Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, 1990

Though my reading tastes are wide and varied, fat epic fantasy novels are not high on my list of favorite genres. I mean, I love The Lord of the Rings as much as anyone, but hardcore fantasy books with huge mythologies and complicated, apostrophe-filled names are mostly virgin territory for me.

But when I heard about the late Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time series, I knew I had to check it out. The series currently spans two authors, twelve volumes and over 11,000 pages (and it's not even done yet). The first book, The Eye of the World comes complete with three or four maps and a detailed glossary in the back. The series is a pleasingly daunting prospect; entering it almost feels like an enormous homework assignment.

After eagerly devouring Eye, I am assured that the Wheel of Time is anything but a homework assignment. The first book is an old-fashioned, red-blooded adventure, complete with rampaging monsters, ancient secrets and battles over the fate of the world. It's a zippy, utterly engaging read.

The story is nothing new. Three unrelated farmboys (Rand, Mat and Perrin) living an insular life in a rural village are suddenly thrust into prominence when an army of monsters targets them. On the run with an assorted group of allies, the boys must evade the ancient, reawakening evil that threatens their world-- an evil that they alone may be able to stop.

The journey is dangerous and colorful in the grand tradition of quest literature. Jordan isn't reinventing the Wheel here (ha ha), but what his universe lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in detail and scope. Yes, the Lord of the Rings parallels become a little excessive, but so many lesser authors have pillaged from Tolkien, too, that it's hardly noticeable.

To a large extent, Jordan is working with archetypes. The story is familiar and generic--I'm sure you could find several dozen titles in the 'Fantasy' section that follows the same basic narrative pattern. What Jordan brings to the novel is energy, verve and enthusiasm. You get the sense that he really enjoyed creating a world and the characters who people it.

Those characters appear to be stereotypes at first, but all of the main characters deepen as the book progresses. None of them is exactly three-dimensional, but they're engaging and likable. Rand is our hero and while he's not the most exciting protagonist I've read about, he carries the book ably. Mat, his snarky best friend, is widely considered the series' breakout character, and I'm curious to see where his storyline goes in the future. His wit and pessimism is a nice counterbalance to Rand's stoic positivity.

If nothing else, Jordan is a master of pacing, keeping things propulsive, switching viewpoints before any one becomes stale. There is an exhilarating feeling of danger at every turn, and villains pop up to confront our heroes at regular intervals. It's too bad that most of them are a little cheesy; the series could use more compelling bad guys.

The villains may be generic at best, but the broad scope of The Eye of the World helps inject more nuanced conflict into the story. Mercifully, there is no politicking, but there are multiple factions in play, some of them trustworthy, some of them less so. One of the novel's central questions is whether our three heroes are being used by everyone around them, even their allies. These questions aren't answered fully, though there's certainly plenty of space for them to be addressed later on.

Jordan is not the world's greatest prose writer, nor does he try to be. For the most part he's competent, with the odd flash of excellence or mediocrity. He does have a propensity for awkward word choice that sometimes slows down the narrative, but his dialogue is lively and smooth, rarely slipping into the overblown Middle-Ages patois that some fantasy writers use. His descriptions are serviceable, too, sometimes even slipping into a sort of dreamlike lyricism:

The stone hallway was dim and shadowy, and empty except for Rand. He could not tell where the light came from, what little there was of it; the gray walls were bare of candles or lamps, nothing at all to account for the faint glow that seemed to just be there. The air was still and dank, and somewhere in the distance water dripped with a steady, hollow plonk. Wherever this was, it was not the inn. Frowning, he rubbed at his forehead. Inn? His head hurt, and thoughts were hard to hold on to. There had been something about. . . an inn? It was gone, whatever it was.

He licked his lips and wished he had something to drink. He was awfully thirsty, dry-as-dust thirsty. It was the dripping sound that decided him. With nothing to choose by except his thirst, he started toward the steady

The hallway stretched on, without any crossing corridor and without the slightest change in appearance. The only features at all were the rough doors set at regular intervals in pairs, one on either side of the hall, the wood splintered and dry despite the damp in the air. The shadows receded ahead of him, staying the same, and the dripping never came any closer. After a long time he decided to try one of those doors. It opened easily, and he stepped through into a grim, stone-walled chamber.

One wall opened in a series of arches onto a gray stone balcony, and beyond that was a sky such as he had never seen. Striated clouds in blacks and grays, reds and oranges, streamed by as if storm winds drove them, weaving and interweaving endlessly.
No one could ever have seen a sky like that; it could not exist.---(pages 168-169)

One of Eye's main elements is the lofty cosmic struggles going on between the Light and the Dark One, a struggle that involves the Wheel of Time,something called the One Power, a group of magic-users called the Aes Sedai and a lot of other stuff that's difficult to understand. I'm sure this will all have much significance later on down the road, but I prefer the more grounded adventures to the metaphysical elements, which bog down a slightly anticlimactic climax. Jordan is more adept at describing the grime and toil of being on the run than he is at painting broad, century-spanning spirituality.

What makes the novel so much fun is ultimately Jordan's obvious love of an old-fashioned kind of storytelling; the kind that's more concerned with magical swords and sentient wolves than with deep meaning and social criticism. Not to say that Eye has no observations to make, or themes to put forth, but story is clearly king in Jordan's universe. He spins a very good story, which is probably why I'm already eager for Book Two. I know that the WoT encounters many problems later down the road, especially the untimely death of Jordan himself (the series will be completed with the help of another author). Later volumes have also been roundly abused for being slow-moving and dull, causing many fans to abandon the books altogether. Frankly, all the controversy just makes me more interested in where things are going. I have a feeling I may end up addicted to this series.

NEXT UP: China Lake by Meg Gardiner, a lesser-known author of California-set thrillers.

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