Thursday, January 13, 2011

Robert Jordan: The Eye of the World

The blurb on the front of this book - at least, the edition I have - says that "Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal." This is a bad blurb, because it's misleading. If you go into this book expecting a modern Tolkien, as I did, you'll be disappointed and unhappy and will become cross. Even now, when I'm able to enjoy this book on its own merits, I am doomed to write this review by comparing it to the Lord of the Rings.

Robert Jordan seems even more unsure of his books's relationship to Tolkien than I am, which contributes to the book's lurching start. Like the Fellowship of the Rings, this book begins with a group of untraveled country folk led on a desperate flight from a dark lord by a wise mage, and there are a few moments that I could swear were copied from the Lord of the Rings frame by frame. In this early phase, even the worldbuilding (which later on is the strength of the novel) is clumsily done.

About two hundred pages in, Robert Jordan suddenly finds his feet and from then on the book is amazing. Like most fantasy novels, The Eye of the World can be judged by its setting, which is complex, well developed, and impressively not really Tolkienesque at all. Where the tales of Middle-Earth focus on an inexorable and slow fall from grace, Robert Jordan's world moves through a repeating cycle of seven ages. There are no grim men returning from the wild to lead kingdoms and find elven wives here, but there are men who were once kings wandering around killing Troll-things. And so on.

Along with their setting, epic fantasy novels live or die by their endings; since these types of books focus on some great and terrible evil, there are many unique ways for them to mess this up. Some sort of a magic power that the hero pulls out of his hat with no foreshadowing, the plot strangling itself through its own complexity, the Great Dark One Beyond the Ken of Mortal Man being killed in a brawl - none of these things happen at the end of The Eye of the World. What does happen is well-executed and satisfying without falling into the trap of obsessively tying up every single plot thread.

All in all, this is more than just a fun read, although it is that. Robert Jordan has written a book that adds to the lore of fantasy without being overly derivative. You should read it. (If you're reading epic fantasy, you should also read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and A Song of Ice and Fire, by the way.)

Demerits: Starts off thinking it's Tolkien. Stumbles a bit.
Merits: Everything else.
Verdict: Cake.


moonrat said...

Uh oh. It begins.

So interesting but not surprising that you read this through the lens of Tolkien. I didn't--I'm exposed, of course, but not a devotee--so the opening didn't bother me. I do know others who get bogged down in the first 100 pages for other reasons, though. Besides borrowing familiar plot points (and "frames" of narrative, as you say), the opening passages are slow to build. Totally ok with me, at the end of the day, but not with everyone else.

I wonder how your opinion will evolve as you continue the series (which, just takin' a shot in the dark here, I'm guessing you're going to do). I agree that world-building is the reason this series is special. It has its ups and downs (and some of the downs are VERY down) but Randland is in the very top tier of books I've ever read for immersive world-building.

Also interesting to me: in your review, you isolate potential flaws in the novel that Jordan managed to AVOID. You may have the gift of prophecy, since some of these flaws will be what I least like about later books in the series.

Obviously I can only speak so disparagingly of the series because I'm totally obsessed with it and extremely emotionally attached. The Wheel of Time is kind of like the abusive/deadbeat boyfriend I've had since I was twelve--disappointing me, luring me back in, infuriating me, abandoning me for years at a time, making me swear I'll never go back because now it's just gone too far, and then so irresistible I break my promise. Again. Le sigh. I feel I am entitled to silly analogies, after everything I've put in.

So. Great Hunt?


Kerry said...

Yes! So glad to see you starting this series. I am currently re-reading the books. All of them.

You are right that the opening pages of the first book are a little shaky, but Jordan finds his footing solidly after that. Like moonrat, I did not read this expecting Tolkien - hadn't even seen the Tolkien-esque quote until I was well into the series. At that point, I interpreted it differently: more that Jordan had found a foothold in the fantasy genre, which Tolkien did not create, per se, but certainly made a viable genre. But expecting a Tolkien-like novel and getting Eye of the World would be offputting, I agree.

I hope you continue the series. Great Hunt is excellent - the first five all are. Don't get me wrong, the middle ones are, too, though a lot of people think the series gets a little slow around 7-8-9 and picks up again with books 10 and 11. I'm in the middle of 8 now and I'm not sure I agree, but it is a common complaint about the series.

Ok, enough rambles. Go read Great Hunt! It is worth all 800 pages!

moonrat said...

to chime in with Kerry, The Great Hunt is FREAKIN AWESOME!!! some of my favorite moments of the series are in that book.

(my all-time favorite, forever and ever, is Bk 4, though--The Shadow Rising. i am SO EXCITED that you still get to read it for the first time :)

Simon said...

Finishing up my application to Columbia? Schoolwork? Anything responsible at all? Nah,I'm just gonna spend the next month reading this ten thousand page fantasy series. So yeah, Great Hunt is next. I really hope that this series gets less interesting as it goes on or I'm doomed.

moonrat said...

You're doomed.

Are you really applying to Columbia?! ::SUPPORT:: for that!!!!

stacy said...

I love your reviews, Simon. Good luck on your application to Columbia.

Kerry said...

Productivity be damned. You're doomed. And now it's my turn to second moonrat and say I'm very jealous that you get to be reading all these for the first time.

As an aside, the audio versions are all pretty good (although they constantly change how they pronounce characters from one book to the next). I've been getting them from my library and listening in the car as a way to fit in 10,000 pages of re-reading and still have a semblance of a productive life.

moonrat said...

Kerry--I like the audio versions, too. My dad has them all and listens to them over and over.

Time for a side story about book marketing--my dad got a sample volume of the first 3rd of EYE OF THE WORLD from a basket at the counter in Barnes & Noble in 1994 (for free). He read it and bought the whole book. Then the rest of the series, etc. Then he gave it to me (and my brother and sister). I have made at least--conservative estimate--fifteen other people read the series (conservative). Some of those people have made other people read the series. You might argue one of them (my sister) made Simon here read the series.

Then, on top of that, my dad has purchased audio books for all the books. He has each book in at least three volumes: hardcover, mass market, and audio. Some, though, he has multiple copies of (damn paperbacks fall apart, etc). He also has the two special collectors' volumes with maps and stuff.

At one point, we tried to do the math on how much money Tor made off of the free sample book they left in Barnes and Noble for my dad to pick up. The answer was in the realm of "a whole lot." Seems like it speaks to the virtues of free samples.