The Wheel of Time turns, and an adaptation comes to pass. Looking at the 14-book series by the late Robert Jordan (with the final 3 books completed by Brandon Sanderson), it’s easy to feel intimidated. I know I was when I first set my eyes on The Eye of the World, the first book in this beloved, epic fantasy series of massive proportions (and expectations).
And now, fans of Jordan’s novels who’ve waited since they were released in the 90s get an entire, big-budget show to watch on Prime Video, starting tomorrow. But if you’ve never read the books and don’t plan to before you start streaming, we’ve got your back in unpacking this world so it’s not too much to take in all at once.
After watching the first few episodes of the show, it’s clear that Amazon’s take on The Wheel of Time, with showrunner Rafe Judkins at the helm, will take more than a few creative liberties with the story, and the lore as well. So not everything I point out here will necessarily play out as gospel. With all that in mind, here is a spoiler-free rundown of the world behind The Wheel of Time, and what you can expect from the upcoming series. There’s obviously way more I could explain, but I don’t, in the hopes that the show will more organically reveal certain things on its own.
1. This world isn’t quite like Middle Earth, nor is it Westeros.
The Wheel of Time (WoT) primarily takes place on a massive continent with technology and politics roughly equivalent to the early Renaissance period. Yes, there are swords and bows and arrows and magical creatures, but WoT is somewhere in between J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros/Essos from A Song of Ice and Fire (the books adapted into HBO’s Game of Thrones).
There are a lot of cultures, countries, and warring factions, but the vast majority of the population is human. There aren’t loads of elves or dwarves or hobbits running around, though there is a micro-population of one semi-humanoid race that I won’t give away here. Instead of orcs, the hordes of baddies are called Trollocs, which have a different design and backstory, but the inspiration for them is quite clear. The show brings them about quite faithfully.
Compared to ASoIaF/Game of Thrones, the magic system is far more prevalent and common, and there are also more fantastical creatures running around (though not as much as in Middle Earth). You can essentially put Jordan’s series roughly in between the two extremes of The Hobbit and ASoIaF.
2. The story takes place many years after a major apocalyptic event.
The show touches upon this here and there, but all you really need to know for now is that at one point, a powerful individual known as the “Dragon” fought off a mysterious villain known as “The Dark One.” But The Dark One’s followers still haunt the continent in service to their destructive cause.
There’s much more to the conflict between the Dragon and the Dark One, which the books actually reveal in the prologue, even though the show has so far avoided getting into that material. The key takeaway is that nothing is achieved quite so easily in this world. Great power has great consequences, and nothing (or no one) is exactly what they seem.
Jordan essentially set out to subvert the fantasy genre, similar to his contemporary, George R.R. Martin. But while Martin focused more on the gratuitous violence and political maneuvering of his medieval world, Jordan played more with the concepts of “chosen ones” and the dark side of destiny versus free will. Sure, Martin did as well with the whole “Promised Prince” storyline in ASoIaF, but because his series is still ongoing, we don’t really know what he ultimately wants to say about this well-worn trope.
3. Instead of wizards, WoT has “Aes Sedai”
The Aes Sedai in WoT are women who can channel the “One Power” and live in the White Tower of Tar Valon, located far to the east of where the story begins. The show will explain well enough why only women are able to be Aes Sedai, but one thing the writers don’t get into right off the bat is how this order of sorceresses are grouped by color.
The first Aes Sedai we see in the series, Liandrin, wears a red shawl, so she’s considered “Red Ajah.” We later see one of the main characters, Moiraine, who is a Blue Ajah. Again, the show hasn’t revealed the differences between Ajah and why it’s important yet, so I’ll hold off on revealing that as well. You can pretty much think of the Aes Sedai hierarchy as more or less a fantasy version of the Jedi. And needless to say, they don’t all get along for plenty of reasons.
4. “Magic” in WoT has limits.
Like in most stories featuring hard magic systems (though this one is probably more medium-soft), the source of power for channelers isn’t exactly a cheat code. Using too much of the One Power can weaken or even kill you, and each person has a different connection to it. Some are even more powerful only when they’re emotional.
This is why Aes Sedai travel with Warders, who are essentially a male entourage. They’re considered exceptional warriors in the traditional sense, with some even being “blademasters.” So if an Aes Sedai exhausts their access to the One Power, a Warder can keep them safe while recovering.
5. No one trusts anyone.
If you’re a bit more curious about the overall themes of WoT, then here’s at least one the series appears to be tackling early on. And that’s the idea that you can’t really trust anyone, even those who claim they want to help you or the world at large.
Part of this is because anyone can be a Darkfriend, or loyal servant to the Dark One. To many in this world, Aes Sedai are considered Darkfriends because people believe they had a role in the Breaking, an event that led to the world’s destruction centuries ago. Others simply don’t trust Aes Sedai because they don’t help people as much as they could, or worse, they’re willing to let others die if it serves their interest.
The paranoia in WoT between those with power and those who want it is a major recurring message throughout the series, and it runs deep in how these characters interact and relate to one another. It’s an angle that could lead to WoT being a big hit for Amazon, without having to exist in the shadow of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
But be sure to watch the show for yourself and find out even more about this wonderful, sprawling world. The first three episodes of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time debut on November 19.