Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, 1990

The Eye of the World was a fun book, comfortingly derivative of The Lord of the Rings and highly readable even when it was a bit goofy or stale. The Great Hunt, the second part of the enormous Wheel of Time series, retains its predecessor's charms (and some of its faults), but it's also weightier, darker and more original It's a whole new ballgame.

While Eye was a little awkward and relied too heavily on cliches, Hunt sees Jordan becoming more comfortable in the world he's created and branching out a bit with his concepts, characters and creatures. Actually, make that branching out a lot, since there are more races and societies in this saga than you can possibly keep straight without the help of a glossary.

After discovering that he can channel the One Power at the end of the first book, Rand finds himself forced to embrace or reject his destiny as the Dragon Reborn, a figure who will stand against evil during the impending Armageddon. To complicated matters further, the all-powerful Horn of Valere has been stolen and it's up to Rand and his friends to recover it. Meanwhile, Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne travel to Tar Valon to study with the Aes Sedai, only to find themselves in as much danger as Rand.

Eye's main plot followed a fairly straightforward quest pattern. Hunt has multiple narrative threads, several different narrators and a far more nuanced, complex storyline. Jordan is definitely ramping up the intensity and putting his characters through a lot more pain and hardship.

Rand's journey from farm boy to leader of men is expected and a somewhat overly classic device, but hey, bad stories don't become classics. Jordan does a fairly subtle (for him) job of turning Rand into a hero, Bildungsroman style.

The book's second main thread (following Nynaeve and Egwene) is less successful, although still good fun. I've found Egwene chronically dull since Eye, but Nynaeve and Elayne are interesting enough to make up for it. The fact that the Aes Sedai remain a morally ambiguous group also adds a nice layer to the story.

The fact is, Jordan is a good storyteller, maybe even a great storyteller (note that I didn't say writer). Despite his many flaws, he manages to really draw you into his world. It doesn't hurt that he's a deft pacer who keeps the action and adventure coming at all times.

Okay. Now for the bad. Much as I have enjoyed both Wheel of Time books that I've read, particularly this one, there can be no denying the fact that Jordan ain't Shakespeare. His writing tends towards the clumsy at times and there's the odd flash of banality, too. His dialogue is not routinely awful, but it's not his strong suit. Don't even get me started on Bayle Domon, the sea captain who never uses contractions of any kind ("the sea do be rough").

Jordan does better with action scenes or really, any scene in which there isn't too much human interaction:

Saidar was a torrent racing through her. She could feel the rocks around her, and the air, feel the tiny, flowing bits of the One Power that suffused them, and made them. And she could feel Aginor doing. . . something, as well. Dimly she felt it, and far distant, as if it were something she could never truly know, but around her she saw the effects and knew them for what they were.

The ground rumbled and heaved under her feet. Walls toppled in front of her, piles of stone to block her way. She scrambled over them, uncaring if sharp rock cut hands and feet, always keeping Aginor in sight, A wind rose, howling down the passages against her, raging till it flattened her cheeks and made her eyes water, trying to knock her down; she changed the flow, and Aginor tumbled along the passageway like an uprooted bush. She touched the flow in the ground, redirected it, and stone walls collapsed around Aginor, sealing him in. Lightning fell with her glare, striking around him, stone exploding ever closer and closer. She could feel him fighting to push it back at her, but foot by foot the dazzling bolts moved toward the Forsaken.
---(pages 286-287)

Jordan also has a very 1950s-sitcom view of gender relations (Men! They're so bull-headed and dumb! Women! They're so shrill and shrewish!) that wears on you after a while. He has no understanding of female relationships; the all-female interactions in the book tend to be eye-rollers.

And then there are the logical errors. Jordan constantly bends logic and dumbs down his characters to make the plot work. Oh, sure, Nynaeve, follow the woman that you hate blindly on a dangerous journey. She isn't going to betray you or anything (hint, hint)! It's a loophole-closing device that a lot of authors use, but Jordan definitely relies on it too much.

I could get into some of the other problems--such as the fact that Jordan still has yet to write one really creepy villain--but that would give the impression that I didn't enjoy the book, which was a blast to read. In this case, pure storytelling trumps the writer's other flaws. The story of the ordinary boy with a great destiny is a very old one, and it's been told a thousand different ways, but it's still compelling.

Even though I'm not far into the series yet, I don't yet see the faults that many fans have accused Jordan of in later years: being dull, slow-moving and ponderous. So far, the books have seemed anything but, especially Hunt, which easily tops Eye in all ways. Eye was a fine introduction, but Hunt gets into the meat of the story and ensnares the reader in its flawed, but enormously entertaining, web.

NEXT UP: A rather lighter piece of fantasy fiction: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

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