Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a classic epic fantasy. It’s a sprawling masterclass in world-building that finds ways to make the old-school, Tolkien-style fantasy seem fresh again. And it made enough of a cultural impact that even the untimely and tragic death of its author couldn’t stop the juggernaut; author Brandon Sanderson was recruited to finish the series based on Jordan’s voluminous notes.
The Wheel of Time has its vices such as problematic gender politics, a whole lot of braid-tugging, and other repetitive writing tics. Glacial plotting sometimes makes time seem to flow backwards on the page. When you’re talking about 14 books written and published over three decades, there will be variations in quality. Fans might argue over the specific ranking of Jordan’s books, but we can all agree that while we adore this series, not all Wheel of Time stories are created equal. Here is our ranking in reverse order from worst to first.
The tenth book in the series isn’t the longest, but it sometimes feels like the longest. It’s almost as if someone challenged Jordan to write a book in which literally nothing happens in terms of plot advancement. While there’s a lot of table-setting to bolster what Jordan intended to be the final two books in the series (it actually required four more books to get through), there’s a lot of negotiating, political maneuvering, and spinning in place that doesn’t translate into exciting storytelling. There’s also a repetitiveness to some scenes as the story retells events that happened in the previous book from different perspectives without adding much dimension to them.
The eighth book in the series is another one that feels a bit static despite some awesome battle sequences. The shortest book in the series (‛short’ being a relative term in a series where only one book is under 200,000 words long), The Path of Daggers benefits from relatively brisk pacing. There’s also one certified awesome moment when Elayne, Nynaeve, and Aviendha finally use the Bowl of Winds to repair the broken climate. But several characters are notably absent, and while Rand’s setbacks bring some nice complexity to his role as The Dragon Reborn, the book sort of just… ends. Not much actually happens in this one, making it a frustrating reading experience.
13. Winter’s Heart
The ninth book in Jordan’s series is once again a bit flabby in the middle, especially when we’re marooned in Perrin’s storyline as he chases after his kidnapped wife. After a decent prologue, the book exhibits everything fans came to loathe about Jordan’s style. He wallows in storylines without moving them forward, his characters exhibit tics and behaviors that grate on the nerves (cough, Elayne, cough), and he indulges in wildly detailed descriptions that serve little purpose. What moves this story up a few notches is the ending where Rand changes the rules of the magic system. It’s epic, thrilling, and well-written—and leaves the reader panting for the next book. Sadly, that next book was Crossroads of Twilight (see above).
12. New Spring
Not everyone includes New Spring as an official part of the series, but this prequel is canon, so it gets ranked. The main complaint about it is its relative brevity; while 122,000+ words would be plenty for most novels, in the Wheel of Time universe it’s considered downright skimpy. While it’s an entertaining exploration of Lan and Moiraine and provides a great back story (especially the Aiel War), nothing about it feels necessary. For a fan already immersed in the series, it’s an entertaining and informative sidebar, but the fact that you can skip it entirely without consequence is why it gets a low ranking.
This is the seventh book in the series, sitting right in the middle. It’s also right where Jordan’s tendency to ramble became a real problem. Most of the story here is very good—the search for the Bowl of Winds in Ebou Dar is thrilling, and Rand’s preparation to take on the Darkfriend Sammael explores his evolving power and inner turmoil effectively. And although there are signs of Jordan’s glacial pacing, it does move the plot forward, albeit incrementally. But the confrontation with Sammael is a bit of a letdown, and there’s some extremely squicky sexual assault that Jordan plays humorously, a combination that lowers this story’s ranking.
10. Lord of Chaos
If you view the Wheel of Time series as several cycles of story, Lord of Chaos wraps up the second major cycle—and it does so in pretty spectacular fashion. There’s a lot of great storytelling here, with Rand establishing the Black Tower and humbling the Aes Sedai while Egwene comes into her own. However, the book shows the strain of wrapping up storylines while laying down the foundation for the next cycle. The story feels rushed in places and disjointed in others, resulting in a slightly confusing read. Luckily, the Battle of Dumai’s Wells is an amazing showstopper of a sequence, making the effort of getting to it worthwhile.
This is the last Wheel of Time novel that was written entirely by Robert Jordan. It reads like he finally realized how unhappy everyone was with the truly methodical pace of the prior three books—especially Crossroads of Twilight where he describes nothing in excruciating detail. While there are still some pacing issues, Jordan skillfully ties off several plot lines that were slowing everything down and begins setting up the final, epic cycle of the story. In doing so he reminds fans why they loved this series and his writing in the first place. Reading this is bittersweet, as Jordan died before he was able to build on this triumphant return to form.
When ranking a successful series like Wheel of Time, the top half of the list gets a bit muddled—trying to differentiate between a great book and an incredible book can be a daunting task. The Dragon Reborn is the third in the series and wraps up the first cycle of the story in epic fashion. This was the book that convinced epic fantasy fans that Jordan and WoT was the real deal. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect— Rand al’Thor, the most important character in the series, vanishes from the story and Jordan indulges in a sort of ‛villain of the week’ with Bel’lal, who gets a lot of hype only to fizzle when he finally has a chance to impress.
The Eye of the World is a perfect first book in an epic fantasy series. Jordan skillfully introduces most of the characters we follow throughout the series. He uses familiar fantasy tropes to gently ease the reader in before introducing his more unique take on the genre. The story moves at a thrilling pace, quickly establishing stakes and scale. If there’s a complaint, it’s that Jordan lingers a bit too long on the road, dawdling in taverns and indulging in repetitive attacks by evil Darkfriends. While these were signs of later problems, in this first book they’re minor and easily overlooked, especially as he crafts an ending that makes you desperate to read book two.
The second book in the series continues with strong writing, introducing new wrinkles and characters while developing the core group from the first book. The quest for the legendary Horn of Valere is exciting and expands the history of this world, and Rand’s increasing self-doubt and struggle to come to terms with his power is very well done. The downside is rooted in the characters. Instead of moving forward, most of the main cast remains more or less as they were in the first book despite their unique experiences. Still, the story is so well-executed that you’d be forgiven for not noticing.
Unlike some of the later books in the series, The Fires of Heaven manages to deal out a huge amount of plot in an efficient manner. It never feels slow or scattered, and ends on a moment that is truly shocking while surprisingly quiet. Though important things happen in this book, its lack of a huge “epic” moment means it doesn’t always stand out from the rest, and a major character is almost completely missing to the book’s detriment. These minor flaws still land this one squarely in the top five.
It’s difficult to find fault with the fourth book in the series. For first-time readers, it represents a change in the focus and pacing that brings fresh energy into the story. Rand’s visions of the Aiel history are fascinating and tie neatly into his evolution. His character development is on point as he becomes more comfortable with his power and destiny—even as there are dark hints that all is not well in Rand Land. This is also the book where many relationships significantly deepen.
Ranking the three books that were largely (but not completely) written by another author might seem strange, especially since Sanderson’s style is noticeably different from Jordan’s. Sanderson was originally brought in to finish the final book based on Jordan’s notes, but he quickly realized there was no way he could finish the story in just one book. But the three volumes he produced are so unified in style and theme they feel very much like one long novel.
This is where Jordan’s work pays off. Rand initially grows more remote and horrifying, killing innocent people and hurtling towards a suicide that would take the world with him, but then discovers his humanity again—and becomes something more, finally a source of hope. Egwene is given the chance to lead the Aes Sedai as Amyrlin, and a long-running story thread gives her the intelligence she needs to cleanse the Tower and move forward. Perrin, Mat, and the rest go through their own ordeals, but instead of feeling like padding, all these arcs finally feel like they’re moving toward something. And that something is Tarmon Gai’don, the last battle that will decide the fate of the world. That battle is awesome.
Sanderson’s objective, outsider perspective is what makes the final three books so good. Working from Jordan’s ideas, suggested sequence of events, and finished pieces of writing (including the final chapter, which Jordan wrote before he passed away), Sanderson delivers three novels that are perfectly paced while delivering the payoff readers anticipated through more than three million words.
It’s possible their ranking is inflated by the emotional power of seeing this epic story march to a satisfying end, but the fact that Sanderson produced that effect is a reason to rank them high on the list. That these final books are so well-written is as much a testament to Jordan’s skill and creativity as Sanderson’s.