Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Great Hunt - Robert Jordan

This is a review of the second book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series; if you haven't read the first one, I suggest that you go do that.

We pick up where we left off; the Dark one was bound in Shayol Ghul from the first moment of creation, and our hero Rand may or may not be the umpteenth incarnation of the Dragon, who opposes the Dark one. Or maybe he doesn't, I don't know.

This book was frustrating, because it was close to perfect. Robert Jordan was a hair's breadth away from creating something that could very well stand the test of time and become a classic, and he didn't, which makes his few mistakes the more irritating. I will only mention the good parts in passing, because if I described them fully I would break our sacred 60,000 word limit. Jordan's world continues to be realistic and original, and the plot develops the characters and is engaging while still avoiding dei ex machinae. All in all, The Great Hunt is a very natural continuation of the threads begun in The Eye of the World.*

Now for the Sins. Firstly, there's something that has bothered me since the first book. For the most part, we don't get any explanation of how the evil characters think, what their motivations are, or any indication whatsoever that they're anything more than cardboard cut-outs. Why is the Dark One evil? Why does he even exist? Why do the Trollocs and Fades serve him, and from whence did they spring? Why does he want to ruin the world? It is very possible that all these questions will be answered in later books, but there should at least have been some hints by now. I hate to be a one-string harpist, but Tolkien, who created the granddaddy of all black-and-white good-versus-evil books, gave the evil characters complex and real back-stories and motivations.

Secondly, I know I rave about the worldbuilding, but there is a discordant note in this symphony. Actually, there are several bits and pieces that don't quite seem to fit. The world seems to exist in a technological stasis that has been maintained for more than two thousand years, which strikes me as unrealistic. Also, the Seanchan from over the western sea have apparetly, as a society, been able to maintain a single purpose for thousands of years: to reclaim the lands of Artur Paendrag. Really? An entire nation devoted to a single goal for century after century? We Americans can't keep going in a single direction, politically, for more than a decade or so.

But enough of my complaining. The few flaws that there are do nothing to change the fact that that the fundamentals are sound.
: Two-dimensional evil characters. A few isolated things didn't make sense.
Merits: Everything else. Robert Jordan can join the very thin ranks of true high fantasy authors.

Verdict: A case of Poblano sauce with no milk.

*Keeping your reviews spoiler-free is hard, man.


whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

well, that was fast.

Ok, so the HUGE HUGE HUGE HUGE flaw of the series (one of them--the other will manifest itself in a couple of books for you) is what you point out here as the first sin. I don't understand the motivations of anyone evil in this series--"ambition" and "wanting power" are not, in my book, pure evil and enough to explain selling your soul to the devil (especially since it seems like life under the Dark One's orders really royally sucks--you're basically a slave who might be destroyed at any time). Anyway. It falls into the Harry Potter/Deatheater trap (although, to be fair, Jordan fell into that trap before Rowling even started writing).

So yeah. TOTALLY agree with you about that.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

re: Seanchan: only one thousand years. But yeah. Good point.

The most OFF thing to me about the world building/time lapse is the lack of language barriers. Languages that are not mutually intelligible rise and fall in much smaller geographic areas in much smaller stretches of time. I'm not sure I believe that anyone should be able to understand the Seanchan, or the Aiel, at all. Or even that Andor would speak the same language as Cairhien.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

Oh, and finally, I think it's great that you were respectful and didn't put any spoilers in the review itself (and well done you in keeping it under 60,000 words!! I'm so proud), but I feel like the comments are fair game--spoil away!! What were the isolated things that didn't make sense to you? I'm curious about what you caught.

Simon said...

About the languages: I was just looking at the map and thinking about geographic barriers. If Artur was able to unite the continent, then ideas and trade must be able to flow fairly easily; the only real barrier to travel looks to be the Mountains of Mist, and in the third book it is shown that there are even passes through those. The books show a huge amount of trade and travel on all the roads which means lots of language-mixing. Realistically, I would expect a range of mutually intelligible languages in all the lands between the Mountains of Mist and the Spine of the World, and some cousin languages in Arad Doman and Tarabon.

Regarding the Harry Potter Death Eaters, it seems like a fairly simple case of can't-get-off-the-lion; what bother me is why they ever signed up in the first place.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

Languages: what about the Old Tongue, though? Who exactly spoke it--and why did they stop speaking it? I mean, I'm not expecting you to answer this question; I can't answer it, and I've read all these books a million times. But go ahead and try to keep it from your mind as you keep reading...

Simon said...

Things that didn't make sense:

The thing that bothers me most is how society didn't change at all in thousands of years. I mean, in the descriptions of the last days of Mantheron, we see that armies are using the same weapons they would millenia later, and from the limited picture I got the social fabric seemed similar as well.

Another thing that bothered me was that we hear so much about how civilization is fading and being swept away (Ingtar's words, not mine) and lands are being left empty and desolate, and yet every city the characters find is bustling and they're always meeting people everywhere. Jordan tells us about this fading world that can only distantly recall the glories of days gone by but he shows us something completely different. They don't even ever stumble across any ruins unless it serves the plot.

Simon said...

The Old Tounge actually didn't trouble me at all; I think of it as Latin. Artur Paendrag probably spoke it, and it probably just died the same way Latin did. Part of the whole medieval setting is having a dead language for scholars to use, I think.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

There's a blogger who writes really excellent long pieces on each of the Jordan books (she's a sff writer herself, Marie Brennan, blog is here http://swan-tower.livejournal.com/) and she did an interesting post on the dying away of civilizations a little while ago. There is an issue of major depopulation, which you'll encounter in later books, but just look at the map--why are there totally depopulated areas between countries? At the very least, those areas should be enticing to neighbors with expansionist dreams or to ambitious outlying lords/charismatic leaders. But no; and the countries don't even abut one another or try to fill the void. Must be depopulation. The question is, why?

If you want to be scientific about it, you might connect it to the lack of technological development you cited earlier. Maybe we're currently in the Dark Ages of Randland, the stagnation of disease, depopulation, lackluster interest in academic and scientific pursuits (definitely true, as you'll see as you get to learn more about eg the White Tower), etc etc. The question is, did Jordan intend it all to be that way? I think he probably did. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Re: Marie Brennan's blog: I would actually recommend you maybe wait to read her posts until you're a little farther along in the series, but you might look at her rereads of the first two books (since she is good about not including spoilers). Her take is great, since it almost feels academic to me--it lends a kind of gravitas and dignity to these proceedings that some people don't think we (fans) deserve. Marie gets us. She's our people.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

Ok, well, re: Old Tongue: I think it will bother you more as time goes on. For example, why do the Aiel not still speak it? Or the Seanchan? Eh? Eh? These are two populations who have been completely and entirely separated for three and one thousand years, respectively. Something's rotten in that logic.

Simon said...

The Aiel and Seanchan don't speak the Old Tongue anymore because a language can't stay the same for that long. The Seanchan, since they started with the same language (Artur Paendrag's Old Tongue) evolved in a similar direction as the mainland, but with a funny accent. The Aiel are comprehensible because of communication via the Tinkers and Ogier.

I don't know, I guess if you were going to defend the languages as making sense that's what you'd say.

JenniferWriter said...

Confession: I have only dabbled in The Wheel of Time. All my friends in high school were obsessed and I think I was bitter that after being a lonely sff nerd for so long, it was suddenly trendy and I had been left behind. HOWEVER, knowing that Marie Brennan has written reviews of the series almost makes me want to read it all, just to read her reviews. She is most definitely "our people" and I would love her academic take on things.

moonrat said...

Oh god, Jennifer, you said you wanted something, um, less like POSSESSION and FINGERSMITH. TWoT might just be it. But, uh, please be forewarned.