Sunday 14 September 2008

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World is the first volume in Robert Jordan's best-selling Wheel of Time series. Originally published in 1990, this was supposed to be the first book in a six-volume series. Instead, the series doubled in size. The eleventh book, Knife of Dreams, was published in 2005. The author passed away in 2007 whilst working on the final book, A Memory of Light, which will be completed by fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson for publication in late 2009.

With sales of 44 million and no less than four New York Times #1 bestsellers, The Wheel of Time is the most popular work of epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings. However, it also one of the most divisive. The series has always attracted mixed reviews and has never won any major awards, but its fans love it, and some of the WoT fansites are the biggest SF&F forums and websites on the Internet. Jordan also became tremendously influential, with authors such as George RR Martin, JV Jones, Raymond E. Feist and Guy Gavriel Kay all attracting notice after Jordan recommended them to his fans or provided cover blurbs.

The first volume opens in traditional fashion, with a prologue set roughly 3,400 years prior to the main narrative. In the Age of Legends, the world was united in peace under the leadership of the Aes Sedai, men and women who could wield the One Power, the primeval force of creation which turns the Wheel of Time. In their hubris, the Aes Sedai carried out experiments to access greater forms of the Power, and accidentally breached the prison of the Dark One, the ultimate force of evil in the universe. The Dark One's touch plunged the world into a century of chaos and despair until the Aes Sedai rallied under their leader, a man nicknamed the Dragon, and re-sealed the Dark One's prison. At the moment of that victory, the Dark One cursed the male half of the One Power, driving all male channellers of the Power insane. In their insanity, they destroyed the world, pushing humanity to the brink of extinction and reshaping the continents through the three centuries of earthquakes and tidal waves they unleashed. With the ending of the Breaking of the World, the Aes Sedai, now consisting only of women, rallied and helped civilisation rebuild to a level of technology roughly equal to that of the Renaissance (although social customs and graces are much more akin to the late 18th/early 19th Century). This Age of history has lived in the shadow of the Prophecies of the Dragon, that state that the hastily-patched seal on the Dark One's prison will eventually fail and the Dragon will be Reborn to save the world, but in doing so will doom it for he will go insane and shatter the world for a second time. Which would be bad, obviously.

The Eye of the World opens in the backwater region of the Two Rivers, a bucolic rural landscape tucked in a forgotten corner of the Kingdom of Andor. Rand al'Thor - a shepherd's son - and four of his friends are forced to flee the Two Rivers when the monstrous servants of the Dark One attack, searching for Rand and two of his friends, Mat and Perrin. They are guided by an Aes Sedai, Moiraine, and her Warder (a sort-of bodyguard, but with souped-up badass qualities), Lan. Whilst hiding in the ruined, ancient city of Shadar Logoth our heroes are separated, and must undergo many trials before they reunite in Andor's capital city of Caemlyn and find out what it is that the Dark One wants with them.

Rereading The Eye of the World after thirteen years is a fascinating experience. Both the good and the bad elements stand out a lot more than when I read it as an engrossed teenager, but it's still a page-turning read with a lot to recommend it.

First, the positives. Jordan is an excellent storyteller and demonstrates full command of the numerous entwining plots in this first volume. He delineates each character quite clearly and whilst those characters are based strongly on existing archetypes, he makes them work, so the reader cares about what happens to them. He is also a strong worldbuilder. Few fictional worlds come as fully-realised as this one, with only Middle-earth and after three books or so, GRRM's Westeros coming close to matching both its depth and scope (Bakker's Earwa may also yet match it). Jordan also has some interesting things to say in this series. Whilst not averse to 'grittiness' in fantasy, Jordan expressed concerns about the idea that everyone is flawed and grey takes away from the nature of evil, that real evil exists in the world and must be confronted. Whilst Jordan's characters are certainly not saints or flawless, the forces of the Shadow are very clearly shown to be black-hearted, cruel and merciless, which especially now is refreshing from the notion that are no bad guys, just people with their own agendas which may or may not be as valid as the heroes'. However, this doesn't make for very interesting antagonists and it's a relief then that much of the rest of the series concentrates more on the struggles between different factions of the supposed good guys.

The negatives sound pretty damning. The first half of the book is modelled very closely on the opening of The Lord of the Rings, but the novel stretches the line between tribute to parody to breaking point. We not only have analogues to the Shire (the Two Rivers), Gandalf (Moiraine) and Aragorn (Lan), but also the One Ring (the cursed dagger), the Nazgul (the Myrddraal), the Trolls and Orcs (the Trollocs), Moria (Shadar Logoth), Gollum (Padan Fain), Treebeard (the Green Man) and even the Argonath (the Arinelle statues). It's extremely hard to ignore these close parallels, although they do broadly succeed in giving the first half of the book some of the same atmosphere as the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring and, as bad as they are, they're not quite veering into Terry 'How the Hell Did He Not Get Sued' Brooks territory. As mentioned earlier, the Shadow's pure, irredeemable evil is also rather wearying and the Myrddraal and Ba'alazamon's tedious threats almost tip them into cartoon villain territory. The world building is excellent, but occasionally Jordan resorts to info dumping to transmit it to the audience, which comes across as awkward. And Robert Jordan's sense of humour is beyond tiresome. I was trying to count the number of times Rand or Perrin thought that the other was better at talking to girls and had to give up in the end. A good running gag is one that appears once per book and is varied a bit each time, not exactly the same gag repeated half a dozen times within a few chapters. This also runs into Jordan's problem of his use of stock phrases and recurring sentence structures, which occasionally come across as quite clumsy. Jordan is a great storyteller, but he is certainly not a good writer.

Yet these negatives, although rather annoying, are offset by the positives. The story is engrossing and the depth of detail refreshing, if overdone at times. The characters are interesting, the world building excellent and the fresh spins on old ideas are well-done. The book hints at countless more mysteries to come, and makes you want to pick up the second (and much better) book, which is its main goal, after all.

The Eye of the World (***½) remains a decent opening to a fascinating, if eventually rather troubled, saga. The novel is published by Orbit in the UK and Tor in the US. The second book is The Great Hunt.


Joe said...

Solid analysis on the negatives of the book. I'm planning to start a series re-read in the next couple of months to work my way towards the publication of Brandon's book and I've been debating whether I'm going to post about them or not. Still undecided, though I'm not sure I could cover the first book this well. I'll probably take a different approach.

Oh, I didn't post this on the entry for A Game of You, but I just read that volume this week and I didn't much like it either. The book ending of the volume was excellent, with all that identity stuff and the characters in our world, but the fantasyland / dream (not Dream, mind you) stuff was semi-tedious even though it led to an excellent ending. Honestly, it felt like filler to me.

James said...

Good write-up, Wert. TEOTW is the only WOT novel I've read, as I gave up halfway through the second one (for reasons I can't really recall).

It was many years ago that I read it, but I remember really liking the atmosphere of the novel very much indeed. The main flaw that I remember is that I felt the ending was a little rushed.

I'd love to re-read the novel, but see little point as I have no desire to read the rest of the series...