skywalker sigh down on the moisture farm on Tattooine.
Before long, however, the shepherd al'Thor, the blacksmith's apprentice Aybara, and the mischievous Cauthon are forced to abandon their homes in a desperate flight from the forces of ultimate evil. Their adventures bring them allies and enemies. Magic is real, and dangerous fairy tales spring to life.
The magic comes from a priesthood class called Aes Sedai that is able to "channel" the One Power, or the Force that turns the Wheel of Time.
For reasons Rand and his hayseed friends cannot imagine, the Dark One is after them, and unless they can prevail, the Shadow will cover the world.
Heaven knows Web sites devoted to the series have certainly covered the Internet.
Last year, Croatia native Sebastian Mileta found a virtual "Wheel of Time" game while surfing. He had never heard of the books, but thought the game compelling. The enthusiasm he saw in book forums convinced him to read a bit.
"In the next two weeks, I read the first seven books in the series available then," he said. "I added 'Path of Daggers' this winter and 'Winter's Heart' (November 8)."
Now a university student in Boston, Massachusetts, Mileta said his only complaint is that the series "is too addictive." Sometimes he doesn't "sleep or eat so I can read the book in one try."
Fans have developed role-playing personalities based on characters in the series, and virtual communities have sprung up, matured, died off and been reborn in cyberspace.
All this leaves Jordan astonished and somewhat bemused.
"I look at some of it occasionally, and I've been sent lists of addresses," the author said. "It's quite daunting."
Sense of community
Many fans say they enjoy the sense of community they find in online forums devoted to the series. And while they trade theories about what may happen to whom, or make suggestions of which actors and actresses they'd like to see in a movie, such forums are hardly restricted to book talk. They're often places to flirt and try on new personalities.
Ultimately, they're places to connect.
"Think of it as a sports bar," suggested Bill Garrett, a computer engineer in his late 20s who constructed a "Wheel of Time" Web site in the mid-1990s, which he has since archived and largely abandoned. "When the game's on TV, pretty much everybody watches it, but when the game fades they turn to talking with one another about their families, their jobs (and) the political scene."
Garrett met his girlfriend through fandom, and others have made lasting ties, meeting at events across the globe. Still others have crossed the line from enjoyment to obsession.
"There are people who want me to teach them how to channel," said Jordan. He also remembers a medical student from Malaysia who asked to become his "spiritual disciple" -- an opportunity Jordan declined.
"I'm not a guru or a sage. I'm a storyteller. The only times I get disturbed is when I find people who seem to be taking this too seriously," he said.
"I just wanted to write books I wanted to write," continued Jordan. "There's no writer who has not had enough ego to hope something he or she wrote would be seized on by the public -- that something they write will last beyond them. But hoping and expecting are two different things. Expecting would be beyond ego."
The payoffs of hard work
At a recent book-signing event, Jordan was gracious and accommodating with an estimated 300 fans who formed an orderly, expectant line that stretched around and outside of an Atlanta, Georgia, bookstore. Signing his chosen name and underscoring twice with a bold flourish on book after book, he thoughtfully considered questions and talked freely about his inspiration and writing process -- things he has doubtless repeated at countless such appearances.
"I work eight hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week," he said. "In the past six months, it was 12, 14 hours a day. I tried to take half a day off a month, but I generally did not."
For Jordan, such work is definitely paying off.
Like the merchandising maelstrom that surrounds the "Star Trek" franchise, "Star Wars" and Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," there are now role-playing games and trading cards. A company called Museum Replicas is recreating weapons, belt buckles and some "Wheel of Time" clothing.
NBC bought an option to do a miniseries based on the first book, but Jordan said odds are against a television movie, at least for now.
"I've been told the key people involved in getting that contract together have left NBC," he said. "That means it's highly unlikely the option will be exercised."
After the 'Wheel' turns
He finds this amusing in light of an apparent resurgence in sword-and-sorcery epics. A "Lord of the Rings" film is now being made in New Zealand, and a "Dungeons and Dragons" movie is set to open December 8.
Still, such things "are all peripheral, anyway," said Jordan. "The books are what's important to me."
Jordan does have his detractors. Disgruntled fans -- and not a few critics -- question his verbosity, and many have wondered whether he could be losing control of the story.
"No, I never feel that it's getting away from me," Jordan said. "I certainly am telling it in more detail, in which case, I think it's good that I'm telling it in more books than five. Trying to compress it into five would have made it not as readable or enjoyable."
He insists that he has known what will happen in the last scene of the last book before ever setting down a word. And while he will not speculate on how long it will take to get there, Jordan does have definite plans for life after the "Wheel of Time" has finished turning.
Before starting the saga of Randland, as it is known to fans, he wrote a historical series called "The Fallon Chronicles" and serialized several "Conan the Barbarian" novels. There are things Jordan wants to write afterwards, too.
But "Wheel" comes first.
"I've been warned that if I died before I finished the books, they were going to desecrate my grave," he said with a laugh.
He's also come to enjoy a bit of his success, including the long, sleek limousine that delivered him to a book-signing engagement. Jordan also owns a Porsche Carrera sports car, but he's going to have to wait for those afternoons of lounging on a beach in the South of France that he has fantasized about. There are other fantasies to fulfill.
Philip Pullman weaves spell with 'His Dark Materials'
Tom Doherty Associates
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