There are two ways I can go about writing this instalment of our Martha Wells focus….
…No, wait, there’s really only one way. Because I cannot pretend to be anything other than utterly in love with Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, her fourth novel. Originally published in 2000, by Eos (HarperCollins), I first read it in some dim, misty far-away past… possibly in my second year in college, so not really that long ago. I don’t remember having such a strong positive reaction on my first reading, which explains why this is the only the first time I’ve reread it since. Perhaps, like many things, it improves with time.
The protagonist of Wheel of the Infinite, Maskelle, is one of those Older Women whose scarcity in SFF I’ve remarked upon more than once. Maskelle is the Voice of the Adversary, a priestess of very high rank within the Celestial Empire. The Adversary is one of the ancestors, whose Voices provide guidance. A vision of disaster years ago caused Maskelle to rebel in order to keep the present Celestial Emperor—the child of her body—from the throne. But the vision proved false, her rebellion failed, and now she’s an outcast. She hasn’t heard the Adversary’s voice in years, and using her priestly power draws dangerous spirits to her.
When the book opens, she has been summoned back to the Temple City of Duvalpore by the Empire’s chief religious authority, in time for the end-of-year rite. Every year, the Wheel of the Infinite must be remade to ensure another year of peace and harmony for the Empire: every year, the fabric of the universe is rewoven, and the Wheel and the world are one. Any change in the Wheel produces a change in the world. But there is a darkness in the pattern of the Wheel. Every day the Voices of Ancestors remove it from the pattern, but it keeps returning. It’s up to Maskelle—with the aid of Rian, a foreign swordsman whom she rescued from a band of river raiders—to discover why this is happening and put a stop to it, before a cataclysm overtakes them.
Mind you, Maskelle’s rather hampered in her task by the fact that there are a lot of people in Duvalpore who bear her a grudge. Politics, interfering with saving the world!
In many ways, Wheel of the Infinite brings Paladin of Souls very strongly to mind. While Paladin’s power is unmatched—by me—Wheel is a book interested in similar things, with some surprising convergences. Maskelle is, however, a character from the outset assured of her power—though not always of how she ought to use it.
Maskelle looked around thoughtfully. She didn’t think she could kill all of them, and she had taken an oath not to do that sort of thing anymore, but she thought she could manage a distraction. 
One of ways in which Wheel of the Infinite surprised me—one of the things I had forgotten about it—is how Wells brings the cataclysm to fruition and resolves the world-altering threat. There’s no vast battle, no out-thinking of the enemy: in fact, the enemy turns out to have been other than they’d believed all along. Maskelle and Rian, in their complicated partnership, put things right through luck, stubbornness, and endurance.
Also a certain amount of intelligence just to get that far.
I remain amused and delighted by the fact that the group of players with whom Maskelle is travelling are not merely scenery. They stick around until the end, important, engaging, and well-drawn as all Wells’ characters are.
It’s not a book about grand heroics and Killing People With Swords. But Wheel of the Infinite is a fascinating take on an epic-type story. And one I think I’ll be rereading more regularly in the future.