Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.14 / 5.00

Note: I first start to read this series back in 1990 when the first two titles were published, but as the period between volumes grew longer I found that I needed to re-read the previous books before starting a new one and eventually gave up to wait for the whole series to become available. With the arrival of the last volume on the horizon a group of equally daft individuals decided to attempt a Read Along: you can find links to my previous posts here.

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, and Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There was neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Rand al’Thor is just a normal farm boy living a very quiet life in the Two Rivers when one day he sees a rider dressed in black following him into the village of Emond’s Field. Later that night his home is attacked by Trollocs, supposedly mythical creatures that are part man, part animal, and he is forced to flee as his father holds them back. Arriving to find that several other homes have also been attacked, notably those of his friends Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara. Also revealed by the attack are the abilities of a noble lady recently arrived at the village inn. Moiraine is an Aes Sedai, a woman able to wield the One Power to create lightning blasts and fireballs amongst other miracles.

She quickly realizes that the three boys were the primary targets of the attacks and she persuades them to travel with her to the city of Tar Valon, where the leader of the Aes Sedai can offer them wisdom and protection. The innkeeper’s daughter, Egwene al’Vere catches them leaving and demands to join them. Moiraine’s Warder, Lan, can provide adequate protection, but Thom Merrilin, the Gleeman who had come to the village to provide entertainment for the Spring festival, decides to join the group as well. Pursued by Trollocs and the deathly, black-robed Myrddraal, they travel through countryside, towns and cities, encountering allies and enemies along the way. However, it seems that the Wheel has already woven a Pattern that the three boys must follow as their fates are revealed.

This title marks the beginning of a monumentally massive series, which finally reached its conclusion earlier this year with Book 14: A Memory of Light. Unfortunately, Mr Jordan died in 2007, but he left sufficient notes to allow Brandon Sanderson to complete the series by writing the last volume, which was eventually published as three separate titles. The total series, including a prequel, totals a truly enormous 4.4 million words and includes 684 individual characters. Indeed to listen to it in audio form would take almost 20 days of solid listening. Needless to say, there is a limit to how detailed my review of this, or any of the subsequent titles, can be if I do not want to bore you to death. I will try to make a few points that strike me as the most important in an attempt to keep this to a reasonable length.

Those of you who have read my reviews of such authors as George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear and Neil Gaiman will have reached the conclusion that I am a sucker for Fantasy that includes lots of juicy characterization and a vividly drawn world. I love grey characters and multiple points of view. I like a healthy does of realism: I need to believe that the characters are alive and so I need them to behave as if they are normal people, even if they are the Chosen One and / or have incredibly special powers. Indeed, the more impressive their powers, the more human I want them to be. I hate stereotypes and clich├ęs: I do not want my heroes all muscular and manly, my heroines all simpering and fragile. Rather, I prefer a slightly weedy but witty and intelligent hero, like Mr Lynch’s Locke Lamora, or a fallen star whose first word is “Fuck!” (Thank you, Mr Gaiman). Above all I want to be surprised by the unusual and unexpected.

At first glance, Mr Jordan is a little disappointing because there is a distinctly Tolkien-esque vibe to the beginning of the book. We start our journey in the rural idyll of the Shire Two Rivers where the most dangerous thing that you can encounter is the Sackville-Bagginses Wisdom, Nynaeve al’Meara, when she is in a really bad mood, which is most of the time that she is awake. It is even famous for growing tobacco, which I am sure sounds familiar. Then there are Nazgul mysterious riders in black showing up and being all spooky before we have an attack by orcs Trollocs. They are even said to serve the Dark One, who people do not name for fear of attracting his attention. We then have a flight through the countryside that seems to involve lots of nighttime attacks and random fighting. By this point, I was hoping to goodness that the wise wizard Aes Sedai, Moiraine, and her ranger Warder, Lan, would get to the Prancing Pony really quickly because I needed a drink!

However, we soon start to see that this is not a Lord of the Rings rip off, but actually a very complex and interesting story all of its own. Certainly we can see similarities here and there, but Tolkien is so iconic that it is difficult not to draw parallels with his writings when reading a more modern Fantasy title. I am quite sure that many of those elements feel so familiar because they are actually the elements that underlie much of our folklore, and they were even an inspiration for Tolkien himself.

One massive difference that is impossible to miss is that this title is littered with female characters that have really important roles to play. Yes, I know that Eowyn plays a vital role in the defeat of Sauron’s armies, but I believe that she is the only woman who takes an active role in the entire story. Here, we meet a very powerful magic user very early in the story and she is a woman, who tells a man what to do and is only one of many others of her kind. Equally, we have Egwene deciding to head off into the wide blue yonder in a quest for education even though she is barely old enough to be considered a woman in her village. A little later we learn that the village Wisdom, Nynaeve, has tracked the group on her own, through the Trolloc-infested wilds in order to ‘save’ the young people from the bad influence of the Aes Sedai. These three women are no shrinking violets who need men to protect them and we meet many more as the series roles along.

Our three young heroes are different aspects of the typical hero. Mat is all casual charm and good luck, Perrin is strong but gentle and caring while Rand is the one with the mysterious past. Not only are they all heroic in some ways but also they are flawed and have their own individual weaknesses. Mat is careless and disregards authority; Perrin is afraid of hurting people and Rand simply thinks too much. All three are lacking in self-confidence, doubt themselves all the time and tend to keep secrets about really, REALLY important stuff that they should share with one another or Moiraine. This is a great relief as it allows them to make mistakes and stupid decisions without them seeming like plot devices. You may want to slap some sense into them and disagree with their choices, but they always behave in a way that is consistent with their personalities. This makes them more real and much more appealing to the reader.

The secondary characters are no less three dimensional, whether they are a simple riverboat captain or a fat innkeeper. All are individual and many make happy reappearances in later titles. Many of my favorite characters are those who are not the main protagonists. Primary amongst these are Loial and Thom Merrilin. Loial is an almost entlike figure, although he is certainly a mammal. He is huge and distinctly different physically from a human, but he also has a totally alien set of values and beliefs. He is a gentle, lovable, peace-loving teenage Ogier who loves to read and would never hurt a fly. He is constantly distressed by hastiness and the boys’ lack of respect for Moiraine. He is also terrible when roused in anger and can sing to make trees grow: a terrific combination. Thom appears to be a simple gleeman, travelling through the villages with his flute and harp to earn a crust by offering entertainment wherever he goes. However, he has some rather highbrow tastes and seems to know an awful lot about court politics, which makes him intriguing. He is world-weary and constantly complaining about all the hassle of helping the lads, and yet he sticks around for some bizarre reason that he keeps to himself.

The setting is amazing, dwarfing Tolkien’s Middle-earth in its complexity and size. In this first title we visit only a relatively small corner of it and yet we encounter a variety of dialects, traditions and fashion traditions. Not only that, but we are treated to hints at a vast history that may, or may not, include our own era. At one point an object is described as being imbued with a sense of pride and greed and it is very obviously the badge from the front of a Mercedes-Benz car. This creates the lush feeling of a huge amount of detail waiting to be uncovered, but also does not overload us with detail. There is so much that is not explained that it encourages the reader to question, ponder and read on in hopes of more being revealed.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of this world is the magic system. The One Power is actually a misnomer because different aspects of it are available to men and women. These two sources of power, saidin and saidar, are only available to people of the correct sex and remain untouchable and unknowable to the other. Thus a woman can draw upon saidar and the ways in which she weaves the threads of that power are invisible to a man: all he can sense is a slight tingle. This difference had led to a great divergence in the history of those able to channel. The Dark One has tainted saidin so that any man who channels will eventually go mad and destroy all those around him. This happened in the last great battle between Light and Dark, three thousand years ago, and led to the Breaking of the World when the male Aes Sedai destroyed the very ground that they stood upon. They threw down mountains and drained seas, destroyed cities and created deserts, scattering the survivors until none of the original nations survived. Since that time any man who could channel has been found and Gentled, cut off permanently from saidin so that he cannot wield such destructive power.

Aside from the magic of the One Power there are also other Talents that have no obvious source and do not require channeling to work. We encounter Min, a girl who seems visions around peoples’ heads that show a significant thing from their future. Indeed Mr Jordan uses a number of devices to foreshadow future events and hint at later plot turns. Some Aes Sedai have the gift of Foretelling, where they are taken by an unseen force and proclaim a prophecy of the future, while others receive prophetic dreams that are significant. All these predictions have one thing in common: they are often very obscure and may not make sense until the event they describe has happened. Then there is Elyas Machera who lives and understands wolves and the magic that we see worked by both Loial and the other Ogier.

Is this story completely perfect in every single possible way? Probably not, but it will carry you along with a group of very believable, real characters who will not behave perfectly and so keep you entertained as you follow their trials and tribulations. They will enlist wonderful allies and fight evil enemies while trying to fend off religious fanatics and the delusional people who think that they know what is best for the entire world. Above all else, they will not be boring and you will want to know what happens next.

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