I have read the Wheel of Time in its entirety, three times now, and have read a good number of books in the series as many as five times. It is quite the undertaking, and a younger me would be very surprised at my repeated return to these novels. After all, getting through all fourteen books takes me between three and four months on average, and that only if I don’t stop to read anything else. So, there’s a big opportunity cost here. That said, I think the world building and character work in the Wheel of Time is some of the best in any fantasy series ever. Returning to the series every few years is comforting, like wrapping yourself in a favorite blanket or sweater.
It’s probably best to think of the Wheel of Time as just one long story, rather than a series of books. Still it is made up of books, most of them very good, but no series this long is going to be perfect. I have tried to give some thoughtful insights into the books here. People who have read the Wheel of Time already will know what I’m referring to when I cryptically allude to certain events. But, it is my hope that someone who has not read the series will get a sense of what they are getting into if they are considering taking the plunge, without any big spoilers.
I will be excluding New Spring as it is a prequel and I’ve only read it once. Also, I really think you shouldn’t read New Spring until you have finished the series and are hungry for more Wheel of Time.
#14 Crossroads of Twilight (Book 10)
I think most WoT fans will agree this is the worst book in the series. It’s crazy, because, of all the books he wrote, Jordan took the most time to work on this one. I have often wondered if he ended up publishing it ‘as is’ because he just didn’t want to wait any longer. This is the only novel I seriously contemplated putting down at multiple points, the only one I just wasn’t enjoying at multiple points. I disliked it so much I almost walked away from the series the first time, the only thing that kept me going when it ended was what happened with Egwene, and honestly that was a cheap trick on Jordan’s part. To be frank,I don’t know why he was allowed to publish this filler novel. My only guess is that at this point in his career he had de-risked selling his novels so much that his publisher just didn’t care.
#13 The Gathering Storm (Book 12)
Matrim Cauthon is one of the best characters in the series. He’s certainly a lot more interesting than Rand, the character most people would point to as the “main protagonist”. Anyway, Sanderson really messed up Mat’s character in this book, and for that alone it deserves a spot near the top of this list. That said, this book has some very memorable moments, including two of the best moments in Egwene’s story (hell her story pretty much carries this book). It’s a good book, but has a terrible flaw that is jarring for any reader making the transition from Jordan to Jordan & Sanderson. To his credit, Sanderson owns this mistake in his personal blog noting that, even if some readers liked his Mat better, the fact that they made that distinction means he failed to preserve the integrity of Jordan’s character work.
#12 Winter’s Heart (Book 9)
If it weren’t for how good book 11 was I would have maybe made an argument that Jordan was starting to tread water at this point in the series. There is a lot of filler, setting up for some future awesomeness. What’s insane though is that the book opens strong and the ending is so incredibly good you almost forgive all the meandering in the middle. Perin does a whole lot of mopping about and feeling sorry for himself through the whole book, and there’s way too much of that Mat the boy toy stuff (you’ll understand when you read the books). Seriously though, the end is one of the most memorable moments in the whole series.
#11 The Eye of the World (Book 1)
It might be controversial to rank this so high on a list ordered from worst to best, but no-one really reads my blog and I’m unlikely to get death threats. Honestly, it has many issues which get ignored because it is the gatekeeper novel. I mean, if The Eye of the World hadn’t been successful we wouldn’t have all the others. However, especially for seasoned fantasy readers, it is a bit of a generic fantasy novel. It maps super closely with The Fellowship of the Ring. It has a rushed and a little confusing ending. The Eye of the World, and a couple other early books, suffer badly from much of the world building not being clear to Jordan yet. There is even a scene where Rand does something that just isn’t possible in any of the later books, and this is never addressed by Jordan (ever). It is a great YA book, and if you are onboarding into the series as a kid it’s totally fine. But, I’ve literally had to beg adult friends to just slog it out so they will continue with the rest of the series and we can discuss the later books.
#10 The Path of Daggers (Book 8)
Right about here it starts to get hard to put them in order. So many of these books in the middle are very good. The beginning of this book is one of the top ten moments in the series (I’ll write a blog on that some time but it will be chock full of spoilers). Mat isn’t in this book, which feels like a bit of a dirty trick for Jordan to play (he pulls this type of thing multiple times in the series, he ends the previous book with a cliffhanger for one character that he leaves out of the next book). This really marks the beginning of Rand’s struggles with mental health, which honestly is the most interesting thing about him in the series. Sorry, but this shouldn’t be a spoiler, if you have not read ANY of the Wheel of Time series yet (or watched the show), but if you are upset about that and have even read half of book one then: “too bad” you knew it was coming. However, it is another case of The Path of Daggers being largely a transitional book, building up to future events. Rand’s battle at the end is a bit abrupt and confusing, and the first time I read the book I didn’t get the forsaken reveal until much later.
#9 The Fires of Heaven (Book 5)
Ugh, this book would be so much lower down this list if it weren’t for the whole circus thing. Honestly, it drives me nuts every time I read the book, if I could bring myself to I would just skip all those chapters. Otherwise, the book is great. The bits with the Shaido are very well done. And Robert Jordan pulls a ‘George R.R. Martin special’ in this book. I will say that Jordan seemed to be establishing a writing formula that was working as far as this book, and when I first read through it I began to worry he would get into the trap of writing the same book over and over. Had that happened WoT would be some sort of pulp fantasy series, probably with a lot more books, but luckily he totally sidestepped that trap in Lord of Chaos.
#8 Knife of Dreams (Book 11)
It starts off by personally vidicating me in an argument I had been having with a friend for years (sorry you’ll know when you read it), so this novel will forever have a special place in my heart. While this book edges on being a filler book, there are several story arcs that are neatly resolved in the Knife of Dreams. Most notably Perin’s long emo period comes to an end. It has two of the best battles in the whole series. The story arc with Egwene that starts in this book and finishes in the next is my second favorite subplots in the whole series. There is also really strong character development for Mat and Tuon in a Knife of Dreams. Honestly, it would be on the other side of the middle if not for a lot of stuff surrounding Elayne that, frankly, I found incredibly tedious.
#7 A Crown of Swords (Book 7)
Other than some annoying and repeated bickering between some of the female protagonists this book is super strong. The scenes around Rand are incredibly interesting and there are some great moments with a “newer” Aes Sedai character. All the events surrounding Egwene are pretty compelling as well, even if they still suffer some from the “new” hierarchy rules being repeatedly rehashed. There are some pretty disturbing events surrounding Mat in this book; it’s cast in a humorous light, because Mat tends to approach all of life with a pretty cavalier attitude, but honestly it upsets me every time I read it. That said, just because it’s upsetting doesn’t mean it is bad. This book falls solidly in the middle of the series, in terms of order and quality.
#6 The Dragon Reborn (Book 3)
This book is a nice change of pace in many ways. For one, except for a few very important moments for his character development, Rand is almost entirely left out of the book. Honestly, he was a bit too naive and winey in the first two books and while as a boy reading this book the first time I missed Rand, during every subsequent re-read I find this novel a much needed break from him and a great opportunity for the character development of other protagonists. The character shift from Mat the tween (seeming) to Mat the young man, after everything that happens to distort his character in books 1 and 2, can be a bit jarring for some. I’ve even heard it described as ‘unearned’, but I disagree. I really like how Mat starts to come into his own as a character in The Dragon Reborn. This book also has an incredibly memorable scene where Mat teaches an important lesson to a couple of arrogant tools which I just love every time I read it. The only real problem I have with this book is that Jordan establishes some rules of the world regarding Rand, during his short cameos, but totally throws them out in later novels. I understand why Jordan does this, but these little inconsistencies with the first three novels are why the series doesn’t feel mature until book 4.
#5 A Memory of Light (Book 14)
This book is excellent and really wraps up the story nicely. It’s a bit too much of a “battle book” but it couldn’t be helped. That said, my favorite character dies (don’t assume you know who that is), most of the characters get a shoddy deal, Rand’s personal transformation is just “too much” and feels preachy, and the future looks like crap for those that sacrificed most. So, if you are looking for a series that ends in sunshine and roses for everyone you will be disappointed. But, at the same time, the book forces some compromises to try to make too many people happy. Honestly, this book would be in the number two position if it had just done the ending a bit differently. Unfortunately, after 14 books of really strong character development and fulfillment of prophecy, it’s hard not to feel like the ending was unavoidable.
#4 The Great Hunt (Book 2)
The Great Hunt still feels very much like a YA novel. That said, the events that introduce the Sheanchan are awesome. Again, Jordan does a few things in this book that are totally inconsistent with later events and rules of the world, but I don’t mind it as much. Egwene really comes into her own as a character in this book. What is crazy is that a clue is dropped in this book that points to an Aes Sedai being Black Ajah, but the follow up on this clue, the big reveal, doesn’t happen until book 12, I mention this not to spoil anything but to show just how complex Jordan’s world and story planning must have been even this early on in the series. The events of Toman head give the book a really epic feel. I personally think this is the novel that made the series as popular as it was, this may be the reason for it’s re-release in 2004 as two books aimed at young adults. It is documented in a 2008 panel discussion that the release of The Great Hunt more than doubled the overall sales of the first book.
#3 Towers of Midnight (Book 13)
This is the best offering from Jordan & Sanderson. Who knows how much of this book was already written for Sanderson, but the story sees a return of Mat as the character we know and love. This book has the only forging of a power-wrought weapon that happens in the series, and it is so cool (just thinking about it makes me want to tell you more, but even its name would be a significant spoiler for a clever person). There is a dramatic conclusion to the Aelfinn & Eelfinn subplot. Elayne’s story in this book is very compelling which is a nice change of pace over the previous couple books, and Rand goes through an epic transformation. Aviendha’s part in the book touched me so deeply I nearly cried the first time I read it. And there is a really neat Black Tower plotline that, at least in terms of the development of a minor character, seems totally contrived by Sanderson, yet even if that is the case it is an excellent sequence.
#2 Lord of Chaos (Book 6)
The beginning of the global warming subplot, the birth of the Black Tower, the maturity of Egwene’s character and the beginning of her much more compelling story arcs, and a formative trauma for Rand (his lowest point in the novels). The character work across the board in this book is masterful. There is also a very disturbing look at what war with the power really means. Many themes are solidified and built upon in clever ways. Plus, this book brings back two characters, which Jordan sort of threw away abruptly at the end of the first book, which are used to great effect in subsequent novels.
#1 The Shadow Rising (Book 4)
This may be a controversial choice for first place, but this book is so well done! It introduces the Aelfinn & Eelfinn subplot. Mat really becomes his much beloved character in this novel, and Perin comes into his own as a leader. Egwene builds on the character work done in book 2. There’s the whole Aeil thing, and the big upset with the White Tower. Plus, my favorite and possibly the most epic moment in any of the books, imho, especially in terms of the fulfillment of prophecy. The Wheel of Time world expands exponentially in this novel and there is such great character work. WoT really stops being a YA series at this point, and I feel like The Shadow Rising signaled the maturity of the series and gave us a taste of the new caliber of novels that were to come.