Monday, 1 August 2011

The Eye of the World & The Great Hunt: Robert Jordan

Review: The Wheel of Time, books 1-2 – The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt – by Robert Jordan

"The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning."

It might be fair to say that I’ve rather missed the boat on this one, I admit – “Eye of the World” was published in 1990 (I was three years old!), and I’m only just getting around to reading it. In fact, it is highly likely I would have passed it by completely had I not picked up Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” books, and fallen utterly in love with them. Browsing the internet for more of his work, I discovered that he had been picked to finish “Wheel of Time” after Robert Jordan’s death. That seemed like a definite plus, in contrast to the mixed things I had heard about it from other, trustworthy sources, and so I borrowed “Eye of the World” from the library.

That was about two years ago. I got fifty pages in, got bored, returned it, and moved on. A year or so later, I repeated the exercise, getting about one hundred pages in before giving up. A month or so ago though, I bit the bullet and bought my own copy, and spent the next few weeks reading through it and the sequel in my breaks at work.

My conclusion, so far? They are…enjoyable. I can’t fault the writing at all; Jordan isn’t exactly a memorable wordsmith, but the prose flows smoothly enough and he had a decent ear for the different voices of the series. The characterisation is good, but familiar – a comment that pretty much sums up my feelings on the series so far.

Break it down. The books start in a small rural community, the main institutions being a few farms, the village inn, and a blacksmith. They are preparing for a festival, with much focus on the impressive fireworks that are to be displayed (sounding familiar yet?). Inevitably, chaos ensues: animalistic creatures known as Trollocs – not Orcs, not at all – led by a rider dressed all in black – no similarity to the Nazgul here, no sir! – attack; in the aftermath, three local lads flee the village in the company of a powerful sorceress and her Warder – a gentleman who lives off the land, is handy with a sword, and has a hidden past as heir to a lost throne. His name is Lan, not Aragorn, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking them.

And so their quest begins. Heading off to fight the Dark One, currently sealed within his Age-old prison, able only to exert his influence through dreams and visions, taking in at least one glorious city fallen to ruin, and inhabited by a mysterious and malevolent spirit. As they go, they recruit an Ogier, a member of a species who revere trees above all else, age slowly, and live life at a glacial pace. You could easily confuse him with an Ent.

I’m being perhaps a touch harsh, but my point stands. There is an incredible debt to “Lord of the Rings” in “Eye of the World”, and it never quite manages to shake it off. True, the vast majority of modern fantasy owes some sort of debt to Tolkien, and normally I don’t particularly mind it. It isn’t often quite as blatant though, or at least not in the books I’ve read. Perhaps I’m being naïve. It doesn’t help that – so far, at least – the world of the Wheel of Time doesn’t especially stand out in any way. There are farms and farmers, witches, warriors, late medieval towns, feudal lords, magic, mysterious evils sealed away…it’s the generic stuff of a thousand fantasy novels, some of which probably took as much inspiration from Jordan as he took from Tolkien, in fairness. About the only thing that marks the world as different in any significant fashion is the extreme tendency towards matriarchism – although that essentially plays out thus far as cunning, manipulative women playing the gullible men around them as pawns on a chess board. It could be handled better, but I concede that there are several instalments still to go, even before I get to the point where Jordan stopped writing.

Equally, I should acknowledge that the debt to Tolkien is less obvious in “The Great Hunt”, although it brings with it its own problems: namely, the huge cast all needing their own thing to do. Two volumes in, and we currently have seven plot lines running around, counting subplots. So far, they’ve all tied together for the most part, but I’m dubious as to how long that will last. Ambition is good; bloating is bad.

All this said, I rattled through the two books fairly briskly, and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed my time – certainly, I will be continuing the series. It’s good fun, in an undemanding fashion, and there’s lots of potential in what I’ve seen so far. Ultimately though, I’m just not getting the “greatest fantasy epic” vibe that the covers proclaim.

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