Spoilers throughout for the entire series, including the ending.
As I discussed in a previous article, Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding in The Wheel of Time series is a masterclass on creating an entire continent filled with different, cohesive peoples and having them interact. The number one reason anyone who wants to write fantasy, especially a sprawling fantasy series, should read these books is to see how Jordan does it and steal ideas like the filthy thieving vagrants all good writers are. These feel like real kingdoms and societies with rich histories and, even better, they’re constantly talking shit about each other. Neighboring kingdoms either have rivalries or straight up invade each other every once in a while. Farmers living in the middle of nowhere don’t even know which kingdom they belong to and don’t really care all that much. There’s an entire separate faction of people living in the desert that, to most people, are just rumor and conjecture until they begin to get pulled into the world at large by Rand and his bulging ta’veren. It’s a living, evolving world all reacting in different ways to the impending end of the world but learning to come together to defeat it.
And then the fucking Seanchan show up.
These Fucking Guys
A thousand years before the books begin – which sounds like a long time but this period actually comes up a lot – Artur Hawkwing, king of everything, decided to send one of his sons with a huge, ass-kicking army across the western ocean for reasons mostly unclear, but I have to believe it was because his son was seventy pounds of crap in a five pound toilet bowl and Artur was done dealing with his shit. Anyway, Prince Crapper and his people find a continent, name it after themselves, colonize the shit out of it, and become the Seanchan.
These people objectively suck.
They have a strict class structure with bullshit rules like you can’t look someone of a higher class directly in the eye and the Empress won’t even speak to people of lower classes, instead using sign language to a slave and having them say it.
Yes. They have slaves. Like, a lot of them. High blood, low blood, doesn’t matter, it is hilariously easy to end up owned in Seanchan. What do you expect from a people who crossed the ocean, found a continent filled with people, and systematically went through and took over?
In related news, I love the fan page for the Seanchan where they compare them to real life societies and it seems like they might be avoiding something…
Can you see what’s missing?
Further, there are sul’dam and damane. Women in this world, for the most part, are the only ones who can use magic, referred to as ‘channeling.’ On the continent we get to know, women who can channel go to the White Tower and test to become an Aes Sedai. It’s brutal training but ultimately these women become, essentially, free agents who can spend their lives as they like, whether that’s through research, advising royalty, or finding and crushing men who can channel (to be fair, up to a certain point any man who can channel is guaranteed to go crazy and take a lot of people with them when the die). Meanwhile, over in Seanchan, once it’s discovered you can channel, you are literally leashed like an animal and controlled by someone else for the rest of your life. Most of these women who get leashed are so broken and brainwashed if someone even suggests taking off the leash they have a DEFCON 1 Meltdown. Damane translates to ‘leashed one.’ Aes Sedai are referred to as marath’damane – ‘those who must be leashed.’
To be clear, we never actually go to Seanchan. We only meet them when they show up in the second book with the sole intent of taking over the entire fucking continent because that’s what their prophecies said they get to do now. They are a society with the strong belief that everything they do is right, everything everyone else does is wrong, and there’s absolutely no discussion on the matter.
They are the worst.
What the Fuck is the Point of The Seanchan?
I read the books and I still don’t fucking know.
They Should Have Been Villains
When they first show up in the second book The Great Hunt they are painted as villains. Three of our main characters – Nynaeve, Elayne, and Egwene – are all on the road to becoming Aes Sedai and thus lose their absolute shit when they realize what’s going on with damane. Egwene gets captured and leashed, and although its not long before she manages to escape this event fucks her up for the rest of the books, becoming a trauma she revisits right through to the end. The Seanchan, with the help of their damane and fucking dragons, easily take over a handful of kingdoms as the books progress, killing monarchs, enslaving people, and leashing any woman they find who can channel, Aes Sedai or not.
All of this, to me, reads as a secondary villain. You know, like, it’s bad enough that our heroes have to defeat the physical manifestation of the concept of evil itself, but on top of that they also have to deal with these invaders who think only they can defeat the physical manifestation of evil and for that to happen literally an entire continent has to submit to their rule and there’s no logic or reason behind this line of thinking so you can’t rationalize with them because the omens told them so and how the fuck do you argue against an entire people who built their society on fully believing, like, seeing three ravens before breakfast means your oil light is going to come on soon or whatever?
So, yeah. They show up in the second book, wreak havoc on a city called Falme and leash one of our main characters and I’m immediately looking forward to whenever these backwards chucklefucks get their assholes ripped inside out by Rand and handed back to them on a platter that I’m sure Robert Jordan would have described in loving detail.
Obviously, That Doesn’t Happen
Or I wouldn’t be here bitching about it.
Sometime early in the back half of the books Rand begins to realize that he can’t fight a two-pronged war against the Seanchan and the forces of evil. Okay, obviously, makes total sense, so let’s defeat the Seanchan first and then direct our energies toward evil, right?
Instead, Rand decides that they have to work with the Seanchan. They are incredibly powerful, after all. You know, powerful enough to have already fully invaded and taken control of, like, three previously independent kingdoms. The clear lesson to take from that is that they need their help.
This could still work! The enemy of your enemy, and all that, but once the forces of evil have been defeated, then it’s time to confront the Seanchan and tell them to take their bullshit back across the western ocean!
Or you could, I don’t know, sign a treaty with them that says they get to keep the lands they’ve already conquered and the women they’ve already leashed. But no more or, oh boy, there will be hell to pay!
They show absolutely no sign that they are seeing the error of their ways and plan on making changes to their civilization.
And then, as previously mentioned, immediately after evil is defeated the series ends with absolutely no follow up. As far as the reader knows, the colonizing, slave-taking, smelling-their-own-farts Seanchan are left the way they are with a treaty that they are definitely not going to break in the near-future, no sir.
The Seanchan as Written Could Work in Another Story
I am not saying that the Seanchan, written as an invading, colonizing force that is too powerful for full reprisal and everyone has to get use to their presence, would never work. There are plenty of series that use a fantasy setting to house hyper-realistic-bordering-on-grimdark sociopolitics that would have an absolute field day with the Seanchan. Think A Song of Ice and Fire or The First Law trilogy. Series like that could spend chapters, whole books even, exploring the ramifications of the appearance of the Seanchan, the ethics of dealing with these people, and the ultimate moral sacrifice of wanting to do something about them but being unable to.
Wheel of Time is not that kind of story. It’s tone is far more traditional. A teenager wakes up one day to find out he’s the reincarnation of the last dude who tried to fight back evil, and there’s a prophecy that says he’s also going to try to fight back evil and probably win. From the beginning, it sets itself up as a world where evil can be defeated. While it does delve into some sociopolitical issues, its tone is far more fantastical and classical than A Song of Ice and Fire and doesn’t contain the sort of cynicism and darkness required to pull off the Seanchan as a set of invaders everyone has to live with.
The Things Not Said
The tone of the Wheel of Time series should mean that the Seanchan are an evil society that have to be beaten back, broken, or shown how fucked up they are so that they begin the process of changing. This doesn’t happen.
They instead read as the invading force that the rest of the continent has to deal with, but this isn’t done well, either.
Robert Jordan never has his characters confront the ethical implications of rolling over for the Seanchan. There are token pockets of resistance, a few arguments here and there. Egwene, obviously, has objections to making a treaty with the Seanchan, but by the time it’s brought to her attention they are on the cusp of the final battle with evil and there isn’t any time to argue about it.
It’s not enough. Seanchan society is so radically different from every other society on the continent, and in such an evil way, that Robert Jordan should have devoted pages and pages, even entire chapters, to the characters wrestling with the reason and morals inherent in dealing with them. Again, this is a society who keep people as slaves and chain women who can channel like dogs. There is no other society that even comes close to behaving like this in the main continent. If, ultimately, there was no way to get through the battle against evil without finding a way to work with the Seanchan, then there should have been a lot of emotions about it. But there isn’t.
The treaty is signed. The Seanchan now have some land. Some people don’t like it, but that’s life, I guess?
The Secret Behind Sul’dam: Eh, Who Needs It?
Sul’dam translates to ‘leash holder’ and is the name for the class of women in Seanchan who can control the damane. In Seanchan, you can test to be a sul’dam, and if you can control these women you become a highly celebrated member of society.
The Seanchan have invaded the new continent for less than a year when some of our heroes discover the truth: the sul’dam are also women who can channel, they just never showed the spark and got caught. It’s established that this revelation would tear the fabric of Seanchan society apart, forcing them to question the nature of channeling and the status they’ve taken away from some women and the status they’ve given to others.
And then nothing happens with it.
That just keeps being the story of the Seanchan, huh?
Again, I was so excited to see this revelation as clearly this was going to be the way to sow havoc into this brick shithouse of a society. Alas, nothing. The knowledge is never weaponized. Even the Empress of the Seanchan, a woman who can be a sul’dam, and therefore can channel herself, is told the truth to her face. And nothing happens! Because she was told in the last book, during the Last Battle, and there wasn’t enough time for that and then after the battle the book ends. I mean, she’s upset by it. But more like your nana getting upset because you accidentally dropped an F-bomb in front of her and her bridge club and less like a homicidal piece of shit Empress who has had people killed for way less and totally should have had all her people present for that little fact murdered out back so they couldn’t tell anyone. Speaking of the Empress…
I Hate This Woman
Not in a ‘love to hate’ way. Not in a ‘good villain’ way. I hate her as a person, I hate whatever her function in the story is supposed to be, and I hate her entanglement with another character, Mat Cauthon.
Let’s start at the beginning.
She’s a Dumpster Fire of a Human Being
And I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to think that. I think.
Tuon is the Empress of the Seanchan, which means she’s spent her entire life having an entire fucking country bow and grovel at her feet. All of the Seanchan’s shitty beliefs are distilled in her until the evil is oozing out of her pores. She treats everybody like garbage, has people killed and doesn’t care when people kill in her name, and is 1000% percent in favor of leashing all women who can channel and enjoys breaking these women like horses. Tuon believes she came to rule through divine right, and also has the right to invade and conquer the continent and that everyone will be happier under her rule because of course they would because she’s right and everyone else is wrong.
At face value, she is written as a villain, and an objectively terrible human being.
She’s Not Treated as a Villain
It’s the same problem with the Seanchan. Tuon is wandering around, wasting oxygen and kicking puppies and shit, but at the same time having favorable interactions with people we’re supposed to like. She’s not dead by the end, in fact, she’s agreed to Rand’s treaty and is still ruling. Egwene shoves the fact that she could probably channel if she started practicing in her face and while it rattles her, it otherwise does nothing to slow her down. Much like the rest of her people, I have no idea what function she’s performing for the story or what Robert Jordan was trying to say with her. If anything.
Loveless Marriage, Table for Two
In the fourth book, one of our main characters Mat receives three prophecies about himself, the most relevant here being that he would marry the ‘daughter of the nine moons.’
Meanwhile, back in Seanchan, Tuon had received a foretelling of her own that boiled down to: she would marry Mat.
And then their marriage is literally a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mat figures out Tuon is the daughter of the nine moons and jokingly says aloud that they’re married, unknowingly initiating the Seanchan marriage ceremony.
When all this started I was once again excited, thinking I was going to get that sweet, sweet ‘enemies to lovers’ trope I so desperately crave. Mat is, objectively and without argument, the best character in the entire fucking series, and I figured Mat would be able to mellow Tuon out and give her some humility and, like, teach her how humans work. Instead what we got was ‘enemies to bitter old married couple trying to kill each other.’ The narrative keeps telling me that Mat is falling in love with Tuon, but it ain’t showing me shit. And Tuon seems to actively dislike Mat even at the end. At one point she is aware of at least one dude trying to kill Mat to advance politically and does nothing about it, and once she finds out she’s pregnant and has an heir she sounds like she might kill Mat herself because she doesn’t need him anymore.
By the end of the book she sucks just as much as she did when we met her, and all she’s doing is dragging Mat down to her level.
I don’t know what Robert Jordan intended for the Seanchan. I don’t know if his early passing changed their trajectory, although I doubt it due to how big of a presence the Seanchan were. Jordan must have written many notes on them, so either this was how he envisioned them to go or Sanderson jerked the reins. Given that Sanderson wasn’t piecing the last three books together alone, I don’t think he would have gotten away with making such a big change.
I think it comes down to Jordan having too many irons in the fire. Sanderson spent a lot of the twelfth book ending a bunch of side plots that weren’t fulfilling the story anymore. Jordan created a huge, sprawling world and perhaps got a little bit lost in it. There were too many groups demanding too much time and ultimately the Seanchan ended up being stuck in the middle.
At least, I hope that’s what happened. I hope the Seanchan were originally supposed to be defeated, or redeemed, because having them get to continue their society with so many of the characters shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ feels like tacit complicity to everything they stand for.
The worst example I can think of is the ultimate fate of Moghedien. One of the Forsaken, aka the really really bad guys, Moghedien is still alive at the end of the last battle, thinks she’s the last of the Forsaken still alive and is super stoked for all the evil she gets to do now. Except, while she’s wandering around the battlefield, she gets mistaken for a regular woman who can channel and gets a collar snapped around her by some Seanchan specifically looking for any women remaining who can channel.
The book treats this like a good thing. Which it is, in a way. Moghedien is capable of her own fucked up shit and would have definitely gone on to make life hell for whoever ended up in her way. But ultimately the message is ‘she’s no longer a problem because she’s a slave with no free will now, yay!’ It’s making the reader happy the damane exist because it’s being used against Moghedien. But that doesn’t erase that’s it being done to dozens if not thousands of innocent women, and from the looks of it the Seanchan are already wiping their ass with the treaty they only signed a few days ago and will definitely be kidnapping any women they can get their hands on.
This also leads back to one of my previous complaints about the series ending so abruptly. If there had been any sort of narrative about what happens after the Last Battle, maybe something could have been thrown in about the other kingdoms fighting back against the Seanchan. In fact, all we have are visions of the future that indicate that the Seanchan don’t go anywhere.
So. Yeah. This terrible society with a long history of human rights violations just gets to chill in the middle of the lands they conquered with their slaves forever. Great message.
Other Wheel of Time Posts:
- Lessons from Wheel of Time: Things I Liked
- Live from Wheel of Time: Things I Didn’t Like
- Live from Wheel of Time: Sexism? In My High Fantasy?