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 in the Mountains of Mist. 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. (p. 1)For tens of millions of readers, the above passage will be quite familiar. For the past twenty years, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series has been one of the most popular epic fantasy series to be released, with sales of well over forty million copies for the twelve main volumes, one novel-length prequel, and a related encyclopedia/artbook. It is a series that has legions of devoted fans, tens of thousands of whom have created websites, argued passionately (and some might wonder, pointlessly?) over various minutiae found within this sprawling multi-volume work, and several hundred at least who have named babies after characters or who have had tattoos of emblems found within its pages. However, this series perhaps has drawn one of the largest anti-fan crowds in a subgenre that is littered with negativity and borderline psychotic outbursts directed toward those who do not share in the perpetrator's hatred for that series (or most any other series). Various forums devoted to discussing epic fantasy series have seen thousands of threads over the years devoted to the question of whether or not Jordan was a "sellout" and to analyzing (sometimes focusing more on ad hominem comments than actual constructive criticism) just where the series jumped the shark and why.
I myself began reading the series in November 1997 as a way of relaxing my mind during the brutal written and oral exams for my MA in History. I read the first seven volumes in paperback that year and proceeded to re-read them a few times over the next three years. Read the eighth volume, The Path of Daggers, upon its October 1998 release and I began to wonder what was actually transpiring here. Purchased the ninth volume, Winter's Heart, upon its November 2000 release and I was so disinterested by the time that I read it that I never read any of the first volumes since then and have read the latest three volumes only fairly recently (2006 for the tenth volume, which was read more so I could write a series of satirical posts rather than because I actually wanted to know what was transpiring there, and 2009 for the last two volumes, since I was receiving a review copy of the latest volume a week before the official review date). While I was not a rabid detractor, I certainly was no fan of the author's prose, his characterizations, and my interest in the setting he created dissipated the more I considered the structure behind his constructed mythologies.
My interest in re-reading this series (or at least the first eleven volumes; I gave my copy of the last volume to an overseas friend of mine) was renewed by reading that author/critic Adam Roberts was doing a weekly review of the series on his personal blog, writing from the perspective of a first-time reader and not from that of a critic writing a formal review. I found myself agreeing in places with his commentaries and in other places thinking that he might have overlooked something, which made me ask myself if I too might have forgotten things about the series that I enjoyed (and of course, things that I disliked) over the intervening ten years. So I decided earlier this week to mix a re-reading of the WoT series with a planned re-read/review of the original Dune series in order to document any perceived shifts in my attitudes toward this series.
When I first read the series, I remember thinking that the first volume, The Eye of the World, was much better than the two volumes, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn, that followed it. But I also recalled being quite bored with the first third or so of this first novel, thinking that Jordan took too long to develop the situation and to launch the danger-filled, faster-paced narrative that dominates the final two-thirds of the novel. In re-reading The Eye of the World, my opinions altered somewhat.
What I noticed about this first volume (and for full disclosure's sake, I should note that I had replaced my original paperback with the two-volume Starscape edition that had an extra introductory prologue) is that my half-remembered dislike for the author's prolixity was stronger. This was especially true in the new "Ravens" prologue, which destroyed the power of the original prologue (now appearing as a second prologue), by shifting the focus away from the main three characters of EotW (Rand al'Thor, Perrin Aybara, Mat Cauthon) toward a then-secondary female character, Egwene. While doubtless Jordan intended this new prologue to be a window into the soul of a future important character, for first-time readers and for those who want to focus on the narrative structure of EotW alone, this new twenty-four page prologue was plodding and ill-connected to the "Dragonmount" prologue and main narrative that followed.
However, it should be noted that even the first few chapters, which served mostly to introduce the three male characters (and especially Rand) and to create a rustic environment that would serve as a sharp contrast to the mysterious world out there, were on the whole quite dull and derivative of the early chapters of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. But instead of Hobbits frolicking about and giving away presents on their birthdays before disappearing suddenly due to mysterious rings of invisibility, the villagers of Emond's Field are gathering to celebrate a quasi-Celtic festival of Bel Tine in spite of a magically-prolonged winter. It should be noted here that this is the first of several clumsy alterations of various world myths and religious traditions to fit in with the wind blowing passage's hint of this world being a precursor and successor to our own "real" world. Much to say about this later on in the review series, but for now, it should suffice to say that altering a few letters and trying to cram several disparate world beliefs/traditions into an imagined setting almost whole-cloth leads to several frustrating reading moments.
The prose is nothing to write home about here. While Jordan perhaps could be commended for trying to instill even his "local color" characters with semblances of real personalities and depth, too often he resorts to repeating characteristics already noted a handful of pages earlier and in ways that seem to be creating and reinforcing stereotypes rather than using a more subtle, less verbose way of highlighting the distinct personalities of the villagers. If memory serves, this lazy habit of repetition and stereotyping is repeated on a much larger scale in succeeding volumes.
The character interactions on the whole were pedestrian. There was nothing offensive or off-putting about them, but at the same time, I failed to get a real sense, outside of melodramatic comments from one of the boys about their families and loved ones, that there were real, deep emotional bonds. This is particularly true in the case of the very awkward interactions between Rand and his presumed fiancé, Egwene. While doubtless Jordan wanted to make it clear that the two would not be partnered for long, there was very little sense of actual teenage emotional connection/horniness that is typical for adolescents between 16-19 years of age. Things fare only slightly better between the three males. At least their sometimes ribald humor feels more natural and less forced than the strained interactions between males and females that take place in this novel.
The plot, derivative as it is not just of Tolkien, but also of writers such as Terry Brooks, actually is a strength in EotW. Three youths discover that one of them, if not all three, may be a major threat to the imprisoned Dark One (Shai'tan, itself a play off of Shaitan/Satan). A mysterious female Aes Sedai (read: wizard, magician) named Moiraine and her brooding, equally mysterious Warder Lan appear in the village just before the attack of the ersatz orcs, the trollocs and their eyeless humanoid leaders, the Myrdraal. The boys have to flee, while all the while they are haunted by dark dreams sent by an evil entity that may or may not be the Dark One himself. Egwene and another village young woman, the Wisdom (Healer) Nynaeve, also get entangled with this flight, not to mention a traveling gleeman (Bard) named Thom Merrilin. There are mysteries and dubious motives surrounding these characters and the fleshing out of these does make for an entertaining read, especially after a decade-long absence.
The story boils down to a series of near-captures (and an actual temporary capture at one point) intermixed with a traveler's guide-like introduction to the lay of the lands (and their peoples) through which the young villagers and their guides transverse. Narrative tension reminds high through these scenes and while Jordan adds nothing original to what is transpiring, it at least contains the feel of a fast-paced, familiar adventure read. A minor quibble could be made about the speed in which the characters make from meeting in one city to reaching their new and final destination, but outside of that, The Eye of the World reads like a standard quest adventure.
Although it was difficult at times to shut out half-remembered connections to the latter volumes, on the whole, EotW was much easier to read as a quasi-standalone novel that contained a detailed introduction, some mildly interesting plot twists, and some semblance of a resolution at the end. The annoying character tics were mostly manageable here, in large part because Jordan did not stop and dwell on particular side adventures for more than a handful of pages. This stands in sharp contrast to what I remember of latter volumes. The Eye of the World ultimately was at least as enjoyable of a reading experience (well, of the mostly mindless sort) as I remembered it being when I first read it in 1997. However, the characterizations and prose already have me dreading what is to come, so it shall be interesting to see what my reactions are to the next two volumes (reviews will be up this weekend and/or early next week). Mild recommendation, with several reservations, for those who may want to read this epic fantasy series for the first time.